On 16 March 1900, construction on the Discovery began in Dundee, Scotland, by the Dundee Shipbuilders Company. She was launched into the Firth of Tay on 21 March 1901 by Lady Markham, the wife of Sir Clements Markham who was President of the Royal Geographical Society.
Discovery had coal-fired auxiliary steam engines, but had to rely primarily on sail because the coal bunkers did not have sufficient capacity to take the ship on long voyages. She was rigged as a barque. According to Shackleton, the ship was a bad sailer, and carried too much sail aft and not enough forward; while Scott worried that the design of the ship's hull was unsuitable for work in pack ice. The ship had a massively built wooden hull designed to withstand being frozen into the ice. The propeller and rudder could be hoisted out of the way to prevent ice damage. Iron shod bows were severely raked so that when ramming the ice they would ride up over the margin and crush the ice with deadweight. The Discovery rolled badly in the open sea where the flat shallow hull, built with no protuberances to work well in ice, provided minimal stability in heavy seas.
British National Antarctic Expedition
Five months after setting sail on 6 August 1901 from the Isle of Wight, she sighted the Antarctic coastline on 8 January 1902. During the first month Scott began charting the coastline. Then, in preparation for the winter, he weighed anchor in McMurdo Sound. Unfortunately, this was where the ship would remain, locked in ice, for the next two years; the expedition had expected to spend the winter there and to move on in the spring. Despite this, the Expedition was able to determine that Antarctica was indeed a continent, and they were able to relocate the Southern Magnetic Pole. Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson also achieved a Furthest South of 82 degrees 18 minutes. The ship was eventually freed on 16 February 1904 by the use of controlled explosives which allowed the ice to be moved away by butting and shunting, thus assisting in the break up of the ice . RRS Discovery finally sailed for home, arriving back at Spithead on 10 September 1904.
The British National Antarctic Expedition was acclaimed upon its return but was also in serious financial trouble, and so in 1905, Discovery was sold to the Hudson's Bay Company, who used her as a cargo vessel between London and Hudson Bay, Canada until the First World War, when she began carrying munitions to Russia. In 1916, she was loaned to the British Government to rescue Shackleton's party marooned on Elephant Island, but they were rescued before she arrived. In 1917, she carried supplies to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War. At the end of the hostilities Discovery was chartered by various companies for work in the Atlantic, but outdated and outclassed by more modern merchant vessels she was soon laid up, spending the early 1920s as the headquarters of the 16th Stepney Sea Scouts.
Main article: Discovery Investigations
In 1923 her fortunes were revived when the Crown Agents for the Colonies purchased her for further research work in the Antarctic. Re-registered to Stanley in the Falklands and designated as a Royal Research Ship, Discovery underwent a £114,000 refit before sailing in October 1925 for the South Seas to chart the migration patterns of whale stocks as part of the Discovery Investigations. Her research role continued when the British Government lent her to BANZARE, the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition. She served in this duty from 1929 until 1931.
Returning to Britain, her research days now over, Discovery was laid up until 1936 when she was presented to the Boy Scouts Association as a stationary training ship for Sea Scouts in London. During the war her engines and boilers were removed for scrap to help with the war effort. Too costly for the Scouts Association to maintain she was transferred to the Admiralty in 1955 for use as a drill ship for the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserve. As the years passed her condition deteriorated and when no longer of use to the Navy, she was in danger of being scrapped. Saved from the breakers yard by the Maritime Trust, into whose care she passed in 1979, her future had been secured. Berthed on the River Thames and open to the public, the trust spent some £500,000 on essential restoration until she was passed into the ownership of the Dundee Heritage Trust in 1985.
RRS Discovery, in Dundee.On 28 March 1986 Discovery left London aboard the cargo ship Happy Mariner to make her journey home to the town that built her, arriving on the River Tay on 3 April to a tumultuous welcome. Moved to a custom built dock in 1992, Discovery is now the centrepiece of Dundee's visitor attraction Discovery Point. The city also markets itself as The City of Discovery, in honour of RRS Discovery and the research work of the two universities in the city and the Ninewells teaching hospital.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild