THE driving force behind the painstaking restoration of the world’s oldest floating warship, the HMS Trincomalee, has died at the age of 86. JULIA BREEN looks at Captain David Smith’s life and the historic ship which became his main preoccupation.

Raising a glass of port as tradition dictates, Captain David Terence Smith OBE – Royal Navy veteran and expert on maritime history – proposed a toast to Nelson at the Trafalgar Night dinner.

As he surveyed the scene before him, the mess deck on board HMS Trincomalee, laid out for dinner but otherwise just as it would have been during the Napoleonic wars, he must have almost overflowed with pride.

Certainly Cpt Smith never missed the annual Trafalgar Night dinner, a proud tradition to celebrate Nelson’s victory, held each year on the HMS Trincomalee.

The President of the HMS Trincomalee Trust dedicated the later years of his life to the restoration of this magnificent frigate, now docked in Hartlepool and a major boast for the North-East.

Sadly Cpt Smith died aged 86 while on a family holiday to Malta on Saturday (March 23) after a short illness.

He was posted in Malta for several years with the Royal Navy, with one of his sons being born there, and had always intended to return. He had spent a happy week’s holiday last week exploring the island with both his sons before he suddenly took ill.

His loss will be felt most in Hartlepool, where Trincomalee is docked. Although Cpt Smith was from Southsea, he travelled to Hartlepool at least six times a year right up until the end of his life to oversee the restoration and ongoing maintenance of the historic warship.

David McKnight, general manager of the HMS Trincomalee Trust, says Cpt Smith’s extensive knowledge meant his visits were eagerly awaited by all associated with Trincomalee.

“He was just hugely knowledgeable and it is that huge knowledge that as a Trust we will miss. The Trincomalee was his life. It wasn’t his only interest – he had a yacht in Portsmouth – but he just knew so much about warships of the time and exactly how she should be restored. You could ask him a question about any part of the ship.

“Whenever he came to visit we would have a raft of questions for him about various parts of the ship and how they should be maintained, or how parts of her should look for historical accuracy, and he just knew the answers off the top of his head.

“He rarely talked about himself and his naval career – he just wasn’t like that. He was interested in everybody who worked here and their families and, of course, in Trincomalee herself.

“We will not see the likes of Captain David Smith again.”

Cpt Smith had a distinguished 34-year career with the Royal Navy, starting as a cadet on the Training Ship HMS Conway in 1942. His seagoing appointments included being navigating officer on Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia – where he met and struck up a friendship with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, who is patron of the Trincomalee Trust – and commander on HMS Eagle.

When he retired from the Royal Navy he was made an Elder Brother of Trinity House, the prestigious charitable organisation which runs lighthouses and other navigation aids to improve mariners’ safety. He was also a full-time officer of the organisation and visited all its lighthouses in HMS Patricia.

In 1976 he took on the chairmanship of the Foudroyant Trust, which was then still being used as a training ship in Portsmouth harbour. The ship was decommissioned in 1987 when it was decided it would start the necessary repair and renovation work.

Cpt Smith took it on himself to research and discuss extensively where the best place for the work to be done would be - and settled on Hartlepool.

Mr McKnight describes it as a “calculated risk” – others might see it was a reckless gamble – but Cpt Smith spent all the money in the Trust’s coffers to hire a submersible barge to take the ship from Portsmouth to Hartlepool.

Once in Hartlepool, he was faced with trying to raise enough money to repair and maintain the Foudroyant. He restored the ship’s original name, the HMS Trincomalee, in 1992 and personally oversaw all the detailed work to repair the ship, ensuring it was done correctly and, where possible, that the original timbers were maintained.

“The hours he gave the this project, all on a voluntary basis, are almost beyond counting,” said Mr McKnight. It took 11 years, at least 750,000 hours of skilled work, and more than £8m to restore the ship, which retained more than 60 per cent of the original fabric of the ship.

The rotting hulk had been transformed into an award-winning attraction of national historic importance. Cpt Smith was also instrumental in the fight to get the vessel recognised in the Core Collection of the National Register of Historic Vessels in the UK. Trincomalee was overlooked, meaning vital funding would not be available. He spent months arguing the case for her importance – and eventually the decision was overturned. He also recruited old acquaintance Prince Philip as patron of the Trust.

In 2000 Cpt Smith retired as chairman after 24 years in the post, once the restoration was almost complete, and handed over to Colonel Michael Stewart, who had been his vice-chairman. He was promoted to President of the Trust – which could have been just an honorary role, but which he seized with gusto, never missing a board meeting.

HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship afloat, fully restored, now stands resplendent in a dock at Hartlepool’s Historic Quay – a fitting legacy for a man passionate about maritime heritage.

Mr McKnight says: “It is a splendid testament to his long and dedicated work. This has been recognised by the award of an OBE, by the World Ship Trust’s personal award to him in 2001 for the outstanding restoration and preservation of this historic ship; by the personal award of a Victory medal in 2011 by the Society for Nautical Research , and by the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who have flocked to Hartlepool since the ship opened as a visitor attraction.

“David will be missed by all at the Trust. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with David’s family and in particular his two sons, Christopher and Richard.”