Guest blog: Ship Ahoy!

21 October, 2020 RRS Sir David Attenborough

Nigel Bird is Director of Major Programmes & SRO Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme at UK Research and Innovation.  For the last seven years, he has led the commission of the new polar research ship for Britain the RRS Sir David Attenborough.  In this guest blog Nigel thanks the many people who made the vision a reality, and reflects on the highs and lows of an incredible project.

Ship Ahoy!

The handover of the RRS Sir David Attenborough from Cammell Laird to the Natural Environment Research Council marks the end of the beginning. In November, seven years on from when the design and construction process began, we will have the opportunity to test the ship against the technical specification and our collective vision for what a new polar research ship for Britain could be. I want every person who has contributed to the RRS Sir David Attenborough to know how proud UKRI-NERC and the Programme Board are of their contribution. Thank you.

Thank you to the ten or so people who helped navigate the New Polar Research Vessel project since the early business case years. Seven years is a long time and I am grateful for your dedication and good humour.

Thank you to the hundred or so colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey and UK-wide research community who contribute their time and skills to the ship’s first in class specification, design, procurement and delivery. We are grateful for your vision of what a frontier research ship could be.

Thank you to the thousand or so employees of Cammell Laird who crafted the ideas from paper into the Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough. We are grateful for your blood, sweat and tears.

Thank you to the tens of thousands of people in our Birkenhead and worldwide supply chain. Each bringing their own excellence and expertise to the ship. We are grateful for your willingness to work in partnership.

Thank you to the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of you that joined our naming competition, the Polar Explorer Programme, read our blogs and liked our posts. We have shared our progress so far, and are very much looking forward to communicating the impacts of our research with you. We are grateful for your enthusiasm.

Highs and Lows

The high points have been stellar: who could forget Boaty McBoatface?

There have been landmark events such as the Royal Naming Ceremony, where thousands of people got to see the ship and share in the excitement created by Sir David Attenborough and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. A close second and my best-day-at-work-ever was when the ship was launched into the River Mersey on a brilliant sunny day, with a huge crowd including my own family, lining the Liverpool side of the river.

Men in front of a sign posing for the camera
Engineering is Great. Nigel Bird celebrates with Andy Jeffries

Great people have delivered the ship project and their enthusiasm pulled me along. We have learned together: I never imagined that over 750 kilometres of electrical cable would fit into the ship! Big projects need thousands of people working in large teams for sustained periods of time. To the unsung heroes: the document controllers, commercial experts, finance staff and the butty-van – well done. It is difficult work. No one has ever built a ship like RRS Sir David Attenborough before. But that was point: to move the dial and build a capability like never before.  I am exhausted and excited in equal measure

On a personal note: it is the good humour that makes my job worthwhile. Alongside the public landmarks it is the tiny personal moments that make me smile: the shipyard Managing Director buying everyone fish and chips after one difficult meeting that stretched past midnight; the sign outside the office of one supplier “Attention snake in grass”; the joke that ran dry when Liverpool finally did win the premier league; and the sheer scale of the ship’s engineering. To see something grow from the first tiny piece is an awesome privilege and a reminder that every part and person’s contribution essential.

A man standing in front of a building


The real work begins

The Sir David Attenborough is an iconic piece of research infrastructure but is only part of the UK’s polar marine success story. Again, it is the people that make the UK’s capability world leading. Research really is GREAT Britain. Alongside the shipbuilding we have been developing our crew, logistics and technical support. We are proud to have been part of the Year of Engineering and it falls to our crew, our technicians, our operations staff and our scientists to make RRS Sir David Attenborough the best research vessel it can be. Staff have completed training in the thousands of pieces of new equipment on the ship. Our technicians and logicians have developed new operating systems for our research data collection and thought carefully how our new ship and logistics chain can enhance our new marine infrastructure at Rothera and King Edward Point.

So, let the trials begin. We need to find the faults, the mistakes, the what-works, and the opportunities – and value each the same. We will need to refresh our resolve, ingenuity and enthusiasm in readiness for the next two years.

So, let’s celebrate this important milestone.