Oban’s NLB star bows out after 35 years

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Hurricanes in the Caribbean, North Sea oil rigs in winter and spring time in Oban with the buoys and gulls – Captain Eric Smith has spent a life on the ocean wave.

But after 47 years at sea – 35 of them with the Northern Lighthouse Board and 30 based out of the Gallanach Road depot – the Master of the NLV Pole Star is now ‘swallowing the anchor’ as they say in maritime circles.

Eric, 62, officially retires on April 1 but due to the month-on, month off rota, his final day arrived on March 4, 2021. His last trip with the 15-crew was to a broken buoy off Barra.

It brings to an end three decades with the NLB covering a vast territory from the Isle of Man to all of Scotland’s rugged coast and islands – tending navigation buoys, lighthouses and oil rigs.

OIL’S well that ends well: The NLV Pole Star attending rigs off Cromarty © Stuart Nicol Photography.

There was no pub party to send him off due to Covid, so Eric toasted his retirement on Zoom with family across Scotland, having shut cabin door 01 for the last time.

Standing at the dockside and nodding towards the Pole Star, Eric said: ‘Half the year that’s been my home. Six months of the year. It’s a very different kind of lifestyle and you’re very quick to find out whether that’s for you or not.

‘I’ll be 63 in a couple of weeks time and when I look back I will think of all the people I’ve met – seafarers. They’re a family. But you know yourself when that is it and you’ve done enough.’

Yet as a young lad hailing from the Isle of Lewis, Eric had his heart set on terra firma.

‘Working at sea was never really at the forefront. What I had a notion for was to become a policeman.’

But with the bobbies of yesteryear insisting on loftier candidates, it wasn’t meant to be.

Not that Eric has looked back. With a keen interest in navigation, he sat it at O-level and was spellbound by the Stornoway teachers; all former seafaring men.

BUOY OH BUOY: Crew members at work on the NLV Pole Star © Stuart Nicol Photography.

Friday September 13, 1974, was lucky for Eric. He joined his maiden voyage The Chemical Explorer in Rotterdam – bound for the Gulf of Mexico and calling at jumping American ports such as New Orleans.

Suntanned and with brass in pocket, 16-year-old Eric knew he had made the right choice. With no internet then or mobiles phones, if you wanted to stay in touch you wrote a letter home.

Eric served 12 years deep sea – travelling to New Zealand, Japan, India, South Africa, South America, North America and Europe, not to mention Pacific islands.

SEA ME: The Northern Lighthouse Board go about the day job

Redundancy in 1986 took him to the NLB at Stromness on the old Pole Star. Then a transfer to Oban in 1991 at the age of 33 saw him join the MV Fingal.

Now a luxury floating hotel in Leith, Fingal’s memory lives onboard the Pole Star with a tender named in its honour.

Eric has also captained the NLV Pharos – named after the historic lighthouse in ancient Egypt. Eric’s daughter Caroline Smith works for CalMac.

But from now on for Eric, it’ll be more time on the fairways than the sea lanes.

A Glencruitten member, he’s seen all the world he wants to see and simply plans to spend more time visiting Lewis.

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Eric remembers the original Pole Star and Fingal

And with a nod to the coronavirus, Eric quipped: ‘I’m just looking forward to doing anything. We can’t go for a meal, we can’t go for a pint, we can’t go for a cup of coffee!’

Mike Bullock, chief executive of the NLB said Eric had been a key member of the team, contributing to the safety of mariners throughout Scottish and Manx waters.

‘His encouragement and mentoring of cadets starting their careers at sea leaves an important lasting legacy,’ said Mr Bullock.

‘As does documenting his work on TV in the Gaelic language. We will miss him greatly and wish him all the very best for a long and happy retirement.’

IT’S BEEN SWELL: Captain Eric takes a last look around at what has been his home and ‘office’ for years.