Clyde-built steam tug Portwey

Through a fortunate coincidence of dates with a long planned visit to London, I found myself able to sail on a twin engined, steam powered, Clyde built vessel on the river Thames in early September 2014.   This report records a great day out on the river Thames.

Builders plate   Steam tug Portwey Engine builders plate 

The steam tug Portwey is now owned and cared for by the Steam Tug Portwey Trust who operate her from time to time on the Thames and around the Thames estuary. The tug is normally moored at South Quay in West India Dock, London. Further details of the Trust and Portwey can be found on their website 

Built by Harland and Wolff on the Clyde in 1927, Yard No 786G, she was first owned by the Portland and Weymouth Coaling Company (hence the name).   Portwey was ordered by The Portland & Weymouth Coaling Co. Ltd. on the 10th Nov 1926. and launched on the 10th August 1927
Owner History:
1928 Portland & Weymouth Coaling Company
1938 G.H.Collins & Co. Ltd,Dartmouth
193? Channel Coaling Company
1951 Falmouth Dock and Engineering Company
1962 Richard Dobson
1982 The Maritime Trust
2000 Steam Tug Portwey Trust 
The trips being offered were in conjunction with the Tall Ships visiting Greenwich.  3 trips were offered each day, departing from Mast House Terrace pier and operating over a circular course up to Tower Bridge and back down river, past the tall ships at Greenwich and then turning just off the O2 arena.

Portwey passing under Tower bridge  Portwey in the Pool of London  Portwey heading downriver 

Having opted for the 11:00 departure this provided the unexpected bonus of seeing Portwey steaming under Tower Bridge (unopened) into the Pool of London and turning off the Tower Millenium Pier on her first trip of the day.  At the same time the Queen’s Row Barge – Gloriana – was spotted being towed downriver past HMS Belfast, by the tug Mad Dog.  Judging by the speed the Row Barge was moving and bobbing about, the tug had an apt name!

 Queen’s Row Barge – Gloriana
 Gloriana slipping her tow
Gloriana coming alongside
Mast House Terrace pier 
Gloriana ready to go with her crew of rowers 

Travelling downriver to Mast House Terrace pier on a crowded Meteor Clipper, of the Thames Clippers river bus service, we passed Portwey and Gloriana again.  Shortly after disembarking at Mast House Terrace pier, Gloriana was seen slipping her tow from Mad Dog and at a more sedate pace (powered rather than rowed) making her way to berth at Mast House Terrace pier to await her crew for a rowing event off Greenwich.  It had been an interesting morning so far and the sail on Portwey was still to come.

 Meteor Clipper
Cruise ship Europa
off Greenwich 
Portwey announcing her return
to Mast House Terrace pier 

Moored slightly further downriver, off Greenwich was the cruise ship Europa.   Europa was moored to two large buoys at the bow, and at the stern – more about these buoys later in this report!
Portwey arrived in good time and disembarked her “visitors” from the early morning trip and immediately embraked her next set of “visitors” – a total “visitor” transfer of 24 (The word passenger was carefully avoided throughout the day).   First things first – a safety briefing and the issue of life jackets and instructions on how to put them on.  These were worn throughout the trip.
Very soon we were heading upriver towards Tower Bridge, passing the usual flow of river traffic but, it is suspected, a much higher proportion of packed trip boats taking visitors to the tall ships at Greenwich.  This time Portwey turned just before Tower Bridge (tide was now 2 hrs higher) and started her trip down towards the O2.  All areas of the ship were open to visitors from the bridge right down to the stokehold.  

Furnaces in the boiler room  Engine room   Engine room  Twin Telegraphs 


Friendly crew were very pleased to chat and explain equipment and their workings.  However, a personal  highlight was being allowed to take the wheel for about 25 mins on the down river leg.  My first tongue in cheek instructions were “take her anywhere you like but just don’t hit anything!”.  After the first few minutes on the wheel you began to get a feel for how she responded to wheel movements and felt you were getting into the swing of things.  As we came back down past Mast House Terrace pier the river was getting really busy with lots of trip boats, going and coming, and a good few of the smaller tall ships offering short trips.  The Captain instructed me to “keep well over” and then, as an after thought, “take her between those mooring buoys – that will keep us out of everyone’s road”.  The gap between those buoys suddenly appeared to shrink to what seemed an impossible distance but with my full 15mins of Quarter Master experience we managed to get through them without any paint being removed.  It was really great fun and all the crew made us all really welcome.

 Portwey with whistle blowing Gloriana being rowed  Forward windlass   Captain on the wheel

Some of the larger tall ships were moored along river side berths while some of the smaller vessels were actually berthed within the West India Dock.

Tall ship Dar Mlodziezy  Various vessels alongside river bank  steam tug Barking

Just as we reached our turning point at the O2, the smaller steam tug Barking was seen heading upriver towards West India Dock where she was to meet up with steam tender VIC 96.  These two vessels were to join with Portwey next day in a parade of steam as the tall ships started to depart from the Thames.

Tall ships West India Dock
Tall ships West India Dock
Portwey waiting in lock
before entering West India Dock 

After saying goodbye to Portwey and her crew as she left with her third group of “visitors” for the day, the big decision was about whether to return to the city on the next river ferry or set out for West India Dock.  The chance to see 3 steam ships together in one day was the chosen option.  By this time the sun had come out and the grey mist of the morning had all disappeared and West India Dock was a fine setting to end my day on the river.

 Steam tug Barking tucked inside lighter VIC 96
Steam lighter VIC 96
Steam tug Portwey entering
West India dock
Portwey back at her berth
in West India Dock 

Thanks to all involved with Steam Tug Portwey Trust for a great day out.  The Portwey is a lovely little vessel and it was wonderful to be able to sail on her out on the river.    
Charles McCrossan
If you are ever going to be in London check their website  to see if any planned sailing coincide with your visit, and if you can, make the effort to go for a sail.