ALL shipwrecks have some kind of tale, but the SS Kaffir, whose sea-worn skeleton tilts up from the ocean just north of Ayr Harbour, its mast and structure visible at high water, has one worthy of a Whisky Galore type film treatment. There is plenty of farce, mystery and dubious elements to the tale behind the Clyde puffer which went aground in September 1974.
It was on 22 September that her engineer illegally took her, complete with load of coal, out of Ayr harbour, after dark.
A story in Keith McGinn’s fabulous book Last Of The Puffermen has it that, on that night, the boat’s skipper and deckhand were sitting in the pub waiting on said engineer’s arrival, when the pilot, having finished his duty, came in and was surprised to find them there.
He observed that the Kaffir – whose name, it should be noted, is a racial slur – had been seen with her navigation lights on, maneuvering about the docks.
All three ran down to the on-duty pilot and watched as the puffer zig-zagged around the docks.
McGinn writes, “The police and coastguard were telephoned. The pilot boat was launched. The pilot, police and skipper went out to try and intercept the puffer. Unfortunately they were too late. The Puffer had run aground.
“The police arrested the only man on board… the engineer. The skipper wanted to try and save the boat but it was a falling tide and a slight swell was running, the probability was that she was holed.”
And what was the engineer’s explanation, when he was questioned? That he had arrived on board early, made a cup of tea and fallen asleep, woken two hours later and assumed the skipper and deckhand must be on board and turned in, and set off. Once he did so, though, he didn’t have a clue, on leaving the harbour, what direction to go in, and when he found the skipper was absent, panicked.
Clearly he was not believed – for he was charged with piracy, found guilty and given a jail sentence.
Nevertheless he always maintained his innocence, saying, it was not his “job to go round the pubs looking for the skipper”.
Despite efforts to refloat her the following day, her stern gear had been damaged and she was eventually written off as a total loss, though 118 tons of coal was salvaged. Pounded by the sea for nearly four decades, she is now split in two. The puffer’s plating has deteriorated and the wheelhouse no longer survives, but she remains now as a much-photographed landmark in the sea.