Isles council calls catamaran to the rescue, as CalMac crash leaves Uists without a ferry

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After the MV Hebrides struck Lochmaddy pier on Wednesday, leaving the Uists without a single CalMac ferry to the mainland, the Western Isles council is urgently calling on the Scottish Government to charter the catamaran MV Pentalina.

‘Due to MV Hebrides making contact with Lochmaddy Pier and to allow for further investigations, all sailings today have been cancelled,’ announced CalMac on Thursday May 19. ‘No alternative route is available via Ullapool-Stornoway today as sailings are fully booked.’

Later that day, it updated: ‘Investigations have found that the vessel needs to be withdrawn from service for a full repair. The vessel will depart Lochmaddy on Thursday May 19 to a dry dock to undergo repairs. All sailings between Uig and Lochmaddy on Friday May 20 have therefore been cancelled.’

With MV Hebrides being withdrawn from service, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar stated: ‘The scenario that islanders have feared for so long in the ongoing ferry crisis that has impacted our lifeline services for at least the last five years has now arrived.

‘The community of Uist is left without a ferry service to the mainland with both MV Hebrides withdrawn from her service to Uig on Skye, and MV Lord of the Isles in Greenock for repairs rather than on her service from Lochboisdale to Mallaig.

‘Islanders have long made clear the need for greater urgency on addressing the need to order new ferries. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar set out a blueprint for the Western Isles ferry service network that should offer the Scottish Government a simple plan to follow.

‘It is for a Western Isles Network made up of six large ferries with two deployed to serve Stornoway and a dedicated ferry on the routes from Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay, plus two smaller ferries to serve the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra.

‘Dedicated ferries will provide greater capacity and frequency in normal times and resilience will improve with the ability to cover any breakdown or dry dock maintenance within this network.

‘The operations and management of this network should be based within the Western Isles and there should be an increased focus on recruiting crew locally.

‘The design is now in place for the two new ferries on order for Islay and this design would seem to offer a good fit for the dedicated ferries needed to Lochmaddy, Tarbert and Castlebay without any departure from that design. It should therefore be possible to quickly order these three ferries. A variant of this design would be appropriated for Lochboisdale.

‘This investment along with the delivery of Hull 802 – which could be retained to serve Lochmaddy or used as second ferry on Stornoway – would allow the Western Isles network to be put in place giving the islands security of connectivity and year round resilience. This could reasonably be achieved within three years.

‘Comhairle nan Eilean Siar does not believe the Western Isles can wait three years or even the two years before 802 is in service to improve summer capacity and are seeking urgent action from the Scottish Government to charter MV Pentalina on a bare boat charter basis with the crew provided by CalMac.

‘The vessel is available on this basis and could be in service this summer. Chartering Pentalina would provide vessel cover in the network for summer 2022 and will allow Lochmaddy to maintain the 10 services a week needed when Uig pier is closed for five months from October.’

The comhairle’s chair of transportation and infrastructure, councillor Uisdean Robertson added: ‘The Scottish ferry crisis is being experienced by islanders every day. It is not a newspaper headline, it is a harsh reality and we need the Scottish Government to take decisive steps to secure the future of the islands their ferry contract is supposed to serve.

‘While our call is for investment in new ferries, this is still jam tomorrow. We need to see urgency and it is time for the Scottish Government to put their money where their mouth is in terms of taking short term action. It is clear finding second hand vessels is difficult but there is one ferry available today that has been tested on a number of routes.

‘Both Transport Scotland and CalMac were happy to see MV Pentalina join the fleet on the basis of a crewed charter from Pentland Ferries so there cannot be any reasonable argument for not chartering this vessel on the basis of it being crewed by CalMac.

‘Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is calling on Scottish Government to stop making excuses and act now by chartering MV Pentalina at least until MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 are in service.’

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘During any disruptions CalMac will prioritise sailings to ensure delivery of essential supplies and export of island products, supporting island and remote economies.

‘A number of redeployment decisions have been taken to ensure lifeline services to the islands continue.

‘Ministers recognise that having confidence in ferry services can impact upon people’s decision on whether to live and work on the islands, and impacts upon the sustainability of the island communities themselves.

‘These human impacts are at the heart of Scottish Ministers’ commitment to continued investment in ferry services across Scotland.

‘We continue to charge CalMac Ferries Ltd and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd with seeking potential second hand tonnage to improve operational resilience on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry routes.

‘The previous charters of MV Arrow and recent purchase of the MV Utne (now MV Loch Frisa) are evidence of this ongoing commitment to improve and support the existing fleet in this way.

‘The MV Pentalina was considered for a possible time charter in 2021, although it was withdrawn from availability by its owner before an agreement was signed.

‘We remain open to exploring a time charter option should this be reconsidered by the vessel owner.

‘In considering any other charter options, which place more risk with the operator, we would of course have to consider condition and suitability of the vessel as well as the terms and affordability of any arrangement.’

CalMac has taken a number of redeployment decisions to ensure lifeline services to the islands are met during this period of disruption.

MV Isle of Arran will move from Ardrossan/Brodick/Campbeltown to the Islay Service after she completes her sailing to Campbeltown this evening (Thursday). This does mean the Campbeltown service will be cancelled until further notice.

The Claonaig – Lochranza service will operate with a second vessel for increased capacity during this time.

MV Hebridean Isles will provide one service tomorrow afternoon (Friday) with food/essential supplies between Oban/Lochboisdale and will then move to the Skye Triangle picking up service from the morning of May 21. Tarbert traffic will be diverted via Stornoway-Ullapool.

MV Loch Seaforth will provide one additional return sailing between Ullapool-Stornoway on Saturday for vehicles and foot passengers. Passenger capacity has also been increased on the overnight freight service on May 19 and May 22.

Additional sailings using MV Loch Allain to provide a link with Castlebay-Oban service (as planned) will start on Saturday morning if needed.