A life-line ser­vice

The Oban Times - - Letters - AN­GUS MACPHAIL an­gus­macphail@ya­hoo.co.uk

I HAVE al­ways been a strong sup­porter of CalMac and, with a life­time of good ex­pe­ri­ences with their ves­sels, crews and shore staff, the very sight of their fer­ries evokes in me a warm, ex­cited and pos­i­tive feeling.

Fur­ther, as I write this week’s piece, I am sit­ting on the MV Clans­man on the way back from Tiree with weather con­di­tions in which a lesser skipper with a less ca­pa­ble ves­sel would not have at­tempted or com­pleted berthing at Gott pier.

How­ever, there is no hid­ing the fact that the fre­quency of dis­rup­tion and can­celled sail­ings on many routes over re­cent years has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally and to such an ex­tent that th­ese un­re­li­able trans­port links are be­com­ing one of the big­gest threats to the fu­ture sus­tain­abil­ity of is­land economies and pop­u­la­tions.

Un­til four or five years ago, if you heard a pas­sen­ger com­plain­ing loudly about a ferry not sail­ing or not berthing, you could usu­ally be sure it was the typ­i­cal ig­no­rant arm­chair skipper who wouldn’t know a bow-thruster from a bow­line. This has changed and there are in­creas­ing oc­cur­rences of fer­ries be­ing can­celled in weather con­di­tions that in the past would never have stopped a sail­ing or, worse, sail­ings be­ing can­celled so far in ad­vance that by the time of the sched­uled voy­age, con­di­tions are calm due to weather – as is com­mon – chang­ing from what was forecast.

There are many pos­si­ble rea­sons for this change in op­er­a­tion and I am cer­tainly not aware of all the de­tails. Nor do I claim to have all the an­swers as to how best to rec­tify the very un­sat­is­fac­tory sit­u­a­tion, but some­thing must change.

The mod­ern en­vi­ron­ment of ‘blame and claim’ cul­ture seems to be the pri­mary is­sue, and this, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, is af­fect­ing ship­ping com­pa­nies across the world. There ap­pear to be other prob­lems, how­ever, pe­cu­liar to CalMac that are ex­ac­er­bat­ing th­ese is­sues. Ac­cord­ing to one re­tired cap­tain, the hu­man re­sources de­part­ment’s pol­icy of mov­ing skip­pers more fre­quently be­tween dif­fer­ent routes means on many oc­ca­sions the masters are not fully fa­mil­iar with the har­bours and piers they are en­ter­ing and there­fore, and un­der­stand­ably, are much less likely to berth in poor con­di­tions.

In an of­fice in Gourock, it is prob­a­bly much more im­por­tant to save some money by shift­ing crew around routes than hav­ing con­ti­nu­ity of cap­taincy. When de­cid­ing whether to at­tempt berthing at Ari­nagour in a southerly force eight, ex­pe­ri­ence of the ves­sel, the pier and of the ap­proach is para­mount and should be pri­or­ity.

A very se­nior fig­ure in the UK ship­ping in­dus­try high­lighted to me the lack of ex­pe­ri­enced mas­ter mariners in the up­per man­age­ment of CalMac as a ma­jor is­sue and con­trib­u­tor to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. Like me, he has the ut­most re­spect for the cap­tains and crew of CalMac, but he thinks its de­ci­sion-mak­ing abil­i­ties are be­ing ham­pered by the lack of ex­pe­ri­enced on-shore back-up at board­room level.

This sit­u­a­tion can­not con­tinue. There are mil­lions of pounds be­ing lost an­nu­ally due to this plunge in ser­vice and, if un­changed, it will dev­as­tate the fu­ture of our frag­ile is­land economies.

Safety, of course, must be para­mount, and hap­pily CalMac, as widely ac­knowl­edged, has a safety-record sec­ond to none (stretch­ing back well be­yond the present over- cau­tious cli­mate) but if the ships that are serv­ing th­ese routes can­not berth as fre­quently as is the cur­rent case, then the ves­sels and/or the piers must be changed or up­graded to make them fit for use.

Since the time when the Cale­do­nian Steam Packet Com­pany and David MacBrayne merged, CalMac has suc­cess­fully con­tin­ued pro­vid­ing a long-revered and re­spected life­line ser­vice to th­ese is­lands.

This must con­tinue and, if it is to do so, the op­er­a­tions must adapt and im­prove.

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