About the Tern and the Cap Pilar

by Bill Ellis

With thanks also to Wivenhoe News which first published this article in Spring 2004 

In 1891, a steam passenger ship was built at Wivenhoe Shipyard and named Tern

The vessel had been ordered by the Furness Railway Company for service on Windermere. As there were no suitable connecting water links to her base, Tern when completed was taken to pieces and loaded aboard a train at Wivenhoe rail sidings, close to the station, for transportation to Windermere. There she was launched into her destined environment.

The 140-foot-long vessel was quite sumptuously fitted out and designed to carry 700 people, which must have given those aboard a definite feeling of togetherness.

Now, 112 years on, this fine Essex bird continues to make her wake up and down the lake, albeit only carrying about half the originally allowed complement of passengers. Also her tall funnel now emits diesel fumes instead of fragrant lubricating oil and steam coal scented puffs of vapour.

Although the site of her birth is now submerged by residential development, her name lives on in Tern Mews, just off Old Ferry Road – only about 50 metres from where she departed by train in 1891.

Another turn – around the world – was made by a sailing vessel that also gave its name to a road in the town. Cappillar Close remembers, somewhat inaccurately, the 295-gross-tons barquentine Cap Pilar built at St. Malo, France in 1911. 

She completed a circumnavigation of the world during the period 30 September 1936 to 24 September 1938 with an amateur crew including Wivenhovian bosun John Donnelly and a pig named Dennis who signed on at the start of the voyage only actually sailed for 3 months! 

On return to the UK, the ship, which had no engine, eventually ended up at Wivenhoe. For many years she lay derelict until in 1966 she was floated into the Dry Dock, her hull set on fire and her remains buried there. A sad end for a fine ship.

Adrian Seligman, the Owner/Captain of the vessel for the circumnavigation and who had visited Wivenhoe a number of times in recent years, died on 6 August 2003 at the age of 93.

Now when one regularly hears of single-handed voyages around the world in amazingly faster and faster times, some statistics of the voyage of Cap Pilar provide quite a contrast. From leaving London until reaching New York in July 1938, she sailed 32,500 miles at an average speed of 4 knots. From Cape Town to Sydney she achieved 6 knots. Her best day’s run was 221 miles – the best under all plain sail being 207 miles. The furthest covered in one week was 1,246 miles. 

On the outward voyage she was at sea for 345 days just to get from London to New York, albeit via Rio, Tristan de Cunha, Cape Town, Sydney, New Zealand, a long cruise amongst the South Sea islands of the Pacific, the Callao (the port for Lima), the Galapagos Islands and then through the Panama Canal to the Wes Indies and New York (note: this latter information was provided by Mike Taylor-Jones).  

Bill Ellis