Check out 400 years of shipbuilding history at the Chatham Historic Dockyard

A sloop-of-war, a WWII destroyer, a Cold War-era submarine, plus more tanks, lifeboats and historical buildings than you can shake a mast at. This is the Chatham Historic Dockyard and here’s a look around.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Chatham Historic Dockyard

The Chatham Historic Dockyard is huge, with lots of things to see. 

On the day I visited, the local Bond Bug club was having an event. Quite a contrast to the old ships and older buildings.

For more information behind this tour, check out From sails to subs: 400 years of shipbuilding at the Chatham Historic Dockyard.

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HMS Gannet

Launched in 1878, the HMS Gannet is a sloop-of-war, powered by sail or steam. The hybrid of its day, so to speak. 

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Like most of the craft of this era, it was faster under sail: 15 knots if the wind was good, and 12.5 if under steam. 

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Long life

Though decommissioned and recommissioned multiple times over its life, the Gannet was in some kind of service or use for 90 years. 

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She saw service around London, the Mediterranean, and even as far away as the Pacific. 

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This sail configuration is called full-rigged, which she also had when new. At various times in her life she had fewer sails, and sometimes, none at all.

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The Gannet originally had 3 64-pound guns, 2 7-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns, 2 5-inch breech loaders and more.

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Below decks

Though not specifically "for kids," there are areas around the Dockyard, like this spot on the Gannet, that tries to keep them interested and involved. 

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Not so spacious

At launch, the Gannet would have been crewed by 139 men. It wouldn't have been quite as open as this.

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Composite construction

This is where the ship's boilers would have been. Instead, we can see the iron framing. The outside was two layers of teak. There are only three surviving ships that have this composite construction. One is in Australia, the other is up the Thames. You can read about that one in our tour: Cutty Sark: A tour of 147 years of sailing history.

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Coal-powered hybrid

The three coal-fired boilers supplied steam to a two-cylinder expansion engine that drove a single 13.1-foot/4m propeller. 

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The restoration took 17 years, returning it to the way it looked when new... minus a few parts, of course.

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HM Submarine Ocelot

The Cold War-era submarine HMS Ocelot was one of the quietest ships of her day. For a look inside, check out our tour: Silence in the deep: A look inside the HMS Ocelot.

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HMS Cavalier

Launched in 1944, the HMS Cavalier was in service for 28 years, including during WWII. She was once known as the "fastest ship in the fleet."

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Historic drydock

This is the No. 2 Drydock, but it's the site of the Old Single Dock where the HMS Victory was built. About a hundred years later, after it was expanded, the HMS Achilles was built here, a sister ship to the HMS Warrior. You can check out the Victory and Warrior in our tour: A tour of the HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and HMS Alliance: 300 years of Royal Navy history

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Weapons of war

The Cavalier's weapons varied greatly over its 28 years of service. Guns, torpedoes, depth charges, antisub mortars and...

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...A GWS-20 Seacat missile launcher, installed later in the Cavalier's service.

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Mockup missles

They're about the height of a small person. These, however, are fake. I think. 

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In the mid 1950s the Cavalier got radar. 

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Navigation bridge

It certainly offers a good view, but I bet it gets awfully cold up here. 

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Subs and sails

Believe it or not, that cool building in the background is the No.3 Slip, and it's actually from 1838. 

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The operations room, where the main business of the ship gets done (other than the actual driving part). 

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Captain's cabin

If you look on the floor in the middle of the photo, you can see a mirror that lets you sneak a peek at the captain's personal bathroom. 

As you'd expect, the captain's cabin is close to the bridge and across from ops.

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First officer's cabin

Though the entire ship isn't open to explore (namely, the engine room, etc.), the parts that are open have been wonderfully restored.

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I can't say I've seen bathtubs too often on naval vessels.

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Forward mess

The best part of the forward mess was a poster talking about the history of grog, which is water and rum. The Royal Navy discontinued rum rations in the '70s. The 1970s!

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Impressively, the canteen is stocked with lots of period-correct goods. 

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Engineer Officer's quarters

The Engineer Officer's quarters. The Geordi La Forge, so to speak. It's rather fitting that his cabin would have all those pipes and wires. 

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Transmitting Station Annex

From here they were able to direct the aiming of the 4.5-inch gun. 

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The Radar Technical Office. Lots of equipment, surprisingly few screens. But then, it was the '50s. 

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They were into vinyl before it was cool.

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The Wireless Telegraphy Office, essentially the communications room. 

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Gunnery control

The various equipment used to control the many weapons on board. 

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Day cabin

The commanding officer's day cabin. 

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Officer's office

The Ship's Officer was like the head of HR. This was his office.

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Rather posh, considering. 

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George and Vicky

One of the best parts of the museum is all the Georgian and Victorian buildings. Many have additional exhibits. 

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Still in use today, the massive ropery building is over 1,100 feet/340 meters long. It plays tricks on the eye, since rarely will you see a building this narrow be this long. There's a separate tour of this building, including how to make rope, if you have time.

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No. 3 Slip

As gorgeous as the outside of the No 3. Slip is, the view inside is even better. The mezzanine, where I took this photo, was built around 1904, some 66 years after the initial construction. There are over 400 windows in the ceiling.  

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Tanks and trucks

Inside the No. 3 Covered Slip is a collection of armored and other military vehicles. This one stood out to me because of its width. This was not made for the narrow lanes of southeast England. 

It's an M2 Amphibious Bridging vehicle, 3m wide on land, and almost twice that when its pontoons were deployed for water use. The latest version is the M3

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This is assorted propulsion equipment for Blackwood-class frigates, made by English Electric. So not steampunk per se, but still pretty cool looking in this environment. 

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Next door to the tanks and assorted steampunkery is the largest collection of rescue craft and lifeboats in the UK. This is the RNLB Edward Bridges.

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The Edward Bridges, along with the rest of the Arun-class life boats, had a crew of five and a top speed of 19 knots.

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Stationed in southwest England, the Edward Bridges and her crew saved dozens of lives, including on the MV Lyrma and during the 1979 Fastnet race disaster.

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St. Cybi

The RNLI St. Cybi is part of the Barnett-class and served in north Wales. Over her 30-year career she and her crew saved 167 lives.

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Many more

These photos just barely scratch the surface. I spent all afternoon at the Dockyard and still had to rush through parts.

The slick-looking boat here is the Coastal Motor Boat 103, built in 1920 for high-speed mine laying and quick attacks with torpedoes, she assisted in the D-Day landings. 

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Chomp chomp chomp

This beast rolls metal. So metal. 

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Clearing the docks

A day well spent among beautiful ships and even more beautiful buildings. 

The Chatham Historic Dockyard is open February through early December. 

For more information behind this tour, check out From sails to subs: 400 years of shipbuilding at the Chatham Historic Dockyard.  

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