A year and a half after she was impounded by the state Harbors Division, the historic Falls of Clyde may be heading home to her birthplace of Scotland this summer.
David O’Neill, the founder of Save Falls of Clyde International based in Scotland, is personally dedicated to saving the historic ship and restoring it to full glory — with visions of making it an active “floating campus” for students on the River Clyde.
O’Neill and his wife, Catherine, were in Honolulu earlier this month to meet with the state Harbors Division after learning via Facebook the plight of the rare, four-masted, iron-hulled ship originally built in Port Glasgow, Scotland.
Their first stop straight from the airport was the Falls of Clyde, moored at Pier 7 near Aloha Tower, to assess the ship in person for the first time. In the still of the night, she was everything they expected her to be.
“I was expecting she would be illuminated,” said O’Neill. “She wasn’t. But she was graceful, just beautiful sitting here.”
Friends International has negotiated a deal, he said, with Offshore Heavy Transport (O.H.T.) of Oslo, Norway, which operates five semi-submersible, heavy lift carriers, to transport the ship to Glasgow this summer, possibly as early as July.
On Dec. 8, O’Neill met with the Harbors Division, which had impounded the 266-foot-long ship last summer, to present his plans. Both parties are optimistic about the return of the Falls of Clyde to Scotland.
“Hawaii Department of Transportation Harbors Division’s confidence in the plan is built on commitments offered by a prospective heavy lift ship company and the Scottish government as reported by Mr. David O’Neill of Save Falls of Clyde International,” said HDOT spokesman Tim Sakahara in an email. “Further, all costs of the operation will be borne by the two organizations, and not by the state.”
Upon the ship’s removal, he said the state will assess and repair Pier 7, then make it available to other users and vessels.
Key dates in the voyage of the Falls of Clyde:
>> 1878: Launched from Port Glasgow, Scotland, as part of the Falls Line fleet named after Scottish waterfalls.
>> 1898: Joins the Matson fleet, sailing under a Hawaiian flag and transporting sugar from Hilo to San Francisco.
>> 1907: Converted to an oil tanker by new owner Associated Oil Co. but also transports molasses.
>> 1921: Sold to General Petroleum Corp., derigged and used as floating petroleum depot in Ketchikan, Alaska.
>> 1963: Towed by U.S. Navy from Seattle to Honolulu.
>> 1971: Open to the public under Bishop Museum management.
>> 1982: Damaged by Hurricane Iwa.
>> 1989: Named a National Historic Monument by National Parks Service.
>> 2007: Ship is closed for repairs.
>> 2008: Friends of Falls of Clyde is formed to prevent scuttling and take over ownership with mission of restoring the vessel.
>> 2009: Recognized by Legislature as a historic symbol of Hawaii.
>> 2014: Launch of $3 million campaign to pay for dry-dock repairs.
>> 2016: Impounded by the state Department of Transportation Harbors Division
>> 2017: Friends of Falls of Clyde International founder David O’Neill announces plans to transport her back to Scotland. He arrives in Honolulu to assess her in person, and celebrate her 139th birthday Dec. 12 with an afternoon blessing and whisky toast.
O’Neill said he has support from the Scottish government and interest from the chairman of Clyde Blowers, an investment house that owns Ferguson Marine Engineering, which now occupies the shipyard where the Falls of Clyde was originally built in 1878. He’s also garnered interest from international supporters, he said.
Accomplishing the feat would be a source of pride, close to O’Neill’s heart.
O’Neill, 60, retired a year ago from Eclipse Communications, a successful radio communications business he founded, to focus on saving the ship.
The history enthusiast then formed the nonprofit Friends of Falls of Clyde International and put out a call for help via Facebook and LinkedIn, saying “Old Scottish lady needs a lift home.” That’s when numerous lift ships stepped forward, he said, but most prominently O.H.T., which was willing to work with him on a deferred payment plan for the approximately $2 million transport.
O.H.T. is expected to schedule transport some time between July and September.
Most notably, O’Neill’s efforts got the attention of Scottish politician Alison Thewliss, a member of Parliament for Glasgow Central, who wrote a letter to Gov. David Ige requesting that the state not destroy the ship because funds were being raised to save it. The Ige administration agreed to wait.
The latest development is a turnaround from August 2016 when the Harbors Division impounded the ship.
Bruce McEwan, president of the Honolulu-based Friends of Falls of Clyde, feared it was the end. Efforts by the group to raise $3 million to get the rusting ship to dry dock got little support in 2014.
“This is actually beyond our wildest dreams,” said McEwan, who has been preparing her for the move. “We’ve had schemes offered to us over the years and they’ve all fallen through.”
O’Neill’s vision is to restore the Falls of Clyde into a working ship that can offer tours, as well as a “floating campus” for maritime students rather than a static exhibit, generating revenue for its maintenance and upkeep. It could take up to five years or more.
He’s confident it can be done because he’s seen other ships restored on the River Clyde. O’Neill plans to apply for Scotland’s Heritage Lottery Fund, which offers grants for cultural treasures across the United Kingdom.
“They have acknowledged this is a project they feel they could fund already,” he said.
Also, he hopes to bring students from the engineering and digital design school at Caledonian University in Glasgow to Honolulu to map out a full, 3D laser scan of the Falls of Clyde’s interior and exterior.
“Hawaii will always be an important part of her heritage,” he said, “but we are also keen to share renewable technologies of wind and wave and electric power being led by Scottish industry.”
Originally built by Russell & Co. in Port Glasgow, Scotland, in 1878, the Falls of Clyde is believed to be the last surviving ship of a fleet named after Scottish waterfalls. Departing from Greenock, Scotland, in 1879 for her maiden voyage to Karachi, Pakistan, she became part of Matson’s fleet before being converted into an oil tanker.
In retirement at Honolulu Harbor, the ship became a museum and hosted weddings, funerals, parties, military re-enlistment ceremonies and even a dramatic re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party.
She’s survived Hurricane Iwa and two attempts to sink her.
On the day that she returns to Scotland, the plan is to transfer ownership from the Honolulu nonprofit to O’Neill’s Friends. He envisions a proper send-off ceremony, with two escort ships and a flotilla of sailboats and cruisers.