As Waverley prepares for her 75th anniversary cruise to the head of Loch Long on Thursday, CRSC magazine editor Andrew Clark reviews her West Highland week and assesses prospects for the summer season.
It looked so easy. Backing out of the notoriously constricted harbour at Portree last Wednesday, not once but twice within three hours, the paddler renowned for her wayward astern steering followed a textbook course towards open water, past a rocky promontory to port and then a marker buoy to starboard. The gentle curves in her wake said it all: the manoeuvre had been accomplished with a steady nerve and calm control.
For passengers observing this from the fore or aft decks (especially those who saw Waverley disabled in this very harbour five years ago), it felt like a good omen: she was in capable hands. The same sense of confidence spread through the ship the following day when, on reaching Loch Torridon during the afternoon cruise from Gairloch, she did exactly what excursionists wanted.
Instead of turning and heading home, she went through the narrows into the bowl-shaped Upper Loch Torridon, a diversion that was not strictly necessary but which added immeasurably to the cruising experience. Here we were, encircled by a gallery of monumental mountains, with a front-seat view from the water that nothing on land could match.
Captain Dominic McCall and Chief Officer Gary Stevenson deserve equal credit for their flair and initiative throughout the 2022 West Highland week, and it is good news that, together with 2nd Officer Iain Goodall, they are now full-time employees, forming a bridge ‘team’ for most of the season. Waverley has not enjoyed such stability for years. Two chief engineers, Tim Jenkins and Paul Hughes, are also expected to see the paddler through to October.
Captain McCall, son of the late maritime author Bernard McCall, is a real find: he blends youth, experience and authority, and has forged an effective partnership with Gary Stevenson, an equally capable ship handler who gave backbone to the paddler’s 2021 operations.
So yes, there are grounds for optimism at the start of Waverley’s 75th birthday season. Above and below deck, the ship looks in excellent condition. Galley arrangements under new chief steward Aoife Charles are working well, and there is cake in the Caledonia Tea Room. Organisationally, too, the Waverley operation is becoming increasingly adept at handling tricky situations. When a particularly ominous forecast forced the ship to curtail her programme north of Ardnamurchan and hotfoot it back to Oban last Thursday night, passengers who had booked for the entire week were not left stranded: Waverley Excursions Ltd quickly hired a coach to bring everyone back from Kyle of Lochalsh. All this indicates that Paul Semple, WEL’s general manager, is on top of the manifold challenges that every season throws up.
The immediate challenges are two-fold. The first is the programme for Waverley’s autumn visit to the south coast and the Thames, news of which the paddler’s many English supporters are keenly awaiting. Semple is currently hammering out details with the port authority at Tower Pier, the busy London base for Waverley’s lucrative cruises down the Thames. There, in common with Oban’s North Pier and several other ports, Waverley faces increased competition for berthing access from all manner of craft, including cruise ship tenders and high-volume year-round operators.
Compounding this problem is the number of changes in administrative personnel at some ports down south since Waverley last visited four years ago, meaning that Semple may be dealing with people who don’t know the ship or understand her significance. And he could not even start negotiating a south coast timetable until he could be sure he had a crew.
The second challenge is the price of fuel, which has risen by more than 35% since last summer and varies by the day. Last year the average cost of marine gas oil worked out at 55p per litre. It is now in the mid 80s. Under normal steaming at 14½ knots, Waverley consumes £11 of marine gas oil per minute. That works out at £600-plus an hour (Semple says he budgets for £750/800). WEL’s decision to impose a fuel surcharge should help — an extra £3 on full day fares (£36 and above), £2 on half-day fares (there is no surcharge on child fares) — but there is a limit to what the casual public will pay. More than ever, the ship needs good payloads in 2022: it is only when she carries 500-plus on any given day that she starts to cover maintenance costs for the winter.
The good news is that Waverley at least ‘wiped her face’ in the West Highlands. More than 350 joined her for the sun-blessed trip north from Glasgow on Monday 6 June, and she had more than 450 for Sunday’s five-hour cruise from Oban, when she kissed the mouth of Corryvreckan but was prevented by strong winds and swell from passing through the Gulf.
On each of the three days north of Ardnamurchan she picked up decent three-figure numbers at Armadale/Kyle, Portree and Gairloch — enough to justify the visit, bolstered by about 70 hardy supporters who sailed north from Oban.
Waverley being Waverley, there will be bumps along the way, and they will be tackled as they appear. But with two visits each to Ardrishaig, Campbeltown and Arrochar in prospect (plus a return to Ayr), the core Clyde timetable has plenty to offer. With a successful visit to the West Highlands in the bag, the 2022 season is off to a confident start.
Published on 13 June 2022