Built for Laird Line of Glasgow the steel steamship Rowan was launched from the yard of D and W Henderson on 23rd April 1909, She measured 280.8′ x 38.1′ x 16.5′ and weighed 1493 gross tons, 622 net tons. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine by Hendersons that delivered 525 net horse power. She was a fast and beautiful ship cruising at 16 knots on routes on the west coast until, with the outbreak of World War One, she was requisitioned by the army and converted to an armed boarding vessel. She survived the dangers of the war at sea and returned to her owners soon after the conclusion of the conflict and returned to her normal service.
The audience at the Lyric Theatre, Glasgow on the afternoon of 8th October, 1921 could not have imagined the catastrophic effect of their cries for an encore by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The resultant delay to the departure of the orchestra set in motion a series of events which was to lead to the tragic sinking of the Rowan in the early hours of the following morning in one of the most unusual incidents in the history of Clyde shipping.
The orchestra had booked passage on the Rowan to Dublin for their next engagement and were due to meet the ship at Greenock that evening. If Captain Brown on the Rowan had not chosen to wait for almost an hour to meet the orchestra from the train at Greenock his ship would have passed the place of its fatal collision without incident. The Rowan finally left Greenock at around 7pm on Saturday 8th October and sailed south towards Ailsa Craig and Galloway.
Five hours later, after an uneventful voyage down the Firth, she reached the Galloway coast where the visibility was dramatically reduced by banks of thick fog rolling across the North Channel. Captain Brown slowed the Rowan to around half her normal steaming speed and continued southwards on his journey. At about 12:10am the American steamer West Camak suddenly appeared out of the fog and, despite efforts by both captains, collided with the stern of the Rowan. Although damage to the Rowan was not severe, Captain Brown ordered all the passengers on deck and the ship’s lifesaving equipment made ready. This precaution was to save many lives.
Just as the passengers were beginning to recover from the collision with the West Camak the SS Clan Malcolm, en route from Glasgow to Birkenhead, appeared and crashed into the Rowan on her starboard side amidships, almost cutting her in two. The passengers and crew were sent sprawling across the decks and many were thrown overboard into the sea. The Rowan sank almost immediately leaving the West Camak, the Clan Malcolm and the destroyer HMS Wrestler, which had answered the West Camak’s distress call, to rescue around one hundred passengers and crew.
Despite the darkness, poor visibility and rough seas, they were successful in picking up seventy seven cold and frightened survivors who had been clinging to liferafts or wreckage from the Rowan. Almost all of them had been wearing lifebelts or lifejackets at the time of the second collision and it is certain that, if Captain Brown had not been so cautious, more lives would have been lost. As it was, around twenty people, including the captain himself, lost their lives in the disaster. Many of the survivors were landed a few hours later at Princes Pier, Greenock where large crowds had gathered to hear the story of this strange, double collision and listen to the terrifying experience of the survivors.
The Wreck Today
The wreck of the Rowan lies approximately two miles offshore from Dally Bay in position 54°57.927’N, 05°14.429’W (WGS84). Seabed depth in the area is 49-51 metres with a least depth over the wreck of 41-42 metres. Strong tides run up and down this section of coastline which are accentuated over the wreck which is sitting upright on the rocky seabed, oriented across the tidal flow at 295°/115°, with stern towards the Galloway shore. The wreck must be dived at slack water and ideally on neap tides. The added potential challenge of wind and swell on this exposed site make it a dive for only the most experienced diver.