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Uncertain fate awaits last sail tanker

Aug 2, 2019
This archival photo shows the ship as it used to appear when its masts were still stepped.

This archival photo shows the ship as it used to appear when its masts were still stepped.

Courtesy Friends of Falls of Clyde

The last remaining sail driven oil tanker in the world is docked at a state-owned pier in Honolulu, where it faces an uncertain future.

Plans are in place for the 280-foot Falls of Clyde to relocate from a state-owned pier to Glasgow, Scotland, where it could be refurbished and potentially used as a multi-use sailing ship. But that effort has largely stalled, in part due to challenges raising the estimated $1 million needed to haul the ship to Europe.

Meanwhile, the state has impounded the historic vessel and attempted to sell it earlier this year. No “legitimate” bidders emerged, according to the state, leaving the vessel in a state of limbo.

“From our standpoint, we are still hopeful the organization Save Falls of Clyde - International will finally put together the project to move the ship from Honolulu to Scotland,” said Bruce McEwan, a leader with the local group Friends of Falls of Clyde, which owns the ship.

He described something of a tense relationship with Hawaii officials, who made it clear they want the 141-year-old ship gone from Pier 7, where it has been tied up for many years. The state is concerned the vessel will sink at the dock or in the harbor, where it could hinder shipping activity and require a costly salvage.

“Honolulu Harbor is the state’s largest harbor and the hub of our hub and spoke shipping system,” said Shelly Kunishige, spokeswoman for Hawaii DOT, by way of explaining the potential issues with moving the ship or allowing it to sink at the pier.

The iron-hulled, four masted Falls of Clyde was built in 1878 in Glasgow, Scotland, and many of its early years were spent serving the India trade. Capt. William Matson, the namesake founder of Matson Navigation Co. bought the vessel in 1899 and it remains the oldest surviving vessel of Matson’s fleet.

Eight years later, the vessel was sold again and converted to a tanker with capacity for about 19,000 barrels. The vessel was later used as a floating fuel depot in Alaska. It was towed to Hawaii in 1963 and five years later it opened as an exhibit of a Hawaiian history museum.

The vessel is included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1989 was named a National Historic Landmark. Falls of Clyde has deteriorated over the years and is no longer seaworthy. Its masts are down, it lacks sails and rigging and its rudder is gone.

The Friends of Falls of Clyde bought the vessel in 2008 with the goal of preserving it. Eight years later, in 2016, the state of Hawaii impounded the vessel, leading to the auction earlier this year. One key stipulation for the sale was having a plan, and resources to move the vessel. No bidders met that threshold, Kunishige said.

The state is now allowing the Friends group to remove personal effects from the ship. Once that process is complete, Kunishige said the state will continue to look for ways to remove the vessel.

Despite that pressure, and a series of setbacks from potential partners in Europe, McEwan is fairly optimistic the vessel. “We just hope,” he said, “that it turns out positive.”

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