Though Victory was launched in 1765, the sail was only two years old, having been made at Chatham in 1803. It would have taken around 1,200 man-hours for the sailmakers to stitch it. Measuring the size of a tennis court (80ft at its base, 54ft at its head and 54ft deep), it weighs a third of a ton.
Following the immense damage the ship sustained at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was towed into Gibraltar for temporary repairs. After a week, she was returned to Portsmouth and later to the Chatham Dockyard for a complete refit. Here, the sail remained and was displayed at the yard for almost a century before being returned to the ship in 1905.
After becoming lost for three decades, the dilapidated sail was re-discovered in 1962 in a naval gymnasium hidden beneath a pile of mats. It was returned to Victory but signs of deterioration were evident and a decision to preserve it was made. Conservation began in 1993, a process which took twelve years.
Today, The Trafalgar Sail is on display to the public under environmentally-controlled conditions in Storehouse 10 at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. It is regarded as Britain’s most important marine historic textile.HMS Victory continues to be flagship of the Second Sea Lord and is the oldest naval ship still in commission.
See also: "HMS Victory and the Aftermath of Trafalgar" - blog post.
Refs: National Museum and Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.Images include: Hand-stitching a sail in a sail loft in the late 18th century and The Trafalgar sail at the 1891 London Naval Exhibition. Other sources supplied on request.