Colin J. Smith describes a journey to a familiar location — with something of a twist.
In the summer of 1985, following several years out of the day excursion business, Caledonian MacBrayne offered Tuesday and Thursday cruises from Gourock using the car ferry Jupiter — the aim being to provide additional ferry services to Cowal and Bute, combined with an excursion sailing. I decided to go on the first scheduled Thursday cruise to Tighnabruaich via Dunoon, Wemyss Bay and Rothesay.
July 4th saw a typical Firth of Clyde summer morning, the sea mist over the river showing no sign of lifting whilst the waters of the estuary were a glassy black calm. At Greenock I watched Glen Sannox leaving the Bristol Berth, assuming she was bound for Wemyss Bay to take up the Rothesay service alongside Saturn. But to my surprise Saturn was berthed at Gourock, and as I walked along the pier she departed at the same moment as Glen Sannox appeared off Fort Matilda. With Juno on the Dunoon run I concluded that Saturn had broken down and was heading for repairs, our intended excursion ship Jupiter was replacing her on the Rothesay run and we were heading to the Kyles of Bute aboard the mighty Glen Sannox – a very welcome twist to the schedule.
I soon found myself leaning on the rail of the ‘Sannox’ as she pointed her bows towards the misty mountains on the Argyll shore, her Wichmann diesels growling away deep in her bowels. She was soon gliding over the glassy waters towards Dunoon, with the sun burning through the mist and offering the prospect of a summer scorcher ahead.
The well-known figure of CalMac Publicity Manager and fellow steamer enthusiast Walter Bowie appeared on deck. He made sure that the cruising passengers got a personal ‘welcome aboard my ship’ message.
Having embarked further cruise passengers at Dunoon, Glen Sannox headed for Wemyss Bay where, accompanied by the squeal of fenders against pier timbers, thruster-less reversing into the link span was undertaken. With the ever more intense sound of purring diesels emanating from her funnel, Walter’s greeting from the bridge wing to the waiting pier hands was “it’s not often you get luxury liners tying up in here”!
The remaining mist burned away as we headed for Rothesay. After we had disembarked vehicles there and swung out of the bay, Walter announced that he hoped we were enjoying our cruise, and that Caledonian MacBrayne were sorry it wasn’t the Jupiter but he wasn’t because Glen Sannox was a better boat anyway. I agreed. He also announced that whilst we were travelling on the oldest ship in the fleet, passengers might be interested to know that the newest ship — Hebridean Isles — had just been launched at her builder’s shipyard at Selby in Yorkshire. An auspicious day indeed.
In the sunshine in the East Kyle, Glen Sannox scythed through the still water, passing another old stager — the coal burning puffer VIC 32. As the puffer disappeared towards Rothesay under a plume of coal smoke I recalled the words of the former Waverley engineer Ian Muir, who wrote in his book Dinosaur Down Below that “puffers were the greatest”.
After slowing to thread the Narrows, Glen Sannox passed the mouth of Loch Riddon and soon we were turning to berth ‘port side to’ at Tighnabruaich. Here we encountered a problem: there was no gangway on the pier and passengers seemed keen to undertake some shore leave.
Thinking of everything, Caledonian MacBrayne had brought their own gangway, except that it was on the car deck and the passengers weren’t. The solution was to bring the gangway up from the car deck on the hoist and disembark it onto the pier. And so took place the only occasion on which I have seen a car ferry raising her hoist and lowering the ramp onto the narrow confines of Tighnabruaich Pier, even if the object being unloaded was not a car, but a gangway.
An hour later we were all aboard and the great ship powered away from Tighnabruaich to retrace her route, leaving the gangway behind for the use of Jupiter for the remainder of the season. Back at Gourock the ‘Sannox’ soon swept seawards on her next employment — another routine crossing on the Dunoon car ferry service.
It had been a great day in great weather, made all the more enjoyable by the personal attention of one of Caledonian MacBrayne’s most enthusiastic and personable staff members.