Ark Royal the final chapter


Colin Bishop describes the Ark’s departure from Portsmouth to a Turkish scrapyard

Monday 20th May 2013. A grey sky and a chilly wind seemed to be an appropriate backdrop to the departure of the Royal Navy’s former Flagship HMS Ark Royal to ignominious scrapping in Turkey. Prematurely decommissioned in 2011 as part of Defence cuts just after an expensive refit, the Ark has since languished in Portsmouth dockyard while her fittings and systems were stripped out for further service in other units of our sadly depleted Fleet.

My daughter Zara and I travelled down to watch the Ark’s final exit, not so long after her former sister Invincible’s similar final voyage which was covered by Zara in Model Boats two years ago.

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Anticipating that the usual vantage point of the Round Tower at the entrance to the harbour would be crowded (it was!), we took the ferry over to the Gosport side and positioned ourselves on the Haslar Marina wave barrier pier which gives a good view up harbour.

The harbour was scheduled to be closed for naval movements from 12:40 but the Gosport and Isle of Wight services still continued as normal. Ark Royal was tied up alongside the outer jetty where she used to regularly berth whilst in commission. Soon we could see a number of tugs gathering around the Ark but before the main event, the sail training ship Royalist entered from seaward and behind the Ark we could see a Daring class destroyer outbound which turned out to be HMS Diamond.  This was the first time I had seen a Daring under way and her great size compared with her predecessors was very evident.

Then it was the turn of the Ark. The harbour tugs eased her away from the quayside and turned her to face down harbour while the Ocean going towage tug Christos XXIII took up station ahead. Broadside across the harbour, the Ark made an impressive sight even at almost a mile away. The slowly she headed down harbour with her coterie of tugs, dwarfing everything as she passed.

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On reaching the harbour mouth, all the vessels in the harbour sounded their sirens in a melancholy farewell with hundreds of people lining both sides of the harbour shore. Definitely a bit of a choke up moment. Within a few minutes she was through the entrance  and lost to view on the Gosport side although we did see her again from the Gosport ferry while returning to Portsmouth.

In 1960, while making sandcastles on an Isle of Wight beach as a boy, I watched Britain’s last battleship HMS Vanguard being towed away to the scrapyard. 53 years later I have seen our last true aircraft carrier follow suit. Scrapping the Vanguard marked the end of the British battleship era but hopefully the Royal Navy’s new carriers now building will eventually prove to be worthy successors of the Ark.

Nevertheless, those watching obviously felt that it was sad end for a fine ship.

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