This vessel was built for the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow and launched in July 1882 as the Flying Javelin from the yard of J & T Eltringham of South Shields. The vessel was an iron hulled steam paddle tug of 19nt/132gt which measured 108.4′ x 18.6′ x 9.7’. She was powered by a single longitudinal steam engine of 80nhp provided by J P Rennoldson of South Shields. The Flying Javelin was sold to Alex McKinnon of Lyle Street, Greenock in 1887 who traded as the City of Glasgow Towing Company and was re-named Champion, the tug remained in his ownership until her loss. The vessels official number was 86667.
The Champion left Greenock at 6:20am on Wednesday 12th December, 1896 under the command of her captain, Quintin Carsell, with a crew of six. She called at Gourock, Kirn and Dunoon where early morning papers and mails were dropped off. There had been a dense fog on the river that morning as she left Greenock and as her voyage progressed the fog steadily thickened. By the time she pulled away from Dunoon Pier at 7:45am for Innellan, visibility had reduced to less than thirty yards.
A few minutes earlier the Caledonian Steam Packet Company paddlesteamer Caledonia had left Innellan Pier for the twelve minute run north to her next stop at Dunoon. Although Captain Bell positioned one of his crew on the bow as lookout, he steamed blindly into the fog at his normal speed of fifteen knots.
Captain Carsell on the Champion steamed south at a more tentative speed of three or four knots, feeling his way through the thickening fog. He frequently sounded his steam whistle and had positioned deckhand Neil Millan forward as lookout. Within yards of Dunoon Pier he was alerted by the whistle of a steamer passing his port side. This first steamer was closely followed by the South Western Railway Company’s Minerva, also heading for Dunoon with its whistle sounding. Captain Carsell turned to starboard to move his little vessel inshore and give a wider berth to any other steamers heading north to Dunoon.
Immediately, he heard yet another whistle off his port bow and, as required by the Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, he ordered a turn to starboard and his engines stopped. The engineer had no time to carry out this order before the Caledonia appeared out of the fog, thirty yards from the bow of the Champion. Captain Carsell could see all three navigation lights indicating that the Caledonia was bearing directly down on them. He ordered engines full astern but it was too late. The Caledonia ripped into the port sponson and cut six or seven feet into the hull of the steam tug, penetrating her engineroom bulkhead. She immediately began to fill with water and it was obvious that she was going to sink. The two ships held together allowing the crew of the Champion to jump aboard the Caledonia. Captain Carsell then risked his life to return to his stricken vessel to retrieve the mail. As the Caledonia backed away the Champion sank – only five minutes had passed since the collision.
The subsequent Board of Trade enquiry heard how the Caledonia left Innellan Pier and headed north at her usual speed, despite the thick weather and, although Captain Bell had posted a lookout, he had little time from seeing the masthead of the Champion appear through the murk until the bow of the Caledonia cleaved into the unfortunate steam tug.
Despite the evidence Captain Bell, who declared that the Champion had in fact run into his path, the enquiry found that the collision was caused by the excessive and improper speed of the Caledonia. It also held that Captain Bell did not order his engines stopped or reversed on hearing the Champion’s warning whistle as required by the Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, until the Champion was visible through the fog. The enquiry suspended Captain Bell’s Master Certificate for three months.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Champion lies where she sank in position 55° 56.087’ N, 04° 55.607’W, about a quarter of a mile south of the Gantock Rocks and about three hundred metres from the shore. She lies upright on a sloping, mud seabed in a general depth of 36 metres with her stern at 38 metres and the bow in 34 metres. Her bow points inshore and at an angle of about forty five degrees to the shoreline. The small wooden platform which was the bridge has long since vanished as has the single funnel, although the base of the stack is still clearly visible. Otherwise the stern section is intact. Over the years since the wreck’s discovery in the late 1980’s the condition of the wreck has deteriorated markedly.
Forward of the engineroom bulkhead the wreck is well broken, particularly on the port side where the collision occurred. The damage to this section could indicate that the bows hit the seabed first as the tug sank. The two huge paddlewheels, which appear totally out of proportion to the rest of the vessel, are the most impressive aspect of the wreck. The starboard paddlewheel is almost completely intact and stands from the seabed well above the height of the deck of the ship.
Diving the wreck provides few difficulties although its size and its deteriorating condition make it more difficult to locate and snag than the other wrecks in this area. The depth and hence the inevitable darkness also deserve respect. There are a number of old prawn creels, ropes and fishing lines so a sharp lookout is required.