Interview: Captain Ross Cochrane

‘It’s a professional job, and I do it as professionally as I can’: Captain Ross Cochrane last weekend in Waverley’s wheelhouse. Copyright Andrew Clark

As final preparations are made for Waverley’s 70th anniversary season, her Senior Master talks exclusively to CRSC. Interview by Andrew Clark.

Paint pots litter the deck. Some of the woodwork needs a final coat of varnish. In every other respect the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer is ready for a new season — and so is Captain Ross Cochrane. Buoyed by a successful debut as Senior Master in 2016 and by the addition of valuable pilotage exemptions to his name during the past winter, he can look forward to next Friday’s first scheduled sailing of 2017 with a measure of relish.

A week ago Waverley emerged from a thorough overhaul at Garvel Dry Dock in Greenock and subsequently underwent sea trials. Deck and engine departments are fully manned, and the Chief Steward is on board making preparations for the season. As crew members apply the final touches to ventilators, hand rails and deck houses, you can’t help sensing an esprit de corps.

Waverley emerges from overhaul in Garvel Dry Dock on 12 May 2017, assisted by Battler and Biter. Copyright Cameron Shaw

Amid the banter Captain Cochrane — in T-shirt and jeans — oozes calm, as he did throughout his debut season. In conversation, like his ship handling, there is not a whiff of hurry, flamboyance or fluster. Just as, on the bridge, he has a knack of taking his time to get Waverley in the right place for what he wants to do with her, so in interview he answers questions with measured matter-of-factness, stating his opinions without equivocation.

Asked, for example, how he decides whether or not to go into a pier in tricky conditions (e.g. Ayr Harbour, Lochranza, Portree), he simply states that “if you’re thinking it’s going to be awkward, and it has reached the stage where you’re starting to question it, you pull the plug — you say no.”

Challenged on last summer’s engine room grievances, when the ship lost several personnel, he says “you have to adhere to the correct company procedures on board, and if you’re not prepared to do this, you’re not only risking injury to yourself, you’re also risking the good name and operational ability of the company.

“In the [shipping] industry today it’s safety, safety, safety. One thing I don’t like to hear on any ship is ‘we’ve always done it that way’. If you start to hear comments like that, it doesn’t immediately make you think of modern safety practices. If there’s an accident, the first person they’re going to ask questions of is me” — a reference to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the government’s safety watchdog.

‘The best thing is the ship handling’: Captain Cochrane on Waverley’s starboard bridge wing. Copyright Andrew Clark

In many respects Ross Cochrane was an unlikely candidate to take over from Andy O’Brian as Senior Master a year ago. Just 29 at the time, he might have been considered a trifle young compared to Clyde steamer captains of yesteryear. Before doing a week as relief Mate in 2015, he had never handled the ship or heard of the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, the charity which saved Waverley for ‘operational preservation’ back in 1973.

Just as significant, having gained his Master’s ticket and reached the rank of First Officer/Navigator with P&O Cruises, he was enjoying a fast-track career on ocean liners and could have been in line for his own command. A shift to Waverley meant a drop in pay, less comfortable working conditions and direct contact with the ‘Trip Advisor generation’ of day passengers. Where was the logic in that?

It helped that Captain Cochrane already knew Andy O’Brian and Chief Officer Gary MacDonald: they had been members of the same class at Glasgow Maritime Academy. Captain O’Brian had shown him round the ship during winter lay-up early in 2015 and offered him a taster as relief Mate for a week that summer. “I did one manoeuvre from Largs,” Captain Cochrane recalls, “but I was mostly focused on just being able to point the ship in the right direction and keeping her there. It took a bit of getting used to.”

When Andy O’Brian resigned as Senior Master after the 2015 season and “told me an opportunity was coming up, I said ‘that’s nice’ and never thought much about it. But then Waverley Excursions Ltd invited me to apply for the job, so they must have liked what they saw. I went through the interview process and in the spring of 2016 I had a decision to make. The big plus was getting my own ship. It’s a short season, so I would have the opportunity to work at home in winter for my pilotage exemptions [necessary for the various coastal waters around the UK where Waverley sails]. But the best thing is the ship handling. The job involves a lot of [behind the scenes] ‘business’ on an hour-to-hour basis, but it’s essentially about driving the ship. That’s the fun part.”

Captain Cochrane’s Lochranza debut was on 29 May 2016. Copyright CRSC

He duly took charge a year ago, accompanied on his first two days by one of Waverley’s past Masters, before being left to his own devices on the third day. The weather was calm and sunny, and Captain Cochrane negotiated Lochranza’s narrow pier-face with aplomb. Thereafter the ship’s new Master won almost universal plaudits for his cool shiphandling, his instinctive grasp of Waverley’s quirks and his fluent announcements over the ship’s tannoy whenever a change of schedule was necessary.

Captain Cochrane’s upbringing at Coleraine in Northern Ireland offers no clues about his aptitude for the job — or about his career as a far-travelled mariner. He has no sea-going ancestors and, having studied Maths and Science to A level, his instinct on leaving school was to become an engineer. Weighing up various opportunities, he chose an engineering cadetship with P&O Cruises, before coming to the realisation, shortly after joining P&O’s Aurora, that he might be happier on deck. To facilitate the switch he studied at Warsash Maritime Academy in Southampton and joined Star Princess as a deck cadet, transferring after three months to Queen Elizabeth 2. Beneath the glamour of the ship’s reputation lay an apprenticeship in paint-chipping, sand-papering and varnishing — alongside the less menial duty of shadowing junior officers and deck crew, learning the basics of fire-fighting, life-saving and tendering.

With intermittent spells back at college, he served out his cadetship on Oriana (world cruise) and Crown Princess (the ‘Caribbean bus route’ based at Puerto Rico), before gaining his Officer of the Watch ticket in 2008. That opened the way to promotion as Third Officer, initially on Pacific Dawn cruising out of Sydney, then on Arcadia for two world cruises. By the spring of 2011 he had his ‘Chief Mate Unlimited’ ticket, leading to the Second Mate’s job on Adonia — a two-year stint, sailing to Cape Horn, the Mediterranean and the Kiel Canal — and enjoying a spell of temporarily acting up as First Officer. From Christmas 2013 until his appointment as Master of Waverley in the spring of 2016, he served as First Officer on Ventura, gaining his Master’s ticket two and a half years ago.

Ventura at Gibraltar. Copyright Daniel Ferro

How easy was it to transfer from a large cruise liner to a 240-foot paddle steamer? “It seemed to come quite quickly,” is Captain Cochrane’s sanguine reply. “I’d done ship handling courses on a P&O simulator, and handled Ventura, so I had quite a few arrivals and departures on my log sheets.”

Waverley, he discovered, was different. “Things happen a lot faster. She speeds up and stops quickly. Under five knots the steering struggles. Near a pier she’ll skid and slide sideways — sometimes to your advantage, sometimes not.”

Captain Cochrane’s habit of approaching piers more gently than other Waverley captains makes sense when you hear him talking about the relationship between paddle power and rudder response. If you go full astern in a slow turn, he says, the turn will stop, the ship will stop and the alignment of ship to pier-face does not go as planned, because of the sheer volume of water moved by the paddles.

“The paddles want the ship to go straight ahead or straight astern. The rudder on Waverley isn’t massive — it’s a traditional spade-type rudder — and as the speed reduces, the flow of water over it reduces. So if you use a lot of power, the force of the paddles overwhelms the rudder. My experience — others might disagree — is that the ship performs better when you limit the astern power when arriving at piers.”

So which are the problematic piers? In addition to Lochranza, where the small pier-face makes it hard to ‘balance’ the ship and land passengers in windy conditions, he cites Dunoon, where the end of the breakwater is poorly fendered and the tide bounces off the wall. Ayr was “a bit of a disaster last summer due to the weather [Waverley made only one call]. We need a pilot because it is an Associated British Ports harbour [unlike other Clyde piers] and I don’t have pilotage exemption there. But I’d been there in 2015 with Andy O’Brian and I knew the procedure” — turning into the berth on the north wall, warping the ship round the knuckle using the aft spring line, and either running the lines across the harbour or running astern across to Compass Pier.

At Girvan on 22 August 2016 with harbourmaster Roddy Leitch, who retires next weekend after 30 years in the job. Copyright CRSC

Girvan is “straight in and straight alongside”, but Largs can be deceptive. “You think the wind will be on your head, but after lining up you can discover it is marginally pushing you off the pier, and so when the ship stops you’re left having to depend on one man getting a heaving line ashore. The stern will swing in, but if the bow swings out, that’s it gone and you have to go round again.

“Any pier can be tricky in the wrong winds. Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight has its moments because there’s a lot of tide and a lot of boat moorings, with yachts constantly entering and leaving the harbour. It’s sometimes difficult to see when the tide turns, and you’re hungry for information every time you approach, to know what’s going on at the pier-head.”

Captain Cochrane impressed everyone on his first visit to Campbeltown, when he let the wind turn the ship round so that — from a starting position facing inshore, and holding on to the stern rope — she was able to leave without going astern. “We had the pilot boat there to give us a little push towards the end, but I wanted to see how far the wind would get us round. The ship is so light, with a lot of windage forward, that any slight wind, even if slow to start, will get you moving.”

In such situations, does it ever cross his mind that a bow thruster would be useful? “That’s not a good way to approach any manoeuvre on this ship. A bow thruster might help at times, but you don’t plan manoeuvres on the basis of “If I had a bow thruster….” when there isn’t one and there isn’t one coming.”

Going astern was another of Waverley’s quirks he had to grapple with: she is notorious for swinging uncontrollably into the wind under astern power. Luckily for Captain Cochrane, virtually every pier he had to negotiate last summer offered him space to follow the ship’s lead. “You can fight as long as you like, using the rudder, but eventually the wind is going to win. I have never put myself in a situation where going astern presented a problem.”

With Ayr pilot John Munro on 22 August 2016. Copyright CRSC

One potential problem-spot is Portree, which offers no room for an uncontrolled ‘swing’. Strong winds ruled out a call there on his first scheduled visit last June, and the next day Waverley made the morning call but not in the afternoon. Portree passengers had to be bussed back from Kyle of Lochalsh.

Captain Cochrane well understands that navigational decisions can have commercial implications. “A lot starts to happen very quickly. You have to work out how you are going to resolve the problem, communicate with the passengers immediately, and get coaches where they need to be.”

All of which requires a different set of skills to a large cruise ship, where the Master has extensive back-up. “Waverley doesn’t have the onshore operations of a cruise organisation,” he says, “but with a smaller crew you can solve problems more quickly. You’re your own agents. You have to think ahead to where you’re going to berth overnight, where to get fuel and fresh water. You definitely get the full picture of running a ship here.”

As we leave the Master’s cabin (behind the wheelhouse) and proceed to the deck, we meet one of the new Chief Engineers, John Stark, a Scot with decades of steam experience. Tomasz Kowalczyk and Zibby Luczak, stalwarts of the deck crew, are swathed in boiler suits, touching up the paintwork. Gary MacDonald and Iain O’Brian, the Purser, are also getting their hands dirty.

Like them, Captain Cochrane sees his return to Waverley this season as “a natural progression”. At the gangway I ask if he is aware of the great lineage of Clyde steamer captains and his contribution to it. His response is an unsentimental ‘no’. “It’s a professional job, and I do it as professionally as I can.” But can he offer assurances we’ll find him on the bridge again next year? Reluctant to hold any hostages to fortune, his reply is typically down-to-earth. “We’ll talk about a third season in October.”


At Keppel on his first day in sole command of Waverley, 29 May 2016. Copyright CRSC

Waverley at Kyle on 2 June 2016, with Lochalsh Junior Pipe Band. Copyright CRSC

Landing exercise by HM Coastguard helicopter off Rum on 2 June 2016. Copyright CRSC

At Portree on 3 June 2016. Copyright CRSC

At Campbeltown on 14 August 2016. Copyright CRSC

Pilot transfer in the open sea off Ayr on 22 August 2016, before Waverley heads off for Girvan. Copyright CRSC

Approaching Ayr on 22 August 2016, Waverley’s only call of the season, with pilot boat in attendance. Copyright CRSC

Last day of the season: Waverley at Rothesay with Argyle on 16 October 2016. Copyright CRSC

Waverley leaves Garvel Dry Dock, Greenock, on 12 May 2017. Copyright Cameron Shaw

Captain Cochrane (second left) on deck last weekend with Chief Officer Gary MacDonald, able seaman Tomasz Kowalczyk and bosun Zibby Luczak. Copyright Andrew Clark

Ten of the Best: Waverley from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree, Raasay and Tobermory

Interview: Captain David Howie

Ship Talk: Andy O’Brian

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