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England expects that every man will do his duty

Started: 2016-10-24 12:36:01

Submitted: 2016-10-24 15:56:41

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits HMS VICTORY and some other ships that may also have historical significance

Jetlag caught up with me early on the morning of 15th October, waking me up in the middle of the night (at least, in my new time zone) and refusing to let me go back to sleep for a couple of hours. By the time my alarm woke me up at 08:30 BST, I tried to ignore the fact that it was a half-hour after midnight back home in San Francisco and my body clock had just decided it was finally time to to bed.

I emerged into the morning sunlight from my hotel at Gunwharf Quays to try to convince myself that it really was morning in my new time zone. I walked around the upscale outdoor shopping mall, wondered whether this outdoor shopping mall conversion made more sense than the similar conversions I'd seen in less-temperate climates in Colorado, and checked out the handful of historical artifacts strewn about the dock. I couldn't handle the atrocious machine coffee dispensed with the otherwise-passable continental buffet breakfast served by my hotel (it appeared to be reconstituted from the most horrible dried concentrate), so I found a Caffe Nero and discovered that I like my Americano white (ie, with milk), at least when ordering from a British cafe.

I walked to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, the main shipyard for the Royal Navy for centuries, especially during the Age of Sail, to see the world's most famous sailing ship, HMS Victory. I got stuck in a giant queue waiting for entry into the dockyard. When at length I made it to the front of the queue I bought the standard package ticket that combined all of the attractions -- and gave me unlimited reentry for the next year.

HMS Victory
HMS Victory

I headed straight for Victory, sitting in the same drydock she's been resting in since 1926. She's still, technically, a commissioned warship in the Royal Navy, though her duties these days are limited to a few ceremonial dinners on board. She's been mostly restored to her appearance at the time of her victory at Trafalgar in 1805, with a black-and-yellow paint scheme and a shiny new deck. The top masts have been removed for restoration (or replacement), leaving just the bottom spars. In a concession to health and safety the dockyards cut holes in the hull to serve as emergency exits, and kept us from doing dangerous things like climbing the masts.

Masts on the deck of HMS Victory
Masts on the deck of HMS Victory

I boarded Victory on the main deck, where the mid-day sun shone on the wooden deck so clean it nearly glowed. There were no interpretive signs on-board; instead there were guides wandering the decks who'd answer questions if one could find one to ask. I found the plaque marking the spot where Nelson fell (though I couldn't help but wonder how many times the deck had been replaced), and climbed up to the quarterdeck to look out across the ship, and the dockyards that housed it.

Plaque on the deck of HMS Victory: Here Nelson Fell
Plaque on the deck of HMS Victory: Here Nelson Fell

I wandered through the cabins, past the charts laid out for the senior offers to discuss, and tables laid out for their dinner. Looking through the stern windows I spotted the modern destroyer HMS Dragon docked in the harbour, in the part of the dockyards still used as an active Royal Navy base.

Cabin on HMS Victory
Cabin on HMS Victory
HMS Dragon framed in the stern windows on HMS Victory
HMS Dragon framed in the stern windows on HMS Victory

I descended through the three gun decks, mounting the broadsides that would smash through the heavy oak hulls of other warships. I tried to imagine the decks crowded with their gun crews, living and eating and sleeping (and dying) around their guns.

Guns on one of HMS Victory's gun decks
Guns on one of HMS Victory's gun decks

In a concession to the structural integrity of the ship in drydock, only a few of the guns mounted in the broadside are authentic period pieces; the rest are reconstructions. (With only a handful of supports instead of the steady support of the water, the ship was beginning to buckle under its own weight.) Several guns are contemporaneous; only one is provably part of the original gun compliment on Victory as of Trafalgar.

Support structure for HMS Victory in drydock
Support structure for HMS Victory in drydock

I realized, somewhat to my embarrassment, that most of what I know about the Age of Sail comes from reading David Weber's Safehold series (and, to a lesser extent, Honor Harrington). I was fascinated, though, by the display of different types of shot for different purposes: round shot to punch through the hull, bar shot to take down the rigging, canister and small balls to kill and maim people.

England expects that every man will do his duty
England expects that every man will do his duty

Below the gun decks, below the waterline, the scene changed to small rooms designed as storage and for other special purposes. There was one lonely guide sitting behind the surgeon's table, protected from the chaos of battle by the water, with a bunch of gruesome tools laid out in front of her waiting for someone to ask about them, but we all walked quietly by, not wanting to really know quite how long it took to perform a field amputation during battle. Deep in the hold we saw more storage rooms and the ballast resting in the bilge -- along with a carpentry workshop to compliment the blacksmith shop on one of the gun decks. I wondered about the repairability of the ship on any random shore with basic raw materials, and how far we've come from that today as a price of progress. In 1805 most things on the ship could be repaired; in 2016 it takes an industrial base the size of the planet to build a modern jetliner or a mobile phone.

UK flag flying at the front of HMS Victory
UK flag flying at the front of HMS Victory

My only complaint was that Victory looked a bit sterile, like a museum piece under glass (which, to be fair, she was), rather than a faithful historic reconstruction. With only tourists with smartphones and SLR cameras walking the decks I had to imagine the ship fitted out for a long voyage at sea, sails billowing from masts, hundreds of men on board, officers resplendent in their finery, scruffy gun crews standing nervously for inspection, holds weighed down with supplies. I could almost imagine the gun drills: crews pulling their guns back, cleaning them, reloading them, running them out, waiting for the command to fire. Add to that the chaos of battle: guns billowing, splinters flying, men fighting and dying for king and country trying to get the men on the other ships doing exactly the same thing.

Stern of HMS Victory
Stern of HMS Victory

Next to Victory was the wreck of Mary Rose, a sixteenth-century ship built for Henry VIII that sank outside of Portsmouth -- which, it turned out, had just been installed in a brand-new, permanent building showing off the wreck. The wreck had been covered in mud on the bottom of the bay for centuries, preserving large chunks of the timber, as well as artifacts from the ship and the remains of many of the people who went down with the ship. The wreck was displayed, supported by scaffolding, in a climate-controlled building. We could walk around it on all four sides, looking into the ship, looking at artifacts and remains recovered within, and read about the history of the ship and its recovery.

Mary Rose in her museum
Mary Rose in her museum

I ate a late lunch in the cafe outside of Mary Rose, then headed next door to HMS M.33, a WWI monitor ship, built as a shallow-draft littoral vessel intended as a gunboat for close sea support for infantry. It was used during the campaign at Gallopli, then in other campaigns during the war, before being relegated to the varied uses that tend to come to ships that survive wars: re-purposed for various support roles and as storage vessels before finally being converted into a drydocked museum ship and partially restored into its original WWI condition. (Above deck the ship was restored; below deck the hold was left in its adapted configuration.) I thought the ship was an interesting excursion into a war I know little about.

HMS Warrior (1860)
HMS Warrior (1860)

My next stop was the other big sailing ship at the dockyard, HMS Warrior (1860). Built just 55 years after Trafalgar, this ship was a product of changing times: she was the first Royal Navy ship to be built with an iron-clad hull, and also had a coal-fired steam engine to supplement her traditional sail plan. She was built as the result of an arms race with the French navy, and ruled the seas for just ten years before changing technology rendered her obsolete.

Inside most of Warrior looked like an updated, larger version of Victory, with guns mounted on individual trucks in a broadside on a gun deck, with gun crews messing (living and eating) around their gun. But technological change was visible in other place: all of the ship was plated in iron, the core of the ship had thick armor plating, and the coal-fired engine was straight out of a Dickensonian nightmare. (The interpretive sign mentioned that the stokers assigned to keep the coal engines running were paid 25% more than the regular sailors, since their job was at least that much worse.)

It had started drizzling by the time I emerged from Warrior, so I went across the street to the exhibit honoring the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, one of the biggest naval battles in history and (according to the exhibit) a major turning-point for WWI. I found the exhibit interesting, but kind of scattered; it focused on individual scattered stories within the battle and left me wishing for a bit more big-picture strategic context (or at least a bunch of situation plots -- bonus points for representing the fog of war). The path through the gallery jumped ahead in the narrative with short videos presenting oral history, then went back to try to explain what we'd seen. I left the exhibit with the somewhat-confusing impression that the battle was a tactical draw -- both sides ended up badly damaged -- but a strategic victory for the British, since they were then able to keep the German navy bottled up, ending any hope they had of a quick naval victory, leading eventually to submarine warfare that drew the United States into the war.

By that point it was late in the afternoon and I'd seen enough Royal Navy for one day. I left the dockyard and headed to Spinnaker Tower, 100m high observation deck on the edge of the harbour. I paid £10 to ride the elevator to the top of the tower and look out at Portsmouth. The front of the tower was covered in sloped glass, which was covered in water droplets from the recent rain, but I could clearly see the dockyard to the north, and still make out other features in the rest of the city and across the harbour.

HMS Warrior (1860) and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
HMS Warrior (1860) and the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I ate supper at Wagamama, then retired, with high hopes I'd do better with jetlag.

I sometimes refer to you by your real names to real people.
- Neelix, 10 March 1999