The fifth vessel in the history of the Royal Navy to carry the name of Challenger was built at Woolwich and launched on 13th February 1858. Classed as a screw corvette and ship-rigged on three masts, she displaced 2,306 tons and measured 200 feet in length with a 40 foot beam. Originally armed with twenty 8-in. guns and two huge 68-pounders, she pursued an active naval career for fourteen years, including service off Mexico in 1860 and in the Fiji Islands in 1862, before being converted into a survey ship in 1872. The largest vessel ever supplied for an oceanographic expedition up to that date, Challenger was placed under the command of Captain George Nares, an experienced naval officer who proved ideally suited to the job.
Sailing from Sheerness on 7th December 1872 and carrying a team of six distinguished civilian scientists, the first ten months of the voyage were spent in the Atlantic which the ship crossed three times. After a seven-week stay at Cape Town, Challenger departed for the Southern Ocean on 17th December 1872 and, shortly after Christmas, made a brief stopover at Kerguelen Island, roughly midway between South Africa and Australia although much nearer the Antarctic Continent in latitude 50oS. The voyage then continued around the world and when the ship finally dropped anchor at Spithead on 24th May 1876, she had travelled an extraordinary 68,890 miles. The information gathered during the three-and-a-half year expedition, particularly from the deep soundings of the ocean floors, was of immense importance and, once the multi-volumed report was published, both ship and her commander achieved considerable acclaim. Possibly worn out by her circumnavigation exploits, Challenger was retired in 1880 and relegated to a harbour hulk at Chatham where she remained useful until finally sold out of the Service in 1921.
For another portrayal of Challenger on her historic oceanographic expedition, see Louise A. Felstead, A Cloud of Sail, Maritime Paintings by J. Steven Dews, 2001, pp. 114-5.