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HMS Victory: World's oldest warship to get $25m facelift

By Emily Smith, CNN
December 5, 2011 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
HMS Victory, the world's oldest commissioned warship, is set to undergo a £16m restoration.
HMS Victory, the world's oldest commissioned warship, is set to undergo a £16m restoration.
  • HMS Victory is the world's oldest commissioned warship
  • British defense authorities have awarded a £16 million( $25m) contract to revamp the ship
  • Much of the restoration will be done by hand using traditional specialist skills

(CNN) -- The world's oldest commissioned warship is to undergo a £16 million ($25m) revamp, in what British defense authorities hope will restore the iconic battleship that is so central to Britain's legacy as a maritime power.

It will be the most extensive restoration to HMS Victory in more than 200 years, when she underwent repairs following the Battle of Trafalgar.

"It's a massive task," says project manager John O'Sullivan of BAE Systems, which has been contracted to carry out the works for five years with an option to extend that for a further five.

However O'Sullivan believes a ship of this nature will always be a work in progress. "The first five years will be intense, but it's ongoing forever, it needs constant work."

HMS Victory was commissioned in 1778 and during three decades of service she saw some of the most legendary clashes. She's the only surviving warship from the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic wars.

It's for the Battle of Trafalgar in the latter for which she is most well-known.

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Sketch of the Battle of Trafalgar when Lord Nelson was hit.
Sketch of the Battle of Trafalgar when Lord Nelson was hit.

As Lord Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory served at the front of the battle on the Spanish coast.

The Admiral was a hero of his day and well-respected for his strategic approach to battle. Despite having fewer ships than the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson managed to lead the British to triumph.

However it was to be Nelson's last mission. He received a fatal hit by a lead ball on deck. He was taken below where he died.

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Only 20% of the vessel that stands today at Portsmouth, on England's south coast, is from the original ship. The structure of the 246-year-old warship still marvels modern day experts. "It's a work of art," says O'Sullivan.

He believes even nowadays ship builders would struggle to replicate parts of HMS Victory.

Over the centuries she's undergone maintenance, but nothing of this magnitude. All of the outside of the hull will be re-planked, repairs will be made to the masts and work will be carried out on the interior.

Teams have been preparing for the works since July, however over the next few weeks the project will step up a gear.

Much of the restoration will be done by hand using traditional specialist skills, particularly when it comes to carving and shaping the wood. O'Sullivan hopes that throughout the project they'll be able to train up new apprentices so that the art of repairing these types of ships is not lost.

Britain's Ministry of Defence has awarded the multi-million pound contract. While many would question why so much money is being invested into a project at a time of austerity in the UK, those close to the project believe it's essential to preserve something which is of so much importance to British and maritime history.

"We can't just leave it," says O'Sullivan. Such is the fragile nature of the ship, and because of its susceptibility to the elements, restoration must be carried out now or otherwise it will deteriorate. "If we don't do the work, eventually we'll lose what we've got."

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