A life-line service
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.