Steaming Slowly Through Lowland Scotland – 2023

Steaming Slowly Through Lowland Scotland
by Eric B. Forsyth – 6/15/23

Published in the South Bay Cruising Club Newsletter

Many years ago, when I was chugging along the Caledonian Canal in the Scottish Highlands aboard my cutter, Fiona, an antique apparition appeared coming round the next bend. It was a small steamer belching out thick clouds of black smoke, a genuine “Puffer,” a relic of the hundreds that once served the needs of the Western Isles, and the rocky coasts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. These small boats provided transportation to coastal communities along with the essentials of life then—coal, kerosene, food, building supplies, everything.

The Puffers grew from the barges that were hauled along the Scottish canals by horses, the dimensions strictly dictated by the size of the locks. Early in the 19th century people tried installing steam engines driving paddle wheels (even before Mr. Fulton). But fearful of damaging the canal sides, that idea was abandoned and the adoption of a two-cylinder steam engine driving a screw propeller set a design that hardly varied after the mid-nineteenth century until a decade after World War II. The early engines emitted a puff of steam after every stroke but later improvements condensed the steam for re-use in the engine, the boats became quieter and more efficient. Now they are all gone, except for one or two rescued by enthusiasts and converted to passenger steamers. An excellent comedy was filmed in 1954, in which an unscrupulous skipper deceives a rich American into shipping furniture for a house on a remote island aboard his decrepit Puffer, The Maggie.

Early this year I spotted an ad for a sailing vacation on one of the remaining Puffers, I seized on the chance to experience a unique piece of sea-lore. I was fortunate—I was able to convince one of my long-suffering crew of Fiona, Louise, to accompany me to the U.K. The boat was called VIC 32, and it had been ordered during the second World War by the Government to service ships and towns in Scotland. “VIC” was bureaucratese for Victualling Inshore Craft. The boat is about 65 feet long and weighs about 85 tons. The cargo hold has been divided into five cabins, two heads, a large dining area, and a good galley.

Our crew consisted of the skipper, Gordon Patterson, first mate Jim, chief engineer Richard, and two lady cooks who worked very hard. Feeding times were breakfast at 8:30 a.m., morning tea and homemade cookies at 11 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., afternoon tea and homemade cake at 4 p.m. and dinner at 7:30 p.m.

Louise and I flew to Glasgow from New York and took a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to a small village on the mainland of Argyllshire called Ardrishaig. The Puffer berthed in a sea lock of the Crinan Canal.

VIC 32 (Vessel Inshore Cargo)  at  the Ardrishaig Sea Lock

We were the firsts guests to arrive but we were soon joined by three other couples, all relatively elderly and retired. The next five days followed a similar pattern, an early start with the boat tied up for the afternoon to a scenic dock. Once or twice we left the dock in the evening and spent the night anchored, which was an opportunity to watch the massive steam-operated windlass in action. Throughout, the weather was perfect with dry, warm days. Our routes took us through sheltered waters with no seas to speak of.

VIC 32 (Vessel Inshore Cargo)  at  the Ardrishaig Sea Lock

Guests were encouraged to visit the wheelhouse and the engine room. The first day I spent a few minutes steering the Puffer using a large, conventional disc compass. The wheelhouse had controls to regulate speed and engage forward and reverse. There were several additions that would have delighted the earlier Puffer seamen—a GPS chart plotter and an electronic depth finder. I found the engine-room to be fascinating.

Eric examines the two cylinder engine

It was very cramped and the engineer struggled to keep up the steam pressure, 120 psi max, as he shoveled coal from the bunker to the greedy boiler. He told me the vessel consumed 4 tons a week. The engine ran beautifully, with absolutely no vibration or noise—although, of course, I am somewhat deaf and it may seem noisier to other folk. There was a gorgeous smell of hot oil.

Furnace of VIC 32

Some of the scenic spots we visited included the Marquis of Butte’s ancestral house, Mount Stuart on the eponymous island, Loch Flyne, Loch Linney, Kyles of Butte, Rothesay, Largs and Tarbert. 

 Mount Stuart, home of the Marquis of Butte

Thursday evening on board the cooks laid on a sumptuous dinner and guests were encouraged to dress up a little.

Louise and Eric dressed up for the final dinner

After dinner I showed a video of one of Fiona’s voyages through the Caledonian Canal and on to Portugal and the Caribbean. It was an extremely interesting and pleasant voyage with delightful voyage with delightful fellow-guests and very competent, courteous crew.