Richard Coton recalls an epic voyage on Duchess of Hamilton that was cut short by huge seas in the lower Firth.
“Do you realise that Waverley has only made it to Ayr once this year?” someone asked. “And only once in 2016 too. What’s going on? Can’t she cope with a little bit of weather?”
I was standing on the aft deck of MV Balmoral in September 2017, near the end of a magnificent day’s cruising to Lochranza and Campbeltown. Arran’s Sleeping Warrior rose majestically behind us, dark peach-coloured beneath the glowing sky. The smooth path of our wake spread from the stern, overlaid by a fantail of creamy white froth, like it used to do from Duchess of Hamilton. And of course, the seas were always calm and blue, just like today….
The ‘Hamilton’, of course, was the quintessential Ayr steamer, having been built in 1932 to spend her summers giving excursions out of that port. My memories of her cover her final decade, long after she had been sent up river to Gourock. And one day aboard her is etched in my mind above all others: Friday 4 September 1964. It was a trip to Ayr in very, very bad weather, a voyage that bordered on the dangerous — far worse than anything Waverley would attempt today.
Living in England, I was lucky in that my school holidays lasted well past the end of August, and I had bought a Weekly Runabout ticket (for the princely sum of 27/6d — £1.37p in today’s money) for the first week in September. Unlike the previous year’s Indian summer, the weather that week was mixed at best.
On the Wednesday, I sailed on Jeanie Deans on her last trip Round the Lochs and Firth of Clyde. It rained constantly; my one clear memory is sheltering under the forward boat deck as we left Hunter’s Quay, with the rain coming down in sheets. A deckhand told me that it was her last call there: she was being withdrawn at the end of the month and they were binding her paddle floats with steel rope, to hold them together.
Friday dawned dry, with a white sun peering between steely clouds. As I made my way onto Craigendoran Pier from the elegant curve of the station building, the wind made me stagger. Waverley and Jeanie Deans lay on opposite sides of the pier, shifting slightly at their moorings. Maid of Ashton was ploughing towards us on her first run of the day from Gourock and Kilcreggan. One of the other ‘Maids’ — was it the ‘Argyll’ or ‘Skelmorlie’? — was alongside, ready for the 8.40am sailing to Rothesay.
As we sailed across the Tail o’ the Bank, the dark shape of MacBrayne’s Lochfyne motored slowly past Greenock’s Esplanade from her overnight berth to Gourock, where an ABC car ferry shared the pier with Duchess of Hamilton. While the ‘Maid’ made her way past the Cloch, a Ministry of Defence weather ship was ponderously heading out towards its post somewhere in the stormy waters of the North Atlantic.
These former Second World War ‘Castle’ class frigates, still with venerable triple expansion engines, were a feature of the Clyde in the 1950s and 60s before the advent of weather satellites. Based in the James Watt Dock, they would sail into the North Atlantic and hold their position for weeks at a time. Using a range of instruments including weather balloons, they made measurements of air and seawater temperatures, wind speeds etc, that were a mainstay of our weather forecasting system until the mid 70s.
It was certainly not the easiest job in seafaring, for they were more or less ‘dead in the water’ day after day, taking whatever the North Atlantic threw at them.
By this time the wind was straining our flags, and I remember seeing the always-troublesome blue-grey smoke from the funnel being blown horizontally at right angles to our course. Strangely, the waves were slight and we made good time, with calls at Dunoon and Innellan on our way to Rothesay.
Rothesay Pier was my favourite, the place where I could still imagine something of the busyness of the Clyde fleet in the 1930s that my father would describe so vividly from his own boyhood adventures with a steamer season ticket. By September, things had calmed down but there were still three steamer arrivals within 15 minutes: our ‘Maid’ at 10am, and — simultaneously at 10.15 — the car ferry from Wemyss Bay and the majestic Duchess of Hamilton.
A burst of Scottish country dance music would greet each vessel in turn, accompanied by the rich Scottish accent of the pier announcer: “Turbine steamer Duchess of Hamilton for Largs, Keppel Pier for Millport, Brodick, Ayr and cruise round Holy Isle — Berth Number 3”. (‘Berth’ always rhymed with a very Scottish pronunciation of ‘earth’.)
The trip over to Largs and the brief call at Keppel were uneventful. There was not much more than a handful of people on board, and most of the rows of pale blue wicker basket chairs in the observation lounge were unoccupied. Our bows lifted a bit once we were south of Farland Head and round the east side of Little Cumbrae, but there was still no hint of what was heading our way.
Of the few passengers aboard, the majority disembarked at Brodick so I had to ship almost to myself. The sky by this time was darkening rapidly to an ominous yellowy grey. And no sooner did we get out beyond the lee of Holy Isle than the fun began. The ‘Hamilton’ was an excellent sea boat, but she was taking heavier and heavier seas onto her starboard bow, seas driven by a south-westerly gale straight up from the Irish Sea. Up she would ride over the top of one roller, down into the next trough, then — crash — a shuddering stagger into the steep side of the next wave.
South towards the Irish Sea was a mass of grey-green heaving water as far as you could see. The sky was very dark. Sheets of spray washed our foredeck — and like the idiot schoolboy I was, I held onto the rail just aft of the rope handling platform and enjoyed every minute of it!
In due course, I became aware that not only was the Captain eyeing me worriedly from the bridge, but a blue-jerseyed seaman had appeared at that little alcove that led from the observation saloon to the foredeck. Reluctantly, I took the hint and stumbled across the streaming deck into the warmth of the lounge. The companionway door was promptly locked behind me, in case I had any thoughts of returning.
As I made my way aft, the deck rolled beneath me, sometimes predictably but then a shudder would run the length of the ship, as we took on more water at the bow. I was having the time of my life, feeling like an old sea dog although I’d only just entered my teens.
You may remember that there were not one but two little shops at the aft end of the observation lounge, just where the windows were replaced by a half-height bulwark. The assistant in charge of the port-side shop was glad to talk, as she had absolutely no customers. Surprisingly, the ‘Hamilton’ had still not changed course. We were heading for Ayr despite the ever-worsening weather. “What’s happening?” I asked. The shop assistant explained that the Captain had been trying to make it to Ayr, but the Ayr Harbour Master had just radioed that he was closing the port. We were looking for a momentary lull in the weather and then we would turn.
As I stood beside the shop, I looked out over the bulwark and realised just how big the seas were getting: the tops of the rollers now seemed to be at the same height as the promenade deck – solid walls of water, really not far away from us at all.
At that moment, the great length of the ‘Hamilton’ started to swing: we were going to make our turn. But suddenly the whole ship tilted sharply sideways, much further than before. There was an almighty crash of breaking crockery in the dining saloon just below us. I glanced at the shop assistant and caught a look of real worry on her face before she quickly hid it.
Just as quickly, the ship swung back onto its original course. The attempt to turn was postponed. We couldn’t get into Ayr but neither, it seemed, could we regain the safety of Arran. Turning was not going to be at all easy, as it made us vulnerable to broadside waves. Eventually, after another failed attempt, we did manage to turn and the adventure was over. Back we went to Brodick, where we lay alongside doing nothing much until it was time to make our way up-firth. I was still pretty wet after my comprehensive soaking on the foredeck earlier, so I made my way down to the warmth of the engine room companionway.
Duchess of Hamilton’s engine room was nothing like as interesting as Waverley’s, as the turbines were hidden well below in the bowels of the ship. Nevertheless, it was still fun to watch the engineers spinning the three large brass horizontal wheels on the control platform, in response to the clanging telegraphs as we manoeuvred at each pier. And the Chief Engineer was a friendly guy (a Geordie I think, though I may be wrong), very happy to talk to a schoolboy.
“That was quite some storm today,” I enthused. He looked me up and down and grinned: “Well, you got pretty wet anyway,” he agreed. “But storms? I used to be on the Weather Ships, bobbing around in the North Atlantic in 40-foot seas in the middle of winter. Now that was real weather!”
Down at Ayr, you’re not far at all from that real weather. It’s probably just as well that Waverley’s crew treat the port with a bit of caution.