On the eve of the paddler’s autumn season on the south coast of England, Andrew Clark casts a glance back on a Clyde summer of exceptional variety, reliability and popularity.
Last Sunday’s visit to Ardnagal pier at the head of Loch Long had all the hallmarks of an end-of-season cruise. The onboard atmosphere was like a reunion of old friends. There were lots of familiar faces, and the souvenir shop on the main deck did a roaring trade, with multiples of the 2024 Waverley calendar flying off the shelves. You would never have thought that, less than 24 hours later, the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer would be heading down the Irish Sea, bound for what could turn out to be the most lucrative weeks of her year.
Waverley has always been a big draw on the Thames, the Solent and the Bristol Channel, a popularity reflected not only in the number of sell-out sailings she gives in her tightly packed weeks there, but also in the size of donations she attracts from those areas. There has long been a suspicion that, while the Clyde remains Waverley’s home and the prime focus of her sailing season, Clydesiders take her for granted. Everyone here knows about her, but it’s surprising the number of Scots you meet who have never sailed on her, or at least not crossed the gangway from one summer to the next.
The past two months have up-ended those assumptions. Despite a 10% increase in ticket prices, indifferent weather in July and a cost-of-living crisis, Waverley has had a bumper Clyde season, notching up 64,000 passenger journeys in nine weeks, compared to 59,000 spread across 10 weeks in 2022 *. Last Saturday, for example, she left Greenock with 752 passengers, just short of her complement, and on Sunday she took 663 to the head of Loch Long. Earlier in the month, more than 650 sailed on the ‘Captain’s Choice’ non-landing excursion up Loch Fyne. The Round Arran cruise sold out.
Should we attribute these figures simply to a post-Covid bounce, as everyone re-discovered the joys of leisure travel? It may have been a contributing factor, but the real difference seems to be the increasingly sophisticated performance of Waverley Excursions Ltd (WEL), the vessel’s operating company.
The management’s campaign to persuade people to book in advance has paid off. One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic and its aftermath was the way it encouraged people to plan ahead: by committing their money in advance, they are less likely to be put off on the day.
WEL’s website and telephone sales have been calibrated to meet this demand, backed by some canny marketing and a lively presence on social media. Ahead of the west highland week in late May, for example, WEL undertook a ‘door drop’ publicity drive, delivering leaflets to every household in the Kyle of Lochalsh area. The locals realised Waverley was coming and, on the day of her arrival, 500 turned up for the evening cruise to Lochs Carron and Kishorn. The next day more than 300 boarded at Gairloch for a short afternoon cruise at £39 a head. The two weekend sailings out of Oban sold out.
In late June, efforts to kick-start the traditionally sluggish start to the Clyde season were well rewarded. There was a ‘seniors bring a friend free’ campaign. Take-up on the ‘NHS workers discount’ was good. A ‘kids for £1’ offer and the ‘Young Paddlers’ initiative won the ship new friends. And yes, for the first time in more than a decade, dogs were allowed back on board for selected sailings.
In July, a poster campaign in Kintyre and Knapdale, matched to adverts in the local press, resulted in a tripling of numbers joining the ship at Tarbert and Campbeltown for this summer’s non-landing afternoon cruises from the two ports. A mid season WEL video showing the paddler leaving Ayr attracted more than 700,000 hits online — so it was no surprise when 500 paid up to £43 a head to cruise round Ailsa Craig on August 6, and 350 at Troon the next day to sail to Rothesay (£46) and round Bute. That was Waverley’s first call at Troon in 25 years, the result of a painstaking mission by Paul Semple, WEL general manager, to woo harbour authorities around the UK — Tenby, Ipswich and London’s Tower Pier being other examples.
The Troon call was also evidence of WEL’s increasingly imaginative timetabling, as was the repeat of last year’s ‘discovery’ — the Loch Fyne town of Ardrishaig, revisited twice this summer. The variation of the Thursday afternoon offering from Brodick — Pladda one week, a close-up coastal cruise to Lochranza Bay the next — proved unexpectedly popular, and the advertising of several Round Bute cruises in alternative terminology (‘Cruise Cumbraes, Garroch Head and Kyles of Bute’) was a triumph of marketing. Every single part of the Waverley operation seems to have been geared to increasing footfall on the gangway — the key to Waverley’s financial viability. Paul Semple puts it like this: “If the timetable feels fresh, that encourages people to sail more often.”
None of this would be possible without the support of Captain Dominic McCall and Chief Officer Gary Stevenson. Their ship handling skills — already manifest in 2022 — seem to mature with every sailing. After last summer’s heroics at Ayr, backing out of the harbour on two occasions, Waverley repeated the trick this summer on August 23. It is no exaggeration to say that the way Dominic and Gary berth the ship, time and again, is the equal of Waverley’s finest masters in living memory. Both are almost certain to return in 2024.
New faces in the deck crew this summer quickly gelled, helping to make up for the loss of the long serving Polish stalwarts Zibby and Tomasz, who retired last year. Below decks, catering and shop staff visibly worked their hearts out, notching up to £20,000 in revenue on good days. It’s a big part of the Waverley business, topping up fare income to cover the ship’s heavy operating costs.
Most remarkable of all, not a single day has been lost to mechanical failure. This has been achieved partly by overnight repair work, for which extra labour has to be employed, saving WEL from passenger complaints if the ship has to be taken out of service at short notice; and partly by the wooing of well-disposed engineers who can fit a spell on Waverley alongside their duties elsewhere.
The dearth of marine engineers with a steam certificate has been a growing threat to Waverley’s continued operation, but patient consultations with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) have resulted in the drawing up of a bespoke Waverley training programme, designed to give qualified diesel engineers an endorsement on their ticket for working on the paddler.
Paul Semple says the programme should be in place for the 2024 season. “The MCA do have an understanding and appreciation of how difficult it has become to find steam engineers. I’m feeling more confident [than in the past] about engineers.”
So, is everything tickety-boo? Seasoned excursionists would be pleased if there were fewer delays outside Ayr, waiting for the harbour pilot to turn up, and it remains a mystery why CalMac staff at the twin-berth piers at Brodick and Rothesay cannot handle Waverley when a ferry is tied up. In the broader scheme of things, these are minor irritations. Of greater concern is the way the price of fuel has begun to nudge up again.
Prospects are looking good for the south coast (September 1-20) and the Thames (September 22-October 8). Ryde is back in the Solent timetable for the first time in nine years — more than 350 have already booked for the ‘Round the Island’ cruise on Saturday 16 September — and there is compensation for the loss of Worthing in what will be Waverley’s first-ever sailing from Shoreham on Wednesday 13 September (sold out, as are several of the Thames sailings).
Whether WEL will launch another appeal this winter is a moot question. But there is a quiet smile on Paul Semple’s face when he says the paddler “is in a good place”. There will be an even bigger smile on the faces of Waverley’s Scottish supporters if she returns to the Clyde in time for her scheduled final sailings of the year on October 14 and 15.
* Figures supplied by Waverley Excursions Ltd. For timetables, bookings and information, click here or phone 0141 243 2224
Andrew Clark is editor of the CRSC magazine ‘Clyde Steamers’ and author of ‘Waverley, Last of the Clyde Steamers’.
CRSC is an association of friendly enthusiasts united by the quest to ‘meet together, sail together and talk together’, mainly on the west of Scotland — but many members hail from further afield. If you join us, you’ll receive copies of our much-prized west coast shipping Review and annual magazine, as well as access to a huge library of archive photos in the ‘Members Only’ section of this website. We gather for meetings and cruises throughout the year. To join us, click here.
Published on 31 August 2023