Ship Talk 1: Andy O’Brian

This is the first in an occasional series of encounters with West of Scotland shipping personalities. Captain O’Brian has been senior master of Waverley since 2008

His parents met on the paddle steamer Caledonia. Childhood holidays at Rothesay were “basically lived on the water”. He spent two teenage summers as assistant purser on Glen Sannox, Saturn and Clansman. In the course of a 24-year career with CalMac, he worked his way up from ‘gangway boy’ to relief chief officer.

It is no exaggeration to say that Andy O’Brian, Waverley’s senior master, has the waters of the Clyde and Western Isles in his blood. Just don’t tell that to his critics, who love to question his judgement when a Waverley sailing is cancelled or diverted. Now in his eighth summer in command, Captain O’Brian has survived the brickbats, weathered the storms of uncertainty over the paddler’s future, and kept the ship running. In a regulatory environment that has made commercial operation of a 67-year old steamship increasingly difficult, he can look on his achievement with pride.

During a two-hour conversation at Waverley Excursions Ltd (WEL) headquarters in Glasgow, Captain O’Brian made the following points:

● Modern safety regulations impose severe constraints on the Waverley. “You have to comply but also apply common sense.”
● After replacement of engine parts last winter, Waverley runs two revolutions per minute faster and burns 50 litres less fuel per hour.
● Every saving helps to ensure Waverley’s future. “Everything is linked”, down to bar pricing and the cost of garbage disposal.
● WEL pays no berthing fees at piers owned by Argyll & Bute Council, and would like to pay less at the four CMAL piers it uses.
● Waverley hopes to revisit Campbeltown in 2015, but calls at Ardrishaig will not be possible until the pier fenders are replaced.
● The team at WEL, led by chief executive Kathleen O’Neill, is “a family. We work for each other as much as for the ship.”

 
 Capt O’Brian explains Waverley‘s bridge telegraphs
to a group including lottery winner
Christine Weir (third from left)
Kathleen O’Neill and Andy O’Brian 
 Capt O’Brian (second from right) is joined
on Tighnabruaich pier by CRSC members
Iain Quinn, Iain MacLeod and Graeme Hogg

Buoyed by Waverley’s smooth winter overhaul, a successful Western Isles season and the resumption of Cumbrae calls at Keppel, Captain O’Brian takes a sanguine view of his responsibilities — the toughest part of which is “making a decision not to sail the ship. You face a choice,” he says, “between running the day’s timetable as planned and preserving revenue, which is essential for the company’s continued operation; or following instinct, training and the caution we’re all taught to observe, and cancelling or altering the cruise, potentially disappointing people, damaging the company’s reputation and denying revenue. Decisions are not taken without a lot of thought.

“Certain people say I cancel more sailings than any of my predecessors, but that’s not so if you look at the statistics. We will always err on the side of caution — that’s WEL policy. No one in this company will ever apply commercial pressure [to put the boat out in unsuitable conditions] — you put all that on yourself [as master], because you’re constantly aware of the financial implications.” 

Such pressures seem worlds away from the Clyde that Andy O’Brian knew as a child. Now 48, he was born in March 1966, the son of Joe and Betty O’Brian, who met each other in 1955 on Caledonia: Joe was a seaman, Betty a stewardess. The newlyweds settled in Gourock and family holidays were taken in Rothesay — Captain O’Brian remembers their luggage, packed in two wicker hampers, being sent ahead on Queen Mary II. As pilot of the ABC ferry Bute, Joe was subject to the old regime of seven days on, one day off, so that “we’d go aboard as often as possible to see him. We also went on the ‘Mary’ to Tighnabruaich, and up the Kyles on Gay Queen. We basically lived on the water.”  
 
   
Caledonia, the paddler on which both of
Capt O’Brian’s parents served as crew members 
Queen Mary II leaving Rothesay Bay
on 6 July 1974 
 Dad’s boat — the 1954 Bute

 

Captain O’Brian’s schoolboy ambition was to go to sea, “but when the careers man came, he looked at my glasses and said ‘forget it’.” CalMac — which employed his father latterly as Gourock piermaster — seemed the obvious alternative. After leaving school at 16, the young Andy spent two summers as assistant purser, mainly on Saturn but also on Glen Sannox in her last summer as CalMac cruise ship (1981). He transferred to Clansman on the Ardrossan-Brodick run for the summer of 1982, after which he was given a full-time job — as ‘dogsbody’ on various units of the fleet, his duties determined by Willie Kindness, chief clerk in CalMac’s traffic department, and Jimmy Montgomery, traffic manager. These duties included audit department clerk, a spell in the Ardrossan ticket office and periods as seaman/purser on Keppel. 

In 1987 he became purser of Isle of Arran — a job that fell to him by default, because senior Clyde pursers preferred to serve on the ‘streakers’. In those days, before consolidation of wages across the fleet, the Arran run offered little scope for winter overtime payments: the ship tied up at 6pm, three hours earlier than the ‘streakers’, with only one round trip on Sundays, “so no one wanted the job. I enjoyed it. Ian Walker and the late Stuart Findlay were fantastic captains to work with. They ran happy ships, and I learnt that ‘happy’ and ‘efficient’ go hand in hand. Masters are not there to win a popularity contest, but if your ship is happy, efficiency will usually follow.”

   
Isle of Arran, ‘a happy ship’ 
 Saturn at Rothesay,
Capt O’Brian’s ‘second home’
Claymore, his first Hebridean ferry 

It wasn’t long before he found himself on the ‘streakers’. The Bute run “was OK, because Rothesay was like a second home. Gourock-Dunoon was torture — 15 round trips a day. Eventually you didn’t know which direction you were going. The catering was like school dinners, ready-cooked food that was heated up on board. You’d manage a plate of soup on one leg of the journey and a main course on the return — lunch at 10.30am, tea at 3.30pm. You had a day off every third day. None of us liked it. The ships took turn-about — Gourock-Dunoon, Wemyss Bay-Rothesay and spare at Gourock. You were living out of a suitcase, home and away.”

It was a lifestyle that drove home to Andy O’Brian the need to better himself. Eyesight standards for merchant navy deck officers were being relaxed. Young deck colleagues were being put forward for second mate’s tickets — something he also aspired to. There was one element impeding his progress. His discharge book, in which mariners log their time at sea, had no entries prior to 1987. His five years as ‘dogsbody’ had gone unrecorded, meaning he would have to do another seven years on deck to notch up enough sea time. 

“So I wrote to the Marine and Coastguard Agency in London,” Captain O’Brian recalls, “explaining that I had been on the boats since I was 15. In their reply they said my sea time could not be proven, but they wouldn’t dispute I had been on the water, so all time served from now on would count as time-and-a-half. I only had to do four-and-a-half years, as opposed to seven.”
In 1994 he exchanged pursering for a deck job, initially on Pioneer on the Clyde and then Claymore in the Western Isles. CalMac’s shift-regime had just changed to two weeks on, two off, and a Hebridean posting meant “more money, better food, longer shifts, bigger ships, nicer cabins. I was home for two weeks, not two days.”
 
He remembers Claymore as a happy ferry. The officers helped him with chart work, ‘rule of the road’ and buoyage — prerequisites for his second mate’s ticket, the first rung on the officer’s ladder. The bosun, Fred Potter, took him under his wing and remains a firm friend. His stint on Claymore lasted four years, including a short spell on Iona at the end of her CalMac days.
 
With two-berth cabins, both ships “had a sense of community, because you were living ‘on top of each other’. Nowadays, there’s nobody in the mess room: you look down the alleyway of the big ferries’ crew accommodation and all the doors are closed, because everyone has their own facilities.”
 
When Claymore and Iona were sold in quick succession, he transferred in the winter of 1998-9 to Isle of Arran and Isle of Mull, mostly as quartermaster, where he could take the wheel and get to know the ship’s officers.  “Everyone thinks of Oban-Craignure in terms of ‘shuttle’, but the thought of going to the Mull run is worse than actually doing it. Once you’ve done Gourock-Dunoon, nothing seems repetitive.”
 
By this time he finally had enough sea time to qualify as an officer. Despatched by CalMac to South Tyneside College, he achieved his second mate’s ticket in 1999 aged 33 — older than most. He moved to Isle of Lewis as third mate, then second, and remembers his time on the Stornoway run as “four continuous years on a fantastic boat with two fantastic captains, Alex Morrison and Donnie Findlayson. I learnt a lot in my first officer of the watch position. Isle of Lewis had good cooks, comfortable cabins and a big car deck, square and easy to load, with the mate and second mate taking turns as loading officer, assisted by two excellent bosuns.”

   
 Waverley and Isle of Mull at Oban
Andy O’Brian’s first day as
Waverley’s ‘supernumerary captain’,
with Luke Davies 
Balmoral with Waverley 
at Garvel Dry Dock, April 2012
 

Back at South Tyneside in 2003 for his first mate’s ticket, he bumped into Luke Davies, who was sitting for his master’s ticket. The face was familiar: Luke was mate of Waverley under the captaincy of Graeme Gellatly, one of Andy O’Brian’s old CalMac pals. He didn’t realise it at the time, but this chance college encounter was to be life-changing. After another couple of years as CalMac relief second officer (“not my favourite position, never on the same boat two fortnights in a row”), he found himself one evening at Oban when Waverley was at the North Pier. Walking round from Isle of Mull, he met Luke on the paddler’s bridge. They chatted — and before he knew it, Luke was inviting him to serve as Waverley’s relief mate in the summer of 2005. CalMac consented and he spent the second fortnight of August on Waverley, returning to CalMac for the winter of 2005-6.

 
One thing led to another. It wasn’t long before Captain Steve Colledge called him up to offer him a permanent job with WEL. “Initially I said no,” Captain O’Brian remembers. “The job I had was too sensible and too cushy, though I knew at the back of my mind that promotion at CalMac was ‘dead slow and stop’. Steve kept on at me, eventually offering me not the mate’s job but the master’s job, for which WEL would send me [to qualify] for my ticket. I’d been CalMac relief second mate for 27 months, with no sign of things changing — I really wasn’t happy. And so, after a lot of thought, I resigned from CalMac.”
 
He left Clansman in July 2006 and joined Balmoral the following month as mate, before transferring to Waverley for her south coast and Thames seasons. After studying for his master’s ticket that winter, he served as mate for Waverley’s Western Isles season in the spring of 2007 and took command of Balmoral for most of the summer, followed by three weeks on Waverley. The next spring (2008) saw Steve Colledge and Luke Davies leaving WEL within a month of each other. Andy O’Brian was appointed senior master. The die was cast.
 
Despite being thrown in at the deep end, Captain O’Brian reckons WEL were better off appointing him than an outsider with no knowledge of the ship or company. “It was a real learning curve,” he admits.
Asked to name his most challenging experiences as master, he needs no time to think. “Going into Ayr Harbour — every time. It’s hard stone walls all round. There’s lots of fresh water running down the river. The ship’s steering [when going astern] is notoriously fickle. You’re exposed to a lot of weather until you’re inside the harbour walls.”
 
And the highs? “Days like our return to Keppel [on June 23 this year, following North Ayrshire Council’s closure of Millport’s Old Pier]. You’re trying to recover a situation and you get the cooperation of everybody.  Something has been achieved, rescuing a situation that could have been to the detriment of all, including the Millport community and Waverley.”
 
   
Return to Keppel for
PSPS evening charter, 26 July 2014 
In October 2008, on her final visit to native waters,
Queen Elizabeth 2 is escorted towards
Greenock Ocean Terminal by a flotilla including Balmoral 
Another ‘high’ — Waverley’s association
with Govan-built HMS Defender 


Among other highs, he lists the link with HMS Defender, Glasgow’s affiliated warship, and the days spent escorting Cunard and P&O liners. “They’re exciting, especially if the weather is good and you have six or seven hundred on board. You’re witnessing a fantastic maritime spectacle.”

He expresses relief that the 2013-14 overhaul brought no nasty surprises, and pays tribute to WEL technical superintendent Ken Henderson for his winter work, which has resulted in increased engine revolutions at reduced cost: the steamer now burns on average half a ton of fuel less per day than previously.  The improvement was achieved by renewing the rings on the pistons of the high-pressure and medium-pressure cylinders, by adjusting the manoeuvring valve for the opening and closing of steam to the cylinders, and by adjusting the burners in the boiler room.
   
 Dining saloon in self-service mode Burning less fuel: Waverley steams down the ClydeBar pricing can affect profitability 

Captain O’Brian stresses that every saving, however small, helps ensure the vessel’s future. This extends to the catering operation. Under the old self-service system, large amounts of unused food were being thrown out at the end of a day’s work. Magners cider used to be sold in bottles, which increased the weight of garbage for which WEL had to pay disposal charges. Under the new pre-ordering table service, there are fewer menu choices but much less wastage. Cider is now sold on draught. “We’re taking decisions which, overall, we think are for the good of the passengers and the company.”

 
He pays tribute to Argyll & Bute Council, who “are very good to us”, allowing free berthing at Helensburgh, Kilcreggan, Tighnabruaich, Campbeltown and Oban’s North Pier. There have been ongoing discussions with Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited to reduce the cost of calls at piers it owns: Largs, Brodick, Tobermory and Armadale are the four relevant to Waverley. But “they’re still expensive. At Tobermory the berthing charge and ‘per head pier due’ were costing us more than we made in revenue.”

   
Never again? Waverley at Fort William
on 8 May 2005 
At Campbeltown on 15 July 2012 
 At Ardrishaig on 20 April 2001

The closure of Fort William pier, owned by Highland Council, has been a blow. The only reason for Campbeltown’s closure this summer was a delay to restructuring work on the fish quay. Ardrishaig’s pier master is open to the prospect of Waverley calling, but the way the pier fenders are draped in tractor tyres is not conducive to safe berthing. “We’d like to go there, but until they change the fenders, we can’t do it.”

 
And the Commonwealth Games? WEL was forced to adapt Waverley’s mid-summer timetable to take account of security measures and other restrictions at the ship’s Glasgow berth. “We can’t say ‘business as usual’, but we’ll make the best of it.”
 
As for key personnel, Captain O’Brian said the departure of Gordon Reid and Ian McMillan from the management team had been “a real downer”, while Kathleen O’Neill’s decision to stay as chief executive, after previously announcing her departure, is “the best news this decade! Kathleen and Ian have been the best bosses I ever had or ever will have.”
 
As for the company’s critics, Captain O’Brian says “we’ll never win. I remember bailing out of Worthing one day — there was a heavy swell and the pier has a very narrow gangway gate — and on my way back to the bridge I overheard someone saying ‘One of the previous masters would have got her in’. People don’t understand the responsibilities of the master and the pressures he faces in today’s regulatory climate.”
 
Such as? “The pressure to get back to a pier by 7pm because you’ve been told that if you’re any later, the pier staff will have gone and you can’t berth.”

   
Key personnel —
Waverley’s officers with Christine Weir 
At Tarbert, with Isle of Cumbrae
 
A Lego model of Waverley,
made by Capt O’Brian’s twin sons,
sits in his office at Lancefield Quay 
 
Asked about heated scenes at Tarbert, where late-comers have been known to be reprimanded for holding the ship up, he acknowledges that “some people think I’m hot-headed. But everything is done for a reason. These people hold the ship and the other passengers to ransom, and the company ends up having to foot a bill for coaches to get people home, all for the sake of an extra drink in the Islay Frigate.”
 
Captain O’Brian, who is noticeably milder and more relaxed in private than in master’s uniform, says “it wouldn’t matter who was in charge of the Waverley operation — everybody else knows better. It was always better in the good old days, but what people forget is that even the now-revered people who used to run this company were unpopular in their day.
 
“Two years ago we thought that financially the doors were closing on us and we’d have to look for a new job.  That’s always hanging over us. Any October could be the last one. But we work for Waverley for the love of it, and will continue doing so.”

  
 Capt O’Brian in uniformOff-duty at WEL’s Glasgow HQ  

Andy O’Brian was talking to CRSC magazine editor Andrew Clark at the end of June 2014.

 

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