Waverley’s latest West Highland season had far more ups than downs, and ended with the reputation of her Master considerably enhanced.
It was a masterful piece of ship handling. As Waverley arrived in Portree Bay last Thursday, with a brisk sou’westerly hitting her broadside-on as she emerged from the shelter of the cliffs, more timid souls than Captain Ross Cochrane might have wondered what exactly she was doing there. Hemmed in on all sides, Portree Bay offers little room for manoeuvre and next to no margin for error — especially given the crowd of moorings downwind of the pier, most with boats attached. And yet, approaching with a well-calculated windward advantage, Waverley came alongside as smoothly as a MacBrayne mail steamer. With ropes safely ashore, she was able to counter the offshore gusts by pulling herself in on bow winch and stern capstan, helped by gentle forward and astern movement from the paddles.
Then came the pièce de résistance. After loading her Skye passengers, she pulled out astern into the bay, hunting mercilessly into the wind, with rocky shorelines suddenly crowding in whichever way you looked. But as we have come to expect from him, Captain Cochrane took everything in his stride. Executing a five-point turn, he took the paddler out of the bay as if Portree was part of his daily routine. It was exhilarating — no, inspiring — to behold, and of course the best place to appreciate it was on board.
This was just one of many highlights in the paddler’s 2017 West Highland week. Not all went to plan — that’s life — but what will be remembered was the unfailingly good atmosphere on board, the ship’s mechanical reliability, the quick responses of Master and crew when surprises occurred, the high-calibre communication between bridge and passengers, the near-immaculate timekeeping throughout, and the feeling that, yes, Waverley remains the ship of choice from which to view our glorious Hebridean scenery.
Day one, Tuesday 30th May, was overcast as Waverley eased herself away at 7am from her Science Centre berth in Glasgow. The sky brightened as she steamed down Kilbrannan Sound, and with just short of 200 on board leaving Campbeltown, spirits were high. The MacBrayne pennant was raised as the Mull of Kintyre was rounded. Against expectation, there was no swell in the open sea, and a flood tide whisked the ship through the Sound of Islay at 17-18 knots. There was noticeable rolling on the open crossing to Colonsay and a brief downpour on arrival, but everyone was able to stretch their legs for 20 minutes before Waverley resumed her voyage to Oban, now with the weather on her stern.
Day two, Wednesday 31st May, began with a five-hour northbound ‘repositioning voyage’, so numbers were understandably low — around 100 aboard — as Waverley steamed up the Sound of Mull, past Ardnamurchan and the Small Isles, and on towards Skye. The sun smiled for most of the day, the air was warm, and a good crowd, including a large Glenelg Primary School contingent, came aboard at Armadale for the cruise into Loch Nevis and a relaxed visit to Inverie. There was time for a walk and an ice cream, the return sailing to Armadale having been retimed so as to give priority to CalMac’s three Sound of Sleat ferries. That meant a slightly delayed arrival at Kyle of Lochalsh, but with glorious evening sunshine for the passage through the Glenelg Narrows, no one was complaining.
Day three, Thursday 1st June, was the cruise to Gairloch. As Waverley swept past Raasay, the fresh and cool sou’westerly had some wondering whether the call at Portree would be ventured. But, as previously mentioned, Captain Cochrane executed the various manoeuvres with the sort of assurance that compels admiration.
Heading out beneath Skye’s towering cliffs in the direction of Rona, the wind began to ease, the dolphins came out to play and there was a good crowd awaiting the ship’s arrival at Gairloch, with the Gairloch and District Pipe Band leading the welcome. During the two-hour cruise to Loch Torridon the ship’s shop did a roaring trade, and the return to Gairloch brought a pleasant surprise in the shape of Hebridean Princess at anchor in the bay. The journey back to Kyle via Portree was smooth, with more than one conversation turning to the quality of home-made soup available this year in the dining saloon — flavours thus far including spinach and egg, carrot and coriander, pea and bacon (in addition to the standard menu).
Day four, Friday 2nd June, brought smiles on the bridge when, on arrival at Raasay, it was discovered that the rope-catchers hadn’t yet turned up. The situation was soon remedied and an estimated 40 excursionists boarded. Portree was handled with the same sense of purpose as the previous day, but after backing out and starting to go ahead, a loud clattering noise was heard in the port paddle-box. The ship stopped and the anchor dropped. After an initial investigation, all was revealed: a heavy wire, left by a fisherman on the seabed with a temporary buoy attached, had been picked up by the paddle wheel in the narrow manoeuvring space off the pier, cutting into one of the wooden floats and damaging a radius rod. This was not Waverley’s fault! After some work to cut away the wire, Captain Cochrane felt confident enough to weigh anchor and move to sheltered waters further out.
Thanks to regular updates from the bridge, everyone took the setback in their stride, sitting, chatting and eating lunch while the crew, working as a team, effected temporary repairs. After two hours Waverley was finally free to proceed at reduced speed back to Kyle. Understandably, the repositioning voyage to Oban now had to be undertaken without passengers: regular Waverley-ites duly clubbed together to make arrangements so that no one was without accommodation or transport. The ship made remarkably good progress on her journey south, the flat-calm evening helping to ensure an arrival little more than an hour behind schedule.
Day five, Saturday 3rd June, saw Waverley tied up at Oban’s North Pier: the Four Lochs excursion and evening cruise were cancelled. Seven men from Dales Marine spent 13 hours making the necessary repairs, after which the paddle machinery underwent a successful test at the pier.
Day six, Sunday 4th June, brought another change in schedule. The ship had been due to visit Iona but, just before leaving Oban, Captain Cochrane heard from the boat operator at the Sacred Isle to the effect that, due to the swell in the Sound of Iona, tendering would not be possible. Plan B was to head up the Sound of Mull, with a possible landing at Tobermory, but it quickly transpired that the pier there was closed on Sundays. And so, with a good crowd on board swelled by a strong contingent by bus from Glasgow, Waverley headed off down the Sound of Kerrera, bound for the ‘Four Lochs and a Whirlpool’ cruise she had missed the previous day. After visits to the sheltered waters of Loch Melfort and Loch Crinan, Corryvreckan was reached at slack water. So far, so calm, but the heavy swell on the other side gave everyone a feeling for what it would have been like at Iona. On the way back to Oban, Waverley exchanged loud ‘toots’ with the Colonsay-bound Clansman.
Day seven, Monday 5th June, was Tiree day. With around 150 aboard, Waverley passed Coruisk leaving Oban Bay, Lochinvar off Lochaline and Clansman south of Coll. About 60 embarked at Tobermory, later augmented by a decent crowd for the hour-long cruise from Tiree. The weather was overcast; timekeeping was again excellent. This was the final public voyage of Waverley’s West Highland week (she stayed on at Oban for a charter by Jim Pettigrew, the Scottish businessman and long-time Waverley supporter), and it ended with a characteristically good-humoured announcement over the ship’s tannoy, in which Captain Cochrane praised the quality of work undertaken during the winter refit, thanked those who had stayed the course of the week, and declared that, though things had not always gone to plan, Waverley and her crew had done their best. Whereupon everyone broke into spontaneous applause.
Waverley’s main Clyde season begins on Friday 16th June with a 70th anniversary cruise from Glasgow to Loch Long and Loch Goil, calling at Greenock, Helensburgh, Kilcreggan and Blairmore.