Was but a muddle at the best

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Wendur, 1883
(N.L. Stebbins/ Wiki commons)

Apologies to subscribers to this blog, who received a sneak email preview of a future post by mistake today. Sometimes the technology can get the better of one… We hope you will all memorise your lines, excuse any unedited typos and wait patiently for the final version of Scotia’s Thistle.

As a little sweetener, we offer G.L. Watson’s beautiful 1883 yawl, Wendur, built of steel – with flush topsides plates – at D. & W. Henderson’s Meadowside Shipyard, Partick, Glasgow.

It’s a wonder that Hendersons ever found the time to build ships, so busy were they at knocking out G.L. Watson’s designs for “sail and steamboat yats.”

PBP_daisyMartin Black’s award-winning biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design – exceptional in quality both for its contents and production value – is available to purchase online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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The Club Steamer – PS Duchess of Hamilton

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PS Duchess of Hamilton chock-a-block full at a Royal Northern YC Regatta, Rothesay, July 1898.
(Maclure, Macdonald & Co., Yacht Racing on the Clyde 1898)

During the 1890s and early 1900s heyday of the Clyde Fortnight regattas, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company’s elegant paddle steamer, Duchess of Hamiltonlaunched this day in history, 1890 by William Denny & Bros, Dumbarton – was a popular and regular ‘Club Steamer’.

For a regatta day, she would eschew ferrying trippers across the Firth of Clyde to be instead at the disposal of the organising club’s members; those unfortunate enough not to have their own steam yacht. We’re not sure at the moment if this was totally exclusive, but if the photo above is anything to go by, one imagines it was a profitable matter.

Yet, as sport and leisure historian Matthew L. McDowell explains in a fascinating paper on the 1890s Clyde steamer opulence wars, the drive to be seen to be offering increasingly high catering standards sent margins into the red.

Sometimes it’s better not to know that kind of stuff, and revel instead in the Victorian positiveness of it all. Which is most probably what the local Board of Trade inspector thought too; anyway, the Titanic disaster was fourteen years in the future.


The Duchess of Hamilton was one of a multitude of dashingly elegant paddle and subsequently also turbine powered vessels that helped to make the Firth of Clyde what it is today. Their demise, on the rise of affordable motor cars through the 1950s, and cheap package holidays abroad from the 1960s, left many of the communities of genteel riparian villas they helped to  develop – a kind of maritime, summertime suburbia – subsequently rather isolated.

The sole reminder of those heady days is the last of the Clyde paddle steamers, the Waverley, launched in 1947 at the Pointhouse shipyard of A. & J, Inglis, now the site of the spectacular Zaha Hadid designed Riverside Museum, and earlier the shipyard where G.L. Watson served the second phase of his indenture in naval architecture under the mentorship of Dr John Inglis. Waverley’s engine space (above) and her original triple expansion steam engine, built by Rankin and Blackmore of Greenock, has mesmerised this lad – and overgrown lad – from its viewing gallery for over fifty years.


During the production of Martin Black’s biography G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, we were painstaking in our desire to give place and time to the wonderful images at our disposal, and amazed at how little more much of the Firth of Clyde had been developed since the 1890s. This award-winning book – exceptional in quality both for its contents and production value – is available to purchase online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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Dublin Bay – 2nd Edition


Read more and buy online here.

The revised second edition of Hal Sisk’s popular book, DUBLIN BAY – THE CRADLE OF YACHT RACING has arrived.

Irish yachting historian and Peggy Bawn Press founder, Hal Sisk, reveals how the worldwide sport of yacht and dinghy racing was popularised and formatted by the pioneering yachtsmen of Dublin Bay.

Reviews for the first edition (2013):

“I couldn’t put it down.”

– Larry Power, Commodore, National Yacht Club, Dún Laoghaire.

“… this soooooper book.”

– Ian Nicolson, yacht designer, surveyor and author.

“…small in scale but large in inspiration… most interesting and diverting… also very handsomely designed and produced.”

– Llewellyn Howland III, yachting historian and antiquarian book dealer, Boston, USA.

“Well worth reading… Hal is a great devotee of the sport of sailing and a doyen amongst those who debate the history of going afloat.
“He pays strong tribute to the Royal Alfred Yacht Club for its work in starting the sport of yacht racing: ‘No club achieved more in shaping the worldwide sport in its formative period than Dublin’s Royal Alfred YC, Wherever amateur sailors are coming to the line, racing under nationally agreed regulations, they are sailing in the wake of the pioneering yachtsmen of Dublin Bay.’”

– Tom MacSweeney, This Island Nation blog at afloat.ie.

Read more and buy online at:



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Posted in Big Class, book, Dublin Bay - The Cradle of Yacht Racing, G.L. Watson, gift, Hal Sisk, Irish yachting, other yacht designers, yacht clubs, yacht design, yacht racing, yachting history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Order of the Thistle

It continues to be the America’s Cup silly season: the void between the last, enthralling episode, and the next; wherever it may be; in whatever boats… And crew nationality has raised its head. Last year’s ‘American’ defender, Oracle Team USA, had only one American among her winning crew: should a clause be introduced to at least limit the number of non-nationals of the challenging or defending club’s country per boat?

As we learn time and again, apart from the technology of the boats participating, there’s nothing really new in the America’s Cup; history has a habit of repeating itself. For example, prior to 1895, Scandinavian professionals crewed the American Cup defenders.

But there was no nationality issue surrounding the fervently patriotic, all-Scottish 1887 America’s Cup challenge by the Royal Clyde Yacht Club with the G.L. Watson-designed clipper-bowed Thistle. She was built of steel under great secrecy at Partick, Glasgow, by D. & W. Henderson. The head of her all-Scottish owning syndicate, James Bell, would later become Glasgow’s Lord Provost and gain a knighthood. And her crew were Scots thorough-and-through.

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Jaggy bunnets, Erie Basin, New York, September 1887: Thistle’s hands are decked-out in sennet hats, and suitably emblazoned ganseys. Her hirsute skipper, John Barr, is sitting, right. But is his soon to become very famous half-brother, Charlie here? And is your forbear too? Archibald McNicol, the author’s great-grandfather, from St Catherines, Loch Fyne, Argyll, is the white-faced lad sitting 2nd from left on a cushion – the only clean-shaven one. Is that Charlie Barr, and his piercing eyes, sitting to his left? Or is he standing, 4th from left?
(Image by J.S. Johnston, courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum)

Whatever the make-up of the defender crews, their skippers through to the mid 1890s remained home-grown. But things were soon to change: the growing success up to this time in U.S. waters by Scotland’s leading yacht designers, the friendly rivals William Fife Jr and G.L. Watson, would bring two major America’s Cup characters to the fore for the defence – both Scottish. One of them would become an America’s Cup icon.

Thistle’s racing skipper, John Barr (aged 42), from the Firth of Clyde fishing village  of Gourock (the rail-head didn’t arrive until 1889), and his half-brother Charlie (23) who shipped aboard just for the Cup races, most probably knew by this time where their future as professional yachtsmen lay: they were already intimate with the waters of the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, having delivered and raced Clyde-built yachts there. They liked what they saw and American yachtsmen took to them.

By 1889 John had emigrated, to Marblehead, Massachusetts, then arguably the most prominent of American yachting stations. And Charlie, despite a reported brief return to Scotland, never really left in his mind – finally becoming a U.S. citizen in 1893, thus clearing the way to becoming an America’s Cup defending skipper.* Both enjoyed successful careers thereafter, but Charlie’s was stellar: a story for another day.

The Barrs would become the first subjects for discussion about nationality and the America’s Cup. Maybe even nationality in international sport of any kind?

What of the other, apparently anonymous lads in the wonderful crew photo above, taken in September 1887 when Thistle was in the Erie Basin dry dock, New York, for cleaning and measuring. Who were they? Thankfully, because of the general furore the Thistle challenge generated around Glasgow, we at least know their names.

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Thistle, about to anchor (or weighing anchor?) somewhere near New York, 1887, with John Barr prominent at the tiller. The full beauty of Watson’s sheerline is clearly seen in a rare image of her almost at rest.
(Library of Congress)

Unusually in the press reporting of yachting, even now, Thistle’s full crew list for the 1887 season – including the America’s Cup races – was published.

John Barr, Master; Alex McDonald, 1st officer; Daniel McKenzie, 2nd Officer; William Wright, steward; Alex Hill, first cook; Archibald McNicol, second cook; John Graham, sailmaker; John Crawford, carpenter; John Fyfe; John Graham; Angus Kennedy; William Craig; James Wilkie; Archibald McIntyre; James Shedden; James Hughes; Daniel McKellar; William Holmes; Hugh Howat; William Griffin.
[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, taken from the book 'Famous Clyde Yachts 1880-1887', is missing Thistle's trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr (see alphabetical list below).]

Why not? These were national and local heroes. Had there been any previous sporting event where a Scottish team had travelled to take on America – over there?

That my great-grandfather was one of them was passed down in family lore by word of mouth, but without proof. When I began to dig out the facts, finding Archibald McNicol listed as one of Thistle’s crew was a major moment. Apart from the blood ties, I had learned to sail at the Royal Clyde Yacht Club in the mid-1970s, in a Loch Long One Design sloop named Thistle.

As Captain Para Handy’s Mate, Dougie, once said,

“I sometimes wish, mysel’, I had taken to the yats… it’s a suit or two o’ clothes in the year, and a pleasant occupaation. Most o’ the time in canvas sluppers.”

As yachting on the Firth of Clyde and west coast of Scotland gained popularity apace through the Victorian years – the almost unique result of Glasgow’s immense industrial power and wealth generation happening within a short train ride from an aquatic paradise – so too did the industry surrounding it. The labour-intensive yachts of those days required big crews; racing yachts even bigger.

These yacht hands were mainly drawn from the coastal fishing communities: men used to handling sail powered boats and a bit of dusty weather – through Scottish winter, for that was the season. They were available in the summer and took up positions on yachts in numbers.

Loch Fyne Fishermen 1883Perhaps Archibald McNicol’s family was typical. We might now refer to them as maritime crofters. The McNicol croft lay at St Catherines, opposite Inverary, on the east shore of Loch Fyne; one of two fjord-like stretches of deep, easily navigable and sheltered water that reach north from the Firth of Clyde’s interface with the lowlands, long into the mountainous highlands of Argyll. They were fish catchers and smokers, and self-sufficient, with enough land to feed themselves from what they grew there, and the loch full of herring.

It’s a beautiful location that has barely changed (if you forget about the main road driven through the middle of the croft in the 1950s). A little part remains in my family, its beach the playground and daydreaming place of childhood holidays for three McAllister boys, wondering why stones were piled into strange formations and realising much later that these were the remnants of the jetties and the bases for net drying stakes employed by our forebears. It’s hard to imagine that life here was as tough as it would have been for many in the 1880s.

The large families of the time ensured that some sons could go off to summer yachting, leaving enough help back home to maintain that self-sufficiency.

Being in the ‘house’ side of things (’2nd cook’ on Thistle) – although he wouldn’t have got away without lending his muscles to sheets and halyards during a race – Archie’s career path eventually led to him becoming a steward from 1891 aboard James A. Allan’s G.L. Watson designed steam yacht, Hermione: lucrative work at a pay rate equal to the Captain’s. One of his brothers is said to have worked for Kaiser Wilhelm II aboard the German Imperial yacht Hohenzollern II.

I’m constantly amazed that my forebears worked on such iconic yachts, and that, by chance really, so have I: the brother with the middle name, McNicol.

Presently I know a little about one more of Thistle’s crew, James Shedden, a fisherman from the tiny north Ayrshire hamlet of Portencross, its picturesque harbour dominated by a 14th Century castle with Scottish royal connections. I was lucky enough to meet his son in the 1980s, the last of the Sheddens to fish from there. He told me that in James Shedden’s days the fishermen of Portencross were line fishing from spritsail rigged clinker-built skiffs – not a rig associated with the Clyde, but one they believed was easy to ‘scandalise’ in order to slow down when fishing.

Perhaps Thistle’s carpenter, John Crawford, was connected to the family of Crawfords that worked as carpenters for William Fife & Son? Maybe John Fyfe was one of the Ardmaleish Fyfes, a family of Isle of Bute boatbuilders related to the Fife’s of Fairlie; or from a branch of that family in the Ayrshire port of Ardrossan?

Who are the others? At present all we have are names. Where did they come from? Are there other genealogically interested descendants out there who were told that their great-grandfather or great uncle sailed aboard Thistle in the America’s Cup, back in the day.

Hopefully this article might start something? If you think or know that you are descended from one of the men in the crew list, we’d love to hear from you, and hope you might be able to identify him in the photo. Please “leave a comment” below.

The crew list in alphabetical order this time is below (the list above was as published in 1887)

My dream is that we all meet up for a Thistle crew descendants gathering at the Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, Dunoon (below), the magnificent former clubhouse of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club, designed by G.L. Watson’s architect cousin, T.L. Watson, who was also the designer of many interiors for G.L.’s larger sailing and steam yachts – but, once again, that’s another story.

The alphabetical Thistle crew list:

John Barr, Master; William Craig; John Crawford (carpenter); John Fyfe; John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin; Alex Hill (1st cook); William Holmes; Hugh Howat; James Hughes; Angus Kennedy; (Captain) Donald Kerr (Navigating Master); Alex McDonald (1st officer); Archibald McIntyre; Daniel McKellar; Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook); James Shedden; James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).

[Note added 26 March 2014: this list, from a 17 August 1887 New York Times article describing Thistle's arrival from the Atlantic at Tompkinsville, NY, the day before, shows the addition of Thistle's trans-Atlantic Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr, then a veteran of more than 30 crossings.]

There are 21 names here for what should be considered her core crew, but 22 souls in the photo. Could the 22nd man be the young Charlie Barr in his first America’s Cup appearance. He did not appear on the list, but newspaper reports place him on board for the Cup races?

Her full complement for the 1887 Cup races was 32. Unfortunately at present we have no information on who the extra hands were. Or where they came from…**

[* The dates for John and Charlie Barr's U.S. citizenship taken from Len Paterson's excellent book. The Auld Mug - The Scots and the America's Cup, Glasgow, Neil Wilson, 2007. Other sources give varying dates.]
[** Note 26 March 2014: The final two paragraphs above have been slightly reworked reflecting the fact that after the original post we discovered the name of one more member of Thistle's crew, Navigation Master, Captain Donald Kerr.]
 [Note 1 April 2014: John Barr's age above changed to 42, based on original birth certificate and census records. Published source originally consulted added 6 years to him (1845-1909).]


PBP_daisyG.L. Watson designed  four America’s Cup challengers: Thistle (1887), Valkyrie II (1893), Valkyrie III (1895) and Shamrock II (1901). Martin Black’s  beautifully illustrated biography, G.L. WATSON – THE ART AND SCIENCE OF YACHT DESIGN, takes a fresh look at these challenges, using primary sources to reveal that the British challengers more often than not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It can be ordered online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

PBP_daisyA special note about the crew photo: Long Island Maritime Museum kindly allowed us to use their image in the knowledge that it would be shared via blog, Facebook, Twitter etc in order to help find the descendants. We ask that, if sharing, you please include the credit “courtesy, Long Island Maritime Museum“, and wherever possible the link to their web site: http://www.limaritime.org/. Thanks.

~ Iain McNicol McAllister ~

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Royal Clyde Yacht Club/ Royal Marine Hotel, Hunter’s Quay, 1890s.
(Library of Congress)

Posted in America's Cup, Big Class, book, Captains, Clyde yachting, Clydebuilt, Firth of Clyde, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., Glasgow, naval architect, object of desire, shipbuilding, Steam Yacht, yacht clubs, yacht design, yacht designer, yacht racing, yachting history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

We don’t know how to turn our blog’s template green for the day, but we do know a beautiful recently restored G.L. Watson & Co. designed yacht named after Ireland’s patron saint. Take it away St Patrick… (Just add music).

Paddies day

~ Iain McAllister ~

Posted in Clydebuilt, G.L. Watson & Co., G.L. Watson & Co. Ltd., object of desire, The Weekend Watson, yacht design, yacht racing, yachting history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Martin Black wins the John Leather Award for Special Achievement at the 2014 Classic Boat Awards

Martin Black, author of  G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, was tonight presented with the John Leather Award for Special Achievement at the 2014 Classic Boat Magazine Awards event in Mayfair, London.

Award 2aIt’s the first time this prestigious award has been presented for something not directly related to hands-on traditional boat work – a fitting tribute to Martin for a very special publication: meticulously researched over many years and written with care; brought to fruition by a team gathered by Peggy Bawn Press owner Hal Sisk, and given its great presence via the high typographical and production values of Gary Mac Mahon’s Limerick, Ireland based Copper Reed Studio.

The presentation of the award to an author is also a fitting tribute to John Leather: naval architect, author and prolific contributor to Classic Boat from its inception until his death in 2006. As John’s widow, Doris, said in a moving tribute by Classic Boat editor Dan Houston:

“Books were John’s passion… I think every time I went out another boxload would arrive! But he’d say: ‘I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, books are my vice!’”

Well done Martin!

[Update 12 March, 2014: Courtesy of Classic Boat magazine, here is the official award ceremony photo of Professor Mark Horton of Bristol University - but better known as one of the presenters of BBC2′s Coast programme - presenting Martin Black with the John Leather Award for Special Achievement at the 2014 Classic Boat Magazine Awards event in Mayfair, London.

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Martin Black (left) receiving the John Leather Award for Special Achievement from Mark Horton.
(Frank Noon, c/o Classic Boat)

Iain McAllister

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Posted in America's Cup, art, Big Class, boatbuilders, boatyards, book, Britannia, Clyde yachting, Clydebuilt, Firth of Clyde, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., gift, Glasgow, leather-bound, Lifeboat, limited edition, Martin Black, object of desire, photography, River Clyde, RNLI, shipbuilding, shipyards, Steam Yacht, tank testing, yacht design, yacht designer, yacht racing, yachting history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A sporting combination

SY Vanduara (Iain McAllister coll.)

Steam Yacht Vanduara, with the ½-Rater Nita supported in her starboard quarter davits.
(Iain McAllister coll.)

Summer 1893. Paisley ‘thread baron’ Stewart Clark’s rakish c.200ft G.L. Watson designed steam yacht, Vanduara, poses with engines stopped. Clearly seen hanging in her starboard quarter davits is no ordinary ship’s boat.

She is Clark’s son, J. Stewart’s extreme fin-and-bulb keel half-rater racing yacht Nita, built that spring to G.L. Watson’s design (no. 279) at Rosneath, Dunbartonshire – from lightweight cedar for the hull and manganese bronze for the keel fin – by another of Watson’s favourite builders of fine small boats, Peter MacLean.

Given that Vanduara‘s function in life is pure pleasure, Nita adds an extra string to her bow in sporting possibilities; a diversion from one of the main functions of a Clyde-based steam yacht, apart from showing off of course – easy access to the lochside hunting estates.

Nita  (Iain McAllister coll.)

Nita aboard Vanduara.
(Iain McAllister coll.)

It’s just possible to discern Nita’s lead bulb here, slung low from its bronze plate. A challenging build for MacLean, just as it would have been for her designer – to engineer a strong enough but still lightweight hull shell to cope with all that lead hanging from a very narrow base.

Fascinating, ground-breaking times to be a yacht designer – and a yacht builder.

Note that launching is by well padded slings to Vanduara’s mainmast’s boom, with the davits merely keeping Nita securely attached to her mothership.

Peter MacLean’s boatyard lay just inside Limekilns Point, at the western side of Rhu Narrows, the tide-swept entrance to the Gareloch, which is best known nowadays for its nuclear submarine base at Faslane. MacLean made his living from a combination of boatbuilding and as sometime landlord of the nearby Rosneath Ferry Inn.

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1931 view over the Edwin Lutyens designed Ferry Inn, towards the J.A. Silver boatyard.
(Aerofilms/ Britain from Above)

Remarkably for the Clyde, the site of MacLean’s yard is still very much involved with the yachting industry, but no longer in the building of new yachts. After MacLean’s time, it was taken over by an employee, James A. Silver, who still lends his name to the present, much more recent and unconnected business – despite him being active there for only a few years before the first world war. In the early years of that war, the shrewd employment of yacht designer John Bain as yard manager saw Silvers become highly successful pioneers, then leaders in the modern marketing of series-produced, yet high quality wooden motor yachts from the 1920s into the 1960s.

It’s that marketing skill which brings us back to Vanduara and her sporting combination.

A sporting comination: James A. Silver sdvert. 1935 (fff)

“This Sporting Combination”, James A. Silver Ltd advert, 1935.
(Iain McAllister coll.)

peggy-bawn-pressboat on boat2aWe should mention here our  Twitter acquaintances, Camilleri Marine, who reminded us recently of Vanduara, Nita and Silvers.

Remember, it’s all been done before. Even with aeroplanes.

The steam yacht Vanduara was G.L. Watson design no. 115, built by D. & W. Henderson & Co., at Meadowside Shipyard, Partick, Glasgow in 1886.

After active requisitioned anti-submarine duties during the first world war, she began a varied commercial career, including time as a Liverpool pilot vessel.

Peter MacLean was one of a select group of Firth of Clyde boatbuilders favourited by Glasgow-based yacht designer to the world, G.L. Watson (1851-1904), to build his small to medium-sized sailing and powered yacht designs, and ship’s boats for Watson’s magnificent large sailing and steam yacht designs more often than not built at neighbouring shipyards.

Read the whole beautifully illustrated story in Martin Black’s biography, G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design, which can be purchased online here, or from the growing list of worldwide stockists here.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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Posted in boatbuilders, boatyards, Clyde yachting, Clydebuilt, Firth of Clyde, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson & Co., G.L. Watson clients, gift, Martin Black, naval architect, object of desire, other yacht designers, shipbuilding, shipyards, Steam Yacht, Uncategorized, yacht design, yacht designer, yachting history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments