29

I’ve found two examples (HMS Rupert at 103 years and HMS Warspite at 105 years, both launched in 1666) but I’m not sure if these should qualify as they were rebuilt, and the Wikipedia entry on HMS Rupert says that

on 16 August 1736 she was ordered to be taken to pieces and rebuilt at Sheerness Dockyard, although by this date the practice of rebuilding had become a legal fiction, and 'rebuilt' ships were in practice new vessels incorporating a small portion of their predecessor's timber into the construction.

There is also the USS Constitution, still afloat and built in 1797 but declared unfit for service in 1881, and HMS Cornwallis, built in 1812 and broken up in 1957 (144 years, but 'only' 52 years active service).

It seems that teak is a particularly durable wood, which is one reason why the British had a number of ships built in India:

there are several instances of vessels built of this timber, the frames of which are sound, after a service of one hundred years. (my highlighting)

Unfortunately, there are no examples of these 100-year ships cited which I have been able to verify. Note that by 'active service' I am excluding ships used as base ships, museums / tourist attractions and other functions where they were immobile (but conversion from combat to cargo would be fine).

I'm particularly interested in non-US and non-British ships, and the longest-serving ships from the medieval period even if they fall someway short of the 100-year mark. Best find so far for the medieval period is La Pinta possibly built in 1441 and rebuilt (to an unknown extent) by Columbus before the 1492 voyage (probably not long before). It's fate is unknown after 1493.

  • 16
    Very difficult to prove since, as your example notes, it was not at all unusual for wooden ships to be constantly repaired and sometimes completely rebuilt. So you end up with a "ship of theseus" situation. Also, you may need to define what is considered to be 'active service' since this measure will vary between navies. – Steve Bird Oct 6 '17 at 6:33
  • 1
    It seems unlikely. Shipbuilding and naval warfare evolved rapidly enough from the Age of Discovery onward that it's unlikely any ship was would be suitable for service a century later in recent centuries. (You've already found notable exceptions.) Before that, shipworms were big enough of a problem that you can probably rule out long lived ships as well. – Denis de Bernardy Oct 6 '17 at 6:43
  • 1
    Also are we talking about continuous active service being over 100 years or just the sum of the periods of active sevice? – Steve Bird Oct 6 '17 at 8:13
  • 1
    Reminds me of Trig and his broom google.co.uk/… – Strawberry Oct 6 '17 at 14:29
  • 1
    Might look into the ceremonial barges used by London guilds... – DJohnM Oct 8 '17 at 1:48
12

Addressing the broader question of how long wooden ships could stay in active service is a tricky one because of the nature of the beast.

Until the nineteenth century, all ships were built with bio-degradable material - wood - and rigged with rope made from hemp, and canvas made from flax. In the nature of things therefore, any vessel, no matter the care taken in her building, began to deteriorate from the moment she was launched. The decline was accelerated by wind and waves and by the seepage of rainwater into the timber, a process aided by the thousands of joints in her structure each of which moved slightly with the motion of the ship. There was yet a futher hazard. English oak was the prime shipbuilding timber because of its solid durability, but it was susceptible to the gribble and the ship-worm. The gribble is the common name for Limnoria, a small crustacean of about 1/8in in length. Although its burrows are not deep they can so weaken the surface of the timber that it becomes easily eroded. The ship-worm, the Teredo Navalis, on the other hand, is 3-4in long and perhaps 3/10in in diameter. Widespread infestation by the Teredo can be a direct threat to the strength of planking and even timbers. And in tropical waters both creatures can be very much larger.

HMS Victory, Her Construction, Career and Restoration, A.McGowan (Chatham, 1999)

Composed of thousands of relatively small, weak pieces of wood, held together with wooden pins and metal fastenings, the wooden warship was a fragile structure. From the day they launched, when the hull always broke its sheer, the fixings began to weaken. Sustained hard service would worsen the condition of the hull, and if the material began to decay, loosening the the grip of the fastenings on the timbers, the whole structure would degrade. Eventually the ship would be incapable of carrying its guns, or in the worst cases simply remaining afloat, In the seventeenth century larger ships would be taken to pieces, and as much material as possible salvaged for re-use in a new ship, frequently under the same name.

(Series Preface) British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714, Andrew Lambert (Seaforth, 2009)

The tradition of having ships inherit names from earlier vessels (which, as noted above, might also donate materials in varying degrees) can make it difficult to establish the true service life of a particular ship. This can be further confused when ships change names and/or owners (captured warships were often repaired and put into service with their new owners and in some cases these were recaptured or captured by a third party). Therefore, we really only have accurate records from the start of the Age of Sail when the European sevices became standing navies and acquired the corresponding bureaucracies. Even with this improved record keeping, it can be difficult to determine exactly which ship is being referred to.

Wooden warships were expensive to run. They required much larger crews than merchant ships of the same size and keeping a ship at sea in all weathers generated a lot of on-going maintenance. As a consequence, it was normal practice to mothball the bulk of a navy's warships in times of peace. This meant they were kept in a sheltered anchorage or harbor and typically had the masts & rigging removed (and often the guns as well) to reduce the strain on the ship's hull. This reduced peacetime costs and had the additional effect of increasing the ship's potential service life by reducing wear & tear.

Looking at how a famous vessel (mentioned in another answer), HMS Victory, has survived for 250 years, it's mainly because she wasn't at sea for most of her life - along with a spot of good fortune and national sentiment. The Victory was launched in 1765 but remained 'in ordinary' (i.e. mothballed as a reserve) before being fitted out and commissioned for active service in 1778. After 4 years of service in the Channel, she was paid off and had a 'middling repair', which took six months. She then spent 4 years in reserve but still required a 'large repair' before being commissioned again in 1789. She was in Channel service until 1792 when she transferred to the Meditterranean where she remained until 1797 (with the exception of 3 months being repaired at Portsmouth in 1795) including taking part in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.

In October 1797, she returned to Portsmouth where she was surveyed and found defective. She was therefore paid off and refitted as a hospital ship (and the ship's name was struck from the Navy List). That could have been the end of the story for this HMS Victory. However, the loss of a newer First Rate, Queen Charlotte, to a fire meant that the Navy required a replacement. Rather than building a new vessel from scratch, they chose to rebuild the Victory. This was a major reconstruction that took three years (and cost more than her original construction). When the reconstruction was complete, she was recommissioned and served as Nelson's flagship in the Mediterranean from 1803 to 1805. She was heavily damaged at Trafalgar and had temporary repairs at Gibraltar before returning to Chatham to be paid off in 1806. She then remained in ordinary until 1808 when she refitted as a 2nd Rate (which reduced the number and type of guns she carried). She was put back into service in December 1808 before being finally retired from active (sea) service in November 1812 (including a period as a troop ship). She then remained in ordinary until 1823, including another major reconstruction between 1814 and 1816 (this again cost more than her original construction and incorporated the construction of a new round bow).

From 1823 until 1922, she had various harbour roles which included being a guard ship, a Port Admiral's flagship and a tender to HMS Duke of Wellington as well as periods in ordinary. In 1922 she was dry-docked where she's remained ever since. However, being in dry dock has not meant an end to the reconstruction and repairs. The desire to re-create the 1805 version of ship meant that the round bow (introduced in 1816) had to be replaced with one in the original beakhead style and many of the later fittings had to be replaced with period replicas. From 1955, when a large scale repair was started, the ship has been in an almost continuous process of repairs.

Any water leads to rot in timber as it finds its way into the thousands of joints in the ship's structure, and those timbers that are completely or partially enclosed suffer most. The salt in sea-water is only mildly inhibiting, but the used of fresh water positively encourages rot and the regular washing-down of the decks carried on for years is thought to have been one of the reasons why so mauch of the repairs of the 1920s had to be reworked later. If the principle cause of the damage was caused by damp-induced rot, it was run close by decay caused by the death-watch beetle which had no doubt been present in the ship long before her docking in 1922.

HMS Victory, Her Construction, Career and Restoration, A.McGowan (Chatham, 1999)

And from the same source, an example of the scale of this work

The extent of the decay in the hold may be realised in that from bow to stern there are one hundred and forty-five timbers or frames on each side below the waterline. Of these, one hundred and one to port and one hundred and four to starboard had to be renewed or repaired...

So looking at the Victory's history it can be seen that she was only in active service for 18 years of her long life. An insignificant amount compared to the time she spent in harbor service, in the reserve and in dry-dock. Given the amount of repairs and reconstruction work throughout its life, its hard to determine if the vessel now sitting in No2 Dock in Portsmouth is truely the same ship that was launched in 1765.

As for the lifespan of wooden warships in general:

Without a detailed analysis of ship longevity, taking into account the frequency of repair and reconstruction work, the extent of active sea time, war service and other variables, it is impossible to determine the average life of a wooden warship. However, it is clear that larger ships, built with more attention to timber quality and seasoning, recieving higher levels of maintenance, serving in less demanding waters, did last longer. After the industrial revolution [naval architect] Seppings's attention to detail transformed the art of wooden shipbuilding, with remarkable results. Ships built using his methods lasted far longer than their precursors, without major rebuilds.

(Series Preface) British Warships in the Age of Sail 1603-1714, Andrew Lambert (Seaforth, 2009)

So ships that had could be genuinely be claimed to have continous active service running into decades are more likely to be larger vessels built in the nineteenth century.

  • Very useful background information. I was hoping someone would come up with something on medieval ships but, given the lack of records, I guess that is unlikely. – Lars Bosteen Oct 8 '17 at 13:31
  • Answer accepted as it gives a good general picture and is a useful starting point for further research. – Lars Bosteen Oct 12 '17 at 0:39
18

HMS Victory was laid down in 1759, launched in 1765, converted to a troopship in about 1811, decommissioned militarily in 1824 into a harbour ship, and converted into a floating museum in 1924. Her hull is essentially unchanged since her reconstruction in 1796, though additional repairs were done in the 20th century.

Victory's longevity is thought possibly due to the extended delay in her construction, effectively providing additional seasoning to her hull timbers.

Update: Note that the restoration of the 1920's was primarily to restore the appearance that she had as Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar. This would have entailed substantial internal rework, but less so to the hull. If the hull had been substantially rebuilt at that time, it would likely NOT be in as bad shape as it currently is.

Likewise note that the stern of a three-master is NOT a true structural element of the hull. It is predominantly functional and decorative, designed to let light into the middle and lower decks during battle. That is why stern rakes were so devastating in battle.

  • 1
    I guess that would make her one of the oldest wooden ships to play a leading role in a major battle (Trafalgar 1805). – Lars Bosteen Oct 6 '17 at 10:53
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    I think that "Her hull is essentially unchanged since her reconstruction in 1796" is misleading. The rebuild, which included a completely new stern, was started in 1801 and completed in 1803. She was heavily repaired after Trafalgar and had another "large repair" following her sevice in the Baltic. So by the end of her active military service there can't have been many original planks left in her hull. – Steve Bird Oct 6 '17 at 10:55
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    @SteveBird Ship of Theseus comes to mind :) – user11153 Oct 6 '17 at 15:21
  • @user11153 That might actually be the longest serving ship, depending on how you resolve the paradox, and if it actually existed. – Ross Ridge Oct 6 '17 at 15:50
  • The victory is not a "floating museum", it's a permanently drydocked museum. – Peter Green Oct 7 '17 at 0:52
7

Consider the USS Constellation. It was laid down in 1853, launched in 1854, commissioned in 1855, and finally decommissioned in 1955. It was active in the US Civil War and served as an admiral's reserve flagship in World War II. It was decommissioned for some years in that span and used as a stationary training ship in other years, though.

Reportedly the 1854 Constellation contains some timbers from a 1797 frigate of the same name. For a time it was thought to be the same ship repaired, but by the late 1900s they were concluded to be distinct ships.

Constellation is currently intact and a floating museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

  • When I was a kid (in Baltimore, early 90's), they were still teaching that the Constellation was a sister ship of the 1797 Constitution mentioned in the OP. Still 1855-1955 is only 100 years. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 6 '17 at 13:25
  • Interesting case, as are the photos on the Wikipedia page. – Lars Bosteen Oct 6 '17 at 13:31
6

There are a lot of "skerry cruisers" that are around 100 years old that are in good condition and can be expected to survive many years to come.

Your examples were limited to military and merchant vessels but there should be a lot of yachts built in the late 19th century that are still sailing, e.g., the yachts built for America's cup.

5

If you include cargo ships, as opposed to naval ships, you might include the SV Nordlys, built in 1873, and carrying commercial cargo today.

4

There are quite a few, I have created a list of long surviving ships, although ignoring the active service part of the question and possibly rebuilds in some cases.

British Victory 1765 - present

Swedish Bryntan 1527 - 1743 Renamed to Gamle Holken in 1534

Danish pilot boat Kieringvigen 1608 - 1814

Swedish Lejoninnan 1608 - 1811

British frigate Trincomalee 1817 to present

Swedish Finske Svanen 1559 - 1753

British frigate Unicorn 1824 to present

British Cornwallis 1813 - 1957

French Le Duguay Trouin 1800 - 1949 Captured 1805, British name Implacable, renamed Foudroyant in 1943 (Still in use as a training ship in 1912)

Danish Sanct Anna 1608 - 1745

Swedish galley Banér 1736 - 1861

British Wellesley 1815 - 1940 renamed Cornwall in 1868, sunk in an air raid, probably the only ship of the line to be sunk by aircraft.

British Eagle 1814 - 1926 renamed Eaglet in 1918

Danish galley Flekkerøe 1677 - 1768

British Chatham 1694 - 1813 (this vessel was definitely in service for the whole period, but is a Sheer Hulk, not a warship)

Portugese Temível Portuguesa 1778 - 1892, renamed Afonso Albuquerque in 1828, Fénix Constitucional in 1836 and finally to Damão in 1844

British Nile 1839 - 1953

British hoy Old Truelove 1720 - 1830

British yacht Bolton 1709 - 1817

British Ganges 1821 - 1929

Swedish yacht Amphion 1779 - 1885

This is extracted from https://threedecks.org

3

There are hundreds, depending on how fussy you want to get on the provinence.

Lewis R French has impeccable credentials.

Boadicea is over 200 years old.

  • Interesting cases. I'm trying to figure out the reasons for the seemingly greater longevity of these smaller vessels compared to larger ones (other than the fact that warships are obviously exposed to greater hazards). – Lars Bosteen Oct 8 '17 at 13:37
1

I can only partially answer your question. The British used teak wood for want of better. Teak wood is far more durable than oak, but it splinters much more easily, and those splinter wounds fester more often.

Why did they resort to teak wood? Most of their timber came from Scandinavia/Eastern Europe which was blocked by Napoleons continental system. Or from America, with which they were at war in 1812.

  • 2
    it's not clear why did they resort to teak wood from your answer. Did you mean, that Eastern Europe and America could provide only teak wood, or teak wood was present elsewhere and Britain was forced to use it, because it was being blocked from wood of America and E. Europe? – user907860 Oct 6 '17 at 10:26
  • @user907860: As mentioned in the question, teak came from India, which was more accessible than countries with which we were at war. (I don't necessarily agree with the point, but it isn't unclear). – TimLymington Oct 6 '17 at 11:56
0

The USS Constitution, Laid down 1 November 1794, Launched 21 October 1797, still a commissioned ship of the US Navy that sails under her own power.

  • 1
    The first example that came to my mind as well, but I think that 'active service' is the key, and might be disputed. The WIkipedia article you links says "Constitution was retired from active service in 1881 [...]" which squeak in above the wire, so I think you should include that in the answer. – dmckee Oct 6 '17 at 19:26
  • see other answer history.stackexchange.com/a/40783/2510 – Mark Oct 7 '17 at 14:20

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