More than 20 years after leaving the Clyde, the former Millport passenger ferry Keppel is still in service in Malta. Every summer she gives pleasure to thousands of tourists who take the day trip from Bugibba to Blue Lagoon and the island of Gozo. Susan Forrest is one of many Clydesiders who have renewed their acquaintance with Keppel in the Mediterranean. Here is her account:
When Keppel arrived on the Clyde in 1967, I was still a child, so I don’t remember sailing on her much. Coming to Millport at weekends, we usually crossed on one of the ‘Maids’. One memory I do have is looking out from our house on Marine Parade and seeing Keppel coming between the Eileans. I know now that she was built in 1961 as a Thames ferry, that she spent the late 1980s and early 1990s as CalMac’s cruise boat, and that she left Scotland in 1995 for Malta.
There’s still a strong collective memory of Keppel on the Clyde, and many Scottish holidaymakers have returned from Malta with stories about her. So when the opportunity came to go there in September 2016, my husband Alex and I knew we had to take a trip on her. We picked a hotel that was close to her base at Bugibba, and when we came out onto our balcony on the first morning, we could see her at the quayside, basking in the sun.
Locals refer to her as ‘Hornblower’: the word is emblazoned on the side of her hull, much like ‘Caledonian MacBrayne’ on the hulls of Clyde and Hebridean ferries. Hornblower is the name of the family-owned cruise company that operates her, but the ship is still registered as Keppel, and that’s the name that appears on bow, stern, lifebelts and official documents. Although she was renamed Clyde Rose for her last two seasons on the Clyde (after being sold by CalMac), she was never actually registered as such.
We had the perfect day for our cruise, sunny and calm. Hornblower organises pickups at the various hotels, but we were close enough to walk along the promenade and buy our tickets at the kiosk on the quayside — 30 Euros each, covering the round trip to Blue Lagoon and the island of Gozo, and a minibus tour of Gozo.
Embarkation is at the stern — a steel ramp on a hinge with a motorised pulley to raise and lower it. It’s a practical solution because of the minimal tides in the Mediterranean. The skipper is Joseph Grech, the man who delivered her to Malta in 1995 — though the business is run by his son Kevin and daughter-in-law Katherine. Now in his sixties, Joseph clearly has an affection for the ship and cherishes the contact with Scots who knew her on the Clyde.
Boarding at the stern quarter-deck, you can’t help noticing that the large toilet unit she had on the Clyde has been removed, and the old lifeboat has been replaced by a small rubber tender with outboard engine. On the starboard side of the quarter-deck there’s an opening to the cafeteria on the main deck aft (crisps, burgers, sweets, drinks). On the centreline a short stairway leads up to the promenade deck — now more of a ‘shade deck’, covered by an awning from the wheelhouse to the stern.
Forward of the bridge there’s open-deck seating and you can get to the very tip of the bow. The landing platform above the wheelhouse has been extended aft past the funnel to form a long sun deck. Keppel has a colourful livery and is kept neat and tidy.
Dressed in shorts and T-shirt, Joseph started up the engine at 10.28am and two minutes later we were underway. The crossing to Blue Lagoon, an inlet on the island of Comino, took about an hour — time to reacquaint ourselves with the ship and take note of what was familiar and what was new.
It wasn’t long before I found myself saying ‘I remember that sound’ — exactly the same chugging noise Keppel had on the Clyde. She still has her original Lister Blackstone engine, for which the Grechs get spare parts from MAN Diesel, parent company of Blackstone. Last winter they had it stripped and fitted with new pistons, liners and rings; this winter they aim to open up the Voith unit for inspection. The hull plates are said to be in good condition. Her wheelhouse doesn’t seem to have changed much, and I’m told the control column (central wheel and side-lever) is the original.
Keppel is no faster than she was on the Clyde but just as manoeuvrable. In fact, she is perfect for what she is meant to do. At Blue Lagoon the crew opened up the railings at the side of the ship so that we could jump off for a swim: the water is beautifully clear and warm, and you climb back on board by a ladder. We had an hour ashore and visited the caves. Then we sailed to Gozo where, after a tour of the island, there was still time to admire one of the three double-ended car ferries that maintain the link with the main island.
We were back at Bugibba on time at 5.15pm. It had been an extremely relaxing day: we just sat back and enjoyed it.
Susan and Alex Forrest stayed at the Gilliaru Harbour Hotel, about an hour’s drive from Valetta airport.
Published on 5 October 2016