A “make or break” £2 million campaign to save the world’s last sea-going paddle steamer will be launched this week after the Waverley was forced to cancel all its sailings this year.
The ship’s boilers will have to be replaced after structural defects were found, in what will be the maritime equivalent of open-heart surgery.
Would-be passengers will be asked to donate the price of a trip they would have taken had the vessel not missed a season for only the second time in her 72-year history.
It is also only the second year there has been no paddle steamer on the Clyde since the Comet, Europe’s first passenger steamer, started operating in 1812.
The fundraiser, to be announced on Saturday, will be the biggest plea for popular support for Waverley, beloved by generations of Scots taking a trip “doon the watter”.
Waverley Excursions, which operates the ship, said it was crucial the money was raised to return it to service next summer.
General manager Paul Semple said: “We have to get Waverley back next year, but it will be a significant struggle. Waverley is only here because of the passengers who sail in her.
“Most of our income to keep the ship running is funded from passengers and fares.
“If everyone bought a ‘virtual ticket’, we would have the money needed. If we get the money, she will return to sail. True preservation is Waverley doing what she was built to do.
“She is a link back to the past. My gran spoke about the ship as if there was no other.”
Offers of help have already come in, from crane firms to businesses in Dunoon, who benefit from daytrippers coming off the ship.
This year’s sailings were cancelled last month after an unexpected amount of damage was found to the boilers, which were last replaced in 2000 with an anticipated 25-year life span.
Semple said: “We found structural defects to the boiler shell and furnace.
“We made initial repairs but then realised the extent of the damage. If we had continued, we would have lost half the season, and even then, there was no guarantee we would have got many more years out of the boilers.”
The work, which is expected to take around four months, will involve removing the funnels and slicing open a section of the deck to remove and replace the two boilers.
Semple said: “It is the biggest single component that needs replacing. In ship’s terms, it’s like open-heart surgery.”
The initial target is to raise enough for a deposit for the new boilers, which will take six months to order. It is hoped the refit can be completed by June next year.
Semple said although some £400,000 was spent on annual refits, “we don’t hold reserves for this sort of job”.
Waverley has been a remarkable survivor, having been expected to become a static restaurant/museum when she was “offered for preservation” in 1973.
That followed the state-run Scottish Transport Group, owner of newly formed operator Caledonian MacBrayne, deciding to reduce the number of Clyde steamers from two to one – the Queen Mary.
Waverley was bought for £1 by the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS), which successfully returned her to service.
She became the public’s favourite and outlasted the other vessel, which was decommissioned in 1977 and is now being turned into a venue and education centre adjacent to Waverley’s base beside the Glasgow Science Centre at Pacific Quay.
Waverley was built in Glasgow and entered service in 1947 for the London and North Eastern Railway, which named its steamers after characters in Sir Walter Scott novels.
In addition to summers on the Clyde, the vessel has toured the south coast and north west of England since 1978 to boost income, with her last trip being on the Thames in October.
PSPS vice-president Douglas McGowan, who played a central role in its acquisition of Waverley, said the ship had reached a critical point.
He said: “We do not have much time to raise the money. This is the only chance to see Waverley sail again.”
McGowan said a trip aboard Waverley was “a unique day out – the only way to see the British coast in a big ship.
“It’s where I can unwind. There is a lovely atmosphere – the magical constant sound of the paddles hitting the water.”
However, McGowan called for the ship to be better promoted to secure its future.
He said: “Its marketing needs to go up a gear, as passengers numbers have been on the decline, although not everywhere. The Thames and south coast have held up quite well.
“In Scotland, she has been taken for granted to an extent.
“A jolt of reality is needed to remind people Waverley will not be here for ever – but she can be for a number of years yet with people’s support.”