On the Spot: Rob Beale

Rob Beale is a skipper with Windermere Lake Cruises, commanding the main tourist vessels in summer and overseeing their layup and overhaul in winter. Long an active member of CRSC, Rob raised his profile in the Club when he gave a talk at Jurys Inn in 2014 titled From Glencoe to Glenachulish’ — a survey of Scotland’s turntable ferries, about which he had just published a book. He has written articles for the CRSC magazine and website, and is an enthusiastic supporter of our charters and excursions. Rob says he joined the Club to meet like-minded people: It’s nice to be able to chat about timetables, liveries and which way the seats face on Bute/Argyle, without getting weird looks from the people I’d otherwise be sailing with.’ Stuart Craig put him on the spot with a series of exacting questions…..

Rob Beale on Waverley: ‘I was always fascinated by the ships of the Clyde. I was more interested in the old steamers and the evolution of the routes than the current fleet, but even they have an appeal and are a pleasure to sail on’

What is your earliest memory of sailing on a Clyde steamer?

The first that I can remember is ashamedly recent. It was 2003 and I sailed aboard Caledonian Isles. I was 15 and it was the first trip of a 15-day cycle tour of the islands that took me and a friend from Arran to Raasay and everywhere in between. The Island Rover ticket became very dog eared. That trip kindled my passion for Scotland and its ferries, and set me off down the path that has led to the career choices I have taken.

What was the most recent sailing you took?

Lakeside to Bowness today! For pleasure it was a trip on the Thames from Westminster to St Katherines Pier in London on Saturday 13 November. My most recent Clyde sailing was on 16 August 2021 from Glasgow to Ardrishaig and back on Waverley. What a fantastic trip that was, and it was my Dad’s 64th birthday. It was the first time I had seen many Club members in person for over a year — since the CRSC Round Arran cruise in January 2020 — so it was a super day out. Hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll come north for a couple of day trips to Arran, Bute, Cumbrae, Dunoon and Kilcreggan.

Holidays: Dunoon, Rothesay or Arran, where would you choose?

Lots of people answer this with memories of childhood holidays to one of those places, but we went to Arisaig so that won’t help me here! Id say Arran as it’s a decent sail across, with lots to explore for the kids. For the historian in me, there’s plenty of interest with the locations of the old steamer piers and ferry calls. The view from Goatfell is unrivalled. It’s just a shame I never saw it with the multitude of steamers criss-crossing the Firth below me. 

What is your favourite steamer or ferry?

Tricky. I always had a soft spot for Pioneer but only sailed on her between Armadale and Mallaig. Lord of the Isles is the ship I have sailed on the most routes. My most recent trip on her was from Lochboisdale to Mallaig on a balmy August morning a couple of years ago. The sail was stunning and we saw whales and dolphins. She seems to be a real workhorse and is particularly versatile. Lord of the Isles is also a similar age to me!

In his first talk to the Club (December 2014), Rob explained how it had been a privilege to command the Windermere steamer Tern, built in 1891

Which was Waverley’s best livery?

The way she appeared in 1973: white deckhouses and red funnels with a yellow spot and red lion. I know it was a short-lived livery but I think it suited her. That’s probably the opposite of what most readers will think!

If young enough, what was your favourite ‘streaker’, or if older, your favourite ‘Maid’?

Can I answer both!? Favourite ‘Maid’ (not that I ever saw any in the flesh apart from as a pub on the Thames) would have to be Maid of Cumbrae. I always liked the look of the car deck conversion. Favourite ‘streaker’ was Saturn. Of the three, I sailed on her the most, from Gourock to Dunoon, Wemyss Bay to Rothesay and Ardrossan to Brodick. I remember a great CRSC sailing in 2009 from Gourock to Brodick too. 

What name would you give the second of the ferries being built at Fergusons just now? You can be imaginative!

Columba. I like the idea of reusing old names. Sadly Loch Carron would not be appropriate as the new vessel is not a ‘Loch’ class ferry. Clansman and Hebrides have been re-used, so it’s time for a new Columba. 

Looking back, what is the perfect example of the Clyde steamer, or car ferry?

Duchess of Fife of 1903. She sailed through two World Wars and participated at Dunkirk. She operated for the Caledonian Steam Packet and the LMS, and her services reached all corners of the Clyde. 

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

In November 2017 Rob (left) was among members of the audience who congratulated Eric Schofield (second from right) after his talk at Jurys Inn. Also pictured are Bernd Reichenecker and CRSC Honorary Member John Whittle

I would like to see a two-ship service on the Arran run all year round, with rail connections that meet the second ship. At the moment rail connections for sailings by Isle of Arran are not the best. I would like to see more investment in public transport on the islands too, to encourage day trippers to travel without their vehicles. Encouraging travel without vehicles is necessary in order to get out of the Catch-22 of building larger vessels, stimulating traffic to the point where it exceeds capacity, then ordering even bigger vessels! A fast passenger boat based at Largs sailing alternately between Millport and Rothesay would hopefully encourage travel without vehicles, particularly with passenger-only piers reopened at Port Bannatyne and Toward. A pontoon at Toward with a sailing to Wemyss Bay would drastically reduce the travel time to Glasgow for a resident there. 

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

Bergen to Kirkenes in Norway. In Scotland, Oban to Barra, especially when it’s via Coll and Tiree. There is so much to see with the bustle of Oban, the Sound of Mull with ships at Craignure, Fishnish and Tobermory, then the open sea!

Apart from Millport, which pier would you like to see re-open?

Helensburgh. Chieftain should sail there just like she did back in her days as Seabus. As a dreamer, Arrochar, so that when Maid of the Loch sails again, we can partake in the Three Lochs Tour again using Waverley and the ‘Maid’. 

Rob Beale at the helm of the 1938 Windermere tourist boat Swan

What inspired you to join CRSC?

I was fascinated by the ships of the Clyde. I was more interested in the old steamers and the evolution of the routes than the current fleet, but even they have an appeal and are a pleasure to sail on. I joined the Club to meet like-minded people and have a sail with them. Its also nice to be able to chat about timetables, liveries and which way the seats face on Bute/Argyle without getting weird looks from the people I’d otherwise be sailing with!

Would you like to see Zoom meetings become a permanent feature of the Club’s year, even after a resumption of meetings at Jurys Inn?

Yes, I would, even though I rarely tune in ‘live’ to watch them. I tend to watch the website video after the event, and Zoom enables that to happen. If I can, I would always choose to come to Jurys Inn as I usually combine my trips north with a sail on the Clyde, but I realise the potential for Zoom to widen the audience. I just hope that, when physical meetings do resume, others will want to meet in person too. If everyone stays on Zoom, it will be a pretty empty Jurys Inn. 

What makes you continue your membership of CRSC?

The meet-ups, whether that be sailing or at Jurys Inn, or just at the pub! I have met many, many people in the Club who have broadened my knowledge and helped me with research or just joined me for a sail. The superb publications are the icing on the cake. The magazine is second to none and the Review is very interesting. To me the older issues are fascinating.

What could the Club do better?

In 2020 Rob helped to bring out the impressive new Windermere passenger boat Swift

I wonder what CRSC will look like in 50 years. Attracting younger members is key. In the old days I imagine the Club would have been the place to get the latest information on fleet movements and the goings-on upon the river, but nowadays Facebook, and the internet in general, fill that role. The meet-ups are central to maintaining the sense of community and friendship amongst members, so a diverse programme of lectures is essential. If you regularly meet other members on outings and at meetings, you look forward to the next time and seek the next opportunity to meet up and maintain membership. A good online presence is essential and the Club does that really well. The website is excellent, especially with its members-only areas, but the internet has a number of websites that cover the Scottish shipping scene, as well as Facebook. I believe that encouraging member participation will help CRSC maintain its numbers by making the membership feel involved. With Covid this has sadly become more difficult, but if funds allow, then meet-ups should be recommenced. The Club doesn’t have to charter a ship, but a few more nominated excursions might encourage people to meet more often — it could be a trip to Campbeltown each year, or even just a Saturday afternoon to Rothesay and back. It’s not always about the sail, rather the people you sail with. However, I still firmly believe that Zoom is great for involving members who live further away.

Have you joined CRSC? Click here for your £10 membership and take advantage of all the benefits.

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Perfect example of a Clyde steamer: Duchess of Fife leaving Wemyss Bay in 1949

Waverley’s best livery — 1973 with white deckhouses, red funnels and a yellow disc with red lion

Favourite ferry: Lord of the Isles, pictured at Tiree on 17 June 1989, less than a month after entering service

Favourite ‘streaker’ — Saturn at Ardrossan on 30 July 2008


CRSC Round Arran charter on MV Isle of Arran, 13 January 2018: Rob Beale (centre) with his father and friends, including Simon and Robin Morgan

Loch Shiel excursion on MV Sileas, 26 October 2017, with Harry Silvers and Neil Guthrie

Round Ailsa Craig on MV Isle of Arran, 19 January 2019, with Gordon Law and Roy Paterson

Rob and his son Alfie at Port Askaig during the CRSC Ferry Hopper to Islay on 12 October 2019, with MV Eilean Dhiura

On the bridge of MV Finlaggan, 12 October 2019, with Third Officer Ally Donald and CRSC members Paul Flint and Cameron Wilson

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Rob Beale’s Mull Variations

A new ‘Swift’ for Windermere

Salute to Stockholm

Linking the Loch

Scotland’s Turntable Ferries by Rob Beale and John Hendy
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Lawrence Macduff

Carrie MacKinnon

Allan Smith

Cameron Shaw

Paul Semple

Stuart McMahon

Barbara Craig

Charles McCrossan

Andrew Anderson

Anne Mitchell

Fraser MacHaffie

Gavin Stewart

Graeme Phanco

Walter Bowie

Kay Hutchison

Graham Lappin

Jim Stirling

and plenty more….

Published on 21 November 2021