New skipper at the helm as ship gets set for a busy year
In case any readers are wondering what has happened to The Matthew, which has disappeared from her mooring of the past few months outside the Arnolfini in Bristol, she's currently undergoing inspection and vital repairs at the Patent Slip in the Floating Harbour's Underfall Yard.
Over the past 12 months, things have changed dramatically for the little replica of John Cabot's ship, formerly held under the protective wing of the ss Great Britain Trust.
Run by skipper Rob Salvidge and his company Ship Shape and Bristol Fashion for the past six years, the popular wooden ship will now be operated by The Matthew (Ventures) Ltd, a fully-owned subsidiary company of the trust.
Rick Wakeham, a director of Wakeham Marine Ltd, and a well-known personality in the docks, has been appointed as the new captain, master and commodore.
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Rob Salvidge, who captained The Matthew on the River Thames for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, decided to withdraw from the selection process.
"The Matthew is currently undergoing an end-of-charter survey," said the trust's chairman, Royston Griffey. "Before she re-enters service this coming year, we decided, as marine law decrees, to take out a report, which ran to 20 pages, on her condition. We discovered, for instance, that the two propellers were pitted – pure wear and tear, really.
"We ordered some new ones from a company in the US, but, with an 11-week wait, we have now had the repairs, which should last 12 months or so, done by a company based in Newton Abbott.
"In a year, however, we will have to purchase new ones."
Looking after The Matthew, now considered as much a part of Bristol as Concorde or the Clifton Suspension Bridge, can be an expensive business.
The ship has to be taken into dry dock every year, inspected for damage and then re-coated with Scandinavian deck oil, rather than varnish, to protect the wood.
In the 15th century, vessels like The Matthew, known as caravels, would have lasted only 20 or 30 years.
Current repairs, which are being undertaken by Mark Rolt, of the Bristol Classic Boat Company, include the replacement of five rotten straithes, or planks, hidden below the water line.
The larch planks have to be steamed to make them pliable before being slotted, and then nailed, into place.
When the job is done, however, The Matthew will be ready to face a new year of trips around the harbour as well as into the River Severn and Bristol Channel. In May, the little ship will even be braving the English Channel to take part in an annual tall ships festival in Vannes, Brittany.
This year is set to be an exciting one for the ship, which was built at Redcliffe Wharf and launched into the Floating Harbour in 1996.
It is hoped that, by Easter, she will have a new, and very prominent berth, at Wapping Wharf, next to M Shed.
The ship will be linked to the quay by a concrete pontoon, once used by the Sea Scouts, which will be towed from the current position opposite the Finzel's Reach housing development, below Castle Park.
Financing The Matthew, of course, remains uppermost in the trust's mind.
"Although the ship doesn't receive any funding from the council, or anyone else in fact, she does get one perk – free mooring," explained Royston. "And the work involved in bringing the pontoon around to M Shed will not cost the trust anything, either.
"Unfortunately, we have no contingency fund, but estimate that it costs about £1,000 a week to keep the ship – which is valued for insurance purposes at £1 million – going.
"We do, however, have 20 life members of the trust, who have all paid £1,000 for the privilege.
"The life members – we are always looking for more, of course – do get some perks, such as a free trip on The Matthew every year.
"We're also lucky to have a lawyer and an accountant, who both offer their services for free, but we could really do with an expert fundraiser."
The trust has decided that, when she is moored up, visitors, including tourists, will still be able to come on board and have a look around The Matthew for free.
Instead of an entrance fee, donations will be encouraged.
Are there, I asked, any other exciting plans for The Matthew?
"Well, the ship can accommodate about a dozen passengers on a long voyage – there are 20 bunks – and we would very much like to organise a paying trip to Bordeaux, another of Bristol's twin cities," says Royston.
"Or, to be even more adventurous, a trip through the Mediterranean to Venice or Genoa, John Cabot's birthplace.
"We would need sponsors for something like that, of course."
Nearer home, there are joint plans with M Shed for a St George's Day celebration on April 23.
This would take the form of a medieval day, complete with stalls, food and entertainment.
One thing's for sure, we will be seeing a lot more of The Matthew around the Floating Harbour this coming year.