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Issue 56 - Dundee's Amazing Discovery

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


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Dundee's Amazing Discovery

John Hannavy explores Captain Scott's famous steamship, now celebrating 25 years back in Dundee

By the banks of the Avon River in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, stands a statue of the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, sculpted by his widow, Kathleen. On the base of the statue is a quotation from Scott, which reads ‘I do not regret this journey which shows that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another and meet death with as great fortitude as ever in the past.’ Half way around the earth, in a dry-dock just a few hundred yards from where she was built, stands the ship which took him on his epic journey, the RRS Discovery, now clocking up 25 years back in Dundee.

Dundee was a whaling port, and the city’s reputation as a builder of strong whaling ships – designed to withstand the greatest forces of nature on the high seas – made its shipbuilders the ideal choice for the construction of a ship intended to face the most demanding conditions on the southern oceans.

Discovery’s keel was laid down in 1900 at the Dundee Shipbuilders Company’s Panmure yard, and she was launched on March 21st 1901, the last wooden three-masted ship ever to be built in Scotland, and as such she marks the end of a tradition going back centuries. Now a housing development, the yard’s shipbuilding tradition – and RRS Discovery in particular – is recalled in a wonderful sculpture by Scottish artist Marion Smith.

Considering the ship’s exploits in the South Atlantic, it is remarkable that she has survived now for 110 years. At 284 feet long and with a gross registered tonnage of only 736, she is not a large ship, but she is a very strong one.

Powered by a 450hp triple-expansion auxiliary steam engine built in Dundee by Gourlay Bros. – she had sails as a back up – she could turn in a pretty reliable 8 knots on a diet of 6 tons of coal per day! That turned out to be enough power to cut her way through the pack ice, but nothing like enough to free her once she became ice-bound!

While moving under sail, the vessel’s funnel could be tilted back and laid flat along the deck – so as not to get in the way of the sails – and her propeller could be raised out of the water.

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