As Balmoral heads south after a week in the Western Isles, questions may be asked about whether she will ever return.
The sun shone. Visibility was excellent. The ship performed beautifully and everyone went home happy. Job done? So it seemed on Tuesday evening as Balmoral tied up for the night at Oban’s North Pier after a spectacular cruise past Ardnamurchan to Mallaig and back.
The day summed up everything that is good about sailing in the Western Isles — and about Balmoral. The atmosphere on board was convivial, with easy interaction between crew and passengers. The ship handling was impeccable. There was a palpable sense of a ‘steamer’ giving pleasure in time-honoured fashion — an experience repeated on Wednesday’s Iona excursion.
Does this mean Balmoral’s 2017 Oban week was a triumph? Compared to the rest of her season so far, the Western Isles visit — her first since 2012 — was a success of sorts. She came and she delivered, in stark contrast to her activities elsewhere, which have been dogged by misfortune. Her south coast sailings had to be cancelled when bad weather stopped her rounding Land’s End. Her Thames season fell victim to Gravesend’s damaged pontoon. A week on the Bristol Channel was lost to mechanical failure. By the end of June she had notched up only six revenue-earning days.
Then, in the middle of her Oban visit, came news that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had denied Balmoral permission to undertake long-scheduled high-revenue sailings next week between the British mainland and the Isle of Man.
Cue for another of White Funnel Ltd’s perfectly worded, increasingly familiar announcements: “It is with immense regret that….”. Each of these cancellations has been like a hammer blow to Balmoral’s already precarious chances of survival. A 15 per cent loss of sailings had been factored into the season plan but, as Richard Mills, White Funnel Ltd director and Balmoral Fund trustee, has stated, it’s the accumulation of unpredictable setbacks that has made Balmoral’s task so much more difficult.
The fact that, at Oban, the harbour authority assigned the less accessible Lighthouse Pier for her first two days (while a sailing vessel sat centre-stage at the North Pier) seemed to confirm Balmoral’s run of rotten luck. And let’s face the facts: loadings were poor. Apart from the last sailing of her Oban week, to Iona with 90 passengers, she never carried more than 70. The uptake from Glasgow was disappointing, with numbers on the bus varying between nine and 20. As for Oban’s tourist hordes, the response was minimal.
Various reasons can be ventured for this. The business of pleasure cruising was tough enough in the dying days of King George V and Lochnevis, when excursions to the Six Lochs or Loch Sunart struggled for numbers — but today? Unlike yesteryear, tourists have every opportunity to visit the islands on day trips. Most prefer the flexibility of combined land-and-sea trips to nine hours in a confined space. Competition for the tourist penny has hotted up, with all sorts of seal- and whale-spotting trips available in the Oban area. Balmoral is less iconic than Waverley.
But, but…. elsewhere Balmoral’s advance bookings have been a third higher than last year, evidence that it takes time to build a clientele. Whether this goodwill can be carried through to next year is a question White Funnel Ltd’s directors will be pondering hard.
Balmoral sailed north from the Isle of Man on July 5/6, with an overnight stop at Luce Bay on the Mull of Galloway. The scheduled call at Campbeltown was dropped: there was a crewing problem and bookings were negligible. On the approaches to Islay the ship had an enjoyable encounter with Finlaggan, sailing in convoy for a while before the CalMac ferry led the way up the Sound towards Port Askaig.
Balmoral’s opening day at Oban on Friday 7 July featured two short cruises, the second with a ceilidh band, but the total load fell short of 70. By contrast, the visit to Coll on Saturday 8 July had a festive air, thanks to the presence of no fewer than 13 former Waverley crew on board, some working on Balmoral and others sailing for pleasure. The stop at Coll, in bright, breezy conditions, was short and sweet.
But with a freshening southerly and lively seas beyond the Sound of Mull, Captain David Howie sensibly aborted the return sailing round the Ross of Mull, substituting a run up Loch Linnhe past Glensanda as far as Corran Narrows.
The passage up and down the Sound of Mull was enlivened by double encounters with Clansman, Isle of Lewis, Loch Tarbert, Lochinvar and Coruisk, not to mention myriad sailing craft large and small. On her return to Oban Balmoral was finally able to berth at the North Pier.
Sunday 9 July dawned dreich and wet, with Kerrera barely visible beneath low-hanging cloud, but 60 intrepid souls boarded for the sailing to Colonsay, where a handful joined. Despite the rain, the double passage through Corryvreckan brought everyone on deck to observe the turbulent currents, which pushed and pulled Balmoral this way and that. The ship slowed to five knots at one point, then raced back through at 19.
The trip to Tobermory, Ardnamurchan and Loch Sunart on Monday 10 July found Balmoral enjoying better weather but no significant increase in numbers. One of Scotland’s most beautiful lochs was seen to advantage, the voyage running past Salen as far as Ben Resipol.
Tuesday, as already mentioned, hit the jackpot in terms of pleasure. Ardnamurchan was rounded in near ideal conditions and Captain Howie, always calm under pressure, had ample opportunity to display his ship handling skills on Balmoral’s debut at Mallaig, where she was allotted the fishing boat berth at the head of the harbour, with limited room for manoeuvre. Departure for a cruise up the Sound of Sleat was delayed while Lochnevis came in from the Small Isles.
Then, on the return call, Lord of the Isles’ arrival caused another delay — compounded two and a half hours later at Tobermory by a boat blocking the pier, forcing Balmoral into a second approach. But she sprinted back down the Sound of Mull, recovering most of the lost time.
By Wednesday Balmoral’s visibility at Oban was at last paying a dividend. Numbers were up and landing conditions at Iona proved benign — a little consolation for the week’s faltering start. But was it too little, too late? As Balmoral heads south, there must be a reckoning.
Her Oban week gave much pleasure — if not to many, then to the enthusiastic few who saw the imaginative itinerary as a rare opportunity, in the middle of summer, to enjoy a Hebridean playground of islands, Sounds, Narrows and panoramas from the vantage point of a traditional steamer. And yes, with her sleek lines, open decks, quiet engines and overall seaworthiness, Balmoral qualifies as an honorary steamer.
Financially, with a crew of 19 to sustain, the story is one of gloom, despite generous terms offered by most pier authorities on her visit north. Balmoral needs a run of luck — and loadings to match the 288 that boarded at Milford Haven three weeks ago. Can the charity that owns her find the magic formula for survival? By the time Balmoral returns to Scotland for her September weekend on the Clyde, if she returns, we may know the answer.