Scots battle to save a relic of their sea heritage

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The Independent Online

Dozens of enthusiasts in boiler suits, men, women and children, will, as usual, pass by the Royal Yacht Britannia this morning . Their task is to save and refurbish a much humbler vessel, the last steam trawler to be built in Britain.

Dozens of enthusiasts in boiler suits, men, women and children, will, as usual, pass by the Royal Yacht Britannia this morning . Their task is to save and refurbish a much humbler vessel, the last steam trawler to be built in Britain.

On the SS Explorer, whose triple-expansion steam engine is essentially a scaled-down version of the Titanic's, the smell of herring still fills a vessel that ploughed through the Arctic until 16 years ago. Below the bridge, the captain's Remington Standard typewriter sits as he left it in his cabin. Next door is the radio operator's office and the bed where he slept, so that no message would be missed. An old potato-peeling machine still works and the galley sink boasts the traditional three taps: hot, cold and seawater.

The contrast is stark in Leith docks, Edinburgh, between the "royal gin palace" and the 471ton Explorer, which faces the scrapyard next month if the port authority has its way. The trawler was saved four years ago when Alistair Duncan, who as a 14-year-old apprentice helped build her in Aberdeen, and his friends bought her for £10,000 after she lay rusting for 12 years in Cromarty Firth.

Since then, volunteers, mainly women, have been cleaning her. "We want to change it from an anoraks' project into a heritage project," said Elaine Macnab, the project leader.

However, the Forth Ports Authority says the boat must be gone by next month, so it can develop the berth for commercial work which will preserve 400 jobs. The society founded to save her has insufficient funds and fears a gem of maritime history is destined for the scrapyard.

" Britannia was a royal plaything," said Ms Macnab. "This is the real thing. Scotland was built on shipbuilding and fishing. We think the Explorer should survive as a tribute to what Scotland was made of. We would like to turn one of the rooms into a chapel for people who lost relatives at sea. We hope also to offer burials at sea."

The trawler was commissioned in 1955, but she was built to a much older design. Her job was to tour the Arctic, checking fish stocks in the same spots each year. Because of her stability, the boat could be used as a base for remote-operated vehicles such as those that explored the wreck of the Solway Harvester, said volunteers.

Jim Tildesley, director of the Scottish Maritime Museum, said the Explorer's uncertain fate was typical of other historic ships. "Hundreds of castles and houses are A-listed. We think nothing of paying millions for another painting. Yet there are just 41 A-listed historic vessels in Britain and the lack of funding means that later this year it may be decided even some of these will not survive."

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