The ‘SS Explorer’ is a unique ship with an incredible pedigree. Starting life as a fishery research vessel, she is a little-known part of the UK’s maritime heritage which has played a crucial role in the development of our fishing industry technology as well as our understanding of the seas and their ecosystems. Created at a turning point for shipbuilding as construction methods changed and steam gave way to diesel and electric, she has weathered the worst of the northern seas, escaped the scrapman’s torch twice, endured abandonment, collision, and dodged eviction to become a lasting tribute to Engineering Heritage, Craftsmanship, the Shipbuilding Industry, Fishing Industry, and our achievements in Scientific Research.
With the fit-out of a cruise liner, laboratories that wouldn’t look out of place in a University, and the beautiful, elegant lines of a time when ships were built with passion, soul and hard graft, ‘Explorer’ is already recognised as an historic vessel. Her current owners, ‘The SS Explorer Preservation Society’ registered her with the National Register of Historic Vessels in 1996.
The Fishery Research Vessel‘FRS Explorer’ built to the order of the Scottish Home Department to replace a 1917 vessel of the same name, was the last ship to be completed by the famous Aberdeen shipbuilding firm, and inventors of the ‘clipper’ bow, Alexander Hall & Co Ltd.
Launched on the 21st June 1955 by Lady Rachel Stuart, wife of the Secretary of State for Scotland, ‘FRS Explorer’ was a mixture of traditional and modern technologies. Unusually, for the time, her main propulsion was provided by a triple-expansion steam engine and an oil-fired, three furnace ‘Scotch’ boiler. All auxiliary systems however were electrical, powered by onboard diesel generators. ‘FRS Explorer’ was fitted out to the highest of standards to ensure the comfort of the scientists and seamen who served on her. The ship's maiden voyage was in 1956, when she entered service with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, working under the Marine Laboratory in Torry, Aberdeen. She continued to serve for 28 years, greatly advancing the development of fishing-net technology, carrying out important hydrographic survey work and completing research on fish stocks and plankton levels to further our understanding of the marine environment and its dynamics.
‘FRS Explorer’ was withdrawn from service in 1984 following a long and successful career. Her design, equipment and machinery were becoming dated and obsolete so she was sold on for disposal by the Government. After being sent to TW Ward Ltd. of Inverkeithing for scrapping, delegates from the City of Aberdeen visited the ship in 1984 with the intention of purchasing the triple expansion steam engine for exhibition in their newly opened Aberdeen Maritime Museum, which had recently opened to a favourable reception. They were so impressed with the whole ship though that she was purchased intact from the breakers with the intention that she would become a floating adjunct to the museum
The now re-designated ‘SS Explorer’ was taken back to Aberdeen, where she was drydocked and had all of her hull openings plated over to prevent any ingress of water from valve failure. A large number of anodes were also fitted to delay corrosion. The vessel was then taken to a remote mooring in the Cromarty Firth, while a berth could be established in the city of her birth. However, the plans of Aberdeen’s civic leaders went awry and ‘SS Explorer’ remained at this mooring for 10 years while berth proposals were put forward and rejected. During that time she was vandalised, many components were stolen, and her interior spaces were opened up to nesting seabirds. In 1994 or 1995, it was decided that the project was no longer viable given the ship's deteriorating condition and lack of a berth. To recoup some of the £100,000 spent on mooring fees and insurance over the decade, the City sold ‘SS Explorer’ to Isleburn Ltd. of Invergordon for demolition.
Many former crew and local people raised a public outcry on hearing that ‘Explorer’ was to be scrapped a second time. After all, she was the last steam reciprocator built in Aberdeen, and hers was the last hull constructed by the traditional methods of raising floors and frames, plating and riveting. Such historic value is worth saving so action was required.
A group of enthusiasts formed ‘The SS Explorer Preservation Society’, a company limited by guarantee and registered as a Scottish charity, which purchased the vessel from Aberdeen Council on the morning that dismantling at Invergordon had commenced. The ‘SS Explorer’ was towed back to her mooring buoy in the Cromarty Firth where basic preliminary preservation and restoration work could start. The local seabird population were glad of the return, quickly taking up residence aboard once more.
The Society tried again to secure a berth in Aberdeen. Sadly, this was to prove unsuccessful as there was not, and currently still is not, any available space. During this period, volunteers would sail out to the ship so that they could work onboard to make her wind and weathertight, evict the seabirds, and begin clearing the mess and damage done over the years since she left service. It was an immense task requiring dedication and grit which continued in adverse circumstances until ‘Explorer’ was damaged when an offshore supply vessel/anchor handling tug, the ‘Boa Eskil’ struck her Port quarter. The Explorers motor-lifeboat was destroyed, a short section of her bulwarks were stove in, and part of the boat deck smashed. As testament to her immensely strong construction though, she remained watertight and afloat.
The subsequent insurance claim provided enough funding to have the Explorer towed to Leith (her port of registry) in 1996 and restoration has been ongoing since then. It has been an enormous task due to the solicitations of the scrapman (twice), the damage caused by wildlife and souvenir hunters, as well as the fierce Scottish weather. ‘SS Explorer’ though remains in structurally sound, time-warp condition.
Many challenges have been faced along the way. At one point the ‘Explorer’ was due to be evicted from Leith but gained a last-minute reprieve. The Society itself has undergone many changes of personnel and the programme of works aboard suffered as a result. However, following an Extraordinary General Meeting in 2010 a new management team and committee were put in place to start the restoration process afresh.
People are encouraged to come visit the ship, see what is being done and get involved with this truly unique task.
Ordinary Adult Membership - £24.00
Family Membership - £36.00 (2 Parents and Children of School Age)
Pensioner/ Student/Non-Earner £12.00
Life Membership - £300.00 (May be paid in ten monthly instalments)