flotilla arrived in Port Stanley on 25 March, after twice being delayed by gales
on the 10 day journey to the South Atlantic. It was a rare scene for the islanders,
accustomed to fishing trawlers, small passenger boats and a few tankers, as the
immensely powerful tug moved alongside the East Jetty pulling the massive pontoon,
265 feet by 80 feet on a short tow.
salvage operation, which lasted 21 days, was divided into four phases. Most important
was patching the hulk, repairing the crack, and removing all masts. Then, in sequence,
came the submersion of the pontoon, the floating of the Great Britain and the
lifting operation. Finally there was the tow from Sparrow Cove to Port Stanley
and from the Falklands to Britain.
was in 1937, when the Great Britain could no longer serve as a wool hulk, that
the then Governor, Sir Henniker Heaton, opened a campaign to have her returned
to Britain. The estimated cost was about £10,000 and the hulk thought to
be sufficiently seaworthy to be towed the 7,000 miles home. But funds were not
available and the Great Britain was taken from Port Stanley to Sparrow Cove, a
tiny bay four miles away. To beach the ship securely, holes were made in stern
and bow with crowbars and during the following years water filled the lower levels
of the hulk.
refloat the ship, Leslie O'Neil had to patch the holes and mend the crack. His
divers spent long hours in the 48° F. sub-Antarctic waters, patching the larger
holes outside with plywood and using leak-stoppers on the smaller ones. For the
starboard crack, a special appeal was made to the people of Stanley for mattresses.
Old foam and kapok mattresses were forced into the crack from keel to waterline,
held in place with plywood.
the same time Leslie O'Neil was fixing massive steel plates nearly an inch thick
to the top and 'tween decks above the crack for security during the flotation
of the ship. Horst Kaulen, meanwhile, made ready to remove the masts. The pontoon
was anchored stern on to the port side of the Great Britain, so that a crane erected
on the pontoon could be effectively placed alongside each of the masts.
PORT Bristol's Charles Hill dockyard where the Great Britain began her days. It
is hoped she will returnj there|
RESCUER Dolan Williams is the only Falkland Islander remaining who helped out
when the Great Britain was finally towed to Sparrow Cove|
MEMENTO Madge Biggs' family have been in the Falklands for five generations. She
returned a weather glass salvaged from the Britain by her grandfather.|
was wrecked the Great Britain had only three masts, but they were immense - those
who saw the old ship beached in Sparrow Cove were probably more impressed by the
masts and the enormous main yard than by the hulk itself. The main and fore masts,
believed to be the largest sailing ship masts ever made, rose some 64 feet above
deck level and sank 10 feet below. Fore and main masts weigh over 30 tons each
and the yard, 106 feet long, is another 3 to 5 tons. The ship had to be relieved
of this weight. The unknown factor was the condition of the wood, though Dr Corlett
was certain that it was sound.
cut through the bridle and chains from which the yard was suspended, someone had
to scale the 64 foot main mast, a job which in normal circumstances would only
be done with scaffolding. Sergeant Tony (Yorky) Stott, of the Royal Marines, volunteered.
Using only a climber's knots, he became the first man known to reach the top of
a mast for a generation.
the three masts, Horst Kaulen decided to remove the mizzen first. A local master
carpenter, Willie Bowles used his chain saw to cut the mizzen below the level
of the top deck; the mast was lifted on the crane about 15 feet but did not come
free easily and eventually a rotten section in the lower end cracked and the mast
broke crashing through the remains of the deck-house. It was then decided to cut
the remaining masts above deck level.
the mainmast was cut, it was found to be in excellent condition and made up of
four separate pitch pine trunks with 14 shaped pieces completing the exterior
circle. This, together with the foremast, was secured to the pontoon to be taken
back to Britain: the mizzen was left in the Falklands, where it will commemorate
the years the Great Britain stayed in the colony.
followed the most trying time of the salvage operation. Would the ship float?
Was the pontoon in deep enough water for the hulk to pass over it? And would the
weather be kind? Midnight on 6 April was the effective beginning of this phase.
O'Neil and his divers started four pumps, with a total capacity of 660 tons of
water an hour. The machines pounded through the night, pumping out more than 3,000
tons, and at 7 a.m. the Great Britain was clearly afloat - though just a few minutes
too late to meet the early morning tide.
well did the ship float that after the gales and dramatic events later that afternoon,
the Great Britain had again to be beached, which was just possible as a few holes
hitherto undiscovered became obvious in the hulk during the pumping.
the next three days 35-knot winds and gusty storms made work nearly impossible,
yet allowed no rest for fear that the old ship might again try to escape. On 10
April dawn was reasonably calm with some blue sky, and Horst Kaulen made his decision.
Mulus III was already submerged and a Falkland Island Company tug, the Lively,
was called out from Stanley. Together with the Malvinas, owned by Chris Bundes,
who farms at Sparrow Cove, it towed the Great Britain towards the pontoon.
and perhaps the most important problem then became apparent; the draught of the
ship was greater than had been calculated. It was a technical difficulty which
had been anticipated but which could only be faced at the time when the Great
Britain was ready to float over the pontoon. The difficulties involved in assessing
her draught were enormous, particularly as all calculations had been made when
the masts, spar and water were still inside the ship. Dr Corlett had worked on
a stern draught of 12 feet, but Horst Kaulen found it to be nearer 14 feet, plus
an additional discrepancy from the 'hogging' of the keel. It was therefore necessary
to manoeuvre the pontoon into deeper water. This was done by raising it and swinging
it through 90º on the main anchor before sinking it again.
next day was a memorable one for everyone concerned. The weather was still far
from settled but looked as if it might hold out for a few hours. The Great Britain,
made fast to the front dolphins (tubular steel pillars) welded to the pontoon,
was ready at high tide to be floated over Mulus III. With the aid of the Lively
and Malvinas, the enormous hulk was towed forward, slipping snuggly between the
'dolphins', and all went well until within the final 25 feet, when for no clear
reason she stopped. Even with the added power of Varius II at her stern, she would
budge no further. Senior diver Don O'Hara later found that the keel had grounded
the day, thick mud accumulated during the years inside the ship was washed out
and with a slightly higher evening tide the Great Britain was placed firmly over
the pontoon by 8 p.m. That night, some time after midnight, the crew of the Varius
were startled by a tremendous report; the new steel plates had done their job
and were now buckling under the strain as the starboard crack closed up when the
iron ship settled on the pontoon with the falling tide.
that remained was the tricky job of lifting the pontoon under the Great Britain,
raising the rusting hulk some 10 feet out of the water. For stability, the fore
end of the pontoon was raised first, 7 of the 15 compartments being pumped clear
of water. Under Horst Kaulen's expert guidance, this was done by late in the afternoon;
the date and time had a special significance as it was exactly 33 years to the
hour that the Great Britain had been beached in Sparrow Cove.
day the ship was taken back to Stanley will be recorded in Falkland Islands history.
Many of the older generation remembered the day she was towed away. The far western
islands of Carcass and Westpoint reported on the weather throughout the morning,
though from early hours the forecast looked unpromising. Gale force winds, gusting
to 45 knots, were recorded in several places and appeared to be surrounding Stanley
though not actually hitting the town. A snow blizzard struck in mid-morning and
Port William, which lies between Sparrow Cove and Port Stanley, was rough.
Hertzog left Sparrow Cove with the Great Britain on Mulus III on the starboard
side of Varius II with sister towing tugs Lively and Clio out front and the Malvinas
at the stern. The rising wind and swell gave the flotilla a rough passage, but
at midday Captain Hertzog skilfully negotiated the narrows which guard Stanley
harbour, greeted by the siren of RMS Darwin and the bells of Christchurch Cathedral.
at a simple ceremony held beneath the massive bows, the Governor, Sir Cosmo Haskard
officially transferred the Great Britain to the project committee. The jetty was
crowded with onlookers as Miss Madge Biggs MBE returned the weatherglass which
her shipwright grandfather had saved when the Great Britain arrived in 1887. It
was a symbolic gesture made on behalf of the many islanders who, having looked
after the Great Britain for so many years are now contributing relics kept for
83 years for the restoration of the 'Old Lady of the Falklands'.
as the old ship returned home to the Bristol dock in which she was built, she
was making one more record. The 7,000 mile journey from the Falklands to Britain
was expected to take between 50 and 60 days - the longest tow of its kind ever
and when the ship will be restored is not yet clear. Dr Corlett, who has studied
and researched the ship in infinite detail, hopes to restore the exterior to Brunel's
original 1843 design, including the six masts. Preservation and restoring the
external features could be a comparatively short task, but the interior will take
much longer. Projects include conference rooms and a replica of the Victorian
now the major problem once again is finance. The Great Britain is probably the
greatest ship ever built and she has a special significance for the British public.
She is a landmark in marine history. But how much will the restoration cost and
will the British public pay the price?
|...........But how much
will the restoration cost and will the British public pay the price? The
Great Britain arrived home at a time when the British economy was struggling
so the question was very real. The restoration eventually took the best part of
35 years and cost millions of pounds sterling. The full story has been told in
the book The Incredible Journey, by Captain Chris Young published
by the SS Great Britain Trust in September 2010|