THE TALE OF TWO SHIPS
Extract from the book ‘Return Ticket Home’ by Philip Morrell
Nobody, except possibly a Greek oracle, could have foreseen what was to follow. It is, I now know, not an easy process buying ships from Greek ship-owners. At the time, though, my knowledge of the shipping world was nugatory. A seriesof events ensued that would have tested the nerves of an Onassis, never mind anaïve, would-be ship owner such as myself and its only thanks to Oliver Design that thewhole project didn’t end up in a complete disaster’
I too had now crossed over a significant frontier in my working life, having sold Voyages Jules Verne, and I soon found that the passing of anything that has been a significant part of one’s life, no matter how worrisome, is accompanied not so much by relief as by ambivalence. The release from the prison of responsibility is tempered by both fear of boredom and frustration at the absence of an outlet for one’s creativity.
Since the terms of the Kuoni sale prohibited me from entering into direct competition with them, I had to look elsewhere for a challenge. However, it would not be easy to find a project that met the criteria of all my previous enterprises – i.e., something that smacked of adventure while at the same time being manageable, fundamentally safe and commercially viable. Gradually, I realised that cruise ships may be the answer. During my time at the helm of Voyages Jules Verne, there had been all manner of river journeys up and down the great waterways of the world, but almost nothing in Britain.
Of course, the UK has an extensive waterway network, but for the most part it is only navigable by smaller vessels such as light pleasure craft and low-slung barges. This is due to the huge number of roads and railway lines that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution, many of which cross the waterways, resulting in low, arched bridges and narrow locks that are impassable to larger vessels. However, thanks to the eminent 18th-century engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop, one British waterway escaped this fate: the magnificent Caledonian Canal, in the Highlands of Scotland, which cuts a dramatic swathe through the Great Glen. This mighty feat of engineering not only boasts more generously-dimensioned locks than its counterparts; it is also unencumbered by height restrictions, due to the provision of swing bridges that can be opened to let large vessels through. It is also largely untouched by commercial shipping, because, almost as soon as it opened in 1822, advances in the construction of even larger vessels rendered the project pretty much redundant.
Commercial success or not, the result was one of the world’s most awe inspiring and beautiful waterways. Indeed, ‘canal’ is far too utilitarian a word to describe this stretch of water. The truth is that the Caledonian is one of those wonderful confluences of man’s genius and nature’s bounty: the sections of the canal merely link one inland loch with another, thus providing a continuous flow from Fort William, on the Atlantic, to Inverness, on the North Sea. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that despite all its charms, the Caledonian Canal was practically unknown. Perhaps I had stumbled upon the start of a new adventure. First, certain mathematical factors had to be taken into consideration. The Caledonian’s physical constraints necessitated a vessel no longer than 150 feet, no wider than 34 feet and with a sea draft (the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull) no greater than 11 feet. Also, since the waterway was only 63 miles long, any worthwhile itinerary would also have to include a cruise among the hidden sea lochs around Scotland’s western shore.
Taken altogether, the requirement was for a hybrid craft big enough to carry a suitable number of passengers and able to navigate both the inland waters of the Caledonian Canal and the shoreline of the Atlantic. After much fruitless investigative work, I reached the eventual conclusion that no such craft existed. Then, in Greece, a candidate turned up. The Victoria (named after Magellan and Elcano’s ship) had been found languishing in a harbour after two short seasons in the Aegean. Financial failure meant that the Victoria, whose dimensions suited the Caledonian Canal, had been commandeered by her former operators’ bank. A purchase was quickly effected, on the basis that she could be brought into service after no more than a quick paint job.
Nobody, except possibly a Greek oracle, could have foreseen what was tonfollow. It is, I now know, not an easy process buying ships from Greek ship-owners. At the time, though, my knowledge of the shipping world was nugatory. A series of events ensued that would have tested the nerves of an Onassis, never mind a naïve, would-be ship owner such as myself.
Once the Victoria had been purchased, we decided to sail her post-haste to vSantander, on Spain’s north-west coast, to a shipyard operated by Oliver Design, the company that had refurbished the English Lady, which l had launched on the Douro in Portugal some years earlier. For certification purposes, it was thought prudent that, for the voyage to Santander, the Victoria should be reclassified and reflagged as a personal motor yacht. This immediately attracted the attention of the Greek tax authorities, who, now that the vessel was no longer a commercial craft, demanded extra payments, albeit for just this one voyage.
Long discussions followed before a resolution was found, at which point another obstacle reared its unwelcome head. Under Greek maritime union law, contracted seamen have the right to refuse to join a vessel with a changed flag. In deciding not to serve on the Victoria and so leave a vessel which had yet to sail, the seamen were entitled to a month’s salary, a point made forcefully by their union, who advised me that a warrant for the vessel to be impounded would be issued in the event of non-compliance. There was nothing for it but to discharge the old crew, who had not yet reported for duty, pay them a month’s salary and engage an entirely new crew.
At last the Victoria was able to set sail and, having passed through the Corinth Canal, she headed out into the Mediterranean. All was well, or at least it would have been, had it not been for the steel plates welded to the lower windows to make her water-tight, which had become coated in a layer of rust that stretched the length of the superstructure. On the approach to southern Sicily, the Italian maritime police, presuming the Victoria to be a rust bucket crammed full of a yet another shipment of hapless refugees from Africa, boarded her no less than three times in the course of two days.
Soon afterwards the generator expired, forcing an emergency diversion to Malta for repairs. This was only the first of a few unwanted service stops on th way to Gibraltar: repairs also had to be carried out at Mallorca and Cartagena. The voyage was becoming almost historic – had the Victoria been found crewless and rudderless on the high seas, like a latter-day Mary Celeste, nobody would have been surprised. All that was missing was a mutinous crew, but not for long. No sooner had the Victoria anchored at the small fishing port of Sagres, in Portugal, just shy of Cape St Vincent and the Atlantic rollers that waited beyond, than the crew took one look at the heaving ocean, decided they were Mediterranean, not Atlantic, seaman after all, and opted to shelter in the harbour.
That was their first mistake, for Sagres harbour, being close to the open Atlantic, is extremely tidal, and at low tide it dries out – fine for flat-bottomed boats, which can rest on the mud, but not good for ships with tapered hulls such as the Victoria. On entering the harbour unannounced, the crew were unceremoniously ejected by the harbourmaster and told to anchor, for the time being, in the lee of a small offshore island. They did this and, after dropping anchor, immediately proceeded to go to sleep. While they slumbered, the un- Mediterranean tide went out, duly causing the vessel to keel to one side. Worse still, because they had left some lower portholes open, the Victoria began to flood. The crew immediately panicked, launched the life rafts and departed for the safety of Sagres Harbour. At the time, I was enjoying dinner in a London restaurant – the very esteemed Ivy. To this day, I can recall vividly these words being spluttered across the table by Vincent Savona, who had taken the call: “What was that, Captain? Abandoned ship?”
Out of a sense of decorum to our fellow diners, we staggered out onto the pavement to hear the whole story. It turned out that the harbourmaster, who had dispatched divers to pump out the water, had soon brought things under control. That was the good news. The bad news was that the crew were now well and truly spooked and, having caught a glimpse of the Atlantic waves, were now seeking the comfort of their own beds back home.
The incident was reminiscent of a similar seagoing nightmare in 1984, when I had bought, in Marseilles, another vessel destined for the sea lochs of Scotland. This time the crew were French, and they had been commissioned to sail the Rive Guadeloupe (later Lord of the Highlands) around the Iberian Peninsula to the shipyard at Santander, for a makeover. All the way, as the vessel proceeded past Mallorca, Cartagena, Malaga and Gibraltar, the sea conditions were flat and calm. Approaching Sagres, however, the French crew became similarly spooked by the Atlantic rollers and diverted into the port of Portimão, where they all bought tickets on the next plane back to Paris. But before they could leave, they were detained by the harbourmaster and made to hand over the computer key that drove the navigation system (the French crew had taken it to ensure they got paid). Eventually, a fresh crew had to be sent out from the UK to complete the journey to Santander.
In the case of the Victoria, a replacement Portuguese crew was duly found. By the time she got to Santander, she was looking in a very sorry state indeed. Nonetheless, since a full survey had been carried out before taking delivery of the vessel, the presumption was that, once in Santander, the repair work would consist of mostly cosmetic refurbishment. The survey had paid particular attention to the Victoria’s steel construction, without which UK certification was out of the question. Unfortunately, during the stripping-out process, it became apparent that only the perimeter of the deck was made of steel, with the rest made of wood. Suddenly, the task was no longer embellishment, but wholesale reconstruction. Furthermore, the longer the stripping-out process went on, the more horrors were revealed.
In the end, all that remained of the vessel that had left Greece was the keel and two principal engines. As a result, we now had a new problem: if we were going to reconstruct the ship completely in steel, she would need to be longer and wider, in order to acquire the necessary stability. Thus, the decision was made to make her 23 feet longer by adding a new section forward of the engine space and to increase her width by adding all-round sponsons, in order to create a stabilising skirt. At the same time, we had to ensure that she remained slim enough to navigate the Caledonian Canal’s locks, in addition to providing the latest in safety aids and deluxe accommodation.
If, at this point, the fickle Victoria had thrown up one last insuperable hurdle, it would have only been in keeping with how she had behaved so far. As it turned out, what emerged from the wreckage was a vessel of truly beautiful proportions, with utterly splendid facilities. The question was: would she fit into the Caledonian Canal? I confess, when I went to Fort William, in August 2000, my heart was in my mouth as to whether the Victoria would be slim enough. To my utter relief, she was – albeit by a matter of inches.
In due course, the Victoria became the Lord of the Glens and she has operated every season since, rarely falling beneath 99 per cent occupancy. I would suggest that, with her graceful lines, she complements the majestic landscape through which she gently thrums.