With less than three weeks to go before Waverley returns to winter quarters, Andrew Clark asks whether this summer’s programme has lived up to expectations, and assesses the challenges ahead.
The statement issued last week by Paul Semple, general manager of Waverley’s operating company, in response to a request by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, her owner, was direct and unequivocal.
Invited to explain why the paddler would not be sailing south this month, Semple told the PSPS’s predominantly English membership that “re-establishing Waverley on her home waters [after a near-three-year layoff due to boiler replacement, last September’s Brodick accident and Covid] has proven difficult, and consequently moving south, given the constant crewing uncertainty, wasn’t a risk the company was prepared to take this year.”
Alluding to his almost daily struggle to find enough crew with appropriate certificates to satisfy the regulatory authorities, Semple related how it would “only take the loss of one person in a key position to cause the ship to be taken out of service. If Waverley were to move south and then find herself with insufficient crew, the financial implications could be severe.”
The decision to stay put on the Clyde, triggered by a severe post-Brexit shortage of UK-based catering and deck crew, was one of the most agonising Semple has had to make since exchanging a successful teaching career for the Waverley hot seat two and a half years ago. Thames-based enthusiasts had contributed nearly a third of the £1.3m individual donations to the 2019-20 boiler renewal appeal (on top of which the Scottish Government gave £1m).
Starved of the sight and sound of Waverley’s paddles since October 2018, the ship’s many English supporters had become increasingly vocal about their wish to sail on her this year.
Semple waited until the third week of August before concluding that the customary autumn sailings in the Bristol Channel, Solent and Thames would not be viable. The response there — muted but largely understanding — was almost certainly mollified by his promise to restore Waverley’s full sailing programme in 2022. Some have taken the opportunity of an unexpectedly extended Clyde programme (to 19 September) to come north before the ship retires for the winter.
So it was not the estimated £60,000 repositioning costs that sank the trip south this year, nor the £2,000-a-day Thames pilotage fees and heavy berthing charges; nor the Covid-related reduction of passenger capacity and consequent loss of income on traditionally well-packed, high-income trips from London; nor even the absence of backup if problems similar to this summer’s windlass and vacuum pump failures cropped up far from home.
No, it was the lack of certainty that the ship could remain fully crewed. Since lockdown there has been a dearth of personnel with the necessary certification (for which qualifying courses cost more than £1,000 per person). The start of the advertised 2021 Clyde season had to be postponed for this very reason. Given intense competition for staff in the hospitality and shipping industries, few job seekers will accept the exigencies of Waverley’s seasonal employment and cramped crew quarters. As an illustration of Semple’s crewing headaches, a new chief cook has had to be recruited four times in the past nine weeks.
There has, however, been a notable improvement in the 75-year old paddler’s performance — not least mechanically. Technically minded enthusiasts frequently express delight at how smoothly she is running at speed, on one occasion punching up Loch Fyne at more than 50 revolutions per minute (compared to the usual 44), on another allegedly reaching 17.1 knots along the Cowal coast (just short of her 1947 trial speed).
Some of this can be credited to the ‘behind the scenes’ involvement of Ken Blacklock, the retired engineer who crewed her in the early preservation years and got to know her quirks under the tutelage of the late Bill Summers, her first, long-serving chief engineer.
Waverley has performed well in other ways, helping to banish the ghost of last September’s Brodick pier collision. Thanks largely to Semple’s astute timetable planning, timekeeping has been excellent. Communication with the public on and off the boat has improved: problems such as the windless breakdown on 26 July were quickly acknowledged, explained and put right. The atmosphere on board has lightened: the crew (minimum 19, at best 25) seem happy in their jobs, and the new purser (Andrew Comrie, son of CRSC member Alan Comrie) has a friendly manner at the gangway. A run of good weather has certainly helped.
Despite fears that no east European crew would survive the Brexit cull, bosun Zibby Luczak and bow rope man Tomasz Kowalczyk resumed their joint role as backbone of the deck crew — not by qualifying (as Polish nationals) for ‘settled status’ in the UK, but by successfully applying for an alternative dispensation with Semple’s help. On the bridge, the ship was fortunate to recruit relief masters of the calibre of ex-CalMac veteran Alex Morrison, P&O Ferries senior master Simon Moore and former Clyde pilot Chris Spencer, and to have a mate of Gary Stevenson’s experience and dedication.
It was also good to see Stephen Colledge, one of Waverley’s most experienced captains, back in command — a welcome riposte to The Scottish Sun’s mid season attempt to tarnish his reputation.
There were well-targeted efforts to improve the passenger experience. In the early weeks of the season, when Covid-related restrictions were in force, capacity was limited to 300, giving a ‘private charter’ feel to many cruises (since 9 August this has risen to a still-comfortable 500). A new emphasis on advance booking, up to 90% of takings on some days, brought commercial rewards: pre-paid passengers tend to turn up whatever the weather. Online booking was easy and the WEL website gave well-primed sailing updates. Semple will be hoping this step-change in Waverley’s business model can be consolidated next year.
While fares have seen a 25% increase since 2018 (the last year Waverley had a full season), Clyde fares have yet to breach £50 — unlike the Thames, which in 2018 saw a top fare of £55. The most expensive cruise this summer was £49 for Round Ailsa Craig from Glasgow. The £46 charge for Glasgow to Tighnabruaich on summer Saturdays was no more a deterrent to stepping aboard than the decision to exclude Rothesay from a trip notorious for rowdy boozers on the return voyage: as in previous seasons, Saturday takings were still the highest on the Clyde (up to £30,000). The more sedate ‘doon the watter’ Friday excursion also did well, with 450 punters on some occasions. The return of the Sunday afternoon cruise Round Bute proved popular.
Non-landing excursions from Brodick and Lochranza (two-and-a-half hours at £29), as well as Blairmore and Tarbert (two hours at £26), attracted between 50 and 100. Semple justifies those hefty ‘per minute aboard’ prices as reflecting “the value of the product, taking into account fuel, crewing and other costs. Waverley is unique”. To set that in context, when the price of fuel rose in the second half of July, Waverley was consuming £9 of marine gas oil every minute.
Support at traditional piers such as Keppel and Kilcreggan has been buoyant (around 60-70 additional passengers per call), vindicating the way Semple built a varied weekday timetable around afternoon pick-ups. By exploiting the number of pier calls to increase on-off footfall, he showed that a long day has plentiful short-day options within it. On some days, total passenger journeys exceeded 1,000, on a ship carrying no more than 500 at any given moment (her ‘normal’ limit on a Class 4 and 5 certificate is 860).
Nearly 400 sailed to Tarbert on 18 August and the same number to Campbeltown the following week. The jubilant PSPS ‘public charter’ to Ardrishaig on 15 August attracted 440. As for Tighnabruaich, the 50-minute Pier Association benefit cruise on 14 August drew 480, with part of the income going to Waverley Excursions Ltd (WEL), the paddler’s operator. Onboard ‘spend’ has been gratifyingly high: the Shop has sometimes notched up sales of £2,000 a day, the Tea Bar £1,000. The catering ‘take’ on Saturday 21 August was £9,000.
The significance of these numbers is that Waverley needs to earn as much as possible to keep going. “Once you have 250 passengers a day on Clyde sailings,” says Semple, “you start to cover costs” — a reference to the standing charges (wages for seven onshore employees and a £400,000 annual maintenance bill) that remain the same whether Waverley operates an 11-week Covid-restricted programme or a high-earning May to October season.
Which brings us to the recurring fragility of Waverley’s finances. At some point this winter WEL and Waverley Steam Navigation Company Ltd (its governing charity) will have to launch another appeal, without which there will be insufficient funds to carry out a spring 2022 overhaul.
Given the recurring gap between annual income and expenditure, something more ambitious — and less panic-driven — must surely be devised if the ship is to survive the decade. Now that WEL has added a fundraiser to its payroll, it should set itself a target of 1,000 Waverley ‘1947 Friends’, the scheme under which supporters donate £19.47 per month by standing order. This would bring in £250,000 annually. The WEL/WSN boards might also consider recruiting a small group of sympathetic high-net-worth individuals, whose networking skills could work to Waverley’s benefit — possibly by ‘sponsoring’ up-and-coming engineers and bridge officers who relish the Waverley experience.
Beyond that, it is high time Waverley assumed a more institutionalised status within Scotland’s national budget. During the boiler appeal WEL established good contacts in the Scottish parliament and civil service. These must be exploited.
Waverley is a national treasure, egalitarian in her appeal. When you consider that a large part of CalMac’s annual £150m subsidy goes towards facilitating tourist services, and that the Scottish Maritime Museum is generously funded to promote our maritime heritage, is it not time the public purse recognised Waverley’s ongoing contribution to tourism and heritage? She is a working museum, no less emblematic of Scottish culture than our concert halls, castles and football clubs. An inflation-linked ‘structural subsidy’ of around £400,000 is not beyond reason.
As Douglas McGowan is fond of saying, it was a ‘miracle’ that Waverley sailed in 1975, when he oversaw her first summer in operational preservation. In 2022 it will be a miracle if this graceful emblem of 19th and 20th century engineering is still giving pleasure and delight to so many.
Andrew Clark is editor of the CRSC magazine ‘Clyde Steamers’ and author of ‘Pleasures of the Firth: Two Hundred Years of the Clyde Steamers’ (Stenlake, 2012) and other shipping books.
Thanks to the following CRSC members for contributing photographs: Ian Allan, Walter Bowie, Stuart Craig, Susan Forrest, Brian Innes, Charles McCrossan, John Newth, Graeme Phanco, James Ross and Colin Smith. Special thanks to Michael Girvan for his drone photographs at Ardrishaig, and to all WEL staff.
Waverley’s season continues until 19 September: tickets and information from the WEL website
A PHOTOGRAPHIC SUMMARY OF CRUISING ON WAVERLEY IN 2021
Published on 1 September 2021