Waverley’s captain recalls Gantocks Reef grounding
It all started back in 1969 when the Scottish Branch was formed. We worked solidly together in an effort to save PS Caledonia from the breaker’s yard. We had little cause to be optimistic about any attempt to operate our own paddle steamer but we were to meet with a number of people who considered that it could be done, among whom was Terry Sylvester. I had had experience in the engine room of PS Queen of the South in 1967 and found that the standard of staff recruited, together with total lack of knowledge of the type of ship, contributed to her failure. I think we can claim that our efforts did ensure that Caledonia is still with us.
1974 arrived and Waverley was handed over to the Society. We decided that Waverley was going to sail again, and I offered my services free when I could spare them. Western Ferries were prepared to loan me for the 1975 season. Against my better judgement I returned in 1976, taking up my duties on 1st May as a permanent member of staff. The mechanical performance of the ship was a disgrace, breakdowns frequent, yet despite all the problems, the passenger figures were outstanding. In November I obtained full autonomy over the ship, the way she was manned, overhauled and surveyed.
A team of engine room officers second to none was achieved in 1977. The ship was given the biggest refit ever, but by 21st May the strain was becoming too much. I spoke about resignation, but finding a replacement was not easy. I soldiered on through the heaviest June timetable the ship had ever operated. In early July a number of minor steering gear faults were experienced. On 14th she was sluggish in answering the wheel and bumped the pier heavily at Tighnabruaich. Returning from Loch Goil on 15th, despite ordering hard a starboard at the usual place, it was clear she was not going to swing clear of the buoy. If I backed straight, I could get clear of the reef, but it was not to be, she listed over, went against the rudder, and “bump”, she was ashore.
I had to assess the situation. I could have blamed the steering, the tide, the helmsman or indeed the company. The roster that day was ridiculous. The schedule, already shortened by half an hour, had to be performed against the tide in the river in both directions. Held up by shipping movements, I was already late at the time of the grounding, yet had to return to Glasgow, discharge over 800 people at dead low water, up very steep gangways, about turn and steam against the tide to embark a further 800 for an evening cruise. At length I decided that I was to blame. Taking shortcuts which required the ship to perform in a very precise manner, which, with my knowledge of her peculiarities, I should never have done. I publicly admitted blame in a TV interview. I felt much better after that, and set about picking up the pieces.
Clyde Dock Engineering did a magnificent job. Drydocked on 7th August, the ship was refloated on 29th. On 8th September the steering gear failed completely in Holy Loch and again emergency “Full Astern” was rung. We escaped running ashore by a very small margin. We managed to stagger out into the Firth on the hand gear and stopped. The fault was traced to the clutch mechanism slipping in the steering engine, quickly repaired by Ian Muir who always seems to come up trumps. From that day on, the steering gear worked perfectly. I will always wonder just how long that fault had been there, but what is done, is done.