The Roil of the Ocean

Updated: Sep 14

Climate Futures with Historic Ships

This article contains excerpts from National Historic Ships UK’s forthcoming Climate Change Report.

At dawn in the Farne Islands, the boat rocking gently in the pink-tinged waves and the cacophony of barking seals bouncing off the hull, climate change was a distant thought. But the close, still air held the promise of an unnaturally hot day, and, despite the comforting tilt and tip of the boat, the water was disconcertingly calm. With no wind to sail by in the heatwave, we relied on engine power alone. On that Sail Training trip in the North Sea, I saw dolphins, porpoises, and a whale for the first time, as well as hundreds of seals. Now, during the Anthropocene extinction, I wonder if I will see them in the wild again.

Six years later, I am sat in my garden in the first wave of a global pandemic, amidst yet another heatwave. The thread of these heat waves snakes between these two seemingly unconnected aspects of my life, stitching them together. This, and ships.

When discussing climate change, ships do not immediately spring to mind. But this summer, whilst interning for National Historic Ships UK, I explored the role of Britain’s maritime heritage in our climate future. As an island nation, we are encapsulated and crisscrossed by water, adorned with a rich tapestry of vessels. Those vessels are a crucial part of our past, present, and future, from the world’s most famous warship, HMS Victory, to the tiny coracles that spin down the River Severn. Even the landlocked areas of Britain are connected by waterways – the Black Country teems with canals, and when I smell woodsmoke or see a narrowboat cutting through algae-clogged water, I know I am home.

Today, the UK has over 1600 historic vessels, many still sailing. ‘Historic ships’ are more than just objects: this overarching term encapsulates their crews, historic and modern, the artefacts aboard them, and the journeys they made and continue to make. Despite being firmly rooted in the past, historic ships are uniquely placed to tackle climate change. Although there are state-of-the-art modern research vessels dedicated to scientific climate research, such as the RRS Sir David Attenborough, and ships used for sailing research expeditions — Oxford University’s Anthroposea expedition and the eXXpedition voyages exploring ocean plastic pollution, for example — historic ships offer something different to climate research and discussion, often complementing modern scientific work. Most poignantly, the melting of Arctic ice has been exemplified by the 2014 discovery of Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus, lost in the Northwest Passage in 1848, when she was unable to penetrate ice sheets which no longer exist. Historic logbooks are also a valuable resource, as past weather records can help scientists model weather changes as the global temperature rises.

Climate change is impacting and will continue to impact every aspect of our lives, and so it is vital we tackle it with more than just science, statistics, and data. Cultural practitioners must also have a role in shaping our ‘strange new world.’ We must draw on the arts, history, and our imagination, too. Historic ships stand directly at the intersection of culture and climate change.

Harnessing traditional knowledge can be a powerful tool for climate change mitigation.

For crews, a lifetime as seamen has shown them the reality of climate change and pollution, encouraging them to combine new environmental initiatives with public expeditions. The 1906 Thames sailing barge Thalatta has embarked on public beach cleans since 2019, reaching areas inaccessible by foot and proving that a large percentage of beach plastic arrives by tidal streams, rather than littering. Lynher, an 1896 Tamar River barge, has established a Fair Shores Project, collecting and mapping litter from the Tamar’s shores. The Lynher’s crew believes that uncovering waste hidden on the riverbank creates a sense of disgust in the public that can, then, dissuade people from fly-tipping or littering.

On the coast of Devon, a charity passionate about traditional wooden boats addresses inequalities in sail training and pioneers ocean literacy teaching. The Island Trust educates people about the sea, what lives in it and on its shores, what people do with it, and how we affect each other. Ocean literacy should be seen as vitally important to society: in learning about the ocean, we learn to love and respect it, creating the desire to protect it—from pollution, climate change, and overfishing. The sea is not only at risk from climate change, however, but is vital in mitigating it, as detailed in the Marine Conservation Society and Rewilding Britain’s May 2021 report on ‘Blue Carbon’. The Ocean Discoverability Programme is a small, but impactful, grassroots initiative: The Island Trust believes that when the public wants to protect the ocean, this desire will be seen as the will of the electorate, encouraging government action. Learning about the sea showed me what we have to lose. We only have one planet, one chance.