Waverley to the Western Isles 2013

Words and pictures by Martin Longhurst (except where stated)

In the days leading up to the start of Waverley’s 2013 season on Friday 3 May numerous people, not least her captain, had been anxiously scrutinising the weather forecast.   All seemed lost as southerly gales were predicted at the time the paddler was due to be rounding the exposed Mull of Kintyre.

Notwithstanding these concerns, well over 200 were ready to board the steamer for her 0700 departure from Glasgow Pacific Quay.  Captain O’Brian came on the public address and expressed his concern but said he would proceed as far as conditions would allow.  However, both the tug to turn the ship and the bakery van had been delayed, so we would have to wait for them.   Just as the tug arrived up the river, the baker appeared on the quay and many trays of loaves, rolls and sandwiches were quickly loaded on board.   About 45 minutes late, Captain O’Brian gave the order to cast off and slowly Waverley turned her bow downstream.

It was a grey morning with spells of light rain, so it was a good idea to go below for a hearty breakfast while the ship steamed on to Greenock for a second pick up.   Here about another fifty joined the paddler after Captain O’Brian had made a more optimistic announcement, suggesting there was now an even chance of getting to Oban.   As we headed south to Campbeltown, there was only a light wind although the rain kept coming and going.   The Kintyre port was reached and while a dozen more hopefuls boarded, it was announced we would keep going.  

Soon we were heading west along the south coast of the peninsula, surprisingly enjoying distant views of Northern Ireland through the murk.   Finally the lighthouse on its south-western corner was spotted and soon we were able to set course across the 25 miles of open sea to the Sound of Islay.   This stretch of water is noted for its strong tides as the current is funnelled between the islands of Islay and Jura.   The tide was in our favour and with the main engine turning at 48 rpm, the paddler was making 17.1 knots over the ground.

This put us in a good position to make our call at Colonsay just ahead of Cal-Mac’s Lord of the Isles.   The latter ship could be seen approaching from Oban.   The paddler was quickly tied up at Scalasaig Pier – fortunately there were no passengers to transfer, so we could let go quickly and allow ‘Lottie’ to take the pier with the minimum of delay.  

These pictures were taken by Adrian Sweeney from Lord of the Isles as Waverley left Colonsay.






The sky had now cleared but the temperature dropped appreciably as we headed for Oban ourselves, pursued by ‘Lottie’ after her own brief call at Colonsay.   After transiting the Sound of Kerrera, we swung round Oban Bay and berthed at the North Pier.   About half those on board returned to Glasgow or Greenock by coach while the remainder stayed on at Oban for the weekend’s sailings.

Saturday’s weather again forced the captain to warn passengers that conditions might prevent the steamer carrying out her planned trip to Armadale (Skye) and Inverie (Knoydart).   Low cloud and drizzle were the order of the day, so most people opted to stay dry in the ship’s accommodation.  Clearing the sheltered waters of the Sound of Mull, it quickly became apparent that continuing our intended passage would be very uncomfortable.   So the paddler turned back to the east.   The alternative route took the paddler to Loch Sunart (opposite Tobermory) then back along the Sound of Mull, with views of waterfalls being blown uphill!    Then the paddler turned north up the west coast of Loch Linnhe to Corran, south down its east coast and the west coast of Kerrera before turning north back to Oban through the Sound of Kerrera.   Arrival back was about two hours ahead of schedule.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and an excellent early morning passage to Fort William departing at 0800 was in prospect.   Unfortunately a technical problem was discovered which rendered the ship’s Emergency Generator unserviceable, so regrettably she returned south without reaching Fort William Pier.  Shortly after passing the Corran Narrows the weather closed in once more with mist and rain prevailing for the rest of the day.   A large crowd was waiting for the steamer on Oban’s North Pier in the steady rain.  Captain O’Brian announced that the afternoon’s sail had been cancelled but intending passengers could join the ship to get out of the rain and to enjoy a Sunday roast in the Dining Saloon.  It was hoped repairs could be completed in time for the evening cruise to Fort William at 1830 but this could not be achieved, so the steamer remained alongside until Monday.   From reports from Cal-Mac travellers, it seems unlikely the paddler could have completed her intended Four Lochs cruise and passage through the Gulf of Corryvreckan in any case.

The errant generator was being tested (successfully) as we boarded the steamer on Monday but the weather remained obdurately foul.   A landing at Iona had been planned but conditions were unsuitable.   The substitute cruise was to Tobermory for time ashore with a deviation around Loch Linnhe on the return passage.   In view of the limited visibility, passage was made close to shore rather than down the middle of the Sound and small deviations were made to add interest.

Finally, on Tuesday the weather finally cleared and we were able to enjoy the cruise back to the Clyde in beautiful sunshine.   Unfortunately, the load was restricted as West Coast Motors were unable to supply more than one coach to return day passengers from Campbeltown to Oban.   The paddler departed Oban at 0900, sounding a long blast on her whistle as she cleared the bay.   On passage to Colonsay we passed and exchanged whistle blasts with ‘Lottie.’   The call at Colonsay is primarily for compliance reasons as Waverley’s certificate is only valid for voyages of up to 70 miles, the distance from Campbeltown to Oban being slightly longer.   On this occasion, generally favourable tides allowed 15 minutes ashore for those wishing to take photographs.  In addition, we picked up a cyclist bound for Campbeltown.

There were outstanding views of Islay and Jura (the latter’s Paps having been obscured on the Friday) but the current here was against us, slowing the steamer to about 9 knots.   Apart from this section, good speeds were maintained and the steamer arrived at Campbeltown at 1700.   About half the passengers disembarked here before the paddler headed out of Campbeltown Loch and turned north up the Kilbrannan Sound around the north of Arran.   Then she threaded her way between Bute and Cumbrae, past the partly demolished power station at Inverkip and finally to Greenock.   There was one final surprise as the sail training tall ship Stavros S Niarchos was occupying Waverley’s normal berth, so she had to tie up slightly downstream of Custom House Quay.  The next day she entered the Garvel Dry Dock at 1030 and was due to return to service at Liverpool on 1 June.

Unfortunately conditions were too poor for photography except on Tuesday, but here are some highlights from that voyage:


The Paps of Jura


Looking north along the Sound of Islay with Islay on the left and Jura on the right


The Islay – Jura ferry tied up at Port Askaig


McArthurs Head on Islay


Distant view of Arran after leaving Campbeltown

Return to Home Page