Still In Steam

Donald Anderson reviews the career of the
Clyde Port Authority's 52-year-old Buoy Tender 'Torch' in 1976 for the publication Ships Monthly.

At 52 years of age, the 310 ton Clyde Port Authority buoy tender Torch is the oldest steam vessel on the Clyde. Lying, in immaculate condition, at her berth in the Victoria Harbour, Greenock, the Torch seems to have defied the processes of ageing. Only her lines - tall buff funnel, straight stem and counter stem indicate the Torch's true age.

The Torch is the second tender to bear this name. The first Torch was built for the, then , Clyde Lighthouses Trust, by Messrs R. Duncan of Port Glasgow in 1881. The 95 ft long steamer had two very powerful cyanes fitted aboard and was powered by a pair of Rankin and Blackmore's patent disconnecting twin-screw engines of 260 IHP.

By 1923 the Trustees of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust had come to the conclusion that the old Torch was not quite up to their requirements. Consequently, a new twin-screw tender was ordered from the Ailsa Shipbuilding and Engineering Co Ltd of Troon. Launched on 16th May, 1924, the present Torch satisfactorily completed her trials in early August, achieving a speed of 11 knots. The old Torch was laid up for disposal -and her master, Captain P. McKay, took over command of the new steamer.

Like her predecessor, the Torch was based until the 1950's at Port Glasgow where the Trustees maintained a workshop and gas works. The gas works produced gas oil for lighting the buoys, made by refining diesel oil over hot retorts.
In 1973 these workshops were transferred to new premises, at the Victoria Harbour, Greenock.

Under the Clyde Lighthouses Trust the Torch tendered the lighthouses and buoys from Port Glasgow down to the Cumbraes. In 1966, when the Clyde Lighthouses Trust was incorporated into the newly created Clyde Port Authority, the Torch's range of operations were extended. Today the Torch services 150 buoys contained within an area extending from below the Erskine Bridge as far down as Irvine on the Ayrshire coast and up into Loch Fyne.

Apart from regularly 'gasing' buoys and beacons, the Torch goes out to inspect buoys' moorings, perform routine maintenance, remove buoys for overhauling ashore and lay new buoys.

Excluding holiday periods, weekends and an annual overhaul in March, the Torch is regularly in steam throughout the year. Weather conditions, the tides, the volume of work and the time of year are some of the factors which determine when the Torch sails out into the Firth. High running costs make it uneconomic to send her out on a job which one of the depot's launches could tackle. The Torch has a permanent crew of five, made up by depot workers when she puts out of harbour.

Observation shows the Torch to be a purpose-built vessel. Her steel foredeck is reinforced to take the weight of the buoys and their concrete sinkers. The original steam crane situated immediately forward of the bridge was replaced by the present hydraulic crane, of eight tons load, in the 1960s. Similarly, the tall wooden foremast and derrick, used for unloading stores at the now automated Cumbrae Lighthouse, were replaced by the present shorter steel foremast.

All the Authority's buoys are lit by propane gas stored aboard the Torch in two tanks, situated, for safety reasons, well forward on the foredeck, To 'gas' a buoy, a long flexible pipe from the Torch is connected up to the gas cylinders inside the buoy casing. The liquid gas is then pumped across to the buoy by a small steam pump.

In 1924, when the majority of helmsmen on the Clyde were still sheltering behind primitive canvas dodgers, the Torch's enclosed bridge and wheelhouse must have seemed luxurious. Added comfort in winter is afforded by the steam steering engine which takes up much of the space in the wheelhouse. In fact, the steering engine can be a nuisance for it steams up the wheelhouse, unless the doors are left ajar.

The engine room, presided over by an engineer and stoker, is compact and well maintained. The two compound engines are supplied with steam from a Scotch multitube boiler working at 135 psi. About ten years ago the boiler was converted to oil firing and forced draught

Special Duty

One of the Torch's special duties is to convey the Trustees of the Clyde Lighthouses Trust on their annual tours of inspection. Under the Clyde Port Authority these tours have continued, occurring usually in the month of May. To accommodate such parties the vessel has an elegant wood-panelled saloon located at the stern. With the CLT Trustees being prominent members of Clydeside's commercial, shipowning and municipal communities, it was natural that the saloon was fitted out by the Ailsa apprentices in the style and quality associated with a private yacht.

Unofficially, the Torch is expected to remain in service for two years, at the most. Whilst her hull is in good condition, the ship's engines and, in particular, the condensers, will soon require attention. Such repairs are likely to be costly and involve the steamer being out of service for several months. Unfortunately, such expense cannot be justified when a diesel vessel could adequately and more economically perform the Torch's duties. Reluctant to part with the Torch, her owners have considered installing diesel engines. However, the scheme was turned down on account of possible damage to the hull by the vibration, so it seems likely that in the near future the Clyde Port Authority will purchase a motor vessel for conversion into a tender.

It seems sad that, after 52 years of care and attention, a steamer like the Torch, which exemplifies the qualities inherent in the phrase 'Clyde built', will end up in the breaker's yard.

Torch was eventually sold for scrapping in March 1978 and scrapped at Dalmuir in early 1980, one of her engines carefully removed for preservation
purposes and given to The Scottish Maritime Museum
S.S. Torch Victoria Harbour 1976
My thanks to Mr Anderson for permission to use his photograph and report. I would also like to thank  Mr Mackay for sending me a copy of the article, his grandfather Peter Mackay was at one time the skipper of the Torch

Article reproduced here with authors permission.
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