‘Treat ferries crisis as Mayday emergency’

Just when it was hoped that, at least, the chaos surrounding ferry services could surely not get worse … this week, it got much, much worse.

By Brian Wilson
Wednesday, 3rd August 2022, 7:05 pm
The MV Hebrides has been taken off the Skye triangle and no replacement available. Meanwhile, breakdowns and cancellations come thick and fast on other lifeline services.
The MV Hebrides has been taken off the Skye triangle and no replacement available. Meanwhile, breakdowns and cancellations come thick and fast on other lifeline services.

Anger, frustration, despair… the full range of emotions was provoked by the latest round of breakdowns, cancellations, diversions and delays as CalMac struggled to maintain lifeline services.

As disruption mounted across the network, the Scottish Government remained impervious to a “Mayday call” for urgent action from the chair of Harris Development Ltd, Kenny Macleod.

He messaged SNP transport minister, Jenny Gilruth, to tell her: “A Mayday call is the most urgent one there can be in the maritime world…All vessels hearing a Mayday call, and in a position to assist, are obliged to take appropriate action.

“We are sending this to you in order to give you that opportunity to do something urgently to save our community”. The full text of Mr Macleod’s letter is on page six of this week’s paper.

There were similar grim pleas from Uist which has again borne the brunt of this week’s breakdowns within the ailing fleet, the average age of which has more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Pressure on the Scottish Government to allow CalMac to charter a vessel – probably the MV Pentalina – to create back-up within the overstretched fleet has continued to grow but no movement has been forthcoming.

The latest blow was on Wednesday when the 27 year-old MV Isle of Lewis suffered a problem with her visor bow which necessitated repairs at Oban. There was an initial four hour delay with warnings of “further delays and cancellations at short notice”.

This was particularly concerning because the Oban-Castlebay route was being used to relieve some of the pressure on traffic trying to reach Uist and Harris following the withdrawal of the MV Hebrides for the second week running.

With no confirmation of when the Hebrides will return from repairs, there was no relief vessel available and the only mitigation measure for Uist was additional sailings between Armadale in Skye and Lochboisdale for the MV Lord of the Isles with precedence for freight traffic.

Amanda Leveson Gower, who runs Langass Lodge Hotel in North Uist, said: “This is destroying the reputation of the islands. We were told to keep quiet for fear of putting people off from coming but it is too late for that.

“We are juggling every day. People who cannot get off the island because ferries are cancelled are trying to book but we can’t confirm till we have heard from people who can’t get onto the island because ferries are cancelled”.

She has started a Twitter Page @UistGroup which has quickly become a forum for people to share information. While there has been no criticism of CalMac port staff, and several pleas for them to be treated with respect, the general standard of CalMac communications has been widely criticised.

One post on Wednesday from Grimsay musician Padruig Morrison showed the ‘Lord of the Isles’ on her way to Lochboisdale with the message to CalMac: “Please be aware .. you told me and everyone else who were supposed to travel from Uig yesterday that the boat was full … in fact, it was half empty including all of us who got on on stand-by”.

Stornoway haulage contractor David Wood said that in addition to their Uist deliveries being disrupted, there were knock-on effects throughout the network. “It’s having a negative effect on the Loch Seaforth which is having to cope with the Harris traffic and too we can’t get any additional bookings. I have never seen it as bad and there is absolutely no end in sight.”

Gail Robertson of D.J. Buchanan Haulage in Uist said they were operating on “a day to day basis” and called on Ministers and senior management to visit the islands to see the damage at first hand. “I was talking to a few businesses that are thinking of shutting their doors over the winter. They can’t see any future. I have never seen morale so low”.

One stranded traveller, Bob Chaffer who lives in Northton, Harris, and works for NatureScot, questioned CalMac on why camper vans continue to be given priority on the Loch Seaforth over residents whose bookings have been cancelled and are trying to return to their families and work.

Camper van drivers, he said, “have the capacity to look after themselves” whereas other travellers have to sleep in cars or book accommodation at inflated costs, sometimes for several nights. He was offered a passenger booking and a taxi to Northton but would have had to return to Ullapool to collect his car whenever a booking became available.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said they were pressing CalMac to seek “potential second hand tonnage to improve operational resilience”.

However CMAL and CalMac say this is not meaningful without additional funding from the Scottish Government.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar transportation chair Uisdean Robertson said: “My understanding is that CalMac put resilience operations before Transport Scotland months ago and they were rejected. Unless they are going to put the finance up, it is not going to happen”