Shiver your timbers

7th February 2003 at 00:00
There's so much to see on Scott's famous Antarctic research vessel that you may be gone for some time, Jane-Ann Purdy writes

Visibility is down to just a few metres so I am denied the spectacular views across the Tay, but the sight of the RRS Discovery locked in its purpose-built quay shrouded in mist seems entirely appropriate.

Temperatures outside are sub-zero and there's a hard frost. It is hardly the Antarctic, but in Dundee in December, it feels like it.

First port of call, however, is Discovery Point, the adjacent museum which tells the story of the famous Royal Research Ship (RRS), its links with Dundee and the Antarctic, and issues relating to a variety of school projects. Groups of up to 90 pupils can be accommodated, split into three smaller contingents visiting the museum, education room and ship respectively.

The museum uses a mix of media to convey the ship's story, beginning with an audio-visual presentation announcing the major players in the commissioning of the Discovery.

It is the late 19th century and the Royal Geographical Society is looking for a yard to build a ship that could withstand the possibility of being icebound for an unforgiving Antarctic winter. With a long history of providing whaling vessels for Arctic seas, the Dundee Shipbuilders' Company was one of the few that had the reputation and the skills to build strong, wooden-hulled ships. It was, therefore, with great civic pride that the Discovery slid from the stocks into the River Tay in 1901, one of the last wooden three-masted ships to be built in the United Kingdom, and the first to be constructed specifically for scientific research.

Visitors are also introduced to Captain Robert Falcon Scott who led the British National Antarctic Expedition aboard Discovery and subsequently died attempting to reach the South Pole. Scott has become famous for that later heroic failure, but the Discovery expedition was scientifically groundbreaking. It resulted in notable geographical, geological, and biological findings that still inform scientists today.

In other areas of the museum, pupils are introduced to the practical considerations of the voyage, which took the ship's crew and scientists away from home for more than two years. Exhibits show the supplies they would have needed to take with them and how they entertained themselves.

It's worth noting here that some of the hands-on displays where children can operate a replica crane and fish for food through a hole in the ice were designed by Discovery Point's Junior Board of 12 local children who meet monthly to discuss what they would like to see in the museum.

The building of the ship and other 19th century technology are highlighted.

Cut-away models of the ship's construction answer any questions of how a wooden vessel could withstand the pressure of being encased in polar ice for two years, as the museum's film presentation, Locked In The Ice, shows.

Pupils can also take part in workshops in the education room overlooking the ship, dressing up in the clothes worn by early 20th century polar explorers. The wool jumpers and longjohns were topped by cotton overgarments, oiled against the wind.

Scott and his colleagues would have faced the discomfort of sweating in their non-breathable apparel and living with consequences of that sweat turning to ice in the unimaginable low temperatures of the Antarctic.

Other workshops can be tailored to meet the curriculum though seamanship, weather, wildlife and whaling are popular topics.

The trip ends with a tour of the ship. It is not compulsory to visit Discovery in winter, but shivering as you climb aboard the vessel's ancient timbers really adds to the experience. What must it have been like for those men tossed across her decks in the icy seas of the South Atlantic as the ship rolled 45 degrees and more?

Below decks it is possible to see just how much room three years' worth of food takes up. It is everywhere, packed to the gunwales,and rivalled only by the great blocks of coal. Six tons of coal a day were required to run the ship's engine which, not surprisingly, was used only for powering Discovery out of ice, into port and in a bad storm.

The mess deck is another fascinating area. Thirty men ate, slept and relaxed in this room, which would have been furnished with hammocks at the time of the exploration in 1901. By contrast the ward-room, where the officers and scientists spent their time, is comparatively luxurious.

There is so much to see and discuss here: social history of the early 20th century, exploration, the Antarctic, extreme climate, scientific discovery and more.

* Schools should allow three hours especially if they are going to include a workshop.For pre-booked groups, it costs pound;3 per pupil. A minimum of one adult (admitted free) per 10 children is required. Tel: 01382 201245; education@dundeeheritage.sol.co.uk; www.rrsdiscovery.com

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