Captain George Livingstone: Falling Stars

Falls of Clyde sailing ship
The Falls of Clyde pictured in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2008. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Captain George Livingstone – Everyone at gCaptain loves a good sea story, good, bad or ugly. Here’s one for the history books.

On a cold December in 1878, halfway between the cities of Greenock and Langbank on the river Clyde in Scotland, the first of nine iron-hulled, four masted ships slipped down the ways at Russel & CO shipyards. Russel & CO in Port Glasgow, was one of the smaller shipyards along the river Clyde, competing against the likes of the bigger Scott Family Shipyard in Greenock. The ship launched that morning, Falls of Clyde, was designed by William Lithgow, who had just gone into partnership with Russell & CO. At the time, the Clyde was the biggest shipbuilding area in the United Kingdom and the center of shipbuilding worldwide. Although steam power was already starting to dominate, the smaller Russell & CO initially focused on long haul, slow cargo transport via large iron sailing ships.

The Falls of Clyde was built first class with a Lloyd’s Registry A-1, the highest standard for general worldwide trade, and spent her first six years engaged in the India trade. She then became a tramp for over ten years working cargoes like wheat, cement, jute, lumber, etc. In 1899, Captain William Matson of Matson Navigation Company purchased her, bringing the ship to Honolulu. On the long Hawaii-to-San Francisco trade she proved herself handy and fast. The ship made over sixty voyages for Matson before being sold to the Associated Oil Company in 1907, and then to the General Petroleum Company until finally being laid up in 1959.

‘Falls of Clyde, on the verge of being sunk to form a breakwater when Honolulu Advertiser columnist Bob Krauss came to her rescue. In addition to a core group of local supporters primarily from Hawaii’s maritime community, over the next several year’s school children across the newly-admitted state of Hawaii raised money to help bring the ship back to Hawaii. Even the United States Navy provided assistance by towing the Falls of Clyde from Seattle to Honolulu in 1963.

The Bishop Museum, which had taken over management of the ship’s operations, opened the ship to the public in 1971 at Pier 5 in Honolulu Harbor. Over the next decade, tens of thousands of people visited the Falls of Clyde. What a wonderful life this ocean wanderer has led sailing around the world under three separate flags. Even today, the Matson House flag flying proudly from its vessels includes a star recognizing the Falls of Clyde.’ –Friends of Falls of Clyde

Unfortunately, this story does not look to have a happy ending as the ship now sits with pumps running to keep a constant inflow of water from sinking her at the dock. There have been considerable and commendable efforts made in the last few years to save the ship and take it back to Scotland, however to no avail. Unfortunately, those efforts have all come from the private sector thru nonprofit funding. The obvious question is where is the State of Hawaii in all this? What about Scotland? Will they not step in? Some millions of dollars could save this ship and in greater historical context, is not really much. As a mariner, I wonder why we would care so little as to let one of the world’s last remaining iron sailing ship go down to the deep? If not for the history, what do we have?

*‘The hills are bare now
and autumn leaves
lie thick and still,
Oh flower of Scotland,
when will we see
the likes of you
again’
(the Corries,1967)

*Epitaphe defined from old French via Latin from the Greek Epitaphion meaning ‘funeral oration’… seems fitting.

Captain George Livingstone is a San Francisco Bar Pilot, co-author of ‘Tug Use Offshore’, contributing author of ‘IMPA On Pilotage’ and a regular contributor to gCaptain.