SOS – any room for Mull CalMac crew ?

The newly renamed MV Loch Frisa, formerly the MV Utne, in Leith docks before joining CalMac's fleet on the Oban to Craignure route later in 2022.

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CalMac has sent out an SOS to find all-year accommodation for the crew of Mull’s new ferry when she sets sail in June.

With just two months to go before the Mull-based Loch Frisa service starts, the ferry operator is asking the island for help.

Finding homes for workers is Mull’s ‘number one problem’, so CalMac has no other option than to put crew in mobile homes or vans, according to Joe Reade, who is Mull and Iona Ferry Committee’s (MIFC) chairman.

‘It’s a pretty tall ask at this late stage. Accommodation is Mull’s number one problem. We’ll do our best to help, but I think they will end up bringing in mobile accommodation for them,’ said Mr Reade, who flagged up CalMac’s plea for help at last week’s community council meeting.

Between 30 and 40 crew members are needed and CalMac is asking for living space for 14 workers – unlike the MV Isle of Mull, the Loch Frisa does not have live-aboard crew accommodation.

In September CalMac launched a search for workers already living on the island but it seems there were not enough takers locally for the jobs.

‘They are in a difficult situation. When we first heard about Loch Frisa we did offer to help them find accommodation for crew because we knew it would be difficult, but I think they decided to see how many staff they could recruit from Mull first – it looks as though they were 14 short.

‘If we’d been getting a new boat it would have taken years to build so they would’ve had years to plan accommodation. Buy a second-hand boat and you don’t get that time.’

A CalMac spokesperson said: ‘CalMac is working with the community by currently assessing options for the provision of accommodation for crew. Once all options have been assessed, the outputs will be shared.’

Mull and Iona Ferry Committee is putting a survey online to test out feelings on a ticketing system model from Denmark that could help guarantee spaces for islanders. If it gets the islands’ support, MIFC will push for it.

The island-proofed idea comes from the  island of Samsø, a similar size to Mull with similar competition for ferry tickets between locals and visitors during the summer months, Mr Reade told community councillors. Unlike Mull, they have a different method of allocating car deck space.

This summer CalMac is due to bring in a new IT ticket system but islanders say running it on a ‘first come, first served’ booking basis is prejudiced against them.

The ferry service in Samsø operates a two-ticket system – one for locals and other regular users like commuters and delivery drivers and then another for visitors.

When regulars present a green ID card they can buy a ticket from the local allocation for that sailing and the ferry company keep records on a sailing-by-sailing basis of how many car spaces are used by green card holders to help predict how many need to be saved for future sailings. If a regular turns up and no spaces are left – a visitor, or one of the trailers the ferry carries, is moved to the next sailing.

Although it seems a ‘slamdunk’ solution for Mull and Iona, the meeting did acknowledge some tourists and holiday property owners might not be so enthusiastic.

The thought of being ‘bumped-off’ from one sailing to another could be off-putting and possibly deter some people from visiting.

MIFC is still waiting for a response from Scottish Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth and Islands Minister Mairi Gougeon after calling for an Island Community Impact Assessment (ICIA) to be carried out that would help shape a fairer, more equal booking system for islanders.

In a MIFC statement Mr Reade said: ‘We think Samsø has the best example we have found yet of a fair ticketing system tailored to our unique circumstances as the Islands Act requires.’

A Scottish government spokesperson said: ‘Scottish Ministers understand the impact of capacity constraints on islanders and appreciate the suggestion of some level of prioritisation.

‘There are, however, differing views on the way to achieve this and we are mindful of wider implications for island businesses by restricting availability of tickets for freight and tourists.

‘It is clear that we need a ferry service that meets the needs of island communities.

‘CalMac Ferries Limited and Transport Scotland are looking at potential short term measures that could be introduced to help alleviate the current capacity challenges.

‘A recent example of this is the change to motorhome fares and standby arrangements, which were key requests from the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee.  We remain committed to continue to working with stakeholders on these issues.’