History of the SS Explorer

Built to the order of the Scottish Home Department, the story of ‘Explorer’ began when she was launched on the 21st June 1955 by Lady Rachel Stuart, wife of the then Secretary of State for Scotland. The ‘FRS Explorer’ was one of the last vessels to be completed by the famous Aberdeen shipbuilding firm of Alexander Hall & Co. before it was bought by Hall, Russell & Co.

Incidentally, alongside ‘Explorer’ on Hall Russell’s slips, a vessel called the ‘Sir William Hardy’ was constructed and launched several months before. In contrast to the traditional steam engine of ‘Explorer’, she was the first diesel-electric trawler to be built in the UK and would go on to international fame as Greenpeace’s ‘Rainbow Warrior’ – but not before ‘Explorer’ rescued her during cruise in 1969 by towing her to Scalloway after her propeller was fouled!

Explorer’s hull form was based on a deep-sea Greenland side-trawler, which was strengthened for service in hostile, icy northern waters. It contained a mixture of traditional and modern technologies for the time, though unusually her main propulsion was provided by a triple-expansion steam engine and an oil-fired, three furnace ‘Scotch’ boiler. All auxiliary systems, in a departure from standard methods, were electrical. These were powered by onboard diesel generators. Given her primary role as a research vessel ‘FRS Explorer’ contained one of the first onboard analogue computers for a ship of her type and 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 Aberdeen. She was known as a comfortable, capable vessel and continued to serve for 28 years. She greatly advanced the development of fishing technology, whilst carrying out important hydrographic and hydrobiological survey work to further our understanding of the marine environment and its dynamics.

FRS Explorer’ was withdrawn from service in 1984 due to high running costs and her design limitations. Equipment and machinery were becoming dated, obsolete and uneconomic. It was too expensive to refit her so she was sold south to JA White Ltd. of Inverkeithing for demolition.

While there, the Aberdeen Maritime Museum visited ‘Explorer’ with the intention of purchasing the triple-expansion steam engine. It is the very last built in the Granite City and they wanted it for exhibition in their newly opened maritime museum. They were so impressed with the whole ship though that she was purchased largely complete from the breakers and returned to the North East.

The now re-designated‘SS Explorer’ was taken back to Aberdeen, where she was drydocked in 1989. General maintenance work was carried out, her hull openings were plated over to prevent any ingress of water from valve failure, and a large number of anodes were fitted to reduce corrosion. The vessel was then taken from there to a mooring in the Cromarty Firth, to be laid-up at anchor while a berth could be established. She was to remain abandoned at this mooring for an incredible 10 years though while various proposals for her future use were put forward and rejected, or simply never got off the ground. During that time she was vandalised. Many components were stolen and her interior spaces were opened up to nesting seabirds. The weather took its toll and ‘Explorer’ looked very sad indeed. In 1994 the Aberdeen Maritime Museum decided that the project was no longer viable, so they reluctantly sold the ‘SS Explorer’ to Isleburn Ltd. of Invergordon for scrap. Parts of ‘Explorer’, such as her Bell and a highly detailed model, remain in the Aberdeen Maritime Museum though.

A new hope...

Many former crew, local people and enthusiasts were aware that this important ship was teetering on the edge of existence, so decided that action was required. A society was formed, which was incorporated as a company limited by guarantee and also registered as a charity. The ‘SS Explorer Preservation Society’ managed to raise enough awareness and funds through the general public to allow them to purchase the vessel on the morning dismantling had commenced at Invergordon. She was then towed back to her mooring in the Cromarty Firth while new plans were made for her preservation.

During 1995 our members began sailing out to ‘Explorer’ to undertake maintenance, gradually clean her up, and make good the damage caused by neglect. Enough progress was made to allow overnight stays aboard using some refurbished cabins. However, an open water mooring is not the best location for a restoration project so the Society once again tried to secure a berth in Aberdeen. This was to prove unsuccessful once more as there was not, and currently still is not, any available space.

Their offshore work continued despite the setback during daylight hours and fair weather.

Things were progressing well, but one dark and still night ‘Explorer’s’ rejuvenation suffered a further setback when she was badly damaged by an offshore supply vessel, the ‘Boa Eskil’, which ran into her port quarter. The ship's aluminium motor lifeboat was destroyed, sections of her thick bulwarks were stove in, and some of the 3” thick wooden decking was smashed. Thanks to her exceedingly strong, riveted steel construction though, she did not take on any water. The scars remain to this day, though we believe the other ship came off a bit worse for wear!


This collision proved to be a massive turning point for ‘SS Explorer’ though. As plans to locate the ship in Aberdeen were fruitless, it was decided to use the insurance claim payout from the collision to provide funding for the Society to relocate the ship to Leith, her port of registry, where a berth had been secured and the restoration project could go full steam ahead.

 More positive news came when ‘SS Explorer’ was added to the register of National Historic Ships in 1996 giving her the maritime equivalent of a listed building status and putting her on the same level of national importance as famous ships such as her forerunner the ‘RRS Discovery’, the legendary ‘HMS Belfast’, the Royal Yacht ‘Britannia’, and the fabulous example of live steam preservation in action, the ‘SS Shieldhall’. This recognition justified the hard work that the team were putting in.

Wording credited to R. Murphy