Coll thanks pier master for 50 years’ service

Coll's retired pier master John Wheeler-James.

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Coll has thanked John Wheeler-James for 50 years of service as the island’s pier master.

With Mr Wheeler-James’s retirement the island has lost the last remaining link with times half a century ago when  a casual by-stander could give a hand with a rope as the ferry berthed and passengers walked up a shoogly wooden gangway to buy a ticket on board at the purser’s office, writes Coll’s Kirsty MacFarlane.

‘Bookings as we know them today were unheard of and largely unnecessary.

‘The traffic was mainly local residents, returning Collaich, a few ‘towrists’, freight and livestock.

‘John, a native of Cornwall who married islander Margaret MacLennan, started work on what is still known as the New Pier (although it is over 50 years old) in 1970.

‘He joined his father-in-law, Alec, who would be his working partner until Alec’s retirement in 1982. It was a remarkable team, reliable, professional and helpful.

‘When John and Margaret were away from Coll between 1990 – 98, other fondly-remembered Collaich filled John’s shoes during his absence and maintained the already-established Coll reputation for quick and efficient turn-around times which continues to this day.

‘Two major changes took place in the 1990s: the installation of the ro-ro linkspan and the building of an office in 1996 from which to sell tickets and take bookings.

‘For the latter, a third permanent post was created at the pier and the computer became a part of working life.

‘Memorable sights over his long career include the grounding of the old Loch Seaforth at Coll and a near catastrophe when the then-new MV Clansman’s bridge controls failed and caused her to nearly run aground south of the pier.

‘Probably the largest vessel ever seen at the pier was the barge which assisted in the replacement of the linkspan in 2019.

‘The tightening of health and safety regulations saw the blocking off of the main pier area to those wishing to wave to departing family and friends whilst the complexity of on-line bookings, record-keeping and ship-to-shore communications required training and adaptation.

‘John took it all in his stride and continued to provide the best possible service.

‘Entirely in keeping with the Coll outlook, John toiled away with only one duty colleague until 2015, at which point because of health and safety concerns long expressed by himself, a third person was assigned to be on pier duty because of the ever-increasing weight of the ropes being used by bigger and bigger ships.

‘Throughout all of these changes, John has been a steady hand at the tiller, cheerful in the face of adversity, bad weather and operational changes and a magician as often as possible in terms of achieving transport satisfaction.

‘When asked to look back and assess his career, he takes the greatest pleasure in having safely embarked and disembarked three generations of Collaich at the pier
and to have contributed to the maintenance of our community today.

‘Thank you, John – we wish you a long and happy retirement!’