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Switzerland : How Paddle Steamers survived and prospered

This review was written in November 2011 so things have moved on a little since then although the principles remain the same. More Swiss ships have undergone their major overhauls to give them a significantly longer life and their futures (even for those which where laid up) are good. In the meantime excursions ships looking for money from public appeals in the UK have continued to struggle ......

Switzerland is the "home" of paddle steamers in Europe. Visits to Lake Lucerne and Lake Geneva in particular allow for frequent glimpses of paddle steamers as each have five sailing during the peak summer period on relatively small bodies of seas. These lakes are virtually unimaginable without their paddle steamers, However, like everywhere else, the operators of steamers on these lakes modernised their fleet as conditions dictated and it was assumed that all paddle steamers would have disappeared long before now. As early as 1934, the CGN company on lake Geneva began converting many of their steamers to diesel power once their boilers came up for replacement, recognising the economic advantages whilst accepting that the fabric of the ships themselves still had life in them. It was not until that the SGV unexpectedly withdrew PS Wilhelm Tell after the 1970 season that enthusiasts first swung into action with an energetic campaign to save the ship. Built in 1908 she was by no means the oldest of the fleet and had recently undergone a major re-fit. The preservation campaign did lead to her being saved for use as a floating restaurant in the centre of Lucerne, where she lies to this day just yards away from her sisters as they pass on their excursions along the lake. What it did do was set the scene for future campaigns across Switzerland, beginning with Lake Lucerne's PS Unterwalden which was withdrawn in 1975 and held in reserve for a further two years whilst a replacement motor vessel was built. The new ship even assumed the name of the paddler.......The Friends of the Lake Lucerne Steamers were successful in persuading the SGV to save and refurbish Unterwalden - and the new motor vessel was quickly re-christened MV Europa. Unterwalden came back into service in 1982 and sailed through a further 26 seasons until her boiler failed inspection. In the meantime, the remaining paddlers on Lake Lucerne all went for major refits rather than retire to be replaced by motor vessels (although the SGV continued to have motor vessels built - a testament to their success in growing the overall market for their services). It was to be expected, therefore, that the impending decision as to what to do with Unterwalden in 2008, resulted in her being reboilered. Not only that, she would undergo a two and a half year refit to return her virtually to "as new" condition, incorporating not only new facilities but restoring as far as possible her original profile which had been altered quite significantly over the years. This additional work was part funded by the local steamer enthusiasts who continuously campaign to raise funds for the vessels restoration and who have raised the profile of the steamers to iconic status around Lake Lucerne. The SGV itself operates at a profit. Their passenger numbers are growing steadily, the business has weathered the recent economic storms with little negative effect and the paddlers prove themselves to be the most popular ships in the fleet.

Similar groups have followed in their footsteps : the two paddle steamers on Lake Zurich have recently been fully renovated with enthusiast help, similarly PS Lotschberg on Lake Brienz. Lake Brienz's "sister" lake, Lake Thun, looked to be going the way of complete dieselisation when the last paddle steamer, Blumlisalp was withdrawn in 1971. She languished for many years in a remote and secluded bay on the lake but fortunately remained reasonably intact. Local enthusiasts bought her and in 1988 she was taken out of the water for a complete rebuild which included lengthening. Four years later, the remarkable efforts of a small band of enthusiasts, who rallied many people in the area and beyond to their cause, came to successful fruition when she re-entered service on scheduled sailings of the local operator, BLS.

Whilst enthusiasts had a long and successful track record in German-speaking Switzerland, similar activities were slow to get off the ground at French-speaking Lake Geneva where a fleet of four paddle steamers and four motorised steamers sailed, but in an increasingly loss-making operation. Fearing the loss of one or more of these iconic ships, locals formed the ABVL to campaign in support of the vessels and raise funds for their preservation. The ABVL, despite coming late to the scene, has a magnificent recent record in fund-raising and raising the profile of the ships themselves. As well as donating to the capital costs of the CGN, they also have a significant equity stake in the company. Paddle Steamers are once again recognised, officially by the CGN as well as by all lakeside authorities, as an indispensible part of local heritage. The CGN decided to return MPV Montreux to steam when her re-fit became due, and in 2001, forty years after becoming a motor ship, the 97-year old became the fifth steamer of the fleet. A remarkable achievement. Heady plans of the times to return the three remaining motor paddle ships to steam have faltered, but the mindset had been changed. The remaining steamers are being lovingly restored to their best, Savoie returning from refit in 2006 and flagship La Suisse in 2010. The motor ship Vevey, built in 1907 will be the next for the full treatment, followed by MPV Italie (1908) which has been out of service since late 2005. Even MPV Helvetie (1926), out of service since early 2002 when her troublesome replacement diesel engines dictated that she go into retirement, is stored safely at the CGN dockyard to be restored for service in the future when finances permit.

In Switzerland, therefore, there is a happy combination of factors which are ensuring that paddle steamers have a good future : operators are sympathetic, local authorities supportive and enthusiast groups work in very close association with the operators. Business is such that not only the paddlers but large fleets of major motor vessels can also be maintained - a result of large local populations near most lakes, considerable numbers of tourists, magnificent scenery and excellent marketing.

Why is the preservationist lobby so strong and effective in Switzerland compared with elsewhere, particularly the UK where there is also a strong paddle steamer tradition?
Paddle Steames are the most prominent and well-known of the Swiss maritime fleet - the "crown jewels" so to speak. Apart from other smaller lake and river boats, most of the Swiss fleet is river cruise ships or Rhein freight barges which operate almost entirely outside the country and are therefore much less "visible" to the Swiss public. A large proportion of the Swiss public live on or close to the major lakes where paddle steamers operate, so they are well known and their role in the tourist industry is well understood. Matters affecting the steamers are well reported in the local press and arouse a lot of interest. Great Britain has probably the greatest maritime tradition of any country, dating back centuries and shaping the history of the country indelibly. However in a country of around 60 million people, membership of the nationwide organised Paddle Steamer Preservation Society is around 3000. In Switzerland, a country little more than one tenth of the size, the support base of the Friends of the Lake Lucerne Steamers is around 10,000 alone. Membership of the other main regional groups is smaller and there is no doubt a considerable degree of cross-membership. In Britain, those interested in ships are spread over a much wider range of vessel types and paddle steamers, or any other excursion ships for that matter, form only one small sector in the whole spectrum. Even within the paddle steamer enthusiast community there is little agreement as to which ships to save if it came down to a choice and some disagreement as to whether enthusiasts should actively preserve ships - or just their memories. It seems like in Britain all we can hope for is that
Waverley continues to sail and does not make any substantial losses and hope that the Maid of the Loch restoration project is successful. 


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