From Norway to Naples

Harald Jarl in 2001 at the Norwegian port of Harstad, north of the Arctic Circle, while operating the service for which she was designed — the workhorse Hurtigruten coastal route. Built in 1960 at Trondheim, she was later converted into a 100-passenger cruise ship. Renamed Serenissima, she is now regularly seen in the Western Isles and Mediterranean. Copyright Iain Dewar

Iain Dewar describes how a former Norwegian coastal cruise ship led him to the rediscovery of a Maid.

It had started in September 2001 when my wife Helen and I were introduced to the splendours of the Norwegian seaboard courtesy of the crack Coastal Express vessel Harald Jarl, undoubtedly ‘the smertest ship in the fleet’. We then had the melancholy pleasure of being part of the tremendous send-off as she began her very last voyage for TFDS (one of two companies providing the service) – uniforms, bands and speeches that went on for so long that her departure was much delayed.

One develops a fondness for such a ship. An attempt to travel during her short reincarnation as Andrea failed and, unsurprisingly, so did the company. A long lay-up gave little hope of a further resurrection, but then good news: a Russian businessman with river-cruising experience had bought her. Better still, as Serenissima, she was chartered to the British company Noble Caledonia.

West Highland weather: Waverley and Serenissima in Oban Bay on 1 June 2016. Copyright CRSC

In May 2013 some good friends had to drop out of a booking, and Helen and I had no choice but to take their places at just four days’ notice.

The outer Hebrides were good. Being diverted to Tobermory is now almost traditional for those of us used to the effects of West Highland weather on Waverley’s schedule: but the highlight was undoubtedly fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition to land on St Kilda with a bonus cruise amongst the Stacs. Wonderful!

In 2011 a holiday in Sorrento had given me an opportunity to ‘find’ Maid of Skelmorlie, much despised in her youth but now one of the few surviving links with childhood.

Launched from Inglis’ yard in 1953 as one of four sisters, she had operated Clyde ferry services and short cruises in the shadow of the far more glamorous steamers she was supplanting. But as a passenger-only vessel she too quite quickly became obsolete, overtaken by the car ferry revolution. Sold to Italy in 1973 she was (perhaps ironically) herself converted into a car ferry.

By all accounts she operated very successfully for two decades between Sorrento and Capri and subsequently on other Bay of Naples services, for a period in company with the former Maid of Cumbrae. Various CRSC worthies found their way aboard and at least one excellent article in the Club’s magazine followed (see Clyde Steamers No. 22, 1986, The Italian Job and No. 26, 1991, Return to Sorrento, both by Ian Hall).

The former Maid of Skelmorlie at Naples in October 2011. Copyright Iain Dewar

At first, discovery seemed easy: there was a cliff-top view of a vessel being refurbished in Sorrento harbour which could well have been the former ‘Maid’. An ankle-challenging walk down the cliff was, however, rewarded with disappointment. The last recorded sighting had been in Naples itself, so I made a gentle suggestion to Helen that a train trip there – to see the sights of course – might be interesting.

Naturally one had to go to the waterfront – and there she appeared to be, but out of reach half-way down the mole. Here cunning had to be adopted. Surely my wife would like to visit Capri by fast-craft? Indeed she would, allowing — purely coincidentally — a close pass.  That gloomy autumn day gave a poor photo but it was indeed Maid of Skelmorlie – or Ala as she was now named. She had been laid up since about 2005.

Serenissima was herself visiting Naples in September 2017, and what wife could resist a Mediterranean cruise, calling at all sorts of interesting small ports?

So that’s how I came to be balanced in Serenissima’s bows this autumn, camera poised but Vesuvius ignored, wondering as we moved slowly up the harbour whether the ‘Maid’ would still be there. And she was!

Rustier than before and with her name repainted in a larger and more florid typeface, but still afloat, she lay almost hidden behind a larger laid-up companion — goodness knows why and for what purpose (although we speculated darkly about Mafia rackets). Through the Chief Officer I asked the Naples pilot if he knew anything. The shrugging response was that she was an old ship which had been there for years. So if anyone has a shilling or two….

Pictured in her prime on the Clyde, Maid of Skelmorlie was sold to Italy in 1973. Copyright CRSC Dr Joe McKendrick Collection

Ala ex Maid of Skelmorlie departing Capri in August 1987. Courtesy William MacDonald

Her name now in large, florid letters on the bow, Ala ex Maid of Skelmorlie cuts a forlorn look at Naples in September 2017. Copyright Iain Dewar

Serenissima at Naples in September 2017, berthed ahead of Seabourn Encore. Copyright Iain Dewar

Mediterranean climes: Serenissima at the Sicilian port of Syracuse in September 2017. Copyright Iain Dewar

On the Spot: Iain Dewar