However, as Waverley prepares to head for England for five weeks on the south coast and Thames, the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer faces further major challenges from soaring fuel costs and a shortage of skilled staff, The Scotsman has learned.
Waverley Excursions, which operates the vessel, said it faces a £200,000 shortfall because of fuel prices nearly doubling.
The money will be needed to pay for the ship’s annual dry dock “MoT” this winter to be able to sail again in 2023.
General manager Paul Semple also revealed this year’s season almost didn’t go ahead because of difficulties recruiting a chief engineer, with the post filled only at the last moment.
The new headaches for the Glasgow-built and based steamer, which is celebrating her 75th anniversary, come after Waverley missed a season in 2019 for only the second time in her history, for boiler replacement.
That was followed by a disastrous 2020 that was largely wiped out by Covid restrictions, then further curtailed when the ship was damaged when she hit Brodick pier in September.
Passenger numbers were also drastically limited last summer by the pandemic.
Patronage has bounced back this year to 65,000, with the total after the final Clyde sailings on October 15-16 expected to top 100,000 journeys – similar to 2018.
Mr Semple said June and July were “not particularly busy, but the weather wasn’t great”, although August had been “very strong”, with much of the first half of the month sold out.
Sailings this Saturday and Sunday are also expected to be near Waverley’s 600-passenger capacity.
However, Mr Semple said a £4 fuel surcharge announced in May, which may need to increase, had been insufficient to offset fuel prices rocketing from 55p to around £1 a litre.
It meant Waverley was now costing £13.50 a minute to run in fuel alone.
Speaking to The Scotsman on a sailing to Dunoon and Rothesay on Friday, Mr Semple said: "That’s a significant increase from one season to the next and a big mountain for us to climb.
"My big concern is we are spending almost too much money in operating her, which will not give us the full winter refit money.
"I think we are going to have a shortfall of several hundred thousand [pounds] in getting through the winter because of that extra spend, mainly on fuel, so that certainly is a big challenge.
"The big part of the refit is the dry dock in April – the ship’s annual MoT – and at the moment I don’t see us having the cash for the dry dock, which is usually £150,000-£200,000.
"I see that as the gap at the moment, or slightly more.
"Even with a really strong south coast and Thames [season], I see don’t see us having all the money to go through the winter and we are going to need extra external support, such as more fundraising.”
But Mr Semple has taken comfort from the “strong support” of passengers.
He said: "When we tell them there’s a fuel surcharge, they almost agree we should be doing it.
"To put it into context, you might be buying a ticket for £40, but that’s only paying for three minutes worth of fuel, and you’re on the ship for eight hours.
"People then understand why the ticket is that price.”
Mr Semple has also had to contend with a dearth of suitably-experienced key staff because of Waverley’s uniqueness.
He said: “When the ship went into dry dock in April, I did not know if we could sail this season because I only had one chief engineer, who was able to do only half the season – they work three weeks on, three weeks off.
"I was sitting in a very uncomfortable position knowing we were due to go into service, but not having the people on board who could do the job.
"The timetable was out, bookings were coming in and I still didn’t have full engineer cover.
"We had advertised through the usual channels for seafarers, but it produced nothing.
"By the end of April I had found a second chief engineer and it was only at that point I thought the season would actually go ahead.
"It was word of mouth that finally filled the post – someone who started in Waverley when he first went to sea, so he knows the ship.”
Mr Semple warned: “The skillset and steam experience is lacking.
"In the past, you’d have had numerous steam engineers, but there’s so few now and there’s nothing like Waverley.
"What we really need to do is attract people who are coming in because it’s Waverley and want to do their time in the ship and get their certification with us.
"It really is a concern and I don’t see how the situation is going to get any easier."
Despite the uncertainties, Mr Semple is bullish about planning for another full season next year.
He said: “We have to keep going. I can’t hold back.
"It’s a bit like this year – if I had been cautious about not having all the crew in place, I wouldn’t have started the season.
"This has got to be Waverley doing what Waverley needs to do to earn her keep, and there can’t be any reservation on that.”
Mr Semple said his plans included extra sailings to Ayr following a “very successful” return after a five-year absence, with both this summer’s trips sold out.
He said: “We found Associated British Ports to be very welcoming for us in Ayr Harbour and they went out of their way to assist us.
"To see the queue all the way down Ayr Harbour for Waverley was great.”