RRS Sir David Attenborough departs Cammell Laird

Almost called Boaty McBoatface, the £200m, 15,000-tonne RRS Sir David Attenborough polar research vessel is to leave the Mersey for two weeks of sea trials. Tony McDonough reports 

RRS Sir David Attenborough
Polar research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough at Cammell Laird. Picture by Richard Turner


Polar research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough has departed the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead as it undergoes two weeks of sea trials.

Work on the £200m vessel got under way at the Birkenhead shipyard on the River Mersey with the laying of the keel in October 2016. It will sail across the Mersey to Liverpool cruise terminal at high tide for crew familiarisation before heading out to sea.

The four-year build of the 15,000-tonne ship has involved more than 1,300 people, including 70 apprentices, as well as many hundreds of specialist subcontractors and suppliers.

In 2016, a #NameOurShip ballot saw the public overwhelmingly choose Boaty McBoatface as the name for the ship. However it was decide to name the vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough after the legendary naturalist and broadcaster. Boaty McBoatface lives on with one of the autonomous subs attached to the ship bearing the name.

Once sea trials are completed, Cammell Laird will formally hand over the ship to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) it will transform UK research in the polar regions. Its missions are critical for understanding and making sense of our changing climate.

During sea trials shipyard engineers and BAS mariners will put the ship through its paces, performing operational checks on the propulsion, steering, engineering and navigation systems.

When technical tests are complete, the BAS ship crew will take over and spend 50 days intensive training at Holyhead Port before embarking on operational and scientific equipment trials around the Irish Sea.

The team will test anchoring, manoeuvring, dynamic positioning, and helideck landing.  Early next year the ship will undertake ice trials in the Arctic, and in November 2021 make its maiden voyage to Antarctica.

Today’s departure is a major milestone for Cammell Laird. The hull was briefly launched into the Mersey in July 2018 and, in September 2019, a Royal ceremonial naming took place at the shipyard attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough himself.

RRS Sir David Attenborough
RRS Sir David Attenborough will embark on two weeks of sea trials. Picture by Richard Turner
Cammell Laird
Sir David Attenborough with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Cammell Laird in 2019. Picture by Tony McDonough


Cammell Chief executive, David McGinley, said “In conjunction with NERC and BAS, Cammell Laird has demonstrated that the UK is at the forefront of the global shipbuilding industry and we stand ready to deliver future shipbuilding projects here on the River Mersey.

“This vessel is a true celebration of British expertise – from the team who built it right through to the scientific community that will call this ship home. RRS Sir David Attenborough is the single biggest and most ambitious build in the history of Cammell Laird and it’s an incredibly proud moment to see her embark on sea trials.”

RSS Sir David Attenborough will offer greater geographic coverage and UK presence in the Antarctic. It will have an endurance of up to 60 days unsupported at sea, enabling it to undertake longer voyages to open up new, remote locations for science.

It will also reinforce the continuing British presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic.  In addition to her research role, the RRS Sir David Attenborough will be a visible symbol of continuing British presence in British Antarctic Territory and the South Atlantic, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Professor Dame Jane Francis, director of British Antarctic Survey, says: “This magnificent ship will take UK scientists deep into the heart of the ice-covered polar seas. With state-of-the-art technology they will investigate the dramatic changes in the polar oceans.

“This exciting moment marks a major milestone in the construction as so many people have worked tirelessly over the last four years to bring our new ship to fruition. As we seek to find answers to the current climate crisis, this ship will take us to the ends of the Earth to seek answers and to help us understand our future world.”

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