On the Spot: Captain Dominic McCall

‘My first memory of Waverley is in 1991, in pouring rain at Fort William: I had no interest in getting out of the car for a closer look. When I was a boy, we used to sail on her twice a year, one south coast trip and one on the Thames, plus other ad hoc sailings when it was something my parents fancied doing. In all honesty, working on Waverley wasn’t ever something that appealed until I came to WEL in 2022. Waverley is my first command’: Captain McCall on Ardnagal Pier at the head of Loch Long on 28 August 2022, the final day of his hugely successful first summer on the Clyde

Dominic McCall is known to steamer fans as the man with possibly the best job in the world — he’s the skipper of Waverley! Since taking command in 2022, he has impressed everyone with his natural ship handling skills and willingness to give excursionists the best possible experience.

Born in Cardiff in 1985 (he is now 38), Captain McCall grew up in Barry before moving across the Bristol Channel to Portishead in 1995. He says the main influence on his decision to go to sea was ‘basically always being around my dad [the prolific shipping author Bernard McCall]. From a young age I used to watch ships coming in and out of the locks at Barry and Cardiff, and I often saw Balmoral at Penarth.’

When Dominic was a small boy, his father founded the ship-focused publishing business Mainline & Maritime Coastal Shipping. Since Bernard’s death in 2021, it has been run by Dominic’s mother Doreen and his brother Iain.

Dominic studied at South Shields Nautical College and got his master’s ticket in September 2017. He lives in north Yorkshire with his wife Kayleigh and their children Freddie, Dylan and Rosalie.

During the current lull before the busy summer schedule begins, Waverleys master was tracked down by Stuart Craig to answer our On the Spot’ questions. Stuart took this opportunity to tweak the usual questions to suit Captain McCall, which should give an insight to what it is like having the best job in the world’.

‘There are few places in the world that can offer some of the views you can witness [when cruising] in the Inner Hebrides’: Waverley approaches the entrance to Upper Loch Torridon on 25 May 2023. Click on image to enlarge

What is your earliest memory of sailing on a ferry?

Brittany Ferries’ Duc de Normandie [built 1978, sold out of the fleet 2005].

What was the last sailing you took, other than Waverley?

Clansman to Coll and Tiree last November.

Which geographical area of operation for the paddler is your favourite?

Without doubt Oban and the Inner Hebrides. If the weather plays ball, there are few places in the world that can offer some of the views you can witness in that area. Also, from a professional point of view, the ports and piers there present less stress/worries generally than some of the other operating areas where pilotage/tugs/strong tides present much more to think about, not only from a navigational point of view, but the sheer logistics of the operation too.

Favourite CalMac ferry: the 1978 Lochmor discharging passengers and cargo onto the ‘red boat’ Ulva at Eigg on 8 April 2000, shortly before both vessels were withdrawn from CalMac service. Click on image to enlarge

Do you have a favourite CalMac ferry?

Lochmor – I remember, on a day trip round the Small Isles as a youngster, being fascinated by the use of the tender boats and crane for landing cargo. It seemed quirky and different.

Which has been Waverleys best livery?

To be honest there is only one I know, so it has to be that. I’ve obviously seen pictures from past eras, but they dont mean anything to me, as they would for other folk with longer memories.

What are the particular challenges of navigating a paddle steamer in and out of tricky harbours, such as Ayr or Portree?

Listening, watching and learning from those who have done it before is a good starting point in overcoming some of the challenges presented. After that you adopt your own style that suits yourself best. There is of course the weather conditions on the day to think about, and at Ayr you are also considering the weather of the previous days too.

Tricky harbours: Waverley leaving Ayr on 7 August 2023

The basic challenge in both harbours, and many others, is the lack of steering at slow speed, and that, with Waverley, the ship will 99% of the time seek the wind when going astern, irrespective of rudder angle — and the direction the wind is coming from isn’t always the direction you want the ship to go.

A brand new paddle steamer is being built for Clyde service. What name would you give it?

Can I be controversial? It would need to have a Welsh themed name. I can’t really be drawn on names, as I don’t have that steamer enthusiast side to me.

You are known for giving excursionists as close a view of the landscape as possible, for example along the north Arran coast. What factors guide you as to how close you can go?

‘Modern fenders and dolphin style arrangements can sometimes not be great for the old paddle steamer’: Waverley on 4 June 2018 at Coll, a destination Captain McCall has programmed into the paddler’s 2024 West Highland week

There is always the element of passage planning and safety of navigation to consider. This means there are a few basic factors in deciding how close we can go to any point of interest: these include onshore/offshore wind and strength, depth of available water, how reliable and up-to-date the survey data is, tidal flows, and concentrations of sailing/fishing vessels, to name just a few. With regards to the north Arran coast, that is actually one of my favourite afternoon cruiseswhich we do, so I just try and make it interesting for myself, in the hope that others also enjoy seeing what I enjoy seeing. In general we head up the way closer in to see the finer details of the coastline and then, coming back, we stay a bit further off so folks can take in the bigger view of the stunning landscape. Where possible we try and give excursionists what has been advertised, so if we advertise the north Arran coast, then my aim is to give them a good view of the north Arran coast.

‘There are many places on the Scottish west coast where you would love to take Waverley, but you also need to consider where the passengers would come from, and the need for the ship to make money’: a throwback to 1983, showing a queue of 600 passengers, waiting to board at Largs. Click on image to enlarge

What would you like to see happen on the Clyde or Hebridean ferry scene over the next few years?

As and when piers are refurbished, I hope to see their modernised/refurbished designs to be ‘paddle steamer friendly’, for example Brodick pier. Modern fenders and dolphin style arrangements can sometimes not be great for the old paddle steamer to berth alongside.

The best point-to-point route you’ve sailed on?

Am I OK to mention trips on commercial ships? Kristinehamn [in Sweden] to Beckingham on the River Trent [Lincolnshire] was pretty memorable.

Is there a pier or area into which you would like to take Waverley in the future, one she has not been to before?

We are heading to a completely new port this year, Ullapool, and I hope we will see a few familiar faces onboard to enjoy this ‘first’. I am always on the lookout for new places, but they have to be safe and navigable for a paddle steamer.

Captain McCall (centre) at CRSCs 90th anniversary dinner in Glasgow on 14 October 2022, flanked by Captain Alex Morrison (left) and Waverley chief steward Aoife Charles (right). Dominic had just returned Waverley to the Clyde after a successful Thames season

They also need to be commercially viable. There are many places on the Scottish west coast which you could look to take her, and I would love to, but you also need to consider where the passengers would come from, and also need to avoid too much light running. In other words what I want to do, and probably what many enthusiasts would also enjoy, needs to be balanced with the need for the ship to make money, the bottom line being we all want to see her operating again next year don’t we? If I could take her anywhere, it would be to Scarborough. Never say never, but it’s highly unlikely to happen again.

What inspired you to join CRSC?

Well I’ve always enjoyed the Clyde and west coast of Scotland, and have done from a young age. We had a number of family holidays at a caravan park near Dunoon, visiting my brother who was at University in the area when I was younger, and I was always keen to drag my parents on the CalMac boats, but that was more to do with the wish to get a cone of chips than anything else.

‘It is always pleasing to see CRSC members bringing their families on board the ship and enjoying the day’: during the Club’s nominated excursion to Ardrishaig on 30 July 2023, Captain McCall welcomed onto the bridge (l-r) Craig Osborne, David Robertson with his sons Owen and Adam, Club cruise coordinator Neil Guthrie and CRSC honorary member Douglas McGowan. Click on image to enlarge

But beyond that interest in the Clyde area, I always like to support those who support you, and it was soon evident that Waverley enjoys the support of CRSC, so I thought — why not join and also help rekindle a bit of my own interest in the area which I had previously.

How would you like the Club to evolve over the next few years?

There must be a continued focus on encouraging youngsters to come through, I believe. It is always pleasing to see members bringing their families onboard the ship and enjoying the day, and I very much hope this is a trend to continue.

Your father Bernard had a great interest in and knowledge of shipping. Was he a major influence on your career choice?

Yes, that’s a fair comment. Through his contacts I gained experience of being at sea before it became a career. In 1995 I went on a coaster called Selene Prahm for a two-week ‘holiday’ with him, going from Hull to Bremen and through the Kiel Canal to Uusikaupunki in south-west Finland, then a return passage from Mäntyluoto to Hull.

‘Dad and Dom in Moscow, 20 August 2001’: 15-year old Dominic McCall (left) with his father, the distinguished shipping author and publisher Bernard McCall, at the end of a cruise from St Petersburg

That trip was cut short as I broke my elbow on the return trip, so the return was made via Kiel Hospital, and Sabena Airways to Bristol Royal Infirmary. Quite an adventure when you are 10, but it didn’t put me off.

There were further trips on coasters, as well as on local Bristol Channel tugs. All helped to foster an interest in a career at sea.

Your breakfast roll just before you set off ‘doon the watter’ for another day of cruising: egg, bacon or square sausage?

Bacon and egg, with hash brown? Or I suppose it should be a tattie scone actually.

Waverley opens her 2024 programme of sailings on Friday 17 May with a weekend of cruises from Glasgow, followed by a nine-day West Highland season.

Her main Clyde season runs from 28 June to 25 August, and she will also give sailings on the Bristol Channel (31 May-23 June) and the south coast of England and Thames (29 August-13 October).

For 2024 timetables and bookings, contact: 0141 243 2224  waverleyexcursions.co.uk

‘ON THE SPOT’ QUESTION FOR OUR READERS: Have you joined CRSC? Click here for your £15 introductory membership and you’ll get all the benefits, including the highly prized annual Review of west coast shipping, CRSC’s colour magazine and exclusive access to photo-rich ‘members only’ posts on this website.

The McCall family in the wheelhouse of Waverley: Rosalie, Dominic, Dylan, Kayleigh and Freddie

Meet the McCalls: Captain Dominic in the wheelhouse of Waverley with his wife Kayleigh (second right) and their children Rosalie, Dylan and Freddie

PREVIOUSLY ‘ON THE SPOT’: Rob Beale, Mark Nicolson, Lawrence Macduff, Carrie MacKinnon, Allan Smith, Paul Semple, Stuart McMahon, Barbara Craig, Graeme Roy, Charles McCrossan, Jane Liston, Andrew Anderson, Fraser MacHaffie, Gavin Stewart, Graeme Phanco, Walter Bowie, Robin Urie, Kay Hutchison, Graham Lappin, Jim Stirling, Duncan Wilson, Eric Schofield, Susan Forrest, Derek Peters, Anne Mitchell, Ken Mills, John Beveridge, Terry Sylvester, David Scott, Graeme Dunlop, Iain Dewar, Derek Crawford.
Published on 11 March 2024