This Sporting Combination

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

Summer 1893. Paisley ‘thread baron’ Stewart Clark’s rakish c200ft GL Watson-designed steam yacht Vanduara poses with engines stopped, somewhere on the Firth of Clyde. 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 GL Watson’s design (no. 279) at Rosneath, Dunbartonshire – from lightweight cedar for the hull and manganese bronze for the keel fin – by one 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 – easy access to the lochside hunting estates.

Nita aboard Vanduara. (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.

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

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

The steam yacht Vanduara was GL Watson design no. 115, launched from Meadowside Shipyard, Partick, Glasgow, by D&W Henderson & Co on 6 April 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, GL 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.

~ Iain McAllister ~

[This is an edited version of a post written for the Peggy Bawn Press blog, 3 March 2014.]


Strachur’s first international sporting hero

Thistle crew Erie Basin by JS Johnston courtesy Long Island Maritime Museum
Thistle crew, Erie Basin, New York, September 1887. (JS Johnston/ Long Island Maritime Museum)

“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.

Dougie (the Mate).

Among the Yachts from In Highland Harbours with Para Handy by Neil Munro, 1911.

A little-known yarn about a crew of specially selected seafarers from the Firth of Clyde’s maritime communities – which 129 years ago became one of Scotland’s first international sporting teams – will be spun at the New Hall, Strachur from 7.30pm on Saturday 13 February, when yachting historian Iain McAllister presents his great-grandfather’s story:

STRACHUR’S FIRST INTERNATIONAL SPORTING HERO: professional yachtsman Archibald “Pierie” McNicol and the quest for the America’s Cup.

Helensburgh-born Iain, who has strong Strachur roots, hopes his profusely illustrated presentation, part of Strachur and District Local History Society’s open winter talks series, will encourage other descendants of the crew of Thistle, the Royal Clyde Yacht Club’s 1887 challenger for the America’s Cup – yachting’s holy grail – to share handed-down stories and memorabilia.

In spring 1887, when 23 year old Archie McNicol (with pale complexion, 2nd from left seated on a cushion in the above image) eschewed the herring fishing, instead leaving his family’s St. Catherines maritime croft to sign-up for a season of well-paid yachting adventure aboard the 108ft long Thistle – newly built of steel and teak under great secrecy at D&W Henderson’s Partick, Glasgow shipyard – could this son of a Lochfyneside fisherman and fish curer possibly have imagined featuring in the New York Times by September, being fêted at Manhattan gala evenings by exiled Scots?

Great hopes were built up around the Firth for Thistle’s success; everything seemed set in place for nothing less than wrestling the ‘Auld Mug’ back across the Atlantic to defend it on the Clyde.

The Hunter’s Quay-based challenging club had rapidly grown from the Clyde Model Yacht Club, gaining Royal patronage along the way to becoming the world’s largest yacht club in number of members and tonnage of yachts owned.

The challenging yacht was owned by a syndicate of some of Glasgow’s most successful industrialists, including the Paisley, New Jersey and Rhode Island-based ‘thread barons’, the Coats and Clark families, and brothers James and William Bell, quietly intent on dominating the world market in shipping chilled and refrigerated meat. All had something to gain from the venture, commercially and in esteem.

Thistle had been designed by young Glasgow naval architect, George Lennox Watson, rapidly becoming dominant in the creation of successful yachts powered by wind or steam. It wasn’t just the challenger that Watson had drawn, but also the mothership that would accompany her across the Atlantic, John and William Clark’s sumptuous 700-ton steam yacht, Mohican.

And Thistle’s crew was chosen by Gourock-based skipper John Barr: the pick of the Clyde’s professional yachtsmen. They were:

John Barr, Master (Gourock); William Craig; John Crawford (Carpenter, Fairlie?); John Fyfe (Bute?); John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin (Bute); 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 (Bute?); Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook, St. Catherines); James Shedden (Portencross); James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).

Thistle was soundly beaten in America, but for Archibald McNicol it was just the beginning of a professional yachting career aboard big budget ‘superyachts’ that would leave him comfortably off for the rest of his life.

~ Iain McAllister ~

  • Who: Iain McAllister – classic yacht consultant and historian.
  • What: Strachur’s First International Sporting Hero:
  • Who? Professional yachtsman, Archibald “Pierie” McNicol.
  • Why: The quest for the America’s Cup.
  • Where: Strachur & District Local History Society, New Hall, Strachur.
  • When: Saturday 13 February 2016, 7:30pm.
  • Entry: £3.00 (including tea).

Further reading:

Order of the Thistle

Scotia’s Thistle

All mod cons: the steam yacht Hermione, 1891

Thistle at Facebook

Thistle at Twitter

Thistle Library of Congress
Thistle off Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York, September 1887 (Library of Congress)