When David Howie left Scotland 11 years ago to start a cadetship with an international shipping company, he had next-to-no knowledge of ships and the sea. This month he returns to his native land as permanent Master of MV Balmoral. Interview by Andrew Clark.
The words tumble out of Captain David Howie with unmistakable pride and pleasure: “She’s lovely to manoeuvre.” He is speaking about Balmoral, the ship he brings to the Clyde this month for four days of excursions over the September weekend. “There are so many more ‘get-out-of-jail’ cards than on Waverley,” he continues. “It’s a more civilised style of ship handling — you can come in to a pier nice and slow, then ‘split the sticks’ and spin her. She’ll help you out. She’s a good ship.”
Anyone who remembers Captain Howie from his time as Chief Officer of Waverley (2010-13) will know that Balmoral is lucky to have him. He relishes a challenge, as his manoeuvring of the paddler in Ayr Harbour demonstrated. He clearly enjoys the ship handling opportunities of coastal cruising — otherwise he would not have allied himself to the fledgling fortunes of White Funnel Limited, Balmoral’s new owners. He also has a steady temperament: Captain Howie is not the type to shout or bawl when something goes wrong. As he himself admits, “I’m quite good if a problem comes up. I take the attitude ‘It’s happened. Let’s sort it’.”
These are wise words from a man who was handed his first command at the age of 27. That was late in 2015, when White Funnel phoned to ask if he would be interested in the Master’s job when Balmoral returned to service, following her purchase from Waverley Steam Navigation Ltd for £1. Captain Howie had only just finished studying for his Master’s ticket, and Balmoral’s new owners were untested ship operators. For all that, he didn’t need much persuasion. “I knew what Balmoral was like,” he recalls. “I had served as relief Mate, I’d done two dry-docks with her. I went to Bristol a couple of times to meet the directors and get a feel for the company, and was impressed with what I saw. Then I committed to the job.”
He formally took command in April 2016, before Balmoral was dry-docked at Sharpness. His first sailings as Master were in May, and although the early-season had teething problems (such as a faulty bearing in the port propeller shaft that forced the cancellation of some sailings), Captain Howie has evidently thrived on the responsibility of running his own ship. “We’ve been lucky to have a stable and happy crew,” he says of his 18 shipmates.
All this suggests a steep learning curve since the 17-year old David Howie left school in 2005. Born in the East Ayrshire town of Mauchline, he originally harboured ambitions to join the police but was advised first to get a profession — and a cadetship with the merchant navy promptly came his way. Despite his lack of familiarity with the maritime world, he decided to give it a try “and it turned out that I enjoyed it.”
He signed up with Gearbulk Shipping and was sent to Dubai to join Pine Arrow, a general cargo ship. On that first voyage he circumnavigated Africa, with stops at several north European ports on the way. At the end of his three and a half year cadetship he joined Holland America Line as Fourth Officer on the cruise ship Maasdam. Crucially, just before taking up that post, he spent a couple of weeks in 2008 as Able Seaman Cadet on Waverley — an experience that laid the foundation for his present employment.
The young officer from Ayrshire quickly discovered that working on cruise ships left little time for leisure: in addition to watch-keeping duties on the bridge, he served as assistant life-saving officer, a task that offered valuable lessons in safety and taught him how to handle a small boat. “It was all good fun,” he comments in typically phlegmatic style.
After two years with Holland America, he left the company in 2009 to study for his coastal Mate’s certificate, and joined Waverley as full-time Mate in 2010, serving under Captain Andy O’Brian. It was a gradual learning process — initially taking control of the paddler when she was leaving piers, Largs being the most convenient learning ground. Gradually he moved on to more difficult piers “so that you could build up confidence. Then you progressed to your first arrival at a pier — again at Largs, where the approach is straight, there’s little tidal influence and the pier is well fendered. If you mess up coming in from the south, there’s enough water to turn and try again.”
By 2013, he was taking the ship in and out of piers on his own. He is especially proud of having taken Waverley into Ayr Harbour. He explains how, in the early years of preservation, the paddler would be run astern up the River Ayr before going ahead to berth at the Compass Pier on the south side. That is no longer an option. “The harbour isn’t as busy as it used to be — there’s nothing to churn up the bottom — and it has begun to silt up. You can see the sand bars at low water. That’s why berthing there has become more problematic.”
Between spells of winter maintenance work on the paddler and studying for his Clyde pilotage exemption (2010-11), Captain Howie sometimes took unpaid leave to work for Stenaline Ferries on the Stranraer/Cairnryan to Belfast run, eventually moving there full-time in 2014 as 2nd Mate. Most of 2015 was spent studying for his Master’s ticket at Glasgow Maritime Academy, qualifying him worldwide as ‘Chief Mate unlimited and Master of vessels up to 3,000 tons’. In the coming winter he intends to sit for his Class 1 Master’s certificate, qualifying him to take command of any ship anywhere in the world.
For the time being, Captain Howie has his hands full. He recognises Balmoral’s limitations. Unlike Waverley she hasn’t had the benefit of a rebuild: much of her equipment is coming up to 70 years old. Getting hold of spares is no easy task, “and it often comes down to knowing who to phone.”
A propeller-driven ship may be easier to control than a paddler, “but because Balmoral is more manoeuvrable, there are more places you can take her — such as Rye on the south coast, Ipswich in Essex, Lydney on the River Severn, and up the River Avon, which Waverley doesn’t do any more. Navigating a restricted channel adds to the challenge. But that’s one of the reasons why you take on this kind of job [as opposed to an ocean-going liner or cargo ship]. You’ve got to enjoy ship handling. If you don’t, this is the wrong type of ship to be on.”
Ship handling in stormy conditions is a different matter, especially in the Bristol Channel, leaving Balmoral at the mercy of the weather. Given White Funnel’s need to maximise income in order to remain solvent, has Captain Howie ever felt pressure to sail against his better judgement? “If it comes to a choice, I always take the safer option. You realise it has commercial implications for the company, but you can’t let that rule your decisions. I have to be able to justify every decision on safety grounds.”
As for Balmoral’s imminent return to Scotland, Captain Howie positively glows at the prospect of being reunited with the Clyde’s spectacular scenery — especially the Kyles of Bute. “I’ve tried to explain it to my crew but they don’t quite understand yet how narrow the Narrows are. With just three metres on either side, it’s easier than with Waverley, because Balmoral is narrower and the propellers are right next to the rudders, so we’ll probably go through at half speed. With Waverley you go through fast, because the faster you go with her, the more control you have.”
Given the familiarity of the territory, says Captain Howie, he may occasionally need to remind himself that he is not ‘driving’ the paddler. “I’ve done so much with Waverley on the Clyde, so I will probably fall into observing the old marks [used for guidance when approaching piers], even though on Balmoral I won’t need to. At Rothesay, for example, we’ll be able to go ‘starboard side to’, which you can’t do with Waverley. There will be a few wee changes. I’m looking forward to it.” And so are we.
Balmoral’s Clyde sailings (September 23-26) comprise a ‘doon the watter’ trip to Rothesay and the Kyles of Bute, a visit to Millport Illuminations, a Round Bute excursion and a cruise to Arran via the Kyles. Balmoral will then undertake a final week of sailings on the Bristol Channel before retiring to Bristol city centre for winter layup.
BALMORAL ON THE CLYDE — a pictorial miscellany