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Robin L Hutchison Obituary

Posted by Kay on October 22nd, 2018

I think my father would have been a bit surprised to learn that the Times chose to run an obituary about him last week. When the journalist contacted me to check a few facts the one thing I knew he’d have wanted me to say was that in a 46 year career that spanned deep sea and the West Coast he “never lost a life at sea”. So I was really touched when I saw that they ran that as their headline… Popular steamer captain and author nicknamed ‘Hurricane Hutch’ who was proud of the fact he never lost anyone at sea.

Popular steamer captain and author nicknamed ‘Hurricane Hutch’ who was proud of the fact he had never lost anyone at sea

They called him Hurricane Hutch, the men who worked the ferries. It was because Captain Robin L Hutchison always seemed to be on duty when the wind roared and the swell grew to the size of a double-decker bus. He didn’t mind the nickname. Besides, it was true. There was, he once remarked, “an almost magnetic power of attraction between me and 15ft waves… but in those days you always tried to keep the services running. So many folk depended on us.”

The “service” was the ferries of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company, later Caledonian MacBrayne, which connects Scotland’s islands to the mainland and each other. From the late 1950s, Hutchison’s beat was the Firth of Clyde in the last glory days of steamers such as PS Waverley and PS Jeanie Deans. During one particularly busy summer in the early 1960s he was master of 19 different ships in 21 days.

By the end of his career he was captain of the car ferry running from Ardrossan to Arran, and the ships known as “streakers”, which make the short crossings from Gourock to Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula, and Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. In retirement he took a position as relief master on the luxury cruise ship MV Hebridean Princess. Described by one who met him as a weathered, swarthy man of great presence with a voice like a friendly gravel-pit, it was no surprise he was a hit on the ship’s captain’s table. He was not short of stories: how he would ferry drunken, brawling workers to the oil-rig construction site at Ardyne; how tricky it was to manoeuvre a car ferry when it was crammed with sheep; or why, as captain of TS Queen Mary II, he always ordered the windows and portholes closed when the ship docked in the Broomielaw because an open window once caused 1,000 pieces of newly polished silver to turn brown, so noxious were the vapours coming off the filthy Clyde.

Robin Lees Hutchison was born an only child in Greenock in June 1933. His parents, William and Kathleen (née Jamieson), ran a nursing home on the Largs road, south of Greenock. On the second night of the Greenock Blitz of May 1941, a 1,000lb parachute mine dropped near the home, blowing out the windows and showering the building in mud. Hutchison’s mother’s china collection was destroyed, but the family and residents escaped unscathed. Nearly 300 people were not so lucky.

By the age of nine the sea was already calling. On holiday with his aunt in the Ayrshire coastal village of Dunure, Hutchison would spend his days at the harbour shifting creels for fishermen.

When he left Greenock Academy aged 15, his mother directed him to the James Watt Memorial College. It offered courses in marine engineering and navigation. If he must go to sea, she reasoned, he should at least have training. He was later apprenticed to the Greenock shipping agency Denholm and his first posting was on SS Hollypark, sailing for New Zealand.

That trip lasted two years. There were many others, though he always returned to Greenock and it was during one visit home that he met Ann Hendry at a dance in Largs. They were married in Greenock in 1955 and they had two children, Kay and Glenn. Hutchison’s wife predeceased him, but he is survived by his children and by two granddaughters, Nina and Jess.

He swapped the deep-sea life for a job closer to his family. It was as well he did. From 1959 he worked the summer seasons for the Caledonian Steam Packet Company and in 1962 he was offered a full-time position, which meant turning down a job on the bulk coaster MV Ardgarry. In December 1962 it sank off the Lizard. All 12 crewmen perished. In 2013, to mark his 80th birthday, Hutchison wrote a book, Hurricane Hutch’s Top 10 Ships Of The Clyde, which was part memoir and part social history.

One of his most treasured possessions was a brass officer’s whistle, an Acme Thunderer, given to him the night before he left to train for the Merchant Navy in 1949 by a Mrs Fegen, who lodged in his parents’ nursing home. It had belonged to her son, Captain Edward Fegen, who had lost his life commanding the armed merchant cruisier HMS Jervis Bay as it defended an Atlantic convoy against the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer on November 5, 1940. The convoy had been saved, though, and for his bravery Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and later mentioned by Winston Churchill in a speech he gave in May 1945.

The whistle remained a talisman of sorts for Hutchison. Towards the end of his life he was asked by his daughter how he would like to be remembered and he answered that it would be as someone who had lasted long, had witnessed the Clyde and its steamers in their heyday – and who never lost a single person at sea.

Captain Robin L Hutchison, master mariner, was born on June 9, 1933. He died on September 20, 2018, aged 85

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