Catamaran could calm Mull’s ferry storm, islanders claim

MV Isle of Mull is more than 30 years old.

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Islanders on Mull and Iona are calling for the purchase of a second-hand catamaran to save the troubled Craignure to Oban ferry route from breaking point.

Community groups, businesses and islanders have called on the Scottish Government and CMAL, the quango responsible for CalMac’s ferry fleet, to stop ‘dithering’ and buy the environmentally-friendly catamaran they have found for sale before someone else snaps it up.

Time is ticking on the ‘generous’ deal being offered by the catamaran’s designers and sellers who are ex-pat Scots and are waiting for commitment from Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse so that they can go ahead with the design of modifications to satisfy UK authorities.

Similar to one owned by Pentland Ferries operating to and from Orkney with a reputation of having low-running costs and being eco-friendly, the catamaran is available for just a fraction of the price of any ferry recently bought by CMAL, says Mull & Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC) after an analysis of passengers levels in 2018/19 raised concerns that ferries on all major routes in Scotland are already currently too large for the number of passengers and are are overstaffed.

MIFC made the supported call for the catamaran’s purchase in a letter to Mr Wheelhouse.

The letter asks him to make a firm and early decision to buy the catamaran, pointing out they are only asking him to keep a promise repeated many times that if a suitable ferry could be found on the used market, CMAL would be instructed to buy it.

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell has also given his backing to the purchase of the catamaran on the market for around 10 per cent of the £110 million being paid for each of the half finished dual-fuel ferries being built in Port Glasgow.

MIFC says CalMac’s ferry fleet is stretched to breaking point, with breakdowns and congestion increasing every year. It adds the ‘dire situation’ is being accelerated by the ‘fiasco at Ferguson’s’ and the five-year delay on hulls 801 and 802.

MIFC chairman Joe Reade said CMAL had an excellent and immediate opportunity right now to bring a much-needed new vessel into the fleet satisfying a task set by the Scottish Government to buy from the used market as soon as possible.

But he said: ‘Progress has been torturously slow and for some reason they seem unwilling to take this opportunity that could have such a positive impact for our ferry operator and for our islands. This ferry can fit our piers, it can cope with our seas, it can carry all the cars and people necessary – in short, it can do exactly what CalMac and the islands need of it. Despite it being an excellent option, CMAL is in danger of letting the islands down by not acting quickly enough and there is a real risk now this boat will be sold elsewhere as CMAL dithers and delays.’

According to MIFC, the Craignure to Oban ferry route that serves Mull and Iona is the most congested service in the entire CalMac network.

Sandy Brunton, convenor of Mull and Iona Community Trust, said this is now a clear test of whether the needs and views of island communities are being listened to or not.

Finlay MacDonald, MIFC vice chairman, says the ferry they have found is more than suitable for the job and could transform the service to the mainland not only because it would increase capacity but also, because of its size, it would be able to berth
overnight on Mull year round – something the 32-year-old MV Isle of Mull ferry has never been able to do – instead having to retreat to Oban every night.

If purchased, the Mull catamaran would be the first such vessel in the CalMac major
vessel fleet.

Robbie Drummond, Managing Director of CalMac, said: ‘The procurement and build of ferries in Scotland is a matter for CMAL and Transport Scotland, who make the final decisions on the type of vessels built. We will continue to work closely with them to ensure customer and operational requirements are considered.’

A CMAL spokesman said the catamaran in question was built primarily to operate on Pacific Island routes, adding over many months and on several occasions they had asked for full details of how the vessel complies with UK Flag State regulations to secure a passenger certificate.

‘From our investigations, it is clear the vessel would require significant modification to meet the Flag State standards. To date, the seller has been unable to provide assurances on meeting these. Until the standards are met, the vessel remains non-compliant and is not currently a viable option. We will continue to explore all viable solutions in the second hand ferry market, having considered more than 100 candidate ferries throughout 2020.’

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of this vessel and have been engaging with the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee on this matter. CMAL, as the prospective buyer, has been engaging with the vessel sellers. We are keen both parties work together to resolve technical, regulatory and commercial matters and we are following progress closely.’

Capion: MV Isle of Mull is more than 30 years old.