Is it Waverley goodbye?

Over the past few weeks PS Waverley, the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, has been making her annual visits to the Island, to the delight of enthusiasts.

As well as the traditional Round the Island excursion, Waverley has called in at Yarmouth and Ryde, as well as gracing the Solent and English Channel around Southampton, Portsmouth, Swanage and Weymouth. Passengers have flocked to get on board, and spectators have eagerly captured the moment with their cameras.

But now a huge question mark hangs over the future of Waverley, and there are genuine fears that the ship, built in 1947, has made her final voyage through the Solent and in the waters off the Island. A £350,000 fundraising campaign to Save the Waverley is currently underway, but little more than half of that figure has so far been donated to secure the historic ship’s future.

Nick James, chairman of the charity Waverley Steam Navigation Co Ltd, said:  “I hope Waverley’s supporters step onboard and help. Passenger numbers are up, which is fantastic. However, we also need our supporters to make donations in order to ensure this historic ship can sail again next year.

“Waverley is unique and is steeped in historical importance. She and her sister ship Balmoral are now the only ships in the UK offering traditional day trips to sea. For this reason it’s vital the public continue to support our fundraising campaign.”

The Waverley has carried over five million passengers in the 36 years  since it was sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for £1 and is renowned world-wide for its trips which take in some of the most beautiful coastlines, not just around the Island and south coast, but in many other parts of Britain. And the operation of Waverley makes an annual contribution of some £4.8 million to the UK economy.

The Waverley is steeped in history. She is the last of a line going back to 1812, and as such is the only survivor of a maritime and technological tradition going back 200 years. She is a unique working example of 19th-century technology, built half-way through the 20th century, and still vibrantly alive in the 21st century.

The Waverley is also unique in that she is still doing exactly what she was built to do, seven days a week through the season.  If anything, the ship works harder now than she was when new in 1947. Somewhat ironically, Waverley is now in better condition than ever, thanks to an £8 million rebuild in 2000 and 2003 funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  As well as restoring the ship to her 1947 appearance, and restoring her passenger accommodation to its original 1940’s style, Waverley’s machinery was also fully overhauled and the ship was fitted with new boilers.

Both Waverley and her fleet-mate, the Classic Cruise ship Balmoral are in the Core Collection of the National Historic Ships Register.  This means that they are officially regarded as ships of ‘Pre-eminent national importance’.

Waverley is also the only operational ex-Railway steamship in Britain, coming to the end of her commercial life in 1973, when even the deficit-financed Caledonian MacBrayne could no longer afford to operate her.  They made the wonderful gesture of “selling” Waverley to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for £1.

There have even been calls for Waverley to be treated in the same manner as the likes of the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. But of course the difference is that the Waverley is still a working paddle steamer. So she is a unique survivor, but this has been a make-or-break summer for her due mainly to the huge hike in fuel costs and a few bad summers.

In the early 1970s when all remaining coastal paddle steamers other than Waverley had been withdrawn from service as uneconomic, the fuel she used cost about £12 per ton.  That meant, on average, Waverley’s fuel cost was then about £120 per day.

Today fuel costs over £500 per ton, and the daily fuel cost is about £5,000. Waverley uses fuel at about £8.40 per minute, and needs to generate at least £16,000 every day she operates just to stay afloat. Put another way, passengers paying £30 for their day out are paying for three and a half minutes of fuel!

The next few months will determine whether Waverley will be weaving her way back around the Island in 2012.