Eric Smith, Captain Fantastic

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One Oban mariner with decided recollections of the Fingal is Eric Smith, now master of the Northern Lighthouse Board vessel Pole Star.

Eric, a genial native of Lewis who has lived in Oban for more than 30 years, was captain of the Fingal and has very fond memories of his time aboard the ship that is now a luxury floating hotel in Edinburgh.

However, a recent visit threw him somewhat off balance given the wholesale changes to the vessel to transform it from the boat he knew so well into the five-star enterprise it has become.

Eric joined the Fingal first as a mate in 1990 and was made master five years later, serving in that role until 2000, when the ship was sold, and then switching to the new NLV Pole Star. He has also captained the NLV Pharos. These two vessels continue to operate out of Oban, with Eric switching between the two.

‘The Fingal was identical to the Pole Star,’ says Eric. ‘I’d been deep sea before the NLB and I’d never seen an old brass telegraph on a bridge.

‘We went on the Fingal in February last year for a weekend, just after she opened, and I got a look around her. I’d been aboard during the conversion work so the change was fantastic.

‘I walked around it and had difficulty recognising it. I knew where we were in the ship but had trouble visualising it as it had been. I couldn’t get my head round it. What they’ve done in the forward hold [the ballroom or function suite] is incredible.

‘Up on the bridge they had some of the old logs and flicking through these I came across my own name, which felt strange.

‘The Fingal was the first ship where I was master so it sticks in your mind. She had a total crew of 33 or 34, which was quite a lot, but the job on deck was labour intensive.

‘When I started, the rota was eight weeks on and four weeks off – it’s now four and four – but the ship was in port most of the time and it was all locals who were employed.

‘During the summer we used to do what was called storage, going round the lighthouses, because in those days there were still quite a few keepers. We’d anchor off and run boats back and forth with water, diesel and stores, and they’d give us tea and biscuits.’

The NLB is responsible for lighthouses in the waters around Scotland and its islands as well as the Isle of Man, the latter of which prompts a fond memory for Eric. ‘Putting a Land Rover ashore at the Calf of Man lighthouse was quite an adventure.

‘We had to tie two boats together, put planks on top and then lift the Land Rover onto it. We’d then go into the wee landing slip and drive it ashore.

‘Commissioners’ trips were also interesting, when we’d take the commissioners who run the NLB for a two-week cruise as part of their duty to inspect the lighthouses every year, and some of them were real characters.’

Eric continues to serve the NLB but perhaps not for too much longer as he is contemplating hanging up his master’s ticket. However, his family’s maritime connections continue as his daughter Caroline, who also lives in Oban, is at sea with CalMac. ‘She works in catering on the ferries and loves it.

‘I’m in the process of thinking about retiring next year because I’ve been 46 years at sea now. We saw the last of the lighthouse keepers as 1998 was the end for them.’

Asked if he has a favourite lighthouse, Eric is quick to respond: ‘Skerryvore. It’s an amazing lighthouse because of the way it’s constructed and engineered. It couldn’t be done the same way now because of the risks. When you stand underneath it and look up, it’s like an optical illusion: you think it’s going to fall right on top of you.’

It’s National Story Telling Week! From the curves and contours to the deck spaces and beautiful lines, every inch of Fingal has a story to tell. Listen to Captain Eric Smith and Head Lighthouse Keeper, Ian Duff, tell their story about life aboard Fingal during Northern Lighthouse Board service.#nationalstorytellingweek #fingaledinburgh #fingalstories #visitscotland #ycw2020

Posted by Fingal Edinburgh on Monday, 3 February 2020