ONE of the world’s oldest warships dramatically dropped to the harbour floor when water leaked out of its berth in a dock at Dundee’s waterfront, it has been revealed.
Twenty people on board HMS Unicorn were evacuated when the historic vessel began drop to the bottom of the Victoria Dock on Wednesday night following problems with the dock’s sea gate.
The 80 year-old North Carr lightship, which was berthed alongside, also dropped to the bottom of dock when the Camperdown Dock sea gate could not be fully closed and water escaped into the River Tay. Both historic vessels dropped an estimated eight feet onto the muddy floor of the dock and were undamaged.
Members of a Scottish country dance class who were on board the Unicorn were evacuated as a precautionary measure.
A spokesman for the Forth Ports said: “We can confirm there was a temporary operational issue with the lock gate into Camperdown Dock at the port of Dundee on Wednesday evening, which meant that the gate was unable to fully close for a short period.
“This resulted in the water level within the docks falling below the normal maintained depth. The issue was resolved by the port’s engineering team shortly after low tide which was at 9.45pm. As a safety precaution, guests who were on board the HMS Unicorn in the adjacent Victoria Dock were advised to disembark the vessel.”
The Royal Navy frigate, launched at Chatham in 1824, is currently languishing “in exile” in the city’s Victoria Dock. She is the world’s last intact warship, from the days of sail, still afloat anywhere on the globe.
The Unicorn Preservation Society, formed in 1968 to save it from being scrapped, is campaigning to secure a prime site for the ship as part of a triangle of top attractions at the waterfront, along with the new outpost to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the RRS Discovery, the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in Britain.
Lieutenant Commander Roderick Stewart, chairman of the Unicorn Preservation Society, said the Unicorn appeared to be undamaged, despite the emergency.
He said: “What was encouraging is that the ship sat on her keel on the dock bottom which is quite an impressive thing for a ship that is 190 years old to be able to do.”
Lt Cdr Stewart said he had been on board the vessel when they were warned by the ports control that there was a problem with the dock gate and that the water inside was going to drop.
He said: “We immediately realised that we had spring tides which meant that the drop was likely to be quite substantial. In the event the drop wasn’t as bad as it might have been which was a relief.”
The evacuation of the dancers on board, he said, had been carried out in a “fairly calm manner.” Lt Cdr Stewart explained “We removed appropriate guard rails and we slackened off the moorings and things so that everything could happen in an easy and controlled manner.
“The members of the Scottish dancing group were a bit surprised to be asked to leave. There was lot of joking about ‘abandoning ship’ and ‘women and children first’ but it all went very smoothly. They couldn’t leave by the same gangway that they came but they went out on the emergency gangway which is designed for that purpose.”
The water inside the dock had dropped about eight feet within about 15 minutes.
Said Lt Cdr Stewart: “It happened surprisingly quickly once the tide started to run out. We evacuated the ship at 8.30pm, and at 8.45 pm she touched the bottom . We could tell that the ship had bottomed because the water started to drop away from the ship’s side. But, although it was dark, it was an absolutely flat calm night and there was no movement of the ship to complicate anything. She touched the bottom very gently and from that point of view we were very lucky. What pleasantly surprised me is that there was no creaking or groaning inside the ship as she took the extra weight which, given her age, is quite remarkable. We think she sank into a couple of feet of mud.”
The Unicorn, he said, was now floating normally in the dock.