Steam Yacht Racing

“Organised steam yacht racing on the Clyde there is happily none. At the same time, there is many an impromptu ‘dust-up’ when a pair of friends with boats known to be pretty well matched happen to come alongside of each other. Such a spurt took place on the West of Scotland Yacht Club Regatta day between Mr. John Scott’s Greta, flagship of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club, and Mr. Peter MacKinnon’s Oriental …”

Thus reported Clyde yachting scribe extraordinaire, James Meikle, in the 1897 Season edition of Glasgow marine photographers Maclure, Macdonald & Co.’s sumptuous annual album series, Yacht Racing on the Clyde.

Steam yachts Oriental (left) and Greta racing, Clyde 1897

Steam yachts Oriental and Greta racing ‘doon the watter’, 1897

They were not designed by Watson, but their designers and builders are very much part of the story, because G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design is much more than biography. This is the first time the extraordinary story of the rise of yacht designing and building on the River and Firth of Clyde has been treated in such a lavish way since the 1890s Maclure, Macdonald albums.

There can be no doubt that the standards G.L. Watson was setting in his steam yacht designs filtered through to the shipyards that built them.

It is especially poignant that Oriental features here, because she was designed in-house at Pointhouse Shipyard, Glasgow by Watson’s early mentor and employer, John Inglis, and built there for Peter MacKinnon of Clachan, Kintyre, a cousin of British India Steam Navigation Company founder, Campbeltown born Sir William MacKinnon. Her name is a no-brainer clue to where their fortune came from.

Greta was designed by her owner, Royal Clyde Yacht Club Commodore, John Scott, and built at his Greenock shipyard – where some of G.L. Watson’s finest steam yacht designs also took form, including Foros (1891) for the Russian tea trader, Alexander Kuznetsov, and the 323ft Margarita II (1899) for New York financier Anthony Drexel II.

In those days it was typical to knock out medium sized (c.150ft/45m) steam yachts like Oriental and Greta in a winter, including building their highly fuel efficient triple-expansion steam engines from scratch. That was the key to the success of the Clyde-built and especially G.L. Watson designed steam yachts, apart from their undoubted elegance: not their speed, but their efficiency, allowing the possibility of long range trans-ocean cruising between bunkering stops.

Certainly Oriental and Greta seem to be making very little fuss as they hurry down the Firth.

Back now to our favourite yachting journalist, James Meikle.

Author Martin Black records his huge dept of gratitude to the Largs based journalist in G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design. We’ll hear more about Meikle in future posts. Without his magazine writings, both contemporary with events, and in retrospect in his old age, much of the story of Clyde yachting from it’s beginnings into the 1930s would have been lost.

Meikle suggested that such a race for steam yachts was exceptional. What chances then of one featuring two bona-fide very early 20th Century steam yachts in 2010? Not on the Clyde but in San Diego, west coast USA? With one of the protagonists designed and built by a famous Clyde yard in 1904?

Look no further, and forgive the early camera shake. It’s worth persevering for a peek at how things must have once been on the Clyde, at Cowes, Kiel and New York in G.L. Watson’s time, and it may help to place some colour and sound into the scene that unfolds in our 1899 film clip.

Cangarda (1901) is American through and through. Fred J. Stephen, Medea’s designer, was a renowned ‘amateur’ racing yacht designer and helmsman. She was built in his family’s Govan, Glasgow shipyard in 1904 for yet another Kintyre landowner, William Macalister-Hall, reputedly to be ready in time for the ‘Glorious 12th’. He had family business connections to the MacKinnons. It’s a small world in Kintyre, or even San Diego.

~ Iain McAllister ~

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About Peggy Bawn Press

496pg biography of Scottish yacht designer, George Lennox Watson (1851-1904). Significant book on the history of yacht design & the development of modern yachting. Beautifully illustrated. Many photographs previously unpublished.
This entry was posted in Clyde yachting, film, G.L. Watson, journalists, other yacht designers, photography, shipyards, Steam Yacht and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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