A milestone season for PS Waverley

2012 could be a make-or-break year for the paddle steamer Waverley.
2012 could be a make-or-break year for the paddle steamer Waverley.

THIS year is a landmark one for the Waverley in lots of different ways.

It’s the venerable paddler’s own 65th birthday; it’s the two hundredth anniversary of the first commercial steamship service in Europe (undertaken on the Clyde by Henry Bell’s paddle steamer Comet in 1812); it’s the 80th anniversary of the launch of one of the Clyde’s most famous turbine steamers, the Duchess of Hamilton; and it’s a hundred years since another famous Clyde turbine, MacBrayne’s Saint Columba, first took to the water.

It’s also the 80th birthday of the Clyde River Steamer Club, which has joined forces with the Scottish branch of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society to charter Waverley for a one-off cruise to Loch Riddon and Ormidale, recreating the CRSC’s inaugural ‘nominated excursion’ way back in 1932.

But this is also the paddler’s first full summer season since her owners, Waverley Steam Navigation, issued the dire warning last year that thanks to the economy, the weather and constantly rising costs, without some fairly major financial help the Waverley’s sailing days will soon be gone for good.

As a result of that warning, enough money has been raised from public and private sources to keep the Waverley sailing into 2012 - but according to Graeme Hogg, chairman of the Waverley’s operating company Waverley Excursions Ltd, there’s a lot of work still to do.

“Well, we’re still here,” Graeme says, “and our fund-raising drive has been pretty successful so far.

“Unfortunately, it still doesn’t secure Waverley’s future beyond this year. But we’re doing other things as well – we’ve established a development board to look at ways of widening the scope of the finance available to us through talks with local authorities and the Scottish Government as well.

“We’re not looking for something for nothing, but we do think there’s scope for looking at ways Waverley could, for example, perform an ambassadorial role down south for VisitScotland and the Scottish Government.”

The turnout on a grey July afternoon - though one in which Rothesay has, so far at least, been spared the rain - looks, to me at least, to be reasonably healthy, though both Graeme and Deryk Docherty, the CRSC’s chairman, admit that not as many people have turned out as they’d hoped.

“We were planning to do three landings at Ormidale,” Graeme says, “but the numbers we’ve got make it look like we’ll only need to do two.

“But it’s much too early to start making judgements on the summer as a whole - the first two weeks in July are always quiet.”

The Loch Riddon cruise also recreates a CRSC charter of the Waverley in 1972 in which the tender vessel The Second Snark was used to ferry passengers ashore at Ormidale: for the 2012 version, The Second Snark, built in 1938 by and for William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton, and still giving faithful service to her owners, Clyde Marine Motoring of Greenock, has been chartered by the Coastal Cruising Association for the same purpose.

“All three organisations were hoping for a bigger turnout,” Deryk admits, “but the economic situation, the weather and alternative attractions on the television have all worked against us.

“All charities like ours benefit from a few days of settled weather beforehand, in order to attract the casual person.

“Those who don’t book in advance tend not to come. In that respect we’re no different to any other tourist destination.”

I decide to pass up the chance to step ashore at Ormidale in favour of relaxing aboard Waverley and perusing an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia telling the story of the CRSC’s 80 years.

Many, however, cannot resist the pull of a sail, however short, on The Second Snark - which might lack Waverley’s sleek lines, jaunty funnels and high public profile, but has more than earned her place on the National Register of Historic Ships, and whose presence today gives passengers the chance to experience at first hand 139 years of Clyde-built shipping expertise.

As the afternoon draws to a close and the Waverley returns to Rothesay Bay, the clouds close in overhead and the rain returns: that hasn’t stopped anyone on board today enjoying the experience, but if the weather stays this way for the rest of the summer it won’t do the steamer’s cause much good in the long run.

“The fundamental issue about the Waverley’s public cruises is that if the weather is as bad as it has been so far this year, people just will not want to come for a sail,” Graeme Hogg says.

“We’re obviously not competing with other steamers, but with the Braeheads of this world – our job is to convince people to commit themselves to us.”