Where steam met sail

I have been a traitor to the age of sail this weekend – and, to be fair, all the time, because my first love as far as ships were concerned, and always first in my heart, is the paddle steamer Waverley. I was a Clyde steamer girl when I still thought the Napoleonic wars were just something for English people to get jingoistic about, like 1966!

So I spent the weekend steaming up and down the Clyde (which unlike other rivers mentioned doesn’t really have a mouth, unless it’s one of those alien ones that’s all tentacles.)

This is one of the places where steam started, and it goes a long way back.

Going down the river towards Greenock, just after the mouth of the Forth and Clyde canal (built 1790, and possibly a story for another day) at Bowling, you pass a monument on the north bank to Henry Bell, who in 1812 launched the first commercial passenger steamboat service in Europe with the paddlesteamer Comet.

Henry Bell's monument
Henry Bell’s monument

In 1812, when all the great ships were sailing about. It has to happen that way, I suppose – unlike empires, inventions don’t wait for the previous one to start to crumble – but it does surprise me just how early it was.

The monument
The monument

It was obviously the area for it, because an even earlier paddlesteamer, the Charlotte Dundas (named for the sister of the ‘real’ George Heneage Dundas, and presumably ‘the steamer that [Philip] Broke had seen on a Scotch canal during the peace’, in The Fortune of War) sailed on the Forth and Clyde canal.

Boats in the Forth and Clyde canal (and the mist)
Boats in the Forth and Clyde canal (and the mist)

Even that wasn’t exactly the first – there had been earlier experiments in Scotland and in France, and even a commercial service in America – but it was definitely in at the beginning of the story.

On Sunday morning I went down to meet Waverley at Greenock instead of Glasgow – it meant an extra half hour in bed, and that matters on a Sunday! It also meant that I could start off by taking the fast train down as far as Port Glasgow, where there’s a replica of the Comet which was built in 1962 to mark the 150th anniversary.

PS Comet
PS Comet

The most surprising thing about it was the scale – I think of steamers as great big things, but this is the size of a smallish yacht, or the smallest local ferries and tour boats.

It has two paddle wheels on each side, which is unusual, but they’re not the efficient waterwheel type – they really are paddles.

Paddle wheels
Paddle wheels

I also love the way that the funnel doubles as a mast – there really doesn’t seem to have been any concept that this would take over from sail, only that it was another useful thing to have.

Deck and funnel
Deck and funnel

And within a decade there were steamers all over the Firth of Clyde – it’s amazing to think what came from here!


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