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Nab Tower - At the Gateway to Portsmouth

By Mike Deegan, Fleet Operations Manager


For several years now we have concentrated the bulk of our southern England turnarounds at the commercial passenger terminal at what is essentially a naval port, Portsmouth.

If you have time I would strongly recommend that you linger a while in the Portsmouth area either before you board your Noble Caledonia cruise there or after you disembark as the number of world class attractions just on the doorstep is almost without parallel.  Perhaps considering the city’s naval heritage, it is unsurprising that so much maritime history is visible locally.


 Nab Tower as it appears today (after 2013 refurbishment) 

 Portsmouth is now and has always been first and foremost a naval port.  Recently it has become  home to the new generation of aircraft carriers recently built in Scotland, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales which have once again, quite rightly, put the UK back at the top of league division 1 of the world’s naval fleets - the pride of the UK’s fleet, each 65,000 tonnes of oceanic splendour, can be seen from the deck of your Noble Caledonia ship as you sail in and out when they are in their home port.  


Portsmouth has been a naval port since the time of King Henry VII and his son, King Henry VIII built on his father’s plans.  The fortifications around the harbour entrance (about 30 minutes after you depart or before you arrive by sea – look out for them on the eastern entrance to the harbour – the narrow entrance alone makes viewing it from the deck of your departing or arriving ship worthwhile) were started by Henry VII and his son added to them and constructed Southsea Castle to the south.  Nowadays people stand atop the (so-called) saluting tower and wave to arriving or departing ships as they pass and the harbour entrance here is so narrow it appears you could have a quick conversation with them as you pass!  It was from the ramparts here that Henry watched to his horror as the pride of his Navy, Mary Rose, capsized and sank whilst engaging the French who had sent a fleet to attack the Solent.  Over 350 men lost their lives in the tragedy.  The beautifully restored wreck is visible in a purpose-built museum within the Heritage Dockyard at Portsmouth where it has been displayed since being salvaged from the mud on the bottom of the Solent in the 1980s.  If you are lucky, you may even have the former Director of the Mary Rose Museum, Rear Admiral John Lippiett, as Guest Speaker on your Noble Caledonia cruise as he can sometimes be found on our ships as a speaker.  (It is a funny old world – when I was a seafarer, I briefly worked for John when he was Flag Officer Sea Training : now he works for me!)


Further inland the heritage dockyard which, as well as the Mary Rose Museum (see above), contains the Royal Naval Museum, Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar flagship HMS Victory and the first British ironclad warship HMS Warrior, and is well worth a visit.  Opposite on the western banks of the harbour are the historic Royal Clarence Victualling Yard (which once boasted its own abattoir and it is where the Navy’s rum stocks were stored up to the ending of the daily issue of a “tot” to all men aboard Her Majesty’s Ships in the 1970s).  Just out of view behind the preserved warehouses is the ex barracks of the Army’s former maritime regiment, the Royal Corps of Transport (now merged with the Catering Corps as the Royal Logistics Corps).  In younger years we ignorant merchant naval officer cadets rudely referred to the Royal Corps of Transport as the “Rickshaws, Camels and Taxis” or the “Queens Own Lorry Drivers”.  Only in later life when I worked with this amazing regiment first hand did I develop an undying respect for them – able to establish a temporary harbour behind enemy lines in the most difficult of circumstances – I salute you!  Legend has it that, during the building of the barracks, the plans for the Officer’s Mess were mixed up with the plans for a Mess that had been designed to be built in India.  You can still see the building from the main road between Fareham and Gosport and it does look for all the world like a set from the 1970s sitcom It Ain’t half Hot Mum!  If the story is not true, it should be!


 Elsewhere in the City, the D Day Landings Museum on Southsea Promenade boasts, amongst other exhibits, the Overlord Embroidery, which was inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry and was specially commissioned to tell, in visual form, the story of the Landings.  Indeed the landings themselves were run from an operations room at Fort Southwick on the cliffs overlooking Portsmouth. 


Further afield, Broadlands near Romsey, home to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 12th Century Romsey Abbey and Beaulieu – home to the National Motor Museum – are all unmissable. However it is a piece of maritime heritage about 12 miles out to sea that I wanted to tell you about – so draw up a chair and I’ll tell you a tale!


 Nab Tower marks the seaward end of the deepwater channel into Portsmouth, the Solent and Southampton.  For mariners returning home after battling Atlantic storms it signals home and shelter but it has an interesting history, rarely remarked on these days. Originally designed by the Admiralty, Nab Tower (which you pass about an hour after leaving Portsmouth or an hour prior to arrival) was a lattice work structure surrounding a metal cylinder which reached from a concrete base up to an upper observation platform.  Accommodation was arranged towards the top of the structure and just below the top layer.  It was designed in 1918 to be one of 8 similar towers that were to have been positioned across the Dover Straits with steel wires stretched between them to close the Straits to German U Boats thus protecting allied shipping.  The towers were each to be armed with 2 x 4in guns.  An audacious plan indeed!  Over 3000 civilians and 5000 army personnel worked on the towers’ construction in secret in Shoreham Harbour.


In the event, by the end of the war only one tower had been completed (and was stored in the  Harbour awaiting completion of its sister towers) and that had been constructed for the huge (in those days) sum of £1m.  Another was partially completed.  When Armistice was declared, construction was halted on the second tower (which was eventually dismantled in 1924) but the completed one languished in Shoreham Harbour – until somebody had a bright idea : literally!


 Nab Tower being towed from Shoreham in September 1920

The lightship which marked the entrance to the easternmost deepwater entrance to the Solent (most ships used to enter from the West via the Needles Channel but that route has been closed to large vessels for many years now – all large ships enter and leave Portsmouth and Southampton via the more easterly, Nab, Channel) was nearing the end its useful life by 1920 – decades of exposure to the worst that the Channel weather and waves could throw at it had taken their toll.  So it was decided to put the completed tower to good use.  In September 1920, it was towed from its temporary home at Shoreham out to Nab Rock at the entrance to the Solent approach by five paddle tugs loaned by the Admiralty.  It was designed to have buoyancy when being towed due to 18 watertight compartments in the concrete base.  However this was no mean feat of navigation – the metal structure weighed 10,000 tons and the base was constructed of 20,000 tons of concrete.  The unwieldy cargo was navigated with not so much as a scuff mark the 41 miles from Shoreham to Nab Rock, 12 miles off Portsmouth.  It was discovered later that the second tower was too wide to pass through Shoreham Harbour entrance – proper, prior planning and all that..... 


Once manoeuvred over the rock the valves in the base were opened and the void spaces in the base  flooded, causing the structure to settle gently onto the rock (and all with a party of VIPs on the top platform – what would health & safety say these days!!).  It landed at a jaunty angle of 3 degrees to the perpendicular (to the north east) – an aspect the structure retains to this day.  A wooden lighthouse was built atop the platform and teams of 4 lighthouse keepers took it in turns to man the light for the next 63 years until it was automated in 1983.


During the dark days of the 2nd World War, the light was illuminated at a low level occasionally when allied shipping was known to be passing but its wartime armament of twin 40mm Bofors guns are credited with shooting down 4 German warplanes on their bombing raids into Portsmouth. As I say, the last lighthouse keepers left the lighthouse in 1983 and the light itself, as well as the installed fog-horn, were converted to solar power in 1995.  One of the keepers’ least favourite jobs was to head down to the concrete base at low water when it was uncovered and treat the growing barnacle population with lime.  On at least one occasion a keeper got a soaking when a line of warships raced past at full ramming speed resulting in a huge rush of water up the structure and over the unfortunate keeper on the base!


In 1999 the 10,000 tonne freighter Dole America collided with Nab Tower at speed whilst approaching on passage from Southampton to Antwerp with a cargo of bananas and pineapples.  The Liberian registered ship bounced off the structure causing serious damage to itself and had to be beached to prevent it sinking.  Nab Tower meanwhile suffered damage to 16 of its 18 base tanks which had to be repaired.


 Nab Tower prior to 2013 refurbishment

In 2013, Nab Tower got a makeover from owners / operators Trinity House some 93 years after being positioned.  The lattice and other metal fittings were replaced by concrete and the base was lined in modern concrete.  The structure itself was reduced in height and the light and Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment were replaced. 


Hopefully Nab Tower will give another (almost) 100 years of service marking home for the weary sailor or the start of an adventure for you as you depart on your Noble Caledonia cruise from that most historic of ports, Portsmouth.  Look out for it as you pass about an hour after departure and see if you can detect its slight lean to the north east – it is easy to spot from some directions.  Raise a glass to the designers and to this unsung heroine of the sea – from humble beginnings as a piece of discarded wartime furniture now out there in all weathers and guiding mariners night and day.