The wooden steamship Comet I was launched from the Port Glasgow yard of John Wood (Yard No 1) on 24th July 1812. She measured 43.5′ x 11.3′ x 5.8′ and her tonnage was 25 registered tons. She was powered by a single inverted double acting steam engine by John Robertson of Port Glasgow delivering 4 horse power. She was owned by Mr Henry Bell and others of Helensburgh and registered in Glasgow. Soon after she entered service it became obvious the the engine was not powerful enough to control the vessel in the open waters of the Scottish west coast, so Robertson upgraded the engine installation to a 6hp compound engine built by Thomas Hardie at the Anderson Foundry, Cartsdyke.
She, is probably one of the most famous ships in maritime history although often wrongly credited with the title of the first ship to use steam power. However there is no doubt that the Comet I can claim her own position in maritime history as the first steamship in Europe to ply regularly with passengers and to sail in open waters. Prior to her introduction, trade on the upper River Clyde was by sail powered vessels, mainly by small wherry built craft designated “flyboats.” Other larger ships then took over to continue the voyage from Greenock onwards resulting in a trip from Glasgow to Rothesay of three days at best.
The Comet I, named after a meteor which was observed during her construction, was conceived by Henry Bell and with a steam engine based on the invention of another famous local name, James Watt. Her initial arrivals at the Clyde piers were greeted with huge crowds, many of whom had appeared in the certain expectation that they would see the little ship explode into a million pieces. On her initial introduction to the West Highland route in 1819 islanders fled at her approach proclaiming her as an emissary for the powers of darkness.
Her early career was very successful, so much so that she was re-engined and lengthened to provide capacity for more passengers. It was on the route between Glasgow and Fort William through the Crinan Canal that she was to end her famous career. On the homeward leg of a trip on Friday 15 December 1820 she was caught in a storm when approaching the troubled waters of the Dorus Mor off Craignish Point. Her engine was unable to cope with the vicious tides and current and the little wooden ship, with her creator Henry Bell aboard, was swept onto Craignish Point and almost immediately broke in two, splitting her hull where she had been joined when being lengthened. Luckily the passengers had congregated at one end of the ship and it was this section that remained aground when she broke up and they all managed to reach the shore safely. The Comet I was a total loss.
A replica of the vessel was built and installed in a location near the waterfront at Port Glasgow but, sadly, the condition of the replica has deteriorated to a point that it has now been removed from public display.
The precise location of the wreck was lost over the years and it was not until 2020 that some of her remains were re-discovered by a team of divers from Oban. The site has now been protected due to the historical nature of the vessel involved and was the subject of an archaeological survey by Wessex Archaeology in 2021 . A ‘Historic Wreck’ has recently been marked on the Navionics electronic charts at the west entrance to the Dorus Mhor, close to Craignish Point and the position is 56° 07.870’N, 005° 36.889’W. It is not known as yet if this is the final resting place of the Comet I which is reported to lie in 11 metres.