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Issue 93 - A Steam-Powered Septuagenarian

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


This article is 19 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A Steam-Powered Septuagenarian

John Hannavy tells the story of the iconic paddle steamer Waverly

By the time you read this, one of the most famous ships in the world will be back cruising in the Clyde estuary at the start of the 71st year since she first went into service. She will be on the Clyde from mid-June to late August, sailing between Liverpool and Llandudno at the end of August, in the Bristol Channel in early September, and on the South Coast of England and the River Thames until October.

Instantly recognizable everywhere she goes, the iconic paddle steamer Waverley has been a feature of Scotland’s — and now Britain’s — maritime scene for almost my entire life, although she was already 14 years old before I first saw her. Having been launched into the Clyde in October 1946 to replace an earlier paddler of the same name, which was built in 1899 but had been sunk in 1940 while serving as a minesweeper in World War II, she had entered service in June 1947. Impressively, 70 years later she is still doing what she was built to do and still drawing crowds wherever she goes.

The PS Waverley is the last sea-going paddle steamer still operating anywhere in the world and is, rightly, celebrated as a national treasure. Her operators proudly boast that she is ‘probably the most photographed ship in the world’ — and if the number of pictures I have taken of her over the years is anything to go by, they are probably not far off the mark.

Owned by Waverley Steam Navigation Company Ltd on behalf of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (who bought her from Caledonian MacBrayne for £1 after she was withdrawn from regular service in 1973) and operated by the company’s commercial arm, Waverley Excursions Ltd., Waverley can regularly be seen steaming her way around Britain’s coasts during the summer months. Out of season, she returns to her base on the Clyde near Glasgow’s Science Centre.

It was in the summer of 1961 that I first saw her and we were enjoying a day sailing ‘doon the watter’ as an end-of-summer-holidays treat before returning to school. We didn’t sail on her. I recall we were on the PS Caledonia making our way from either Helensburgh or Craigendoran to Dunoon, while Waverley was probably sailing out of Craigendoran up to Arrochar and Loch Long.

I have to admit that, had my father not pointed Waverley out and also drawn my attention to the much older Jeanie Deans, I might never have noticed the ships. We were on our way to the Holy Loch to see the USS Proteus and her brood of nuclear subs, which had recently arrived in Scottish waters, and to a teenage boy that was much more exciting.

Surprising as it may seem in today’s ultra-security-conscious world, in 1961 you could hire a rowing boat at Sandbank and row out into the loch to within a few dozen yards of the mother ship and her two submarines, the USS George Washington and USS Robert E. Lee, sitting with their Polaris missiles sticking part-way out of their silos on that hot summer afternoon. It was only after I had got my camera out and taken a couple of pictures that the US Navy people told us to back off! Those pictures, sadly, were lost decades ago in one or other of our house moves. Proteus seemed much more modern than any paddle steamer, yet I now know that the submarine tender had entered service in 1944, long before Waverley’s keel was even laid. While Proteus was decommissioned in 1999 and broken up in 2007, Waverley is still going strong!

Back then in 1961, Waverley looked nothing like as splendid as she does today. At that time she was operated by the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. Her original red, black and white funnels — the steamer livery of the London & North Eastern Railway, who had built her — had been repainted in the CSPCo’s much less attractive creamy-yellow with a black top since nationalisation in 1948.

Clyde shipyards built a substantial percentage of Britain’s paddle steamers as famous yards such as A. & J. Inglis, Fairfield’s of Govan, and many others worked hard to meet the growing demand for excursion ships and ferries. The term ‘Clyde built’ was a by-word for quality, so steamers from Scottish yards were much in demand by operating companies all around the British Isles. They vied with each other to offer the fastest, the biggest, and the most luxurious services, so as a result some truly magnificent vessels were launched into the river.

Waverley was built by A. & J. Inglis at their Pointhouse Yard on the Clyde (the site of which is now occupied by Glasgow’s fantastic Riverside Museum of Transport, designed by the late Zaha Hadid) and the 693grt steamer was, in fact, quite old-fashioned even back then in the immediate post-war years.

While the London Midland & Scottish Railway had long been building turbine steamers, the LNER had stuck with paddle steamers that were powered by tried-and-tested triple expansion steam engines. During construction she carried yard No.1330P. The ‘P’ identified her as having been built at Pointhouse, as A. & J. Inglis had by that time been taken over by Titanic-builders Harland & Wolff.

At 240-feet long she was always going to be a sleek and stylish vessel. Her 2100hp engines were built by Rankin & Blackmore of Greenock, again to a tried-and-tested design, and they were well known for their reliability. Even Rankin & Blackmore, however, cannot have imagined that those same engines would still be driving the ship seven decades later.

Although she was about the same length and beam as the much older Jeanie Deans, Waverley is a lot heavier — the result of a decision made at the time of her construction.

During the Second World War, when there was a severe shortage of small coastal vessels available for minesweeping duties, many of the country’s paddle steamers were quickly adapted for that role. Some were renamed by the navy but others retained their civilian names. The original (1899) PS Waverley became HMS Waverley and PS Jeanie Deans became HMS Jeanie Deans.

When the new vessel was designed, she was built with a possible future conversion to minesweeping duties in mind, thus being constructed of thicker riveted steel plate, which is perhaps part of the reason she has survived so long. When she ran aground off Dunoon in 1977, during her early years of preservation, those thicker hull plates are almost certainly what saved her from irreparable damage.

Waverley was designed to carry 1,350 passengers and have a cruising speed of 14 knots, but on her initial trials she achieved in excess of 18 knots — a remarkable speed for a vessel of this type. Today her passenger capacity is restricted to between 740 and 860, depending on the waters in which she is sailing. For example, in the sheltered reaches of the Clyde she is licensed to carry more people than on the often-turbulent waters off the south coast.

Perhaps surprisingly, Waverley never left the River Clyde during her first 30 years and only sailed out of the estuary for the first time in 1977 for a visit to Liverpool and Llandudno, thus establishing the beginnings of a schedule touring Britain’s coast that continues today. In 1980 she sailed as far as Dunkirk to take part in the 40th anniversary of the evacuation where her namesake had been lost and, in the following year, she circumnavigated the British coast for the first time, thus earning her ‘colours’ as the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world.

Initially coal-fired using a double-ended Scotch boiler, she was converted to oil burning in 1957, just ten years into her service life, and extensive modifications were carried out on her original boiler to enable that change. That 1947 boiler lasted for 34 years and stayed with her until 1981. It is now displayed at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, where the modifications for coal burning to fuel oil can clearly be seen. The new 1981 boiler was itself replaced in 2000 by a pair of fully automated and highly efficient Thermax boilers of a much more modern design, built by Cochran of Annan. However, despite these tweaks every aspect of her working life is still powered by steam.

Watching a triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine at work — all you steam enthusiasts out there will know just what I am talking about — is mesmerising. Being able to see the engines working was always part of the attraction of a cruise on any of the great paddlers and Waverley is no exception. Descending to an easily accessible viewing area below decks, it is not just the sight and sound of the engines that is there to be savoured (they are remarkably quiet) but also their smell. That heady mixture of steam and hot oil is Chanel No.5 to a steam enthusiast, although to give it its original and almost-intoxicating ‘bouquet’ an infusion of coal smoke — an aroma not present on Waverley for sixty years now — really needs to be added in to the mix.

Regular readers of Scotland Magazine will not need to be told that my idea of heaven is being on the footplate of a working steam locomotive where all those smells come together.

A comprehensive rebuild of Waverley began in 2000, prompted by changes in maritime legislation as much as by the deteriorating condition of parts of the ship, and a further programme of multi-million-pound repairs was undertaken that was partly funded by the generosity of Euromillions lottery winners Chris and Colin Weir.
The profile and livery in which Waverley sails these days is how she would have looked seventy years ago, back in LNER colours — her funnels in the their original red, white and black, and her deckhouses painted in LNER brown paint to look like the wooden superstructure of earlier ships. She is a magnificent sight. As few of the changes needed to meet modern regulations as possible are visible to the onlooker. Below the waterline, her hull is now welded for strength but above the waterline she still has her distinctive riveted plates, just as she was built in 1947.

Thanks to her careful restoration and on-going high quality maintenance, Waverley is now probably in the best condition she has been since being built and hopefully she will survive into her centenary. That’s only 30 years away, after all.


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