THE old man desired only to step aboard the ship that had brought him so much comfort in his life. Wheelchair-bound now and breathing with the aid of an oxygen bottle he needed to make one last journey on the PS Waverley, the last seagoing paddle-steamer in the world.

Paul Semple, managing director and CEO of Waverley Excursions, remembers the look on the old man’s face as he disembarked from the ship. “I said I’d hoped to see him again soon, but he looked straight at me and said ‘there probably won’t be a next time, but I’m so happy just to have sailed on her once more’.”

Paul tells me about a letter from an elderly lady about to celebrate a landmark birthday. She had asked her friends and family not to buy presents, but instead to make a small donation to the upkeep of the Waverley. “She said she wanted to hear the thump-thump-thump of the Waverley’s paddles as it passed by the window of her home on the Clyde coast.

HeraldScotland: The Waverley paddle steamer in Glasgow ahead of the summer sailing season friday. Captain Dominic McCollThe Waverley paddle steamer in Glasgow ahead of the summer sailing season friday. Captain Dominic McColl (Image: free)

“She just wanted to know that the Waverley was still going. That was enough for her. All was well with the world knowing that the Waverley was still sailing,” said Paul. “There’s just this softness for the Waverley in all those who have ever seen her or sailed on her.”

This weekend, The Waverley is setting forth from the Clyde to begin another six-month tour of duty, just as she’s done for each of the last 76 years. It will take her up and down the Clyde coast and all around its islands and inlets. And then down through the Bristol Channel before a regal procession up the River Thames.

On quaysides they’ll gather to listen for the beat of her paddles. And then they’ll see her coming round the headland, looking swish with those handsome red and black and white funnels. And they’ll wait for her whistle to toot and cheer.

On the Thames they’ll raise Tower Bridge for her in an act of homage. “They know there’s something special about this paddle steamer from Scotland that somehow defied the odds,” says Paul.

The Waverley wasn’t meant to have reached this age. Built in 1946 at the Pointhouse shipyard she was expected to reach her dotage after 25-30 years. Yet she now seems as fit as the day she was launched just across the Clyde where the Riverside Museum now sits.

HeraldScotland: The WaverleyThe Waverley (Image: free)

Every day that she sails is another little victory. The Waverley needs £3m a year to stay operational. Last winter, as fuel costs rocketed, around £600,000 was spent on her. At one point it was costing £13 a minute to keep her steaming along.

“In a sense,” says Paul, “The Waverley is always ‘at risk’ and has been for 50 years. If she doesn’t have the support of customers and donors and the work of volunteers then she simply can’t continue to operate.”

She’s now embarking on her third lifespan. There was a heritage rebuild in 2000 specifically for the purpose of extending her life. And then, in 2019, she was fitted with new boilers at a cost of £2.3m. “Those should give her another 20 years or so,” says Paul, “and we’re optimistic that she’ll comfortably reach her centenary."

The Waverley is the youngest sister in a larger family of paddlers. As such, she was almost disregarded because her siblings were older and more fixed in people’s affections. She was the modern one, the last paddler built for service on the Clyde.

People still remember the Jeanie Deans from before the war and then there was The Caledonia; the Duchess of Hamilton, The Talisman and the Queen Mary. But as they all passed from service the Waverley became the last of her kind.

HeraldScotland: The WaverleyThe Waverley (Image: free)

“It was really only when she became the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world in the early 1970s that her fame started to spread,” says Paul. “That’s when the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society started to show an interest.”

In 1973 two members of the society were invited to CalMac’s main office in Gourock. The company had owned the ship for one year, but at the end of that season it wasn’t paying its way as ferries bearing cars became popular. And so, a decision had to be made.

Those two members had expected only the ship’s bell as a memento before she was scrapped. What they got instead was 693 tonnes of paddle steamer for the grand sum of one pound.

Paul pays tribute to CalMac for their foresight and vision. “Rather than scrap the Waverley they thought that if they passed it on to the Preservation Society that maybe, just maybe, she might survive and have a viable future.”

It quickly became clear though that many people all over the world felt she was still worth fighting for.

“I’ve had a 40-year relationship with her, starting from when I first came aboard as a child living in Ayr,” says Paul. “I remember the first sight of her and thinking how different she looked because of her funnels towering above everything else on the pier. Then, when I finished school I became a steward on her and during holidays from university.” After a 17-year career in education he took the permanent position as CEO of Waverley Excursions in 2019.

HeraldScotland: The WaverleyThe Waverley (Image: free)

The skill-set for operating the Waverley also puts her at risk: there simply aren’t very many working steam engineers in existence as there are no other steam ships to train on. “We have our own internal training programme for those who already have certification in ship engineering,” he says. “And then we give them further training that’s bespoke to Waverley.

“But there’s always interest from specialists and passengers throughout the globe. People come here specifically for purpose of sailing on the Waverley. They build their holidays round it. We also get a lot of support from South Wales and along the south coast of England and the Thames. This will be our most ambitious season for a decade, including a Northern Ireland sailing which sold out within 30 hours.”

He takes me on a guided tour of this metal and wooden realm. The boilers, still bronze and shiny are like an art installation and in the lounges you can almost sense the echo of big band, wartime jazz and glamorous women in long frocks and louche men in black suits sipping high balls from tall glasses.

The Herald’s former geo-politics specialist, Ian Bruce has been devoted to the Waverley after being introduced to her by his friend and colleague, John Easton. He tells me about the plaque on the main deck just aft of the funnels which celebrates the original Waverley, sunk off Dunkirk as she pulled away from the beaches with a load of rescued troops. She was hit by a stick of German bombs which sent her to the bottom.

HeraldScotland: Chief Engineer Paul HughesChief Engineer Paul Hughes (Image: free)

“I was lucky enough, thanks to John ‘The Skipper’, to be introduced to Captain Cameron, who was in command of the boat that day and was blown into the sea by the blast from one of the bombs which doomed his vessel.

“The old soldier said they had come in as far as possible towards the sands. Cameron was watching lines of bedraggled and exhausted infantry wading out, their rifles held above their heads.

“Then he heard a distinctive Scottish voice shouting ‘Haw Wullie: we're aw right noo. It's the auld Waverley. We're gaun tae f*ckin’ Rothesay!’ He said he knew in that moment that, bad as things were, we were not going to lose the war."

Ian adds: “My love of the auld girl is based on many things. There is no feeling quite like the vibration of the deck as the boat pulled away from each pier and the paddles began to bite.

“It's the people connected with her; characters afloat and ashore on her route; the unique power of her engines and paddles. Long may she continue to ply her trade on the Clyde, the river of her birth and re-birth.”

In a few days the Waverley will edge gingerly once more through the Kyles of Bute and the captain will play Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba over the Tannoy. “That’s the most scenic part of the Clyde,” says Paul Semple. “At some points there are mere inches between her and the rocks.”

What better way to view the Clyde coast than from the deck of a Clyde-built paddle steamer, the last of her kind?