History of VIC 32

The Clyde Puffer had developed from the Dark ages, starting off with a coracle, through Viking longships to gabbarts. Somebody in 1880 or so had put a steam engine and a boiler in a sailing gabbart, found it difficult to see over the boiler whilst steering from a tiller at the stern and had created a structure on top of the boiler to steer from. Later they put a canvas dodger around the helmsman and finally a proper wheelhouse.

‘VIC 32’ was built by Dunston’s of Thorne, Yorkshire in November 1943. This was a busy time for the Clyde Ship building yards and the Admiralty needed 50, (later 100) victualling boats in a hurry. So they were built in groups of 3 by various different yards in England. For instance ‘VIC 27’ (Auld Reekie) was built at Rowhedge. The Admiralty didn’t need to design a new craft for this purpose as the perfect boat existed in a Clyde Puffer. Presumably these little sea going craft fitted the bill perfectly.

A typical war time Puffer

The next progressive stage after our vessel was to create an 82 foot version. These were in my opinion not such nice boats. In fact they were really small ships as opposed to ‘VIC 32’ which I have always felt was a large boat. The 82 foot boats were built because seamen in the war were getting fed up of being torpedoed below the waterline where their bunks were. So the owners of ships changed their design and put the accommodation on the decks. When you get the steam winch on the foredeck above a cabin on a deck you are getting visibility problems from the wheel house. This was improved by putting the funnel behind the wheelhouse. This resulted in building and fitting a fire tube boiler as opposed to VIC 32’s water tube vertical boiler. A water tube boiler needs little weekly maintenance whereas a fire tube boiler demands its tubes sweeping regularly!

In 1976, we found a notebook in the stern cabin which had been lost by the second skipper of ‘VIC 32’. He had put it on the shelf beside his bunk and it had fallen down a narrow gap and landed up under the bunk in a very dark place. We only found it when we were welding doubler plates on the hull, beached at Wapping on the Thames. I saw gentle smoke coming out of the stern cabin and finally found this lost gem. The book had carbon copies of letters written from a S.Slipper to his agent. He had found the boat in the spring of 1944 derelict! She had only been built in November 1943.

The first skipper had proven to be a drunken maniac. He had taken a cargo of cement out to Barra to build a pier. The boat had suffered damage all along the starboard side, a propellor blade had been knocked off, the crew were in jail for stealing the shop’s petty cash, one had septic sores and another had a nasty seaman’s disease. Obviously merchant men could, to a certain extent during the war, choose from the Merchant Navy Shipping Pool what type of boat they worked on. I think a coal fired steam Puffer on the West Coast of Scotland, in summer and winter, day and night was not on everybody’s priority list. So the reality was that the crew were no gentlemen. On top of all this, there was salt water in the boiler. Captain Slipper got the boat going again, but had constant continuing problems and finally applied to the Shipping Pool for another boat as he had decided that ‘VIC 32’ had a hoodoo on her. Just as things were starting to go well, another calamity occurred.

During the 29 and half years I have operated the boat, I know all about the hoodoo!!! Meanwhile Captain Slipper was constantly asking the agent in his letter where his new propellor was. Finally it was delivered to him and he had to change it on the beach. Apart from his Chief Engineer, the crew refused to help and the two men struggled to get the rudder off, the removable section of the rudder stock off, undo the prop nut, withdraw the damaged prop and fit the new heavy (5 and a half hundred weight) 4 bladed cast iron prop. I know all about this as we had to go through the same process at Crinan Harbour beach in 1979.

Pete Dunnell changing broken prop at Crinan Harbour

We think ‘VIC 32’ worked out of Corpach at some time during the war, taking ammunition from barges moored at the head of Loch Eil and supplying the Atlantic fleet with victuals at the Saint Christopher’s Base at Corpach. We now use the very same slipway at Corpach Boat Builders, she may have used then. We think she worked in Scapa Flow, Orkneys delivering aviation spirit to the ships in the Fleet and she certainly worked as a day boat in Rosyth Naval Dockyard after the war until she was sent over to White’s of Inverkeithing to be scrapped in the 60’s.

A friend of Keith Shellenburg’s saw her there, told him about her predicament and he bought and steamed her down to the Whitehall shipyard at Whitby which he owned at the time. I think his idea was to use her to supply his island, Eigg. ‘VIC 32’ spent many years here until Rachel and I bought her in October, 1975. We had been up to Newcastle from Uxbridge to look at an old pilot cutter which turned out to be a wreck. So we decided just to make a weekend of it and came slowly back down the coast and landed up in a Bed and Breakfast in Whitby. Our red setter dog, Rupert chose one owned by Peter and Joyce who didn’t mind dogs. This was very fortunate, as having bought ‘VIC 32’ we were not able to sleep on board due to dirt and legal matters. Peter was the coxswain of the local life boat and knew everybody in the town. This proved very useful later on when the boat broke loose and had to be towed off the beach!

Puffer on berth at Whitby in 1975
Puffer on berth at Whitby in 1975

When we first saw ‘VIC 32’, we were actually in the process of leaving Whitby in the morning. I just happened to glance through a narrow gap over a small bridge just up from the boatyard where she lay. I recognised the outline of a Puffer immediately. I had seen them on the Crinan Canal in the 50’s when we came up to stay with my grandmother. Rachel and I went down to the yard and found out from the yard owner that she was for sale. After a brief look on board we went up to the pub and had a pint or two of Yorkshire’s Best Bitter. We soon had a mental picture of drinking gin and tonics on the foredeck at Crinan on board a fully restored Puffer!

I met Keith Shellenburg in a London hotel and thence we negotiated a price in a local pub. After thinking about it all a bit more and after another visit or two, surveying her with large hammers at low tide, we set off for Udny Castle and bought her for £1,500. With the help of Bob Adam and his merry gang from the restored steam tug ‘Kerne’ at Liverpool, we prepared her for her trip down to London on the Whit weekend of 1976.

We started the conversion of the hold immediately. We put a false floor in the hold allowing 6 foot headroom in the lower area and by dint of raising the hatchboards by 23 inches and installing windows we created a marvellous saloon and galley and dining area on this level. At the same time we used the boat for trips down to the Medway, Erith and Greenwich. This encouraged our large volunteer work force to understand what all the hard work was about. We used the big tides on the Thames Estuary to double plate the hull from 2 feet below the waterline to deck level. We took the boat across the English Channel to France in 1977, intending to get to Paris but we ran out of human steam power at Rouen.

The Montague Trophy for expertise and initiative in steam was awarded to Nick and Rachel Walker for the steam cruise on SL VIC 32 to Dieppe, Le Havre , Rouen and Chichester in August 1977. Also the National Coal Board presented them with the 1978 Steam Heritage Award.

After two years in St. Katherine’s Dock, we took her back to Scotland, starting off Whit weekend, 1978. We had printed a single sheet advertisement for berths on board for the journey. We had divided it up into 8 weeks, for instance London to Whitby, Whitby to Leith, Edinburgh, Leith to Inverness, Inverness to Crinan etc. and a few weeks pottering about the Argyll area experimenting whether it was going to be practical to operate the vessel in that area. Life was pretty basic and if you wanted to wash in hot water, you had to report to the engineer for a bucket of water which had had the steam lance treatment.

Rachel and I were married in Bellanoch Church by Crinan, in January,1979.

Our first brochure
Our first brochure

We started taking proper fare paying passengers in 1979. We used Tarbert, Loch Fyne as a base and mainly operated around the Clyde area. This included Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Millport on the Isle of Great Cumbrae and Lochranza on the Isle of Arran. We explored up all the local Lochs, Loch Long at Arrrochar where we climbed the Cobbler, Carrick Caste at Loch Goil, Helensburgh and anchored off Faslane in the Gare Loch. We used to go up to the Ministry of Defence pier at Inveraray, nearly at the head of Loch Fyne. Then in September we would cruise up to the Caledonian Canal.

In 1989 the “Friends of VIC 32” was started, a money raising venture in case of an engineering crisis or something similar. We now have hundreds of Friends. In 1993 we celebrated VIC 32’s 50th anniversary and by the Millenium we had been cruising Scottish waters for 25 years.

Since 1994 we have cruised from Crinan, down the Sound of Jura, round Kiels Point and up into the Fairy Isles in Loch Sween. Then on to childhood haunts in Tayvallich Bay. We explored the Queen’s Beach in Loch Caollisport, the saint’s cave on Eilean Mhor on the McCormick Isles, sometimes watching whales passing by and listening out for corn crakes. On a good day you can see Ireland to the South and Ben Nevis to the North! Sometimes its like being inside a watercolour painting, I recommend it!

In 2002 Nick and Rachel gave the vessel to the Puffer Preservation Trust, a new company with charitable status, in the hope that VIC 32 will continue to give passengers and the public as much pleasure as she has done in the past, continuing to steam gently through Scottish waters and further educate the public.

In April 2004 the original boiler failed its annual test and we then spent the following year raising funds to replace it with a replica working boiler. We were given a generous grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manifold Trust and other trusts. Members of the public and Friends of VIC 32 were also generous. By March 2005 we gave Pridham’s Engineering and Corpach Boatbuilders the contract to replace the boiler and the hull in its vicinity. In 2006 in the new boiler was delivered to Scotland and the vessel was in steam again.

2023 will see us celebrating her 80th birthday.