S/S Explorer: A steamer saved by enthusiasts!

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Whenever i have time, i like to research historic vessels on web and sometimes i come across very interesting ships, stories and people. Few days ago, i met with Pete MacDhùghaill from S/S Explorer Preservation Society. We had a nice small conversation and he agreed to share the story of the fishery research vessel Explorer and give some info. He is also looking for some other stuff, but i will keep this as a secret for now. So i am leaving the page to our new friend from Pete MacDhùghaill Leith Scotland. His ship has a lot to tell…
Emrah Başkan

The SS Explorer – Leith, Scotland

 ss explorer steamer fishery research vessel leith

The ‘SS Explorer’ is a unique ship with an incredible pedigree. She is a survivor, a little-known part of the UK’s maritime heritage which has played a crucial role in the development of our fishing industry technology and 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. She became one of the first to appear on the registers with certificate number 26. However, we believe that the Society’s volunteers at the time did not adequately describe the ship, highlight its importance to the UK’s maritime heritage, or take enough steps to ensure that she was recognised as a truly special ship deserving of a place in the ‘Core Collection’ of the UK’s historic vessels.

As such, the ‘SS Explorer Preservation Society’ would now like to have ‘SS Explorer’ added to the National Historic Fleet along with other vessels which are of pre-eminent national or regional significance that span the spectrum of UK maritime history, illustrate changes in construction and technology, and merit a higher priority for long term conservation. In being classed in the same group as the fabulous ‘HMS Belfast’, the ‘PS Waverley’ and the ‘RRS Discovery’ will put us on a stronger preservation footing and help secure a long-term, viable, productive and secure future for ‘SS Explorer’.


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 AberdeenMaritimeMuseum, 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 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 Aberdeen City Council 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 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 repay a member’s personal loan which had bought the ship and pay the £1200.00 cost to have the Explorer towed to Leith, her port of registry in 1996. 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.

Our Chairman, Simon Sawers, who has dedicated much of his life to working onboard ‘SS Explorer’, has brought energy, enthusiasm and vitality to the project. He has been instrumental in recruiting new volunteers and using modern social media to our advantage. This commitment was recognised through the award of the ‘Marsh Volunteer of The Year’ prize in 2012, presented by HRH The Princess Royal at a prestigious awards ceremony aboard ‘HMS Belfast’ in London.

We are now moving forward towards our goals and have achievable milestones in place to ensure that the ‘SS Explorer’ becomes a sustainable maritime heritage attraction, a community asset for training and engagement, as well as a lasting tribute to the shipbuilding industry, the fishing industry, and to the work carried out by the scientific community.

Being of Pre-eminent National or Regional Significance

As noted before, the ‘SS Explorer’ was built as a government research vessel. She was a familiar visitor to many ports around the British Isles and North Europe, working alone or with research vessels from other countries and governments on joint expeditions where she was frequently the “lead ship”. Her comfortable interior meant that she was often the ‘hospitality’ ship during such events. Shown below is a picture of the then ‘FRS Explorer’ on a joint expedition in 1960 with eight other research vessels, including the UK vessels: ‘Discovery II’ and ‘Ernest Holt’.

frs explorer

Much pioneering work was undertaken aboard ‘SS Explorer’, and at her affiliated on-shore laboratories. The researchers and scientists, in conjunction with the fishing skippers and crew, collected data to provide information on fisheries management, conservation, and fishing methods for fishing fleets across Europe. Many advances, discoveries and methods trialled are still relevant today. ‘SS Explorer’ used an analogue computer to process some of the data while she was still at sea which greatly increased her efficiency. To the best of our knowledge she was the very first research ship to be fitted with an onboard computer for processing data in this way – a development which pioneered computer use and opened the doors to the technology of today.

The discoveries made by ‘SS Explorer’, and the research work she completed, directly impacted the national fishing industry. This is one of the reasons the Society feel makes her of pre-eminent national and regional significance.

“SS Explorer’ is of great Scottish importance as well as being nationally significant because she was the last steam ship to be built in Aberdeen, by a very well known and historically significant shipbuilder, Alexander Hall & Co Ltd. We will address why this company are so significant to the UK’s maritime heritage in the next section. Explorer contains the last ever steam engine built in Aberdeen and is now the largest surviving example of its type in the country. ‘SS Explorer’ is also the very last steamship to have been registered to the historic port of Leith.

Spanning the Spectrum of UK Maritime History

In the early 1950’s, when ‘SS Explorer’ was built, she was manufactured to a design which had evolved from the early 1900’s with construction methods and propulsion to match. Her builders, Alexander Hall & Co Ltd. were renowned for their ship design and innovation from 1790 onwards. They developed in 1839 what has become known as the ‘Aberdeen’, or ‘Clipper’ bow, a graceful, forward curving hull form, far different to the contemporary style of the time. It was initially designed to lessen the taxation levied on a ship’s hull by reducing its depth, however the ‘Aberdeen Bow’ was found to bless the vessels so fitted with improved speed and seaworthiness.

This feature became hugely important for the Tea Clipper trade where speed brought profit by enabling fresh produce to be delivered more quickly to the marketplace. Thanks in part to her ‘Aberdeen Bow’ the clipper ‘Thermopylae’ broke multiple records on her voyages to Australia and once defeated the fabled ‘Cutty Sark’ in a race from Shanghai to London.

The hull form pioneered by Alexander Hall & Co became commonplace and continues to be used today. The ‘SS Explorer’ herself has a graceful, elegant sheer which can be traced straight back to those famous clippers, which in addition to the yard of her birth, gives her tangible links to the shipbuilding heritage of the UK and its worldwide influence.

As mentioned before, the ‘Explorer’ has survived two scrapping attempts and remains as the last steam sidewinder trawler in the UK. Many other similar ships were converted to standby vessels and have since been sold overseas or destroyed. Only two traditional side trawlers, the ‘Ross Tiger’ and ‘Arctic Corsair’, are in preservation – though these are smaller in size compared to ‘Explorer’ and are diesel engine driven. As such, ‘Explorer’ represents a vessel that was once the backbone of the UK fishing fleet, the farthest north of the remaining examples, and the only one with a triple-expansion steam engine.

‘Explorer’ is truly unique in that she is a steam ship, built on a much older design with early evolved 1900’s propulsion, but was still classed as having “space age” technology. Her auxiliaries were electric for instance – a feature we believe to be unique as most triple-expansion steamship auxiliaries were driven by the same steam that coursed through the engine. The electricity for the pumps etc. was supplied from diesel generators. Steering was electro hydraulic and navigation was state of the art for the period. The deck winches were steam, with smaller electric and hydraulics units fitted for smaller equipment.

In August 1969 Explorer had a 920C computer system installed aboard; this was used to collect data from sea temperature, ship speed, engine revs, net opening width, net depth and propeller thrust. Manual entry allowed for catch type, amount, date and location to also be added, for future reference. This computer took up an entire laboratory and had more components around the vessel. In September 1969 a BBC film crew were on board to make a film about the use of this computer.

In addition to a computer, the ship benefited from modern electronics, such as Radar, Direction Finder, Gyro Compass, Decca Navigator and intercom telephones. Again, what are not outdated and superseded are still in use today, in a more modern developed application. Crews of Explorer fondly remember how comfortable a ship she was. All cabins were well appointed with carpets, mahogany wardrobes, central heating, electric lighting and comfortable mess facilities. Again, now a common thing for ships to be comfortable, in her day, counterpart trawlers offered little in the way of crew comforts.

Explorer’s main engine (shown below) is a triple expansion steam engine, giving 1000ihp with 225psi steam supplied from a triple furnace, oil fired Scotch boiler.

ss explorer steam engine

Illustrating changes in construction and technology

The Explorer was built towards the end of the age of steam ships. Explorer remains as a good example of the transition from steam to diesel & diesel electric, having all such systems fitted.

Explorer was built of steel and was traditional in having the steel plates assembled using rivets. Her caulked timber decks are the same construction as has been common place on ships for centuries. Unusual for a ship of the time, or even now, the entire bridge deck superstructure was built of riveted aluminium in an attempt to reduce top weight and lower the ship’s centre of gravity.

Machinery aboard Explorer was also unique, with main propulsion being steam reciprocating and auxiliaries electric. Traditionally onboard a steam ship, the engine auxiliaries tend to be steam driven. These would  include the boiler feed pump, fuel pumps, air pumps, condenser pump, steering gear, generators and forced draught fans. Onboard Explorer, all of these are electrically driven, except for the generators which are diesel. Explorer is fitted with 3 original generators; two main generators producing 80kw at 220v dc and the auxiliary harbour generator producing 24kw at 220v dc. The generators are powered by air starting Ruston diesel engines, which were installed new in 1955. Two of these generators run, and the third generator (No.2 Main) is currently under refurbishment at the time of writing.

ss explorer steering gear

Explorer’s Main Generator No.2


ss explorer steering gear

A volunteer crew member of Explorer inspects the steering gear, which is in good working, original condition


Many of the auxiliaries are in place and are in good order. There are some items missing, which we believe were removed during scrapping attempts.

Following the era in which SS Explorer was built, many ships were diesel driven and the need for such auxiliaries vanished. It would be safe to suggest that the electric auxiliaries fitted to the ship would be considerably unique, given that older steam ships used steam auxiliaries and newer diesel ships did not require such.

The steering gear fitted to Explorer was more in keeping with the period into which she was entering. Traditionally, steam ship steering was controlled by a telemotor which controlled a steam engine which turned the rudder. Explorer was fitted with electro hydraulic steering, which remains intact. Many ships still use this steering method today.

Meriting a higher priority for long term conservation

Today, the 57 year old ship, SS Explorer remains as the UK’s very last steam sidewinder trawler, possibly the last British built one in the world. She is also the last steam ship to be registered in Leith, Edinburgh’s sea-port.

Explorer represents the end of an era and the beginning of another in terms of ship construction and machinery. She remains as a substantially complete time capsule to a bygone era.

Two attempts to scrap the ship have been unsuccessful; this is a very rare event for any ship, let alone one of Explorer’s vintage.

Explorer now offers a unique opportunity to become a community asset fulfilling a multitude of roles. We are currently in discussions to utilise the ship for community events, exhibitions and community workshops. The use of the ship for training and employability are also being explored and are at an advanced stage with, for example, the Port of Leith Housing Associations ‘Training Opportunities in Leith’ programme requesting to utilise the vessel for training purposes.

A well thought out proposal to have the ship moved and opened as a museum, where public will be able to explore the vessel and get an insight to life at sea and the fishing and research industries has also been submitted to the Scottish Parliament, Forth Ports and the City of Edinburgh Council. Overall, the Explorer ‘offer’ is an extremely inspiring one and one with limitless potential to add to the rich maritime heritage of Leith and Scotland. Put simply, Explorer is the ideal platform to engage the community in a variety of employability training courses (joinery, electrics, heritage skills, painting and decorating, restoration, cooking, etc), school visits (Curriculum for Excellence), historic projects and an array of other possibilities.

We justifiably feel very proud of what we have achieved so far on a very limited budget bearing in mind that the SS Explorer Preservation Society purchased the ship in a poor condition and she was missing many parts and artefacts. These were removed by crew leaving the ship, two scrapyards and indeed Aberdeen Maritime Museum, who removed several exhibitable items for show in the museum. Many portholes were removed by souvenir hunters, which allowed nesting birds free access of the ship’s interior. The bird’s droppings have enhanced rot throughout the timber decking and more worryingly, sped up corrosion of the boiler, where they also nested inside.

Explorer remains today almost entirely in original condition. There were a few safety modifications. These included removing of a midships cabin, so as to allow crew whose cabins were in the forward area of the ship, access their mess which was in the aft end of the ship. Until this cabin was removed and made into a companionway, crew had to brave the main deck what ever the weather, or go hungry. An ‘A’ frame was fitted to the mast in 1962 to increase the lifting capability of the mast and boom to accommodate newer and larger fishing gear. The enclosed bridge wings were removed in the early 1970’s to provide a better view from the wheelhouse. All of Explorer’s machinery and equipment is original as fitted in 1956 and some of our volunteers are also original! We have three ex crew members as members of the society.

Explorer’s overall condition today is a far sight from that of when the Society first purchased her and there remains a lot more to be done.

Explorer 1997

ss explorer 1997

Explorer 2011

ss explorer 2011

Superstructure 1999 (note aluminium top section)

ss explorer superstructure 1999


Superstructure 2012

ss explorer superstructure 2012

Life Onboard Explorer

The Explorer had very comfortable accommodation for a compliment of 38, including 8 scientists, and all the accommodation is heated with hot water from an oil fired central heating unit. Former crew members remember how comfortable she was, especially in the winter. The officer’s and scientist’s berths occupy some of the space which would be used as the fish-room in similar commercial side trawlers. There is a large galley and mess-room aft, a forward recreation room for the crew and a spacious saloon for officers and scientists amidships. The saloon has veneer panelled bulkheads, 1950’s light fitting and a fireplace.

The Explorer worked in all the traditional North-East Atlantic fishing grounds as well as steaming further afield to Greenland, to the Barents and White Seas of Russia, sometimes venturing into dangerous Arctic ice-fields. These voyages were mostly routine and uneventful, but several were not without some measure of excitement

In the early 70’s, on returning from a voyage in Icelandic waters, the Explorer encountered severe storm conditions. While heading into the storm, a large sea broke over the bow and a lump of green water struck the casing with such force that it stove in the bridge front, breaking all the windows and flooding the wheelhouse. The ship shuddered with such an impact, but thankfully, even with the weight of water on deck she rose in time to ride over the following wave. the crew in the wheelhouse at the time were wet and stunned, some had been swept off their feet, but all had the presence of mind to keep the Explorer’s head into the wind, further reduce speed, heave-to and assess the damage.

Explorers hull was strengthened during building to enable her to withstand the pressure of moving through ice, and she had a powerful engine. All of which stood her in good stead, when during manoeuvring, a large block of ice swept under the stern and came into contact with the propeller, bending one of the blades. Luckily the propeller was still able to turn, although the propeller made contact with the rudder stock on each revolution. With great trepidation, the Explorer was turned and a course set for home at low revs. She returned to port having clunked and clicked her way for many hundreds of miles and the crew having had several sleepless nights.

For the crew, there was always work to attend to. On deck the trawl gear was shot, towed and hauled, with repairs being made as necessary. Quieter moments were filled with cleaning, greasing and painting. The scientists were assisted and steering watches stood. Explorer was never fitted with an autopilot!

Down below the Engine Room Work Book gives us a glimpse of the continual work required to keep her in tip top condition and so ensure that she would be seaworthy and dependable for her main purpose of providing a moving laboratory. Entries show that it was an ongoing job with no let up, even for Christmas day festivities.

25/4/69. Arrive Leith 0800. Bunkered heavy fuel. Shifted to Edinburgh dock. Boiler blown down and doors knocked in.

11/7/69. Cascade filters changed. Hot and cold oil fuel filters changed. Pressure gauge on hot filter outlet to Menzies for re-calibration. Heating boiler watches. Steam pressure maintained.

18/8/69. Arrived Aberdeen 0300. checking water cooling pipes on aft generator f.w. & s.w. cooling pumps taken off and spare ones fitted. 24kw generator polarity reversed (Halls elect) For’d generator shut down midnight.

25/12/69. Heating boiler watch and maintaining boiler steam pressure. Two new carbon brushes fitted to heating boiler motor.

We also have all of Explorer’s Marine Lab Cruise Records, an example extract of which is below:

“Sailing was delayed till the 20/06/1977 due to shortages of engine room crew. ”Explorer” was forced to anchor off Clyth Ness whilst leaking condenser tubes were replaced. A short call at Lerwick was made on the 27/06/1977 for a crew member to see a doctor. Further leakages in the condenser tubes forced the ship to anchor in Inganess Bay on the 30/06/1977 for 24 hours.”

Meanwhile, two cooks baked bread and provided good, substantial meals for all hands, in all weathers! While the crew maintained the ship, the scientists attended to her real purpose through conducting the research programme for the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen.

The main thrust of the Marine Laboratory’s research programme is in support of the fisheries management responsibilities of the Scottish Office. For this reason, the Marine Laboratory has, for many years, monitored the main fish and shellfish stocks exploited by Scottish fishermen, and has studied the design of working both existing and novel fishing gears. The laboratory has also assessed changes, both natural and man-made, in the marine environment of the North East Atlantic in general, and of the seas off Scotland in particular. In turn, these environmental changes – sometimes, for example, showing up as changes in current patterns, sometimes as changes in pollution levels – are studied in terms of their impact on fish and shellfish stocks, and the mechanisms by which these effects take place investigated.

During her working life, Explorer was fully occupied in such activities, particularly in distant waters, proving herself a happy, safe and dependable vessel with excellent sea-keeping qualities. Further, from the beginning she was planned to be adaptable, and in particular attempt was made to provide her with sufficient electrical power to meet all the power requirements that might arise from development of new research techniques. Just such a development occurred when in 1969 Explorer became one of the first fisheries research vessels in the world to have a computer installed on board. Initially installed to further Explorer’s then extensive involvement in fishing gear studies, such systems eventually became of more general application, and have revolutionised the ability of sea-going scientists to collect and elaborate data sets.

ss explorer sailing

FRS Explorer’ entering service 1956

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