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RRS Discovery was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in Britain. Designed for Antarctic research, it was launched as a Royal Research Ship (RRS) in 1901. Its first mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first, successful journey to the Antarctic, known as the Discovery Expedition. It is now the centrepiece of visitor attraction in its home, Dundee.

RRS Discovery
RRS Discovery in Antarctica c. 1923
Owner: Dundee Heritage Trust since 1985
Builder: Dundee Shipbuilders Company, Dundee
Laid down: 1900
Launched: 21 March 1901[1]
Sponsored by: Lady Markham
Christened: Lady Markham
Status: Museum ship in Dundee, Scotland
General characteristics
Class and type: Wooden Barque; 1 funnel, 3 masts
Tonnage: 736 GRT[2]
Displacement: 1,570 tonnes[3]
Length: 172 ft (52 m)
Beam: 33 ft (10 m)
Propulsion: Coal-fired 450hp steam engine and sail
Speed: 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph)
Crew: 11 officers and 36 men



Early discussions on building a dedicated polar exploration ship for the British government had considered replicating Fridtjof Nansen's purpose-built ship Fram but that vessel was designed specifically for working through the pack ice of the Arctic, while the British ship would have to cross thousands of miles of open ocean before reaching the Antarctic so a more conventional design was chosen. In charge of her overall design was W.E. Smith, one of the senior naval architects at the Admiralty, while the ship's engine, boilers and other machinery were designed by Fleet Engineer Philip Marrack.

The ship borrowed many aspects of her design (as well as her name) from the Bloodhound, a Dundee-built whaling ship taken into Royal Navy service as HMS Discovery in 1874 for the British Arctic Expedition to the North Pole. By 1900 few yards in the United Kingdom had the capability to build wooden ships of the size needed - only two shipbuilders submitted bids for the contract - but it was deemed essential that the ship be made from wood, both for strength and ease of repair and to reduce the magnetic interference from a steel hull that would allow the most accurate navigation and surveying. The main compass was mounted perfectly amidships and there were to be no steel or iron fittings within 30 feet (9.1 metres) of this point. For the same reason the boiler and engines were mounted towards the stern of the ship, a feature which also provided maximum space for equipment and provisions.

The ship was almost built in Norway by Framnæs, the yard which would later build the Endurance but it was thought that the British government's money should be spent at a British yard and the Discovery was built by the Dundee Shipbuilders Company, which primarily made smaller vessels such as trawlers, tugboats and steam yachts. The yard was previously owned by Alexander Stephen and Sons and had built the Terra Nova (purchased in 1910 by Scott for his last expedition) in 1884.

The ship cost £34,050 to build, plus another £10,322 to be fitted with engines and other machinery and more than £6000 for other equipment and fittings: The total cost for the Discovery was £51,000, equivalent to £4.1m in modern currency.

Discovery was fitted with a 450-horsepower coal-fired triple expansion steam engine, but had to rely primarily on sail because the coal bunkers did not have sufficient capacity to take the ship on long voyages.[4] At her economical cruising speed of 6 knots (6.9 mph, 11.1 km/h) she only carried enough coal for 7700 miles of steaming; the voyage to New Zealand covered over 12,000 miles. At 8 knots (9.2 mph, 14.2 km/h) she could steam only 5100 miles.

She was rigged as a barque (the fore- and mainmasts being square rig and the mizzen mast carrying a fore-aft sail) and the total maximum sail area was 12,296 square feet (1142 square metres). Following the practice of the most modern sailing ships of the time, the windjammers, she carried split topsails to reduce the size of the deck crew needed to handle them. The ship was rigged to carry several large staysails and the funnel was hinged at the base so it could be laid on the deck when the large mizzen staysail was rigged once at sea. The Discovery was marginally faster under sail than she was under engine - her record for distance travelled in 24 hours is 223 nautical miles (358 km), equivalent to 9.2 knots (10.5 mph, 17 km/h).

The ship has a massively built wooden hull designed to withstand being frozen into the ice and resist crushing. At the time of her launch Discovery was widely held to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. The hull frames, placed much closer together than was normal, were made of solid sections of oak up to 11 inches (27.9 cm) thick. The outer hull was formed from two layers - one 6 inches (15.2 cm) thick and an outer skin some 5 inches (12.7 cm) thick. A third lining was laid inside the frames, forming a double bottom and skin around almost the entire hull. This meant that in places the hull was over 2 feet (60 cm) thick, providing not only formidable strength but excellent insulation against the cold. The construction meant that it was impossible to install portholes (and fitting them would have weakened the hull) so the crew relied on 'mushroom vents' on the deck to allow air and light into the interior.

The wood used for the planking varies depending on where in the ship it is laid and what structural purpose it serves: The inner layer is Scots pine while the 6-inch skin is made of pitch pine, Honduras mahogany or oak. The outer hull is made of English Elm and Greenheart. Oak beams run across the hull forming three decks - the lower deck beams are 11 inches (27.9 cm) square in cross-section and are placed less than three feet (0.9m) apart along the ship's length. Seven transverse bulkheads, also of wood, provide additional strength and ensured that any flooding caused by ice damage would not flood the entire ship. To prevent damage from ice floes or crushing the two-blade propeller could be hoisted out of the way and the rudder could be easily detached and stored aboard. Iron-shod bows were severely raked so that when ramming the ice they would ride up over the margin and crush the ice with deadweight. The coal bunkers on each side contained a steel tank, each of which could hold 60 tons of fresh water. On the long ocean trip to and from New Zealand these tanks could hold additional coal but for the Antarctic voyage the extra water capacity was more important. The metal tanks also contributed to the strength of the lower hull around the boiler and engine spaces.

On 16 March 1900, in the context of significant donations to the approaching expedition by patrons Llewellyn W. Longstaff and the British Government, construction on the Discovery began in Dundee, Scotland, by the Dundee Shipbuilders Company. She was launched into the Firth of Tay on 21 March 1901 by Lady Markham, the wife of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society.[5]


British National Antarctic ExpeditionEdit

The British National Antarctic Expedition departed the UK less than five months after the Discovery was launched and only a week after the ship left Dundee. This left little time for the ship to undergo sea trials and the voyage to New Zealand was also the brand new vessel's shakedown cruise. Scott's first impression of the ship was poor, considering her slow and unresponsive while the shallow hull, built with no protuberances to work well in ice, provided minimal stability. Discovery rolled heavily once in the open sea (she was recorded rolling through 94 degrees - 47 degrees either side of vertical- in the Southern Ocean) and tended 'gripe' (wander to and fro along her course). Shackleton described the ship as a bad sailer, carrying too much sail aft and not enough forward while Scott also worried that the design of the ship's hull was unsuitable for work in pack ice. But once the expedition reached the Roaring Forties the ship proved to have excellent seakeeping and, because she was heavy and carried relatively little sail area for her size, she could make good progress in high winds and heavy seas without having to reef. The Discovery's unusual rounded, overhanging stern (one of the main changes from the original Bloodhound design) not only provided more protection for the rudder but also prevented all but the largest following seas breaking over the back of the ship and kept the decks dry, although the stern was prone to 'slamming' into waves, making the officer's accommodation and wardroom noisy.

Discovery (centre) trapped by the ice in McMurdo Sound, accompanied by Morning (left) and Terra Nova (right) in February 1904.

The ship was put in dry dock for the first time at Lyttelton and the carpenter, Frederick Dailey, prepared a lengthy report detailing the numerous empty bolt holes and slack hull fittings he found. Six feet (1.8 metres) of water had seeped into the ship's bilges and lower hold through badly-sealed joints in the planking. While these were repaired there was considerable dispute between the RGS and Dundee Shipbuilders as to who was responsible for the defects, but the Discovery left for the Antarctic on December 21, 1901 after three weeks in New Zealand.

Five months after setting sail on 6 August 1901 from the Isle of Wight, she sighted the Antarctic coastline on 8 January 1902. During the first month Scott began charting the coastline. Then, in preparation for the winter, he anchored in McMurdo Sound.[clarification needed] The ship would remain there, locked in ice, for the next two years; the expedition had expected to spend the winter there and to move on in the spring. Despite this, the Expedition was able to determine that Antarctica was indeed a continent, and they were able to relocate the Southern Magnetic Pole. Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson also achieved a Furthest South of 82 degrees 18 minutes. The ship was eventually freed on 16 February 1904 by the use of controlled explosives which allowed the ice to be moved away by butting and shunting, thus assisting in the breakup of the ice. Discovery finally sailed for home, arriving back at Spithead on 10 September 1904.

Cargo vesselEdit

The British National Antarctic Expedition was acclaimed upon its return but was also in serious financial trouble, and so in 1905, Discovery was sold to the Hudson's Bay Company, who used her as a cargo vessel between London and Hudson Bay, Canada until the First World War, when she began carrying munitions to Russia. In 1916, she was loaned to the British Government to rescue Shackleton's party marooned on Elephant Island, but they were rescued before she arrived. In 1917, she carried supplies to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War. At the end of the hostilities Discovery was chartered by various companies for work in the Atlantic, but outdated and outclassed by more modern merchant vessels she was soon laid up, spending the early 1920s as the headquarters of the 16th Stepney Sea Scouts.

Discovery InvestigationsEdit

Discovery in Australia.

In 1923 her fortunes were revived when the Crown Agents for the Colonies purchased her for further research work in the Antarctic. Re-registered to Stanley in the Falklands and designated as a Royal Research Ship, Discovery underwent a £114,000 refit. In October 1925 she sailed for the South Seas to chart the migration patterns of whale stocks, as part of the Discovery Investigations, with zoologist Sir Alister Hardy on board. Her research role continued when the British Government lent her to the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). She served in this duty from 1929 until 1931.

Boy Scouts/Sea Cadet CorpsEdit

Returning to Britain, her research days now over, Discovery was laid up until 1936 when she was presented to the Boy Scouts Association as a static training ship for Sea Scouts in London.[6] During the war her engines and boilers were removed for scrap to help with the war effort. Too costly for the Scouts Association to maintain she was transferred to the Admiralty in 1954 and formally commissioned as HMS Discovery for use as a drill ship for the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserve and also training ship for the Westminster Sea Cadet Corps. As the years passed, her condition deteriorated and when no longer of use to the Navy, she was in danger of being scrapped. The Maritime Trust, into whose care she passed in 1979, saved her from the breakers yard. Her future secured, she was berthed first on the River Thames next to HMS Chrysanthemum and HMS President, and later in St Katharine Docks. During this time, she remained the home and training ship of the Westminster Sea Cadet Corps. She reverted to the Royal Research Ship (RRS) designation and was open to the public as a museum. The sea cadet unit eventually relocated to on-shore premises in Pimlico situated in the converted basement of a local council estate. The Maritime Trust spent some £500,000 on essential restoration until she was passed into the ownership of the Dundee Heritage Trust in 1985.

Discovery Point, DundeeEdit

RRS Discovery, in Dundee in 2009.

On 28 March 1986, Discovery left London aboard the cargo ship Happy Mariner to make her journey home to the city that built her. She arrived on the River Tay on 3 April. Moved to a custom built dock in 1992, Discovery is now the centrepiece of Dundee's visitor attraction Discovery Point. She is displayed in a purpose-built dock, in a configuration as near as possible to her 1924 state, when she was refitted in the Vosper yard at Portsmouth. She is listed as part of the National Historic Fleet. Discovery Point is a fully accredited museum and has won numerous national awards,[7] as well as being a 5 star rated tourist attraction with Visit Scotland. In 2008, Discovery and the associated polar collections were named as a Recognised Collection of National Significance.

Since the 1990s, the Discovery Point museum has concentrated on interpreting the vessel on all of her voyages, with personal items from the ship's crew as well as information on her scientific activities. Items range from the games played by the crew on her first expedition to examples of sea fauna. Star objects on display including Captain Scott's rifle and pipe. Her three main voyages, the National Antarctic Expedition (1901–1904), the Discovery Oceanographic Expedition (1925–1927) and the BANZARE expedition (1929–31), are all explored in the museum through film and photographic evidence with artefacts from each era represented. The museum also holds other pieces from Scott's subsequent Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton's Endurance expedition.

The ship also features on the crest of the coat of arms of the British Antarctic Territory.[8]

Subsequent shipsEdit

There have been three subsequent royal research ships named Discovery, RRS Discovery II (1929) and the third-named RRS Discovery (1962). A fourth ship is the current RRS Discovery, which was built in 2013.[9][10]

The spaceship Discovery One in Arthur C. Clarke's book 2001: A Space Odyssey was named by Clarke after RRS Discovery; Clarke used to eat his lunch aboard her, as she was moored near the office where he worked in London.

The Space Shuttle Discovery is named for RRS Discovery.[11]


  1. ^ Huntford, Roland. Shackleton. p. 34. ISBN 0-689-11429-X. 
  2. ^ "Lloyd's Register 1934–35" (pdf). Plimsoll Ship Data. 
  3. ^ Paine, Lincoln P (2000). Ships of Discovery and Exploration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-395-98415-4. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Naval & Military intelligence". The Times (36409). London. 22 March 1901. p. 11. 
  6. ^ "A Short History of Sea Scouting in the United Kingdom". Boy Scouts of America. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  7. ^ "News". Dundee Heritage Trust. Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  8. ^ "British Antarctic Territory". Flags of the World. Retrieved 5 June 2009. 
  9. ^ "Contract awarded for new research ship". Natural Environment Research Council. 30 March 2010. Archived from the original on 12 September 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  10. ^ "RRS Discovery Oceanographic Research Vessel, United Kingdom". Ship-Technology. Retrieved 20 September 2011. 
  11. ^ "Scott's ship celebrates 100 years". BBC Retrieved 7 April 2017

External linksEdit