A few days holiday last week, one of which was spent in and around the Great Britain, the ship built by Brunel in 1843, and which miraculously has been restored in the very dock where she was built in the port of Bristol.

Far bigger than any ship that had been ever constructed, she provoked arguments about “gigantism” in the contemporary maritime community that might resonate rather well today.

An iron ship, when 90% were still built of wood, screw propelled when the paddle was seen as the most effective driver (although secondary to sail power) and steered initially by a semi-balanced rudder, Great Britain could also tell 21st century shipping people something about resilience. Barely two years old, she grounded on the coast of Ireland and when other ships would have been smashed to pieces by the Atlantic breakers, she resisted their battering for a whole year, until salvaged.

With a hull divided into five watertight compartments by athwartships bulkheads, at a time when every other ship afloat was a “one-compartment” vessel, she was built to last. And last she did, in four separate lives, as a trans-Atlantic liner, Australian passenger ship , sailing freighter, and wool store on the Falkland Islands after she had been condemned and hulked after being smashed up coming around the Horn in the 1880s. Brought home to Bristol on a barge after lying awash and tidal in a Falklands cove from 1937 to 1970, she floated on her own old hull up the Avon to her final home. Here, she has been carefully restored to her original design.

You might suggest that her extraordinary long life was due to good old Victorian “over-engineering”, undertaken in the absence of all that clever stuff which enables us today to build ships lightly, without all the extraneous steel that just puts up fuel consumption. Look at the Forth railway bridge, still going strong, when the 1970s built road bridge is falling to bits and having to be replaced.

It was a thought that swam into my mind on our return from Bristol, looking at the terrifying pictures of the last moments of the stern section of the MOL Comfort sinking into the Indian Ocean with some 1700 laden 40ft containers. Over-engineering? It might be that old Brunel, despite not being a seaman, did understand the need for resilience, and the need for something up your sleeve, in case the unexpected happens.

Author: Michael Grey                                             Source: claymaitland.com