The Royal Navy's former flagship, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, could be moving closer to ending her days as a wreck for divers after the campaign behind the plan received millions of pounds of financial backing.
Wreck the World, which aims to turn the 210-metre ship into a reef off the coast of south Devon, has received £6.5 million from two companies to back its bid to send the historic vessel to a watery grave just over 30 years after she was launched in 1981.
The 22,000-ton Invincible Class carrier, put up for sale online by the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) agency after it was axed by the Government in 2010's Strategic Defence and Security Review, could be in the water as soon as this summer if the bid is successful.
Two companies, scrap metal firm GH Newbery and Son and defence engineering firm A&P Falmouth, have agreed to pay the £3.5 million cost of buying the vessel and act as £3 million financial guarantor respectively, with the Ministry of Defence expected to announce who it will sell the vessel to within the next few weeks.
Michael Byfield, 40, a diving instructor who runs Wreck the World with colleague James Doddrell, 31, said that rather than sell the ship for scrap, probably abroad, it was better to use her to stimulate the local economy in the deprived area of Torbay.
"If it goes for scrap, especially to a foreign entity, there will be no social and economic benefit," he said. "With our project, once she is in the water she will keep on giving."
Although the Ark Royal, which is at Portsmouth Naval Base, Hampshire, could be sold for its scrap metal, other proposals for it include a commercial heliport in London, a nightclub and school in China and a casino in Hong Kong. The sale of Ark Royal follows that of its sister ship HMS Invincible which was towed away to a scrapyard in Turkey after being sold on the same internet site, edisposals.com.
The reef project, which has the backing of Torbay Council, estimates that the wreck will cost £35,000 a year to maintain for divers, but could make up to £30 million over five years for the local economy. The figures are based on a study of HMS Scylla, a Leander Class frigate sunk as a diving reef in Whitsand Bay in east Cornwall, near Plymouth, in 2004.
A 125-year lease for a site off the Devon coast has been agreed in principal with the Crown Estate, subject to a winning bid and meeting environmental requirements.
A spokesman for the MoD said: "HMS Ark Royal is being disposed of by commercial tendering process to the most appropriate bidder, obtaining the best value for money for the taxpayer. Work to evaluate a number of proposals is at an advanced stage and an announcement will be made in early 2012. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage."