Falls of Clyde


The Falls of Clyde.

  Lithgows Journal Autumn 1965.  

The article is by Captain Fred K. Klebingat who sailed in the “Falls of Clyde” and has played a leading part in saving her from the scrap heap. It was reprinted in the Lithgow Journal by courtesy of “Petroleum Today” 

Thanks to the McLean Museum & Art Gallery, Greenock, for this copy.

The Falls of Clyde built by Lithgows in 1878, arrived at Honolulu nineteen months ago on the end of a tow-line after a 2,500 mile passage from the United States. She has been bought by an enthusiastic group of Hawaiians who managed to raise the money by public subscription just in time to save her from ending her days as a breakwater in British Columbia. She is now being restored and fitted out with such meticulous accuracy that its sponsors claim it will probably be the greatest ship restoration ever attempted. 

She was our Ship No17, built for for Wright & Breckenridge and one of roughly 300 barques by Russell & Co. (the original title of Lithgows Ltd) between 1874 and the turn of the century, Like most of the others she was employed in world tramping. These ships were built in large numbers to a standard design, ‘on spec’ if times happened to be bad., and were one of the reasons for the company’s early success. They were designed to give a better capacity than was usual in vessels of their weight, and to sail with a smaller crew.

We have cooperated in every way possible in providing documents and drawings for the restoration. And we have offered to make a new set of masts and spars for her; but the sponsors are still eager to have every scrap of information, however small, that can be found. Anyone who has details of her layout, construction or rigging is asked to contact Mr John Wright, Dillingham Corporation, Ala Moana Building, Honolulu, Hawaii, or Mr R. J. Stevenson, Lithgows Ltd., Port Glasgow. 

The Falls of Clyde was launched on December, 1878. Her length was 256 feet, breadth 40 feet, depth 23 feet 5 inches, and her gross tonnage 1,807.

She cost £18,000 and seems to have been worth  every penny of it — Mt Wright has written to us to  say; ‘I wish your workmen could see the ship even as she is today. She sits as a literal monument to them, and to the Lithgows tradition. From my experience with her, I am convinced that rigged and with a few rivets replaced, she could sail around the world safely’.

My Friend, this old ship.

It was past down in a summer day in 1909; the sky clear and bright. The stars had faded, but in the east Venus, the Morning Star, glittered and sparkled. A moon past full was still quite high on the western sky, and a strong north west wind and a high sea from the same direction helped speed the three masted barkentine S.N. Castle on her way south.

I had climbed the 150 feet to the sky sail yard, the highest sail on the ship. It was a great sight from there, water rushing along the ship’s side, a school,of porpoises gambolling ahead of us, and the wide white wake behind. A couple of gooneys, the brown albatross of the North Pacific, were sailplaning fore and back across our track. 

Before descending to the deck, I cast my eyes around the vast horizon. There where the sun was going to rise, there against the pink clouds, a sail was visible. Rapidly it raised itself over the horizon until the whole ship stood revealed. It was thenFalls of Clyde. As I later learned, she was carrying a cargo of fuel oil in bulk, loaded near Santa Barbara for Honolulu.

All ten of us assemble aft. The captain and the two mates, the watch on deck and the watch below, even the cook, just to admire her as she passed by. Her sleek brown hull was ornamented at the bow with graceful figurehead, a Lady in White, who with unseeing eyes gazed out over her path ahead. 

She was on her best sailing point, making two knots to our one -and we were famous for our speed in those days. She seemed seemed to skim off the tops of that high sea ; her lower sails were wet with spray and it formed small rainbows as it drifted to lee. At times she rolled over towards us, showing her wet decks, water cascading off her forecastlehead and rushing out of her scuppers and clearing ports of the lower deck.

She dipped her flag three thrice as a greeting and farewell, as was customary in Ships of Sail, and we hauled down our colours three times in reply. So the Falls passed on and was soon lost to sight. There was no time to be wasted in the age of wind-driven ships. Little did I know then that in the years to come my life would be closely bound to this majestic beauty of the seas. 

I had started at sea as a deck boy in 1905 at the age of 15, and I had sailed to Chile and France and Japan and Hawaii before I shipped aboard the S.N. Castle. I was only 19 on that day I spied the Falls of Clyde, but I had a grown man’s store of tales about her.

She had been built in 1878 on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland, and she had been spent her first years in the India trade under the British flag. I could imagine her there on the Hooghly River at Calcutta, her iron hull riding high amid a forest of masts while sweating labourers hauled bales of jute up,to her deck. 

Or I could see her in the Harbour at Bangkok, where elephants loaded teak onto rafts for the short trip out to the ship.

And I new of her fine voyage in 1897, bearing a cargo of kerosene to light the lamps of China – voyage that was typical of the time. For nearly five months she sailed the seas, from New Jersey to Shanghai, past the Cape of Good Hope, past Bali, the island of beautiful women.

In 1898 the Falls of Clyde was purchased by Captain William Matson, the founder of the Matson Navigation Company. He obtained a temporary Hawaiian Register for the ship (she was not admitted under the Flag of the United States until 1900), and he put her on the San Fransisco-toHawaii run, which she continued for nearly ten years.

During this time, the Falls carried dry cargo, machinery for sugar mills, and railroad equipment to the islands, returning most often with a cargo of sugar. She also loaded a considerable quantity of livestock, and she was a favourite ship for human passengers as well.

Then in 1907, the Falls became the property of an oil company and was converted to a tanker. She had ten large tanks, and she often carried about 17,500 barrels of fuel oil plus 1,000 drums of gasoline on her voyage to the Islands. 

I had spent most of these years on the S. N. Castle, rising finally to Chief  Mate. But I also had some experience in the oil business, serving as a carpenter aboard some oil companies tankers when Castle was laid up for repairs.

Early in 1916 I shipped aboard Falls of Clyde as chief mate to a Scotsman, Captain William Smith, one of the best seamen I have ever known. He must have been about 60 years old at the time, of slight build and medium height, with a dried-up face and a straggly moustache. His hands and feet were crippled from a siege of rheumatism. He had got his command at 23, and he since weathered typhoons, been captured by Chinese pirates, and generally taken whatever fate had in store. Yet he was a kind man, his voice seldom raised in anger, and he was liked and respected by all.

I soon learned that the captain took great pride in his ship. The teak was varnished, the decks scrubbed and oiled, the brass shined, and the trucks, those gold-leafed knobs on top of the mast, glittered. I would often see the ‘Old Man’ when he went ashore, looking back towards  his command, admiring her —and searching for something that I might have overlooked.

Soon after I had shipped aboard, Captain Smith gave me an unusual task. Back in 1912 or 1913 a steamer had fouled the Falls of Clyde while she was moored at Honolulu Harbour, destroying the figurehead. A noted marine carver in San Fransisco had replaced the lady, and he had also carved two low reliefs showing the Clyde Falls, set just aft the lady’s skirt.

Now the Captain asked me if I could paint the Clyde Falls in its natural colours on the base-relief of the now ornament. I assured him it could be done with the colours out of the paint locker. And I spent many a day on a stage hanging over the now (in fine weather, that is) painting the Falls in their natural colours. I must have done a good job, because sometimes while the ship was moored to the Railroad Wharf at Honolulu I heard kids exclaim ‘look the water is coming down !’

Captain Smith liked things just so, and he was strict in his command, which was only proper. But his heart was warm, too. It showed in little things, such as his attitude towards our sea going cat, Tommy.

One day in San Fransisco on my way back towards the ship, I stepped into a waterfront saloon for a glass of beer. The bartender must have seen that I admired a big black cat sitting on the bar. ‘Take him with you ‘ he said to me. 

With Tommy over my shoulder, I walked out of the saloon. He sat on the back of my set on the ferry, the first leg of the trip to the ship, enjoying the ride as if he had been riding ferries all his life. He was not so happy on the launch, but when I placed him at last on the shops deck, he was greatly content.

we had no need for a cat, since we had no rats. But Tommy soon became a favourite of the ‘Old Man’ and a distinguished member of the ships crew. He had his meals at our table. My seat was on the Captains left, and Tommy on his right. Tommy perched upon a box placed atop a chair so that he could eat out of a plate, and the Captain would supply him with titbits from his own plate.

Tommy enjoyed going to sea although he was always one of the first to sneak ashore after we made fast to a wharf. But somehow he never got left behind. Always about half an hour before the ship was to leave, Tommy would be rushing back onboard. How did he know when the ship was going to sail ? That is more than I can say. He seemed to have a sixth sense.

She was a speedy ship the Falls of Clyde, and I recall the first I made in her. We were 11 days from Honolulu and her last days run was 327 miles. That was running eastwards, and the day was less than 24 hours long. We passed steamer after steamer as we neared San Fransisco Lightship, and she must have done 14 knots or more all the time. She could make 12 knots without much effort, and I have seen her do over 14 many a time, with the Captain standing at the weather rail saying, ‘Be guid little girrul, there is another mile left in you’ 

But life at sea is not all beer and skittles. I have seen the ship make a very long trip, too, when the wind seemed determined to stop us. At such times the Captain might become really annoyed.

‘You break the heart of an eyrun horrse,’ he would say in his Scottish burr. ‘You make an old man out of me’ Then he would try to console the ship, as if he was sorry for his hard words, and he would cry out, ‘But you are a guid little girrul just the same’ 

On this particular voyage it took us 43 days to go from Honolulu to San Fransisco. Our grub held out, although we scrapped the bottom of the bin. But after 30 days our tobacco ran out and that was harder to endure than hunger. We saved the dottles of the pipes because we new we were going to run short. We resurrected old corncob pipes and pounded them up to fill our pipes, and to make this last longer we also added tea leaves—as long as the tea held out. We pounded up bark from the cordwood we carried and mixed that in. The captain had hoarded a few cigars; and when at rare intervals, he would smoke one of these, there was always someone waiting to see how he would dispose of the butt. This he would extinguish and cast away on the main deck, and the crew would scramble for it.

I was with Captain Smith and the Falls of Clyde for about 2 years, and then our paths separated. I shipped out for Manila aboard the Star of Poland, one of the largest four-masted barks in the world at that time. On the return trip, our ship was wrecked by a typhoon off Japan. When I finally arrived at Yokohama, I was given my first position as master. I became captain of a Chinese bark, the Chin Pu, an I’ll-fated ship. On my second voyage, we were headed towards San Fransisco when fire burst out in the cargo of copra meal, the ship developed a leak and the pumps became disabled. I made for Nagasaki where we extinguished the fire by scuttling the ship. 

Over the next two decades I continued with sailing ships, serving as captain aboard schooners and large sailing yachts. Then, at the start of World War 2, I went back into the oil business as skipper of the T-2 tanker Apache Canyon. I sailed in convoy with this ship between the United States and England., and later we ran between the Canal Zone and South West Pacific. At the end of the war, when I was transferred to a tanker plying the Atlantic, I resigned— I was homesick for my Pacific. 

My sailing career ended in my retirement on Christmas Day, 1962. Now I had more time to spend on what had become my favourite hobby; the study of the history of the Falls of Clyde, her officers, and crew. Gradually, by corresponding with seamen all over the world, I learned the details of what had happened to this fine ship in the years since I had left her in 1918.

She was, even at that time, something of a rarity as an oil transport, for steam-driven tankers had come to the fore. Still, tankers were scarce after the World War 1, and she was chartered to carry two cargoes of diesel oil in bulk to Denmark. In 1921 she travelled to Argentina and Mexico for what was to be her last voyage under sail.

The next year her yards and masts were cut down and she was made into a barge. From San Pedro, California, the Falls was towed to Ketchikan, Alaska, there to lie safely moored for 37 years, a floating gasoline station that served fishing boats, a platform that went up and down with the tides. A sales manager and his wife moved onboard, and the cabin became their home and sales office. They installed an electric kitchen aft in the cabin and other appliances of a modern home, and the after quarters were kept as neat as they had always been.

But the day had to come when the oil terminal would be modernised. The good old ship became surplus and was sold and towed to Lake Washington, Seattle. That is where I saw her again, in 1959. Her Hull showed little wear, and her cabin looked just as nicely kept and immaculate as it did the day I left her.

‘Let’s rig her up again,’ cried Karl Kortum, director of the San Fransisco Maritime Museum, after I told him what I had seen. ‘Someone surely will need a museum ship.’ But try as we might, we could not seem to find a sponsor. A logging company wanted to buy the Falls as a breakwater, and it began to look dark indeed for the old ship. ‘Something will turn up’ Kortum said when I voiced my concern, and so it did. 

Kortum found a champion for the Falls in the person of a young Honolulu historian named John Wright. Wright enlisted the aid of Bob Krause, a columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser, who began a newspaper campaign to save the ship. Dr Roland Force, director of the venerable Bishop Museum, cooperated; and children sallied forth with donation cans labelled, ‘Save the Falls of Clyde,’ Funds began rolling in, and the Matson Navigation Company made a generous grant.

The logging company had agreed to wait and see if the campaign succeeded, and succeed it did. In less than a month enough funds were obtained to buy the ship and make plans for her restoration. The United States Navy towed the ship to Honolulu. 

I was on the wharf in Honolulu when the old ship arrived. Whistles were blowing, and the fire brigade made a great display. Great plumes of water shot into the air from fire trucks on the adjoining pier.

As the Falls neared the wharf in November 1963, fair Hawaiian ladies threw flowers on her decks. She was made fast, and a gangway put out. The Hawaiian delegation, in their royal robes, boarded the ship and climbed onto her afterdeck. High-ranking naval officers and many other notables had assembled here. It was an impressive ceremony: the Reverend Abraham Akaka said a prayer, and there was singing as only the Hawaiian can sing. Dr Force, director of the Bishop Museum, which will sponsor the restoration, thanked the Navy for towing the ship, and I spoke last,  for I had been named chief technical advisor for this grand project.

I spoke on behalf of my friend, this old ship. I expressed our gratitude to all those people, rich and poor, who had made this moment possible for us. I predicted that the citizens of Hawaii would restore her to her former beauty and grace, and that she would be a source of pride and joy for all those who saw her. When I had said all that, a lump came in my throat and my voice broke. It is not given to everyone to see a dream come true.