Iron island on the Clyde

The Captayanis, the sugar boat that sank in a storm in the Firth of Clyde.

By Robin Lloyd Jones

On the morning of 28th January 1974, a new landmark appeared in the Clyde Estuary. A Greek cargo ship lay on her side between Helensburgh and Greenock. An island called Captayanis. During the night, in a gale, the Captayanis had dragged her moorings and drifted in heavy seas before colliding with a tanker and being holed. In a bid to save his ship, the Greek captain deliberately ran her onto a sandbank. As 8,000 tons of sugar dissolved into the Clyde, the captain bowed to the inevitable and ordered the ship to be abandoned. Slowly, the deserted ship settled onto her side, coming to rest at a perfect ninety degrees to her upright position. The Captayanis lies there to this day, in mid-estuary. Her underside is turned towards the Greenock shore, her decks face Helensburgh, the bows point upriver, while beyond the stern are the wild hills of Argyll. About four months after the Captayanis ran aground I paddled out to her with the intention of spending the night aboard. Clouds of seabirds rose at my approach. Her mast lay exactly along the waterline, ship and tide in perfect equilibrium. Slowly I cruised round the wreck. Decks were walls, walls were decks, while ladders walked horizontally into space. A hatch opened like a window into the cavernous hull. I peered inside – black, black water, the stench of oil and rust and a hollow, dripping sound. The starboard bow reared high, but gently sloped at the waterline like a little beach. I paddled round to what had been the ship’s flat bottom, now iron cliffs of rusty brown, then completed the circuit, passing the giant seaweed-covered rudder and barnacled propeller. Extracting myself from my kayak and climbing onto the wreck proved difficult. Finally, I was standing on what had once been the side of the hull, amazed at how flat it was. I wandered over the steel-riveted plateau, admiring the 360% panorama from the middle of the estuary. Ringed by twinkling lights, I ate my meal. Then, moving to the bridge, I climbed through an opening and dropped into the wheelhouse. In the centre of the floor was a porthole; in the middle of one wall a door opened like a letter-box. The wheel itself, the compass and other instruments of navigation were gone. After the storm had abated, swarms of little boats clustered round the dead ship. In a matter of days, furniture, fittings, anything movable had disappeared. I unrolled my sleeping-bag and prepared for sleep. It was dark, it was cold. The ship let out a long, deep sigh. I listened intently. She rumbled and echoed and sobbed. The changing tide, I told myself. Volumes of air and water shifting inside her, I told myself, but I was not convinced. Dawn was breaking. The sea was flat calm; and the gulls were resting in their hundreds on the hull. Since that first visit I have returned to the Captayanis many times. Every year the reds and browns of rust are more apparent, she is a little greener about the waterline and whiter from the attentions of the birds. In her primitive soil of bird-droppings, windblown dust and peeling paint moss and grass have taken root, sea pinks and daisies bloom. I have grown fond of the iron island in the Clyde.

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