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Issue 95 - Clydebuilt

Scotland Magazine Issue 95
October 2017


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John Hannavy sees two new ferries being built and explores the history of shipbuilding on the river

For 15 years now I have been writing in this magazine about Scotland’s past glories and exploring the nooks and crannies of the country’s history, but this time I have had the rare privilege of seeing history being made.

It only takes one man with imagination and vision to bring about far-reaching changes. In the Clyde-side town of Port Glasgow, however, two visionaries have put the town on the map — albeit more than two centuries apart. Their contributions to Port Glasgow’s fame and fortune are somewhat closer together in distance than they are in time and can be seen about a quarter of a mile apart along the water’s edge.

On the edge of the Tesco car park, behind an unnecessarily heavy black iron fence whose bars are just a little too close together for a camera to be pushed through them, stands a strange-looking craft. This is the paddle steamer
Comet (or at least a replica of it), the first passenger-carrying paddle steamer in Britain and the first example of a ship for which the yards on the Clyde became world-famous.

The replica was built in 1962 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the date in 1812 when the original
Comet entered passenger service between Glasgow and Helensburgh. The replica was built as a working ship, complete with functioning steam engine, but decades of neglect have reduced her to a static exhibit.

The original
Comet was the brainchild of Henry Bell who, with his wife, had moved to Helensburgh — he as superintendent of the town’s baths and she to run their hotel. He was fascinated by the idea of steam power and hit upon the idea of introducing a steamer service to bring visitors down river from Glasgow to experience the delights of Helensburgh and, no doubt, his wife’s hotel.

Over the following century and more, many of the world’s greatest steamships evolved from the humble
Comet and a great deal of them were built in the yards that once lined the Clyde from Glasgow to the sea. In the past two centuries there have been an estimated 392 shipyards on the river. Not all at once, obviously, but in its heyday, when ‘Clydebuilt’ became a by-word for shipbuilding excellence and there were more than sixty working at the same time. At their peak, Clyde yards employed over 100,000 people. Some of the greatest ships ever built slipped into the river from just one of those yards. The John Brown’s at Greenock built Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth QE2, Saxonia, and the Royal Yacht Britannia to name just a few.

Several fine and important Clydebuilt ships have survived into preservation, amongst them the ‘Tall Ship’
Glenlee, built in 1896 by Anderson Rodger & Company at their Bay Yard in Port Glasgow and now moored at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum. The PS Maid of the Loch, currently undergoing restoration at Balloch on Loch Lomond, was built by A. & J. Inglis at Pointhouse in 1953 where the iconic PS Waverley (See: Scotland Magazine #93), which is still regularly cruising Britain’s coastal resorts, had been launched in 1946. The TS Queen Mary, built at Denny yard in Dumbarton in 1933 and the largest surviving Clyde cruiser at 1014 tons, is in the early stages of a lengthy restoration programme that it is hoped will eventually see her return to pleasure cruising on the river. Also built by Denny Brothers is the steamer Sir Walter Scott, still cruising Loch Katrine after 117 years. There are several others and regular visitors to Scotland will know them well.

OK, now let’s get right up to date. By the closing years of the 20th Century, the great days of the Clyde yards were all but gone. Just three remained: the two BAE Systems naval yards at Govan and Scotstoun, and Ferguson Shipbuilders in Port Glasgow. Fergusons’ yard, however, was in trouble. Decades of under-investment meant that the company was trying to build modern vessels in a 19th Century shipyard. Despite that, however, Fergusons built some fine ships into the new millennium — Caledonian MacBrayne’s MV
Hebrides being the last big one, launched in 2000. Then, a little more than three years ago, the yard announced its closure. It looked as though civilian shipbuilding on the mighty Clyde had finally come to an end.

If Henry Bell was the first man of vision and imagination to put Port Glasgow on the map, then Jim McColl, CEO of Clyde Blowers Capital, is the second. One of Scotland’s most successful businessmen, Jim McColl OBE is a visionary with an engaging nature that infects all those around him with his enthusiasm for the yard’s future. Over the past 20 years he has built up
a portfolio of some 83 companies in 27 different countries turning over £1.5 billion and employing more than 6000 people. Many of those companies — whose fortunes ranged from ‘poor’ to ‘basket cases’ — have been built up into successful and thriving enterprises. He acquired Ferguson’s yard in 2014 and set about bringing it back to life with an initial investment of £12M, a figure that has already almost doubled. McColl’s plan envisages an investment of up to £65 million in the yard and the creation of at least 1000 jobs within five years.

Determined to keep shipbuilding alive on the Clyde, McColl envisages a long-term future for Ferguson Marine. After walking around the yard with him and listening to him talk about the vision he has for the company, I came away with the clear impression that I was witnessing the early years of something very special. He has a rare grasp of what's needed to bring shipbuilding and repairing back to the Clyde over the coming years, and a clear commitment to providing the investment and support to do just that. What's more, thanks to his major investment in rebuilding and modernising the yard, the last couple of years have seen colossal changes brought about, which have culminated in the £97 million contract to build two new large car ferries for Caledonian MacBrayne. But, to Jim McColl, that was only ever the start.

To make sure that contract was just the first of many in the coming years, the old yard has been demolished and rebuilt around the rising hulls of the new ferries — turning it from a facility that was visually little different to its appearance at the beginning of the last century into a 21st Century shipbuilding facility of which the river can be proud. New staff have been taken on, apprenticeships have been established, and Port Glasgow once again resonates to the bustle and noise of a working shipyard.

Less than four years ago, in this magazine, I lamented the fact that Fergusons then seemed to build only small ferries, while contracts for Caledonian MacBrayne’s bigger vessels went to Finland, Germany and Poland. What a difference a few years makes.

By the time you read this, the first of the new ships, MV
Glen Sannox, will have been launched and will be fitting out while work will be progressing on the growing hull of the second vessel. When I visited the yard, in July 2017, the ships were simply identified as Hull 801 and Hull 802. At just over 7,000grt, Glen Sannox is probably the largest passenger vessel to have been launched into the river since the Fred Olsen Line’s 10,400grt MV Blenheim made its way down the slipway of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1970.

To see a ship being built has been an un-ticked box on my ‘Things To Do Before I Die’ list ever since reading H. V. Morton’s account of the building and launching of the 8,139grt SS
Yoma, which was launched at the yard of William Denny & Brothers in September 1928. Until now that was just a dream that I felt would be unlikely to be realised. Thanks to the team at the re-opened and renamed Ferguson Marine, I have been privileged not only to see a ship being built but, in effect, to witness the rebirth of commercial shipbuilding on the river.

Building a ship seemed to me like doing a jigsaw puzzle on an immense scale. All around the yard, precision cut and numbered odd shapes in steel can be seen waiting for the moment when they will be welded in to place on the vessel. On the July day when I visited, large prefabricated parts of the aluminium superstructure were being craned into position on the steel hull of the future MV
Glen Sannox. From my vantage point with my camera on top of a tall cherry-picker, the skills involved were only too clear to see. Both of these new ferries are ground-breaking in their design. They will be ‘duel fuel’, largely powered by liquefied natural gas (which is much less polluting to the atmosphere than conventional marine fuel), and are the first such vessels to be built in the UK. The re-opened yard is already showing that it can operate at the leading edge of marine technology. ‘Greener and cleaner’ was one of the design requirements for the project — a target that has involved the resolution of considerable engineering challenges and the installation of high pressure gas tanks in the bowels of the ships. The fuel tanks in each vessel weigh 88 tonnes and just installing them was a precision challenge on its own.

Hull 801, the MV
Glen Sannox, was just a few weeks away from launch, yet there still seemed so much to do. The launch date was scheduled to take place after this issue went to the printers, but perhaps I’ll get back up to Port Glasgow to see the second ship launched in February or March.

The very next day, I was taking pictures in the former John Brown yard at Clydebank, where nothing remains of a company that once employed tens of thousands of people. Well, nothing except the giant cantilevered ‘Titan’ crane built by Sir William Arrol.

Glen Sannox is due to enter service on Caledonian MacBrayne’s services to Arran in the autumn of 2018, while her sister – to be named MV Claymore in due course – will work the Uig Triangle between Uig on Skye, Tarbert on Harris and Lochmaddy in North Uist from 2019. Let’s hope that orders for CalMac’s next ground-breaking ships also go to Scottish yards.

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