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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Cowal (II) History

COWAL, widely thought to be the best of the “CSPs" pioneer car-ferries, was scarcely altered throughout her working life and spent her entire career on the Firth of Clyde. Latterly the last hoist-loading ferry on the Firth, she only retired once RO/RO facilities were finally installed at Wemyss Bay and Rothesay in the early summer of 1977.
COWAL, unlike ARRAN, was built by Ailsa of Troon and launched at that yard on 20th January 1954 by Lady Bilsland, whose husband was obviously a person of some importance. The new car ferry ran her trials on 6th April and attained 15.54 knots. No doubt flushed with this success, she celebrated by ramming the piles of Gourock pier, stoving in her port side bow so badly that she had to return to the builder's yard.

The ship was identical to ARRAN in almost every respect; for a detailed description, see the history of that vessel on this site. The most obvious difference was her passenger exit; that on COWAL was broader, allowing two gangways to be used simultaneously – though it gave her a shorter pantry. COWAL was also the first Clyde vessel to appear with radar from the outset, and when she duly entered service – on the Gourock-Dunoon run – ARRAN sailed off to Dumbarton to be fitted with radar too.

It would fall to COWAL to inaugurate the second regular all-year-round car ferry service, from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, and this she duly hanselled on 1 October 1954. When she berthed at Rothesay at 12:30 on that day, there was a tape-cutting ceremony and the Rt. Hon Tom Johnston – famous wartime Secretary of State for Scotland, and now in 1954 Chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board – welcomed the first car ashore. Afterwards there was a posh luncheon, with appropriate speeches.

By this date the car ferries had already secured their first casualty; the 1925 GLEN SANNOX, an elegant turbine steamer and the last with open promenade decks, was laid up at the end of the 1953 season and left Greenock's Albert Harbour on Wednesday 28th July 1954, in tow for shipbreakers at Ghent in Belgium.

COWAL won an abiding reputation as the fastest, smartest and happiest of the Clyde car ferries largely because of her first and long-serving skipper, Captain John D MacLeod. A native of the Dunvegan area in Skye, Captain MacLeod's brother Lachlan was for many years a highly respected Free Presbyterian minister in Greenock – though, as far as language went, the two gentlemen had little in common. (A scion of the dynasty is Rev. Lachie's son, the sci-fi novelist Ken MacLeod.) John MacLeod, staying firmly on Planet Earth, joined the CSP in 1946 after fighting for his country and served as a master until his retiral in 1968; amongst other duties, he was the last to skipper DUCHESS OF MONTROSE (1930), a much-loved Caley turbine which was finally retired late in 1964.

If he swore like a flamethrower, Captain MacLeod ran a tight ship and took immense pride in his sturdy and most manoeuvrable car ferry; he mastered the type, on ARRAN, through 1954 before commanding COWAL from 1955 to 1959. Earlier commands included the plodding paddler MARCHIONESS OF LORNE (1935), the equally short-lived JUPITER (1937) and the much-loved DUCHESS OF FIFE (1903); he would end his career with the 1957 GLEN SANNOX.)

Under such a man the immaculately maintained COWAL whizzed around the Firth, shipped cars by the thousand and smashed record after record; on Glasgow Fair Saturday - 31st July 1954 – COWAL, as noted elsewhere, carried no less than 297 cars from Gourock to Dunoon. (The total for the whole of July 1953 was 58.)

And that was pretty well it for COWAL until the end of the Sixties. Like her sisters, she was modified in 1958, receiving a mainmast in place of her little-used Samson post-and-derrick combination and a consequent increase in her car capacity. She interchanged regularly with ARRAN and BUTE on the basic routes, bearing cars and cattle, trucks and cargo across rthe Clyde to Cowal, Bute and Cumbrae – and doing most of the railway-connection work from Gourock and Wemyss Bay. A car ferry service to Millport did not always appear in the timetable; nevertheless, it was there, andf COWAL or one of her sisters undertook it three or four times weekly as traffic demanded.

It was on the busiest routes, however, that hoist-loading very soon caused much frustration and delay, and as the Sixties wore on the inability of these ferries to handle long heavy loads became a tremendous nuisance. The CSP dithered increasingly about their replacement, but was still fatally centred on hoist-loading even in the late 1960s – not least because of petty town-council refusal to countenance linspans.

Iain McCrorie's account of life aboard COWAL is too good to languish between the pages of Iain MacArthur's beautiful, but distinctly rare, The Caledonian Steam Packet Co. Ltd (Clyde River Steamer Club, 1971.)

“The period 1959-64 is the one I know best as it was during these years that I served as assistant Purser during my vacations from university. I had never relished the prospect of being drafted to a car ferry as they appeared to lack the glamour of the excursion steamers. What was lacking in glamour I soon discovered was made up for in hard work and long hours, but my experiences were all the more enjoyable for all that. After two months aboard MAID OF ASHTON on the Loch run, I joined COWAL at 0400 on 1st September 1959 for a light run from Gourock to Whiting Bay, leaving there some five hours later with sheep for Fairlie. The carrying of livestock was in fact quite a common feature of car ferry work and was always followed by a considerable amount of hosing down in the after end. The 0845 run out of Rothesay very often had cattle or sheep aboard.

“It is little exaggeration to say that you could tell the time of day aboard COWAL by glandcing at the car deck. The first run in the morning from Gourock to Dunoon – at 0645 in those days – was characterised by the bread van (the driver supplying the rolls for the crew's breakfast) on the lift and innumerable barrowloads of parcels and fish for Glendaruel Hotel, Wooolworth's, the Argyll Emporium, the Tudor Tea Shoppe and a whole host of other destinations. For the Assistant it was the busiest run of the day as all traffic had to be manifested before Dunoon was reached. Up till the end of 1963 when Kirn Pier was closed – COWAL actually made the last call on 28th December – we always berthed at Dunoon bow north on that first run, as the 0728 commuter service to Gourock sailed via Kirn and only five minutes were allowed between the two piers. Rail passenger traffic on this run and the 0835 following it has declined considerably in recent years, except when cheap excursion fares are offered to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The 0920 from Gourock was the only run which was not made from the head of the pier, as pride of place was then awarded to MacBrayne's LOCHFYNE after the departure of one of the Caley excursion steamers for Inveraray, Arran or Ayr, while the Campbeltown turbine was in Berth B. The Ardrishaig summer service was undertaken by the winter mailboat LOCHFYNE after the withdrawal of the veteran turbine steamer SAINT COLUMBA at the end of the 1958 season.

“And so the day went on, with the strawberries on the 1210, the BRS lorry on the 1310, the families and prams on the 1400, the glorious band of cleaners coming back from a day's work on the 1730, the bowler hats on the 1810 and the drunks at 2035 – each run, as I say, quite different from all the others.

“We were all very pleased to finish our spell at Dunoon and go down firth for a less exacting time at Rothesay. The records had been broken, the masters who had made them had move on to other charges, and the novelty of the car ferries had begun to wear off. And so it was good to have a spell away from the constant bustle up at Gourock with the ten-minute turnrounds. To me the main advantage of the crossing to Bute was that the cargo did not require to be checked, as this was done on Rothesay Pier under the so-called “Stationmaster”. The time allowed in the schedule for loading and discharging was much more generous and the time in passage was that bit longer too.

“The most interesting time in the daily life of a car ferry was probably when she was the relief vessel on a busy holiday Saturday. The day started early, with the first run to and from Dunoon. Cargo was always lighter on a Saturday and the Assistant Purser could eat his breakfast in a leisurely fashion, while on the way back. A MAID – in the early days always MAID OF CUMBRAE – took the Kirn passengers away at 0733. Meanwhile the vessel detailed to be on the Dunoon run for the rest of the day left Gourock around 0745 to give ample time to load about 30 cars on the 0835. We started off again at 0815 and arrived at Berth 2 at Dunoon just as the CUMBRAE left with the train passengers. An 0850 departure with a full load of cars took us to Wemyss Bay in time to give much needed assistance to the car ferry bound for Rothesay at 0945. Until 1960, the 'spare' general purpose ship then returned to Wemyss Bay, again fully loaded, in order to take a special shortly before noon with cars, bicycles, hampers, prams – and passengers – to Millport Old Pier. This caused untold congestion at Wemyss Bay as between 1130 and 1200 there were the regular vessels to Rothesay and Millport (a car ferry and TALISMAN); there was WAVERLEY which had taken on the mantle of JUPITER in taking the passengers between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay, there was DUCHESS OF MONTROSE on her morning Gourock-Dunoon-Wemyss Bay-Rothesay relief sailing prior to the Ailsa Craig cruise, and there was our own vessel at the head of the pier – all trying to load and unload their complements at approximately the same time. What was worse was that by the time we eventually reached Millport, around 1245, we were taking up TALISMAN's berth and the paddler often had to lie off the Eileans for well-nigh half an hour before we cleared the berth.

“The pressure on available berths was eased considerably from 1961 on when the spare car ferry was instructed to leave Rothesay at 1045 with cars, not for Wemyss Bay but for Fairlie Pier, and to undertake the Millport car sailing from there to Keppel Pier. Not only did this relieve congestion at Wemyss Bay and Millport; it also saved time, though this was offset to some extent by the fact that the gangway at Keppel was only broad enough to allow one car off at a time, and all cars had to be unloaded before any could be taken on. Our set instructions finished when we arrived back at Fairlie and we were then told to undertake reliefs as required. We generally moved light to Gourock to take over a double run to Dunoon. By this time the Dunoon ferry was generally running an hour late and when we were loaded ready to go around 1500 we were in fact on the two o'clock run. This allowed the 1520 sailing to leave on time. Then we went on to Wemyss Bay as by now, especially if tidal conditions had been unfavourable, the Rothesay ferry was usually a double run down. The two car ferries often left Wemyss Bay together around 1745 with over sixty cars between them. On our return to Gourock we anxiously watched the progress of our sister to see if she would manage to leave on time on her last run. If not, we had to do it and our 'early finish' as often as not turned out to be nine o'clock.”

That world of over forty years ago – ships whizzing around the Clyde like dodgems; schedules centred on dozens of piers; passengers descending on all forms of public transport by the thousand – has long gone; so, less regrettably, has Dunoon's Tudor Tea Shoppe.

In
1965 COWAL became the first unit of the fleet to don the new livery – monastral blue hull, white superstructure, and grey masts and ventilators, davits and rails. Gourock managed to fend off the new British Railways funnel – red and black with a white BR emblem affixed – and instead COWAL donned little red lions. Her black hull, buff masts, silver ventilators and rails were restored when the CSP was at New Year 1969 transferred to the new Scottish Transport Group.

The STG viewed the hardest pressed Clyde crossings as a priority; fresh tonnage was quickly found for the Arran and Cowal routes, and the new management then had to find a role for the ageing but still useful 1954 ferries. So Captain MacLeod's ex-command was placed on what could have been a very successful new crossing for the summer of 1970. This seasonal Fairlie-Tarbert-Brodick service was at once a replacement for MacBrayne's Gourock-Ardrishaog Royal Mail run and the first gesture towards the long-sought Arran-Kintyre car ferry. COWAL inaugurated this experimental roster on 30th May 1970; it would prove a resounding failure.

“COWAL's new Fairlie-Brodick-Tarbert sailing had great potential for an excursion,” cursed Iain MacArthur in 1971, “but witness the attractions incorporated – a too early train departure from Glasgow, allowing forty-five minutes at Fairlie, a lack of proper catering facilities during the 1970 season, and no time ashore to visit Tarbert.” (COWAL had also to make morning and evening calls to Millport, either side of her Tarbert passage.)

The Brodick call badly distorted the Clyde crossing; it was only bolted on as an afterthought, when the STG retreated from its first instinct of an Arran-Kintyre car ferry based at Lochranza. A seasonal Lochranza-Claonaig service was, however, introduced in 1972 – with a new bowloader, the appropriately named KILBRANNAN – and COWAL did not revive its clumsy predecessor for 1972, making her last Tarbert run on 30th September 1971.

She ended up shuttling between Largs and Millport through that winter – but even there she was quickly made redundant, when the former Skye ferry CORUISK opened the quicker Largs-Cumbrae Slip run in March 1972. COWAL spent her last five years on the Wemyss Bay-Rothesay route, which somehow evaded the frenzy of modernisation for most of the Seventies. In 1974 she became the last major unit of the fleet to acquire the red CalMac funnel.

But she frequently relieved at Kilcreggan and Dunoon – especially in the spring – and from 1974 also played her part in servicing a new CalMac contract, ferrying workers at McAlpine's oil platform construction yard at Ardyne from Wemyss Bay. Had the yard not closed in 1977, COWAL might have lasted rather longer in the Company's service. But close it did; and COWAL retired from the Rothesay service on 20th May.

Laid up at Greenock's East India Harbour from early June 1977, she survived a galley-fire on June 9th. After months in l;ay-up she was shiftted in 1978 to the James Watt Dock and offered for sale, increasingly forlorn and on several occasions “cannibalised” for parts to keep ARRAN in service. COWAL was finally sold to Phetouris Ferries of Greece on 5th January 1997, and left under tow for Perama on 15th May.

The tow parted in the Bay of Biscay but, that and other misadventures notwithstanding, the former COWAL finally reached Piraeus. Some rebuilding took place and she was advertised, as MED STAR, to be shortly taking up service from Otranto to Igoumenitsa, across the southern Adriatic. But renovation to the ship was never completed – reportedly because of the death of Gerasimos S Phetouris himself – and Captain MacLeod's most useful ferry never sailed again. MED STAR was sold for scrap in December 1983, and broken up the following year.

Text thanks to John MacLeod (C)


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