Britain's oldest ship still afloat: A tour of the HMS Trincomalee

Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans -- the 200-year-old HMS Trincomalee sailed them all. Now docked in northeast England, she’s a floating history lesson. Here’s what it’s like on board.

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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HMS Trincomalee

Pretty hard to miss, and easily visible from all over the waterfront here in Hartlepool in northeast England, the HMS Trincomalee is one of the oldest ships in the world you can tour. 

For more background about the ship and this tour, read my full story, 200 years of sails and teak: Touring Britain's HMS Trincomalee

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The surrounding buildings have been done up to represent what a 19th century harbor would look like.

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During one of her several refits, the stern was changed to the elliptical design that had come into popularity, which you can see in the curve that comes up from the waterline.

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The Trincomalee was extensively restored between 1993-2001 and has been a museum ship ever since.

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Unlike most of the ships of her class, the Trincomalee is made of teak, a hard and rot-resistant wood. This is likely a factor in why she still exists to this day, with a large percentage of her original timber. 

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One of the ship's first passengers, Eliza Bunt, a British native in India returning to London, documented the trip

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One last stop for the Trincomalee on her first voyage was at the tiny South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. There she picked up a surgeon, John Stokoe, who had been attending Napoleon during his final exile. Though several years too late, this ship was originally intended to fight Napoleon's navy.

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In ordinary

Because of her delay in manufacture and extended voyage to the UK, by the time she arrived the need for her had past. She spent several years "in ordinary," also known as being in the reserve fleet. 

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Ready to embark

After a quick walk around the ship, I was ready to head on board. I'll check out the shops a bit later.

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Up on deck

Initially the Trincomalee was fitted out with 46 guns, but this complement was later reduced to 26. 

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Second life

After nearly three decades in the reserve fleet, she was recommissioned and stationed in the Atlantic, helping to protect British interests in Haiti and Cuba, along with policing the outlawed slave trade.

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Masts of steel

Though the original masts were made of wood, of course, the replacements are galvanized steel. 

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The majority of her life was spent as a training ship, to help kids unfamiliar with sailing literally learn the ropes.

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The near-horizontal "mast" that sticks out the front is called the bowsprit

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Fighting top

The platform you see here is called a fighting top, which could shelter snipers or mount small guns to fire down on other ships.

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In gym class we'd call them cargo nets, but on a ship like they're used here, they're called shrouds and help keep the mast in place.

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Long wooden poles would be placed in the holes at the top, allowing a large number of crewmen to spin the capstan to raise anchor or lift heavy loads.

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On many larger ships you'll see two wheels together, like this. They're attached and move in unison, and are there in case an extra person, or persons, are needed to wrestle the rudder, like in heavy seas. 

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This short, chunky cannon is called a carronade. The Trincomalee had up to 16 of these powerful, short-range weapons. 

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View from the stern

The North Sea is known for some serious weather, but the Trincomalee is well protected behind several seawalls and deep in a lock-protected marina.

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Gun deck

Though her armament changed over her service life, she had a maximum of 28 18-pounders like these.

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Order up

I asked this guy to make me some eggs and he just stood there. So rude. 

Ships of this era carried sheep, pigs, chickens and more for milk, eggs and eventually meat.

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Sixth-rate ship of the line

As a frigate, and later outfitted as a corvette, the Trincomalee was built more for speed than raw firepower. By comparison, the HMS Victory, one of the largest ships of her era, has more than twice as many guns. She's also roughly 25 percent wider and 20 percent longer.

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Capstan, part II

On the right is the bottom section of the third mast, aka the mizzenmast. In the distance you can see the lower portion of the capstan. The diagram sitting on top shows that roughly six sailors would be on each pole, one of which you can see extending towards aft.

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Captain's cabin

Some work was being done on the Captain's cabin, so this is as close as I could get. It gives you an idea how much better he had it over the rest of the crew, though. 

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A few of the tools needed to clean out and reload the cannon before firing another round.

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Crew complement varied, but it was somewhere between 284 and 315 including officers.

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Eat where you sleep

With space at a premium, like on any navy ship, the crew would sleep above the tables where they ate...

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...and relaxed, if they weren't on duty. 

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The officers, and any passengers, would have their own cabins in the rear of the ship.

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Fine dining

Officers and passengers also had their own dining area. 

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Aft magazine

The magazines stored the gunpowder, and were copper-lined to reduce the chance of sparks. 

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Down one more deck is the ship's hold. In the upper left you can see a carpenter on the carpenter's walk, a narrow space that offered access to plug potential leaks or holes in the hull.

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The ship's hold would, well, hold everything the crew needed to survive weeks or months at sea, plus any cargo, personal belongings and ballast.   

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Eventually iron tanks would hold water, but prior to that big casks were used.

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The platform above the hold is called the orlop, and was typically used to store spare sails and rigging. On some ships, this is its own deck.

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Not surprising at all that a ship made almost entirely of wood would have a carpenter on board. This is his workshop and storeroom. 

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After entering private hands in 1897, the Trincomalee spent the next 95 years largely as a training and accommodation ship and was renamed the TS Foudroyant.

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Forward magazine

A marine was stationed outside both magazines around the clock for security, but also to prevent anything going in that could start a fire.

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The Leda-class frigates, of which the Trincomalee is one, were actually based on a French design, re-engineered from the captured Hébé.

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The plaque reads "Remember Nelson," referring to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was a big fan of frigates and who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, 12 years before the Trincomalee first set sail. 

The first night of the Battle of the Nile, after weeks of chasing the faster French fleet, Nelson said, "Were I to die at this moment, 'Want of Frigates' would be found stamped on my heart."

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Time to explore the port. 

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Clothes and swords

On the left, a tailor's shop. On the right, a swordsmith. What more could a good sailor need? The interiors are done up as well, with mannequins in period costume.

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A pirate of leisure, perhaps? 

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And... scene

I think this would be much more amusing if you moved the guy on the left to behind the table and the guy in the middle to a spot at the bottom of this image. Just a slightly different story...

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Can't go out to sea without provisions. Throughout the day the museum puts on demonstrations of skills such as knot-making. 

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For kids too

There are some games set up, and various areas tailored for kids. Here you can see some oversized checkerboards and checkers. This oversized kid didn't have time to play.

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In port

The Trincomalee still floats, and is the oldest British ship still able to do so, with the HMS Victory having been placed in dry dock in the 1920s. 

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Bon voyage

A quiet and fascinating museum, the Trincomalee is worth a visit if you're in the northeast of England. 

For more about the history of this ship and how to visit it, read 200 years of sails and teak: Touring Britain's HMS Trincomalee.   

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