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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Keppel History

Such is the pride the Clyde takes in her ships that remarkably few vessels built elsewhere have ever been acquired for passenger service on river or Firth; but early in 1967 the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd was in rather a jam. The Company was still reeling from the purge of 1965, when four ships were laid up for disposal in the wake of the infamous Beeching Report – not only such legends as the beautiful paddler JEANIE DEANS (1931) and the majestic DUCHESS OF MONTROSE (1930), but two very useful little passenger ferries, ASHTON and LEVEN, built originally for up-river service during Glasgow's 1938 Empire Exhibition and latterly on the Largs-Millport station. They were closely modelled on the very first motor-vessel ever built for the CSP, the WEE CUMBRAE of 1935.

All four veterans were duly sold in 1965 – the tragic end of the steamers is a little offset by the knowledge that the sometime ASHTON and LEVEN survive in English service even in 2004 – and the CSP were left with very limited Clyde resources. In 1966 the pressure became all the greater when, for the third time in fifteen years, the Company was denied permission to close its ruinous service from Gourock to the commuters of Kilcreggan, Blairmore and Kilmun; there was also mounting concern about TALISMAN, the extraordinary but oddly loved diesel-electric paddler of 1935, which was a very useful year-round ferryboat but, after a silly engine-room mishap in February 1966, never recovered mechanically and ran on only three of her four generating engines.

The CSP was therefore faced with the prospect of running both the damned Holy Loch commuter-run and its services to Millport with very limited spare passenger capacity – amounting to one little MAID, the old and clapped-out TALISMAN and the tiny COUNTESS OF BREADALBANE. At this point Providence, and the higher echelons of the British Railways behemoth, took a hand: late in 1967 the CSP was offered a spare ferry from BR (Eastern Region) – the 214-ton ROSE, built at Southampton only in 1961 for the short Tilbury-Gravesend service on the Thames, and one of an identical trio constructed for that passage.

Suitable financial terms had to be agreed – ROSE was valued at £53,000 – but the sudden availability of new tonnage for the Clyde fleet was not lightly to be dismissed and early in 1967 the Gourock management decided to accept the vessel. She would effectively be the replacement for TALISMAN, laid up at Greenock's Albert Harbour since November 1966, after her last run – to the Holy Loch. It speaks volumes for the plight of the CSP through the 1960s that the Thames ferry would be their first addition to the Clyde fleet since GLEN SANNOX ten years before.

ROSE was officially registered as a CSP vessel on 11th April 1967, but only left the Thames on Monday 24th April. She made a leisurely voyage of three weeks' duration by Inverness and the Caledonian Canal, reaching on Monday 15th May. She was immediately berthed at Greenock's east India Graving Dock for an extensive refit, which took a full month and cost about £7,000.

The ROSE lost all her hydraulic landing gangways – replaced by primitive gateways in her rails for the accommodation of equally primitive wooden gangways, the sort of Luddite absurdity that equally characterised CSP management in the 1960s. As her new estuary had a much more exciting range of tides, a special landing platform was built above the forward deckhouse, and all trace of her little foredeck was lost once her bows had been heightened to the level of the upper deck. At the after end of her top deck a deckhouse was added, with toilet facilities; the basics of a cafeteria were added to her after lounge and extra crew accommodation was fitted up in the forward cabin.

She was of sleek but slightly odd appearance; her single mast, amidships, also served as uptake for her exhaust, in a manner only later reflected by any other ship in the company, the SUILVEN of 1974. ROSE's mast-cum-funnel was duly painted in the Caley yellow – there was already a black top – but no lion was added.

What was really important about this vessel was her propulsion: ROSE was the first ship in either fleet to be powered not by paddles or a conventional screw but by a Voith Schneider cycloidal propeller, driven by one six-cylinder Lister-Blackstone diesel engine. Ernst Schneider' ingenious invention – deploying a complex system of gears to vary the pitch of downward-projecting vanes in a birling drum had not even been devised with any thought for ships.

Schneider was a Viennese engineer who, in the 1920s, had amused himself by conceiving a new sort of water-turbine to harness hydro-electric power from rivers. He boasted of his invention to Ludwig Kober – they met on the Vienna express – and Kober in turn reported the development to his boss, Herr Walter Voith of J M Voith Ltd, an Austrian engineering company which specialised in water-turbines, pumps and so on.

Mr Voith's technicians fell on Schenider's invention, but rapidly ascertained that it was not really as efficient as a variable-pitch turbine already on their drawing-board. Yet tests were conducted with true Teutonic rigour, and almost accidentally they discovered that – if one reversed the process, and ran Ernst Schenider's gadget as a pump – it produced a powerful thrust “in any desired horizontal direction,” writes Alan Brown, “solely by adjustment of the blade oscillatory control and without having to turn the unit in azimuth. It was quickly appreciated that this device successfully eliminated all the problems which had bedevilled previous attempts to design a practical vertically bladed propeller, and as such offered tremendous potential as a combined propulsion and steering unit for ships.”

The dream of the Voith-Schneider propeller was born; within months there was a Voith-Schneider unit department at J M Voith Ltd.'s Polten works; and by 1928 there was the first Voith-Schneider ship – a wee 60hp motor-launch, the TORQUEO. She was a huge success on exhaustive trials in Lake Constance and the Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft – German State Railways, who ran a big fleet of steamers and ferries on that lake, quickly took notice. The three ships built for DRG service on Lake Constance in 1931 were all fitted with twin Voith-Schneider units and were such a success that the propulsion became standard for all Lake Constance ships – not just those of the DRG, but the Austrian Federal Railway fleet.

Ernst Schneider could now show off his invention in spectacular style in real service conditions and had abundant opportunity to fine-tune it further. Though it looks like nothing so much as a slightly weird blender – an ominous revolving drum with projecting vertical vanes, which can be rotated by ingenious gears to provide equal thrust in any given direction – the Voith-Schneider unit was the biggest innovation since the advent of the screw-propeller. In one of innovative engineering's rare happy endings, by the end of the 1930s there were 78 ships worldwide boasting Voith-Schneider propulsion and Ernst Schneider was a very rich man.

And in 1938 the technology reached Britain, with a new Isle of Wight ferry, LYMINGTON, produced by Denny's of Dumbarton and boasting Voith-Schneider propulsion; in one of these engaging circularities that marks this story, she would end her career as a very old lady on the Firth of Clyde – SOUND OF SANDA< acquired by Western Ferries for their Upper Clyde crossing in 1974, would survive in service until the end of 1989, still with her original W H Allen engines and over fifty years old.

Yet Voith-Schneider propulsion was very slow to catch on in Britain – partly because of our innate conservatism, partly because LYMINGTON was long stalked by problems that were really due to bad hull design; and most of all, after 1939, because it was German. It was, then, 1967 before it appears in Company history – this extraordinary propeller on the ROSE, acting as both rudder and screw and directed from her wheelhouse by a single, combined speed and steering-control pedestal.

ROSE duly emerged from her last alterations – at Lamont's yard in Port Glasgow – to run trials on Sunday 11th June. She attained a mean speed of 9.45 knots and if – as Iain MacArthur observes – this was “hardly an improvement on the old COUNTESS [OF BREADALBANE]... this deficiency is partially compensated for by her remarkable manoeuvrability.” The CSP's latest acquisition took up service on the Largs-Millport crossing on the evening of Monday 12th June 1967; a week later, she appeared with a new name, KEPPEL, after the Isle of Cumbrae's secondary pier. It was duly registered on 27th June but, to general surprise, the ship remained registered at London, not Glasgow.

Though small, distinctly slow, definitely cramped – her passenger facilities were pretty spartan - and of very odd appearance – KEPPEL survived for many years. At first supported by some MAID or other, running a Millport service from Wemyss Bay; then the rather skeletal car ferry service to Millport from the ABC ferries; and finally, from the spring of 1972, by various vessels on the new Cumbrae Slip vehicular service from Largs, KEPPEL just kept on going.

More, she became surprisingly popular. And she had proved an important pioneer: it is no exaggeration to say that the success of her Voith-Schneider machinery was a big factor in choosing such units for the new Skye ferries of 1970; and, later, for the Upper Clyde “streakers” built between 1973 and 1977 – not to mention Voith-Schneider units in yet more double-ended car ferries constructed for Caledonian MacBrayne in the 80s and 90s.

By the end of 1970 she was the only ship to berth overnight at the Cumbrae pier and by the end of 1974, she was the Company's only vessel to serve Millport regularly. That same year, the lower reaches of her “funnel” were painted red and for the first time she acquired a tiny lion. Through the week she started berthing overnight at Rothesay so she could carry out one of the morning commuter runs to Wemyss Bay.

For her first three years with the CSP, KEPPEL was employed year-round on the Largs to Millport station. But there was no winter service in 1970-71, nor subsequently, and then and thereafter she whizzed about off-season as handy spare passenger tonnage, “being seen,” records Iain McCrorie, “at Kilcreggan; the old North Bank terminal at Craigendoran; the Holy Loch and Dunoon.” In March 1974 she opened CalMac's new Ardyne contract, bearing oil-rig workers from Wemyss Bay to Innellan; later, she would relieve McAlpine's own vessel, QUEEN OF SCOTS, sailing from the Ardyne yard to Rothesay.

But Ardyne's yard closed in 1977 (with the loss of many jobs) and thereafter KEPPEL was laid up of a CalMac winter She did emerge in March 1980 to convey Millport schoolchildren – the LARGS was toiling with Cumbrae passenger traffic in the absence of ISLE OF CUMBRAE (1977) for overhaul – but probably wished she hadn't, for KEPPEL broke down in heavy weather and ran aground at Farland Point, sustaining considerable damage. She was repaired in time to assumer her summer duties, including a new feature – an afternoon cruise round Cumbrae.

There was even more cruising in the summer of 1981, though GLEN SANNOX no longer ran as an excursion steamer and CalMac had supposedly abandoned the Clyde trade to the WAVERLEY. KEPPEL offered a Largs-Rothesay sailing every afternoon (except Saturday) at 2 pm, allowing an hour ashore before resuming her roster with a 1710 Millport-Largs run. This “Cumbrae Circle” cruise revived a popular Clyde outing of the 50s and 60s. KEPPEL had also become a very popular ship to charter, and took camera-toting enthusiasts to long abandoned, near-derelict piers like Ormidale, Portencross and – of course – Keppel.

She was under growing threat from the mounting deterioration of Millport Old Pier; Strathclyde Regional Council announced in September 1984 that it would not fund vital repairs. There was alarm that this might prove to be KEPPEL's last season, especially as the Monoploies & Mergers Commission report into Calmac operations, in 1983, had already suggested the end of the Largs-Millport passenger link. Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger, did in fact order its closure early in 1985. But there were howls of outrage from Millport and the Scottish Transport Users Consultative Committee – to whose 1966 intervention at Kilmun the KEPPEL owed a Clyde career in the first place - forced a compromise. Until new car ferries appeared on the Largs-Cumbrae Slip crossing with more passenger capacity, KEPPEL and her duties could survive.

LOCH STRIVEN and LOCH LINNHE duly took up station at Largs on 4th July 1986; the ISLE OF CUMBRAE fled to Mull duties – the Fishnish-Lochaline route – in August. But KEPPEL survived, even after her last Largs-Millport sailing on 18th June. She was now dedicated to Clyde cruising, and through successive summers gave excursion sailings from Gourock to the principal resorts as well as Loch Long, Carrick Castle and the Kyles of Bute. In 1988 KEPPEL was a regular visitor upriver to the Glasgow Garden Festival and she continued to run charter sailings to yet more exotic locations down Memory Lane – Ardnadam, Strone and Blairmore, often under the auspices of the Clyde River Steamer Club. Her range was of course somewhat restricted by her low speed.

But passenger numbers fell substantially in the early 1990s and KEPPEL was withdrawn at the end of the 1992 season. Offered for sale, she was acquired on 20th May 1993 by Inverclyde Marine, who hoped to operate her for Clyde cruisin in their own right. So she was renamed CLYDE ROSE – though the name was never registered and, donning a blue funnel, ran for a few hapless months, attracting very little charter business and – though a timetable was published – very few passengers. The enterprise lasted only one summer and by the autumn of 1993 the ex-Millport ferry was once more redundant. After lying for some time in Cardwell Bay, the CLYDE ROSE was sold to Maltese interests and left the Clyde on 22nd April 1995.

She now offers round-the-island excursions from Malta – and is once again called KEPPEL. Click here to go to a You Tube clip of Keppel in her current role (many thanks to Dave Worth for providing the link)

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)


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