Was Balmoral’s September weekend visit to Scotland a success? With one cancelled sailing and modest loadings on two of her three remaining excursions, the ship’s first Clyde cruising programme since 2008 was not exactly a money-spinner. But for enthusiasts, it represented a golden opportunity not only to savour Balmoral’s finer points but also to appreciate the dedication of her Captain and crew. Report by Charles McCrossan.
Friday 23 September 2016 dawned bright and sunny in Glasgow, and Balmoral’s crew were busy preparing for the day ahead as I crossed the Millennium Bridge. The ship herself, lying alongside what is now recognised as Waverley’s berth at the Science Centre, looked good in the morning sun. She had arrived there at 2300 on Wednesday 23 September after a 16-hour voyage from North Wales. Balmoral was selected as the National Historic Ships Flagship of the Year 2016 and was flying a special pennant to mark this award during her stay on the Clyde.
Departing on time, Balmoral eased astern across the river to cant before heading off downriver. On board the majority of passengers could be classed as ‘enthusiasts’, and there were many familiar faces and friends to catch up with.
Soon we were passing BAE Govan, with the second of the Royal Navy’s new batch of offshore patrol vessels, Medway, at an advanced stage of construction in the building shed. There was little else of interest on the upper part of the river – the BAE Scotstoun (formerly Yarrows) site now appears like a vast waste land with all building and fabrication sheds removed. The first of the offshore patrol vessels, Forth, could be seen under layers of protective wrapping in the drydock at Scotstoun, having been floated out from a semi-submersible launch barge on September 1.
Every year sailing down the river, you find that things have changed. As well as the clearances at BAE Scotstoun, what was originally part of the Scottish Maritime Museum at Braehead is now — a doughnut and coffee shop! For some time before we reached Greenock we could see various parts of the impressive Ceona Amazon, which had arrived only a few days earlier for lay-up. It is worth researching this ship, described as a Versatile Deepwater Field Development Vessel, just to see her impressive list of statistics and capabilities. A heavy lift capacity of 800 tonnes and the ability to work at a depth of 10,000 feet are just two that caught my eye.
The call at Greenock increased the number on board significantly and then we headed over to Kilcreggan, Dunoon and down to Largs for more modest pick-ups. As we left Kilcreggan, we got our first taste of the biting cold wind sweeping up the estuary, and it was then that it became obvious that Balmoral has fewer places to hide and shelter from the wind than her former fleet mate, Waverley. Time for lunch and a warm drink.
The dining saloon is well laid out and comfortable. My memory from my last sailing on Balmoral kept telling me that the tables were much more crammed together and it was difficult to get in and out of a seat. That is certainly not the case now, and the staff were extremely attentive and helpful – a credit to the ship.
On leaving Dunoon, Captain Howie had to hug the Cowal coast for a few miles as a submarine with attendant escorts was heading upriver. This allowed Balmoral to demonstrate her rolling capabilities as we were now exposed to the full force of the sou’westerly wind and a reasonable swell which had built up. Things settled down again as we altered course to head to Largs, but we felt a bit more of Balmoral’s liveliness as we crossed from Largs to Rothesay. As we had had the best of the day and rain was threatening, I opted to disembark at Rothesay and head back to Glasgow via CalMac and Scotrail.
Balmoral’s sailing on the Saturday to Millport for the fireworks and illuminations was cancelled due to poor weather conditions. Things had improved to some degree by Sunday morning, but it was still dull and overcast as we headed downriver on a Round Bute cruise. The first new sighting on the trip downriver was HMS Somerset lying at Shieldhall on a courtesy visit, already with her first batch of visitors onboard.
Again, enthusiasts dominated the passenger loading. Those who were sailing for the second time over the weekend probably had more layers or heavier clothing after the experience of Friday. Missed on Friday through talking too much but caught on Sunday was Northern Lighthouse Board’s tender Pole Star, unusually in Rothesay Dock. During the river passage the small coaster Marc-André was passed. At Greenock the 228-metre container ship MSC Atlantic (37,000 gross tons) was much larger than the usual fleet of feeder container ships which call. There was another good pick up at Greenock. After calls at Largs and Rothesay, the cruise round Bute — outward via the Kyles — was enjoyable with mostly dry, but windy, conditions. The ship does have a reasonable amount of internal accommodation but the majority wanted to sail in the open air despite the cold. It was surprising when we got back to Rothesay Bay just how calm and still it was after what we had experienced around the island.
Over the weekend Balmoral demonstrated her manoeuvrability, her ability to accelerate away from piers, and a fair turn of speed as she stretched her legs. Her tendency to roll in a swell has already been mentioned but another feature of Balmoral, enjoyed by many on board but which left a few with some concern on their faces, was the way she heeled over during a tight turn at some speed. Throughout the weekend I heard many conversations comparing her style, atmosphere and performance to the halcyon days of sailing on a variety of Clyde steamers from Duchesses to the Maid class motorships.
An intriguing feature of the way Captain Howie handled Balmoral was the approach to piers and the subsequent movements to tie her up alongside. Balmoral’s approach was bow-first at an angle of approximately 60/70 degrees; two bow ropes were secured and then the stern was brought alongside. The ship handling throughout the weekend was impressive but just very different to what regular Clyde cruisers are used to.
Monday’s cruise was to Lochranza. Having done the two previous sailings downriver from Glasgow, I decided to join at Largs. With an hour to spare, it was quite amusing in the town to see so many well kent faces coming off the train and buses, drinking coffee or wandering along the prom. Balmoral eventually appeared but had to slow to allow the Cumbrae ferry access to the slipway at the pier. All the lost souls wandering around Largs suddenly converged and the queue was the best of the weekend. Soon we were aboard and heading to Rothesay and Tighnabruaich before the cruise to Lochranza.
Over the weekend Balmoral’s passes through the narrows in the Kyles of Bute seemed to take yacht crews by surprise and will have highlighted the need for some to brush up their knowledge, if not learn, about ship horn signals. We did get to the five short blasts at one stage!
The weather forecast had not been good for the area of our excursion and apparently it rained most of the day in Glasgow, but we got many bright spells with even some warm sunshine at times as we sailed down the west side of Bute and headed across towards Arran. As we approached Lochranza a very obvious problem presented itself in the shape of the new CalMac hybrid ferry Catriona. Tied up on the inner side of the pier, she was sticking out past the end of the pier head where Balmoral was supposed to berth.
Catriona had had an operational failure the previous day and Loch Tarbert had been transferred from Largs to operate the Claonaig service. Captain Howie explained the situation to passengers and Balmoral circled the bay a few times, but eventually we were advised that there was no possibility of berthing at Lochranza and he was assessing alternative options.
In recent years Waverley’s trips to Lochranza have included a short cruise to Skipness. Balmoral was also offering this. Previously, along with many others, I had opted for the break at Lochranza and a stretch of the legs or some other form of refreshment, but I can now say I have been to Skipness! By the time we reached the Kintyre coast Captain Howie announced he had decided to proceed to Tarbert to give some Arran residents on board the opportunity to make their way home via Claonaig.
This gave us all the unexpected bonus of a trip into Loch Fyne, and there was a buzz amongst the enthusiasts about a call at Tarbert, somewhat tempered when it was announced that only those leaving the ship for Claonaig would be allowed ashore – so no photo opportunity. Nevertheless, it was a lovely cruise up the Argyll coast, and with the following wind it was pleasant on the open deck.
Leaving Tarbert behind, we passed inside Sgat Mòr (Skate Island) and took the shortest route to Ardlamont Point before turning into the Kyles again and retracing our route to Largs, accompanied on the Rothesay to Largs section by some lovely sunset colours.
It was a great weekend. It would have been good to see more people supporting the vessel and her operators, the Bristol-based White Funnel Ltd, but those who did sail thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and while there was a predominance of coastal and Clyde cruising enthusiasts on board, this provided many opportunities for friends to catch up. All the crew, from the Captain down, went out of their way to make passengers feel welcome and ensure they had a good experience.
In these challenging times it is to be hoped that Balmoral will return to Scotland in 2017.
Charles McCrossan was CRSC Webmaster 2011-15.
SCENE ON RIVER AND ESTUARY DURING BALMORAL’S SEPTEMBER WEEKEND ON THE CLYDE