Updated: Sep 14, 2021
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.
Of course, historic ships, specifically, are not needed for this work. But by using them, we can imagine returning to a time when we were more in tune with the rhythm of the world around us, the roil of the ocean. They can put us back in touch with the natural world we have lost on our way to ‘capitalist ruin’ as we exploit our planet for non-renewable resources. They can also teach us how to re-adopt old technology, like the oyster smack Gamecock, based in Kent, constructed over 110 years ago specifically to meet the requirements of oyster dredging in inshore waters. Working within the Whitstable Oyster Company, she will continue to dredge oyster beds in a traditional manner, in contrast to modern power dredgers, which often suspend sediment, increase turbidity, gather unwanted catch, and damage the seabed by scouring. Across the North Sea, EcoClipper, a Dutch venture, is designing a new, commercially-viable international trade sailing ship. Harnessing traditional knowledge can be a powerful tool for climate change mitigation, the significance of which has been affirmed by the Paris Agreement. Such work represents a return to values held dear in a time when resources, including energy, were scarce and expensive, and aboard ships, finite.
Something about historic ship speaks to us. The way these vessels were crafted with care and still operate over 100 years later can inspire hopeful thinking.
When working with historic ships, it would be amiss to skirt around their connections to colonial expansion, industrial development, and crewmates responsible for violent loss and ruin of life. For example, when considering the climate science and environmental impact of natural history items collected on these ships, it is important to remember how they were gathered. The first global marine expedition took place aboard HMS Challenger (1858), converted into a survey ship in 1872, establishing oceanography, discovering mid-ocean ridges, taking hundreds of soundings, and collecting many biological samples. But before her conversion she had undertaken a punitive expedition against Fiji in 1868, shelling and burning a village and killing more than 40 native Wainimala. Other historic ships travelled to ‘exotic’ places and indiscriminately took locals’ possessions, such as during Captain John Ross’s First Arctic Expedition in 1818, which intended to discover the Northwest Passage and ‘collect specimens of natural history’ alongside ‘curiosities’, like an ivory sled. Ships carried people as instruments of destruction. If we recognise our whole past, including our complicated histories, we can take the good — transport by renewable resources, living with the natural world rather than against it — and acknowledge and remember the horrific: the exploitation of people and the natural world.
Historic ships, although capable of acting to mitigate climate change, are still fragile to changes already taking place, and so can be a further reminder of everything we stand to lose in the name of perpetual progress. The world these ships were born into was completely different. Only four generations ago, rivers pulsated with burbots, now extinct in Britain, and eels were everywhere. Eight generations ago, according to the rewilding champion, Isabella Tree, “shoals of herring five miles long and three miles broad migrat[ed] within sight of the shore, chased by schools of dolphins and sperm whales and the occasional great white shark.” These ships are artefacts from a time when the oceans and waterways of Britain teemed with life. They remind us that our new normal is not normal at all.
Perhaps, however, historic ships’ ability to mitigate climate change should not have been so surprising to me. After all, Ellen MacArthur, the global proponent of the circular economy, developed her idea whilst sailing solo around the world, when she realised that her boat, with its finite resources, was a microcosm of the planet. By relying on wind power alone, sailors become tuned with the whims of the planet. And, when that wind freakishly disappears, like on my Sail Training trip all those years ago, we realise how truly helpless we will be at the collapse of the planet’s current weather systems. Historic ships allow us to be transported to a time when we were more aware of the world around us.
But, more than that, something about historic ships, specifically, speaks to us. The way these vessels, sometimes enormous, were crafted with care, hundreds of manhours poured into them, and still operate over 100 years later, gracefully cutting through the water, can inspire hopeful thinking. And such hopeful thinking will be crucial in our future. In his 2020 book The Future Earth, Eric Holthaus wrote that ‘we will have to share with one another alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable.’ We need hope.
Of course, these ships, despite their personification and our emotional connection to them, are inanimate objects. It is the people who work on and around them who are instrumental in climate change mitigation. Whilst working for National Historic Ships UK, I was privileged to have met many colourful and exciting people who are passionate about combating climate change in new ways, and sometimes old. Historic ships can, I think, offer us all the hope necessary for our collective future: hope in human engineering, the adaptability of generations of crews, and our capacity to survive in even the harshest conditions.
Abi Allan is currently reading an MPhil in Classical Archaeology at the University of Oxford, after completing her BA in Classical Archaeology & Ancient History there in 2020. She is interested in climate change, class politics, and arts & heritage. She has previously worked with The National Trust, the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, National Historic Ships UK, and the Centre for Social Justice. This summer she is excited to be working at Fairfield House, Bath.
Artwork by Alex Still.