Over the centuries pleasure and tragedy together with memorable events have created a tale worthy of a place in Britain’s shipping history. The place? The Tail of the Bank, the river Clyde’s anchorage off Greenock.
Situated at the mouth of the river and the beginning of the firth, it has become well known to mariners throughout the world. For many years, merchant ships of all kinds have lain there on their way upriver to Glasgow’s docks. Other visitors have included naval ships of the Home Fleet and other countries, royal yachts, cruise liners and a variety of other craft.
The Bank refers to the last in a chain of sandbanks from Dumbarton to Greenock and is particularly large; the river between Dumbarton and Glasgow was heavily silted from earliest times. A Royal Charter of ownership was granted in August 1816 “to the town of Greenock by paying annually the sum of one penny Scots in the town hall of Greenock.” Townspeople with an eye to the main chance came up with a wave of proposals as to its use none of which met with the town council’s approval and which was not really surprising.
Among the ideas put forward were a military battery, luxury housing, erecting dykes for protection against wind and tide affecting a recreation ground and sinking empty sugar hogsheads filled with stones (Greenock was the country’s principal sugar port with several refineries at the time) to make the sandbank an island that would always be dry at high tide! Enthusiasm to give the bank some form of use gradually petered out and the site allowed to remain in its original state. Trade was beginning to grow steadily between Glasgow and ports throughout the United Kingdom as well as foreign ports. Consequently the Tail of the Bank as the anchorage for this traffic developed accordingly. The extreme silting beyond what is now Port Glasgow, Greenock’s immediate neighbour, prevented ships reaching Glasgow. Cargoes were discharged into lighters, brought ashore at Greenock and Port Glasgow and conveyed by road to the city. The routine worked equally well in reverse.
The situation obviously called for a resolution to the problem of transporting shipments. Glasgow merchants became frustrated and put pressure on the city council, the latter being responsible, as trustees, for the management of the river’s affairs. Part of their remit was the River Improvement Trust in 1770. They were succeeded in 1840 by the Clyde Navigation Trust. This body were given the task of having dredging carried out, providing quays, drydocks and ferries, highly commendable projects which were subsequently achieved. (In 1966 the trust was replaced by the Clyde Port Authority now Clydeport). City merchants were thus able to increase imports resulting in increased traffic and more shipping to the Tail of the Bank. Not only Glasgow benefited from all this, however, Greenock harbours developed to cope with growing trade.
Over a hundred years were to pass before there was notable change at the anchorage. Shipping ebbed and flowed in accordance with economic circumstances but there was always a feeling of activity around the place. During the Second World War the Tail of the Bank was more crowded than at any other time in its history. Convoys began and ended there. It served, too, as a naval base and was possibly the most important in the country. Winston Churchill embarked from there across the Atlantic on more than one occasion for top-level talks with US President Theodore Roosevelt.
Open anchorages, such as the Tail of the Bank, are more subject to the vagaries of the weather than sheltered places.
In darkness, in a severe gale, on December 5, 1940 eight ships dragged their anchors, scattered and ran aground. The absence of riding lights and blackout conditions caused difficulties for tugboats crews who had been summoned. They were forced to stand by till morning to carry out the mammoth rescue. Again during darkness on January 27, 1974 the Greek freighter Captayannis was in collision with the BP tanker British Light during a severe storm.
The Greek ship carrying a cargo of sugar was waiting to dock at Greenock. Her anchor failed to hold and she drifted towards the tanker nearby. The tanker’s anchor holed the straying vessel. The Greek captain intended heading for the Gareloch close by but quickly realised that the ship was in danger of sinking. He decided to beach her in shallow water at the sandbank where she lies to this day. A tugboat and several small craft made a successful rescue of captain, officers and crew.
What happened next remains a mystery. No one claimed responsibility for the ship. Her owners were never found and dealing with her became an unsolved problem. Salvage was not an option. The Dutch, among the most expert in the field, declined after inspection to consider the matter. Proposals to blow her up or try to float her with sunken giant balloons were met with ridicule. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before looting took place. Nothing was overlooked, not even cutlery and crockery. Possibly the best tale to emerge from this disaster was that of anglers on both shores of the river discovering their catches had a surfeit of sugar!
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2011 Issue
Click here to subscribe