The Sugar Boat

Saturday: walked in fine spring weather, with friends, from Loch Lomond Shores in Balloch, ten miles westward to Helensburgh on the Clyde Estuary, via the Three Lochs and the John Muir Ways.  From a vantage point of a thousand feet, an object in the middle of the estuary between Helensburgh and Greenock was pointed out to me.  I thought it was just a small islet, but it turned out to be the wreck of the Captayannis, sitting on a sandbank.  The Captayannis was a Greek sugar-carrying vessel that sank in the Firth of Clyde in 1974.

On the evening of January 27th that year, there was a severe storm, and the Captayannis dragged her anchor while delivering sugar to the James Watt Dock in Greenock.  Her captain ran for the sheltered waters of the Gareloch, but the vessel ran into the anchor chains of another tanker and sustained damage below the waterline.  Realising the ship was sinking, the captain deliberately beached her on the sandbank.  Everybody got off safely.  The vessel has lain there on her side ever since.  Everything of value has been removed – somewhat after the fashion of the salvage operation described in Whisky Galore. 

It is a very favoured part of the world, “Doon the watter”, as we say in Glasgow.  From our vantage point I could see the car ferries busily toing and froing between Gourock and Dunoon.  The saga of the difficulties of the ferries to the highlands and islands, both in their manufacture and operation, is a sorry one, but here the Western Ferries operate a first class service.  I use it not infrequently as I like to visit Tighnabruaich on the Cowal Peninsula, Argyll’s secret coast.  We holidayed there when I was a kid.  I would take a rowing boat across to the uninhabited north-west side of the island of Bute.  If the steamer came down from Glasgow and crossed the Kyles of Bute I knew to turn my bow to face the wash.  No life jacket, of course.  We often went for a walk round Ardlamont Point, affording a wonderful view of the north end of the Isle of Arran.  From here, the Arran hills have the contour of a sleeping soldier, lying supine in repose, a rotund individual, his helmet tilted slightly off the back of his head.

We also got a good view of Ardmore Point, just to the south of Helensburgh, on the route to Cardross.  Next to Ardmore is the farm shop at Ardardan, a place I know well because I once spent a summer working in the garden there, when the big house still existed.  It was owned by an aristocratic family, and my aunt, who had an extraordinary ability to acquire spacious houses, rented it for a period.  Sometimes I would stay for a weekend, entertaining the romantic notion to “write”, in gracious surroundings.  I don’t think I got much written.  I’d take my bike down to Helensburgh and go for a swim in the open air pool.

Helensburgh itself sits on a hillside.  The Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh, well worth a visit, overlooks the town.  For a time Helensburgh was somewhat rundown, but the promenade has been spruced up, and there is a neighbouring plaza which is rather smart.  We sat outside there on Saturday, quite comfortably in the sun, drinking coffee.  The walk north-west on the promenade to the marina at Rhu is very pleasant, and if the tide is out you can cross on another sandspit to a lighthouse out in the middle of the bay.  I have a yen to move back to the seaside.  (In Devonport Auckland, I was “within coo-wee”, as the Kiwis say, of the Waitemata Harbour.)  So sometimes I entertain the notion to find a place in Helensburgh.  It’s well served by Scotrail, with two stations, upper and lower. 

But now here’s the thing.  This is why I have no plans currently to move doon the watter.  If you walk out to the lighthouse by Rhu, and stand and look north, you are looking directly at the submarine base at Faslane from which the four submarines of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent operate, to “keep us safe”.  To the west lies Kilcreggan, a beautiful peninsula.  If you drive past Faslane’s endless stretches of forbidding barbed wire you can access the peninsula.  It is very charming.  Keep driving and you arrive, on its north-west side, at the most sinister location in Western Europe.


I believe Her Majesty’s Government is minded, not only to update Trident, but also to increase the arsenal of nuclear warheads by 40%.  Clearly a world nuclear bomb stockpile of 13,000 is insufficient. 

From Helensburgh we got the train back to Balloch.  It was an idyllic day – even if I was always conscious of the blight on the horizon.             

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