Master Mariner, ex Captain of the Hebridean Princess, the Waverley and the Queen Mary II

Born: June 9, 1933

Died: September 20, 2018

Robin L Hutchison, who has died aged 85, was one of the longest serving and best remembered of CalMac Captains.

He was also one of the last links to the glory days of the Clyde Steamers and summer cruising ‘doon the watter’.

He started on the Clyde in the late 1950’s working summer seasons on the iconic paddle steamers such as the Jeannie Deans and the Waverley, for what was then the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. He ended his career with CalMac in charge of the car ferries to Arran and on the ‘streakers’ – the versatile ships that served Gourock – Dunoon and Wemyss Bay – Rothesay.

Brought up in Greenock some might have thought it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up going to sea, but Robin’s love of the sea first manifest earlier than most. Aged nine, on holiday with his aunt in Dunure he spent his days down at the harbour happily aiding in shifting creels and doing odd jobs. Somehow he manged to convince a local skipper he was an ideal deck boy and they set off without telling anyone on a week-long fishing trip to the Isle of Man.

That wasn’t his only wartime adventure – his parents ran a small nursing home in an area that was then open land on the Largs road, south of Greenock. On the second night of the Greenock Blitz (7th May 1941) decoy flares had been lit on the hills to confuse German bombers and lure them to drop their deadly payloads on open country. One 1,000 lb parachute mine dropped close by their house. Luckily it partly sank into a bog before exploding – bringing down ceilings, blowing out windows and encasing the whole house in mud. Robin emerged, unscathed, from under the stairs to discover his mother’s precious china collection smashed.

A pupil at Greenock Academy, he left aged 15 for a six-month course at the James Watt Nautical College. He joined Denholms as an apprentice, paid £37 a year. His first ship was the Hollypark – a converted Second World War tank transporter that had survived two German bombs. His first voyage to New Zealand lasted two years.

He worked ‘deep-sea’ for many years but always returned to Greenock. He met his wife Ann at Saturday night dances at the Moorings in Largs.

Family life began to be the priority and he looked for work nearer home. At first he was only offered summer seasons with the Caledonian Steam Packet Co, but finally, in 1962 he was given a full-time role.

These days, only the Waverley offers cruises on the Firth. But in its heyday the Clyde in summer was a complex network of regular services serving multiple piers, interspersed with many longer day, or evening cruises, to all destinations – from Bridge Wharf in the heart of the Glasgow to Campbeltown on the tip of Kintyre, via a myriad of piers in between.

One hectic summer in the early sixties he was master of 19 different ships in 21 days, dashing from pier to pier up and down the coast between shifts to take charge of yet another ship to fill gaps in the rotas and keep the services running.

One of his favourites was the Maid of Argyll. Robin was always up for a challenge and was happy to take charge of her when, in Sept 1966, the Clyde River Steamer Club, proposed an ambitious trip into the heart of Paisley and then onward to Loch Striven. It was a tricky piece of navigation on a waterway so little used, but it also marked the end of an era. Not long after, the River Cart was closed to all navigation.

For many years he was Mate, then Captain, of the Queen Mary II. He always saw it as one of the best ships he had ever sailed on – claiming it was one of the very few that had been designed by experienced sailors, and not by management. On hearing recently that it had been saved by the ‘Friends of Queen Mary’ he described it as a great ship, adding, ‘it ran like a sewing machine’.

He was a great story teller and was often asked to speak about his life at sea and the characters he had worked with. His stories included tales of transporting unruly cattle to the mainland, crewmen mixing up cooking oil and anti-freeze, and explaining why in the days when CalMac had its own pier-head bakery, seagulls loved the 8am ‘ghost’ sailing of the infamous ‘bun boat’. In 2013, after much cajoling by his family, he finally published his memoirs to coincide with his 80th birthday. Hurricane Hutch’s Top 10 Ships of the Clyde is more a social history than detailed maritime manual and it proved popular enough with a wider public to be reprinted in 2016.

After retiring from CalMac he was asked to be Relief Master of the luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess. This was a job he had ‘auditioned’ for the year before when he had been asked to pilot it on its first ever visit to the Clyde, on a trip through the Kyles of Bute. For those in the know of course, this was not actually the first time the ship had been on the Clyde. In her earlier incarnation, she had been the Columba – one of three ships built for CalMac for the Western Isles, but one that was also often used as the relief boat for the Arran run when the Glen Sannox was in for her annual service. Robin also hosted a popular Captain’s Table on board and for many years received letters from American widows he had evidently charmed with his nautical tales.

A keen curler, after retirement he enjoyed many years playing with the Ardgowan Club, based at the Waterfront in Greenock.

His wife Ann died in 2003. He is survived by his children Glenn and Kay and his grand-daughters Nina and Jess.