We spot its distinctive shape steaming towards us as we wait at Largs pier. Her two side paddles give her the appearance of a lady in crinolines, and a grand old lady at that. She’s the oldest sea-going paddle steamer in the world. The Waverley steams up to the quayside, her two red and black funnels pointing proudly to the sky. In the old coal-fired days, they would have belched black smoke but now only a thin wisp drifts skywards.
We all clamber aboard, the crew ably assisting those less steady on their feet as they negotiate the gangplank. We spread across the decks seeking a good vantage point to view the scenery, a cozy seat out of the wind or a nice cup of tea in the restaurant. Tourists abound. I recognize French, German and Spanish among the snatches of conversation as well as Canadian, American and English accents.
In Your Bucket Because…
- She’s a floating, working piece of history
- It’s a unique way of viewing the islands and hills sweeping down to the water
- All kids love it, especially the grown-up ones
- Good for people who like looking at scenery or machinery or fancy themselves as mariners
We’re sailing up the Firth of Clyde to Loch Long and Loch Goil, recreating the Waverley’s maiden voyage in 1947. The weather is cloudy so we’ve come prepared with waterproofs, hats and gloves for the sea breezes. Families are making a day of it with picnic baskets filled with delicacies to eat on the voyage. We, however, take advantage of the on-board restaurant and a plate of home-made soup while the thrumming of the pistons turning the paddles provides a soothing accompaniment.
The Waverley’s History
The Waverley was built in 1947 in Glasgow to ply the Firth of Clyde, linking the many small holiday resorts dotted along both sides of the water. In those days, the Clyde was full of paddle steamers criss-crossing the Firth taking holiday-makers to their destinations. But in 1973, when holidays were most likely to be spent in Spain than in the Clyde resorts, she was taken out of service and put into dry dock. In 1974 she was sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for the grand sum of £1 (75 cents) and they began the task of raising money to maintain the Waverley and get her back sailing on the Clyde.
Their hard work was rewarded when in 1981, not only was she back on the Firth but she completed a sail all around the UK stopping off at ports in England and Wales as well as sailing under the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh and around the fearsome Cape Wrath in the very north of Scotland. She even offered cruises from the very heart of Glasgow just as the paddle steamers had done many years before.
She was completely fitted out in the original 1940’s style and had her engines and paddles overhauled in 2000 and 2003.
The Engine Room
A visit to the engine room is a must to see the 2100 horsepower triple expansion reciprocating steam engine in action. Watching the giant pistons turn is mesmerizing and some mechanical buffs spend the whole trip just viewing the workings of the ship. From a small porthole, we can catch glimpses through the spray of the paddles churning the water. She makes a steady 14 knots but can reach 18 if pushed.
We venture on deck to watch our arrival at Dunoon, a name familiar to many American ex-servicemen who were based at nearby Holy Loch, and then Blairmore before entering the deep sea lochs of Loch Long and Loch Goil. Oil tankers bring their cargo to the oil terminal at Finnart but that is the only sign of industry in an area of pine covered hills, ruined castles and isolated villages. It’s wild and beautiful scenery with the dark hills rising steeply from the loch shore.
At Carrick Castle on the shores of Loch Goil, the Waverley swings round to begin her journey back to Largs. The wind picks up and we are glad of our warm jackets and hats. It’s only as we dock at Largs that the rain starts and waterproofs are donned.
We land and the Waverley steams off again, her paddles churning the water and she heads off like the stately grand dame she is.
The Waverley plies the Firth of Clyde over the summer months and the south coast of England in the fall. There is a variety of sailings around the islands in the Firth, some lasting all day and some only a few hours. Be prepared for all kinds of weather including sea breezes! There are steps and stairs on board which can be steep and need care to negotiate.