As Waverley heads home for her final weekend of 2023 sailings, Andrew Comrie looks back at the extraordinary success of her autumn visit to the south coast and Thames — a hectic five-week schedule juggling complex timetables and capacity crowds. Since joining the ship as Purser in 2021, Andrew has played an increasingly influential role, smoothing the path for passengers and keeping a level head in all circumstances. The Clyde River Steamer Club is grateful to him for giving us this exclusive diary of the steamer’s adventures down south.
Preamble: Having carried over 110,000 passengers by the end of the Clyde summer, Waverley looks set to have her best season in at least two decades — a fantastic achievement given the colossal challenges of recent years.
Monday 28 August — Wednesday 30 August
The passage down south
Waverley departed her home berth at Glasgow just after midday on Monday 28 August and proceeded to Campbeltown to take on bunkers before making her passage down south. Land’s End was rounded late on Tuesday and by late afternoon on Wednesday she was safely berthed alongside the old steamer pier at Swanage. I travelled south separately, joining her on Thursday 31st in time for her first public sailing the next day.
Thursday 31 August
Trials at Ryde and arrival at Southampton
The ship undertook berthing trials at Ryde, her first visit to the historic pier since 2014. Waverley does not use her own gangways at Ryde — she uses the mechanically operated one employed for Wightlink’s fastcat services from Portsmouth. My first encounter with Waverley down south this year was from one of these catamarans (Wight Ryder I) as Waverley briefly vacated the pier to allow the fastcat to berth in the pouring rain. After berthing again to pick up her Purser, Waverley then proceeded direct to Southampton Berth 110, normally used by SS Shieldhall.
Friday 1 September
The timings of today’s first public sailing on the south coast were amended due the temporary closure of Portsmouth Harbour in the afternoon to allow HMS Prince of Wales to depart. As Waverley left Southampton Water she passed two Cunarders, RMS Queen Mary 2 and RMS Queen Victoria, as well as P&O’s Britannia. Extreme spring tides were experienced as a result of the recent ‘blue moon’. Good numbers carried, particularly from Portsmouth and Yarmouth.
Saturday 2 September
Southampton-Yarmouth-Portsmouth-Round Isle of Wight
This was the first of Waverley’s ‘Round the Island’ cruises, which have proven so popular that all three Saturdays sold out before the ship had even arrived on the south coast. We were at full capacity cruising clockwise round the island on a stunning afternoon, which once again featured extreme spring tides.
Sunday 3 September
Southampton-Yarmouth-Swanage-Bournemouth Air Festival
We picked up over 400 at Southampton for a 9am departure, the most carried from the port in a long time. The weather was magnificent: not a breath of wind as the ship sailed to its eventual destination at anchor off Bournemouth to watch the air festival, sailing at capacity beyond Swanage. As well as seeing fantastic displays, including the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Waverley was also reunited with an old Clydebuilt friend, Shieldhall.
Monday 4 September
Southampton-Poole, meet-up with Shieldhall
A fantastic one-way cruise from Southampton to Poole featuring a close encounter with Shieldhall off the Needles and Hurst Castle. Due to a strong easterly and the tight confines of the Poole Quay area, Waverley berthed at Bulwark Quay instead of Town Quay, and passengers were bussed into Poole or onwards to Southampton.
Tuesday 5 September
We sailed from Bulwark Quay at 0945 to Swanage, and then to Ryde for Waverley’s first passenger sailing from the pier since 2014. Good loadings throughout the day, with a big turnaround at Ryde. With several knots of tide assisting her, Waverley reached a maximum speed of exactly 20.0 knots off Hurst Castle on the return passage — not bad for a 76-year-old!
Wednesday 6 September
Poole-Yarmouth-Round the Island
Evening cruise Yarmouth-Poole
Waverley sailed from Poole Quay as normal today for her cruise to Yarmouth and round the Isle of Wight: big numbers again. The passenger transfer at Yarmouth on the second call was well over 700, probably Waverley’s largest ever there. Evening cruise to Poole and back, given from Yarmouth, and on return Waverley used Yarmouth as an overnight berth for the first time.
Thursday 7 September
An early start for the deck crew and engineers as the ship sailed from Yarmouth to pick up her usual Thursday sailing from Portsmouth to the Jurassic Coast via Yarmouth and Swanage. Lulworth Firing Range was active so Waverley had to sail 3.5 miles out to sea, to avoid the chances of coming within firing range, before moving inshore to view Lulworth Cove.
Friday 8 September
The timings of this sailing were once again amended as another aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was due to depart Portsmouth Harbour. Another hot and busy day.
Saturday 9 September
Southampton-Portsmouth-Yarmouth-Round the Island
Capacity cruise round the Isle of Wight featuring constant heat, sunshine and some of the flattest sea conditions I’ve seen.
Sunday 10 September
A rainy start to a busy day sailing from Southampton to Yarmouth, Swanage and the Jurassic Coast. Blazing hot sunshine by the time we reached Swanage, followed by a wonderful coastal cruise.
Monday 11 September
Quiet numbers for what was essentially a positioning run from Southampton to Poole with a public sailing added on. Was great to see PSPS Patrons Timothy West and Prunella Scales on board again.
Tuesday 12 September
Poole-Swanage-Yarmouth-Round the Island
Last trip from Poole — round the Isle of Wight in duller weather. Large numbers carried, particularly from Swanage and Yarmouth. At the end of the cruise we disembarked everyone at Swanage with coaches back to Poole, but the day wasn’t over for the crew: we still had a five-hour passage via St Catherine’s Point (southern tip of Isle of Wight) to anchor off Shoreham in position for the next day’s sailing. We got there around 0100.
Wednesday 13 September
Waverley made her much anticipated maiden visit to Shoreham Port on the West Sussex coast, berthing just after 0800 to a welcome from a big crowd: the event had been well publicised and attracted significant press attention. It was a logistically complex day: 12 coaches needed to bring passengers from Shoreham as well as Brighton and Worthing in the morning, three for the excursion to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway from Ryde, and another 10 to take passengers back to where they started, bringing the number of coaches to a grand total of 25 throughout the day! Another complication occurred when the pump of the fuel tanker providing bunkers at Shoreham failed, meaning that bunkers would have to be hastily rearranged for later that day. No suitable berth for bunkering could be found in Portsmouth where Waverley was supposed to spend the night, so we disembarked passengers onto diverted coaches at Southampton instead.
Thursday 14 September
Another early start for Waverley’s engineers and deck crew for an unexpected light passage from Southampton to Portsmouth to pick up a cruise to the Jurassic Coast, a long stretch of coastline extending across Dorset and Devon, and renowned for its outstanding rocks, fossils and landforms.
Thursday cruises on the south coast are normally timetabled to factor in the ship having to sail several miles out to sea to avoid coming within firing range of military exercises at Lulworth, but on this occasion a full cruise close to the Jurassic Coast was achieved, even including an extra section close to Old Harry Rocks as there was time in hand before we returned to Swanage.
Friday 15 September
This was the first and only Friday cruise of our south coast season that was not disrupted by aircraft carriers! Big spring tides again, making embarkation at Portsmouth lengthy but allowing quick passages to and from Yarmouth. Ship was at full capacity on the afternoon cruise out of Yarmouth.
Saturday 16 September
Southampton-Portsmouth-Ryde-Round the Isle of Wight
Another Saturday Round the Island cruise, though Ryde was used instead of Yarmouth and a steam railway excursion was available from Ryde. Waverley was at capacity on her cruise round the island, and just under 1,000 individual passengers were carried throughout the day — the most carried on the south coast for a long time.
Sunday 17 September
Quite an interesting day which started off with a film crew joining us to shoot scenes for a Channel 5 series about all things steam, featuring Peter Davison, Jon Sergeant and Paul Middleton. Our celebrities were put to hard work by the Bosun and Second Engineer throughout the morning, the results of which will be seen on Channel 5 at some point in the future! As the film crew and celebrities left us at Yarmouth, the heavens opened. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards we received news that a call at Swanage would not be possible due to the exposed nature of its pier in strong easterly winds. Sea conditions beyond the Needles were clearly unfavourable and the decision was made to turn back to the more sheltered waters of the Solent to offer passengers a more comfortable cruise, with time ashore at Yarmouth.
Monday 18 September – Thursday 21 September
Making a run for it
The forecast for the period from Monday to Thursday had been looking grim for a while, and by Sunday it was clear there was no improvement in sight, rather the opposite. With predicted sea conditions likely ruling out cruising on the sheltered waters of the Solent, the decision was made to cancel Tuesday and Wednesday’s final sailings on the south coast. A brief weather window on Sunday night into Monday morning gave Waverley an obvious invitation to make a run for it and save the opening sailings of the Thames season. After disembarking her final passengers at Southampton on Sunday evening, bunkers were taken, stormboards were put in place and the ship proceeded to Gravesend. The overnight passage through the English Channel featured spectacular lightning and rainfall, but Waverley safely reached Gravesend the following morning, with significantly worse weather just behind her.
Despite its abrupt ending, Waverley’s 2023 season on the south coast was one of her best ever, with full loadings and perfect weather defining most of it.
Friday 22 September
Southend-Red Sands/Shivering Sands/Knock John Forts
We departed Gravesend around 0930 and proceeded to Southend Pier to undertake a special cruise to celebrate the pier’s status as Pier of the Year 2023. Over 500 passengers, including Southend’s mayor, local council members and two MPs, were carried to Shivering Sands, Red Sands and Knock John Forts. After returning to Southend in the late afternoon, Waverley made passage up the Essex Coast and River Orwell to Ipswich, in preparation for her first sailing from the Anglian town in 23 years the following day.
Saturday 23 September
Fully booked cruise from Ipswich to London via Clacton. Large coach operation required to get over 500 from Ipswich station into the docks. As the ship was running well ahead of schedule, Ipswich passengers were able to enjoy an hour ashore in Clacton before we departed for London.
Sunday 24 September
Busy all-day sailing from London to the River Medway via Gravesend and Southend, with over 600 on board at various points — though the afternoon cruise on the Medway was relatively calm and quiet. Blasts exchanged with PS Medway Queen at Gillingham, Waverley using her steam whistle and Medway Queen a car horn!
Large passenger transfer carried out at Southend on return call, with around 500 joining for the up-river cruise. We made three transits through Tower Bridge in the course of the day, with one bascule being notably less raised than the other during the final bridge lift. More on this later…
Monday 25 September
Off-service day at Gravesend
Tuesday 26 September – Wednesday 27 September
I have taken a few days off in London, my position being ably covered by Paul Semple. Tuesday featured a relatively quiet cruise from Gravesend to Southend, Clacton and the River Blackwater, and Wednesday featured a sold-out long-haul cruise from Southwold and Clacton all the way into London.
Thursday 28 September
London-Gravesend-Southend-Red Sands/Shivering Sands Forts
Similar schedule to Sunday, though Red Sands and Shivering Sands Forts were visited instead of the River Medway.
At around midday I came across a breaking news story that Tower Bridge had refused to close fully after letting another ship through, and was stuck open for around half an hour, causing chaos in central London. This sparked alarm bells as we were due to sail underneath it with 650 passengers later that evening. Sure enough, a short while later we were informed that Tower Bridge would have to remain closed to undergo essential maintenance for the remainder of the day, meaning that the sailing would have to be terminated at Gravesend on the return leg, with existing coaches diverted and new ones hastily booked to return London passengers. This was a disappointing end to the cruise, but I think everyone appreciated that the circumstances were well outside our control.
Friday 29 September
First sailing of the season from Whitstable, picking up over 400 in the Kent town followed by more at Southend and Gravesend for a fully booked cruise up the Thames to London. There was plenty of time in hand as Waverley could leave Whitstable no later than 1300 because of the tide, but couldn’t arrive in London before 2000, so time ashore at Southend Pier was on offer to Whitstable passengers as we awaited the scheduled departure time.
Saturday 30 September
London-Gravesend-Southend-Red Sands/Shivering Sands/Knock John Forts
Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Knock John Forts viewed at close range. We were also able to rendezvous with steam tug Challenge and several other historic ships at Red Sands. Although notionally a ‘sell out’ cruise, in reality many prebooked passengers were unable to travel due to train strikes, meaning that although the ship was busy, we never reached capacity. Today marked the 50th anniversary of the ship’s final sailing under Caledonian MacBrayne on September 30th 1973, and a special announcement was given to mark the anniversary. By coincidence Terry Sylvester, who was instrumental in saving and preserving Waverley, was on board today, half a century to the day since the preservation era began.
Sunday 1 October
Around 250 joined at London for a one-way trip to Southend in the morning. Well over 400 then embarked for a non-landing cruise back up and down the Thames, with a stop at Gravesend adding another 200 to our complement. The Tower of London and Tower Bridge areas were absolutely packed, giving Waverley a huge audience.
Monday 2 October
Off-service day at Gravesend
Sailed at 6pm on a light run up-river to Tower Pier, with Waverley’s newly appointed patron, Sir Tim Lawrence, and a few guests.
Tuesday 3 October
The Whitstable return sailing from London is one of Waverley’s most popular excursions and normally earns huge revenue, today being no exception. Around 600 joined early at Tower Pier, with good numbers also being exchanged at Gravesend and Southend. A strong westerly breeze picked up throughout the day and conditions were brisk on deck for the return sailing. The final financial result of ticket revenue + on board spend made this the single highest revenue earning day in the ship’s history (so far).
Wednesday 4 October
The day started as a complete contrast to yesterday, with less than 100 carried from London and even fewer from Southend, probably as a result of train strikes. Numbers on board tripled at Clacton, with a decent crowd taken for a cruise of the River Blackwater. After disembarking all passengers at Clacton on the return sailing, Waverley sailed light to Ipswich.
Thursday 5 October
Ipswich-Clacton-Southend-Cruise River Thames
Around 300 were picked up at both Ipswich and Clacton, and then small number at Southend, for a busy up-river non-landing cruise to the Pool of London, then back to Gravesend where passengers were bussed home.
Friday 6 October
Southend-Gravesend-Cruise River Thames
Waverley sailed up and down the Thames for most of the day, offering both day and evening cruises from Gravesend and Southend. A beautiful but breezy day: when not sailing against the wind it felt like the height of summer. Over 600 carried on the first cruise, which was another non-landing trip to the Pool of London and back. Numbers were lower for the evening one-way cruise to Tower Pier.
Saturday 7 October
Over 600 picked up at Tower Pier for a cruise to Gravesend, Southend and the River Medway. Absolutely perfect weather here on the Thames, but we heard that in Glasgow there was a month’s worth of rain in a day! Large passenger transfer at Southend on both calls. At Gillingham the Medway Queen Preservation Society halted their AGM to go on deck to see us.
Sunday 8 October
London-Gravesend-Southend-Red Sands/Shivering Sands
The final Thames sailing was once again a busy one, with 600 picked up at Tower Pier in the morning and around 700 on board between Gravesend and Southend. The day featured the same kind of flat-calm hot weather that we have become so used to on the south coast and Bristol Channel this year — remarkable given it is now October.
A magnificent run up-river to London brought to an end an almost perfect Thames season — the only disruption being caused by a faulty Tower Bridge! After disembarking her final passengers at Tower Pier, Waverley sailed through Tower Bridge one final time, giving her traditional farewell blasts to the capital city.
After a brief stop at Gravesend for bunkers, the steamer departed the Thames bound for home. She made one more stop for bunkers at Plymouth on Tuesday 10 October, rounded Land’s End later that evening and, after lying at anchor off St Ives for much of Wednesday the 11th, resumed her passage north, passing the south Wales coast at dawn on the 12th.
Thanks to the following for their copyright photos: Waverley Excursions Ltd, Andrew Cooke, Tony Craig, Charles McCrossan, Cameron Marshall, Allan Smith and IWillFilm Ltd. Thanks also to Paul Semple and Andrew Comrie.
Waverley has carried well over 150,000 passengers in 2023, making this her busiest season in at least 20 years. Her final sailings take place this weekend on the Clyde (October 14-15). More information from Waverley Excursions Ltd
A Complete Photographic Diary of Waverley’s Triumphant West Highland Week 23-29 May 2023 (CRSC ‘members only’ post)
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Published on 12 October 2023