Long accustomed to crossing the Minch on Isle of Lewis between Stornoway and Ullapool, Mark Nicolson recalls the first time he sailed on her from Uig to Lochmaddy.
Friday 3 April 2015 was a special day for me. It was the day I discovered that Isle of Lewis — demoted to the status of ‘spare ship’ and back-up to her Stornoway replacement, Loch Seaforth — was to provide a specially advertised sailing from Uig to Lochmaddy. Not only did I receive advance information of the sailing, I was asked if I would like to go along as a special guest. As an enthusiast of Caledonian MacBrayne ferries and one of Isle of Lewis’s greatest admirers, I jumped at this opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at how CalMac manages unusual movements.
A brief history first, though. Isle of Lewis was launched on 18 April 1995 at Ferguson’s of Port Glasgow. Her association with the Uig triangle began on her delivery voyage from the Clyde to Stornoway prior to replacing Suilven: on July 27 she carried out berthing trials at Uig, Lochmaddy and Tarbert, just in case she was ever called upon to assist or cover in any form of emergency.
On that occasion, at Uig and Tarbert she tested her bow ramp only, but at Lochmaddy, which had a similar layout to Ullapool, she successfully tested both ramps.
In the spring of 1998 she returned to Lochmaddy to transport Ministry of Defence vehicles by way of two chartered sailings — infamously breaking down on the first, which put her out of action for four weeks.
The only other visit before 2015 included transporting freight traffic from Uig in November 2008 whilst the Ullapool linkspan underwent maintenance, and because the freight ship — Pentalina B, covering the overhaul of Muirneag — was stormbound at Stornoway.
Apparently capable of berthing and landing the correct ramp at the correct port on the triangle, Isle of Lewis seemed to suit the route well. The main thing that has always precluded her from operating a proper service there is lack of suitable depth in all tides, her 4.2m draught being considerably more than the 3.22m of Hebrides, the regular vessel on the run. As a result, whenever Isle of Lewis has been called to provide a service at Uig, it has always been timed in her favour at periods of high enough tide. Her presence on various emergency sailings during the summer of 2015 was greatly appreciated, especially when Hebrides broke down and the larger vessel took charge of the route until she was repaired.
News of the special sailing to Uig and Lochmaddy reached me on the morning it was due to happen, and I could hardly believe my luck. This was one of those extremely rare events that just had to be photographed.
The situation was that Finlaggan, which was covering the Uig triangle whilst Hebrides was away for her annual overhaul, was found to be struggling with the anticipated high capacity of people wishing to visit Uist for the Easter weekend. As the only spare ship available at the time, Isle of Lewis departed from her lay-up berth at Stornoway’s Esplanade berth at 1230 on 3 April 2015 to take the positioning sailing to Uig. The Master on this occasion was Captain Alan Sinclair, covering for Alex Morrison who was on holiday. He took the ship on a relatively leisurely four-hour course down the eastern coast of Lewis past the Shiant Islands, before turning south east off Scalpay to take a straight route towards Uig. The rain and fog that had followed us from Stornoway began to clear as we approached Skye’s main CalMac port.
As the ship approached the pier at 1630, I saw at first hand the challenges in berthing this particular vessel at this particular port. Isle of Lewis’s bow ramp is unusually off-set to starboard, but the way Uig pier is constructed means she must berth to port when bow-in. This means the stern is left hanging off the pierhead at an angle of between four and seven degrees. Overcoming these hurdles demands a high level of seamanship.
Nonetheless, the ramp was successfully lowered, and I exited the ship for five minutes to take some photos. Roughly 70 vehicles had been left over, so Isle of Lewis loaded them and their passengers before leaving Uig just after 1705.
Passage time to Lochmaddy was not much different from that of Hebrides — an hour and 45 minutes. It was nevertheless a strange experience for me, so accustomed to Isle of Lewis at Stornoway and Ullapool, to be travelling on her to different locations for the first time. One unusual thing I noticed was that the gangways were not used: passengers had to walk on and off via the car deck, presumably because it was a one-off sailing, so a gangway was deemed unnecessary.
Having loaded bow-first at Skye, the ship had to berth stern-in at North Uist, which required a 180 degree spin and bow thrusters at full power before reversing straight towards the linkspan, which was perfectly set up for Isle of Lewis’s ‘off-set to port’ stern ramp. However, she had never used her stern ramp at Lochmaddy since her initial visit there in 1995, and so there was a slight delay in lowering the ramp as the linkspan was adjusted according to the tide. Again, I exited the ship for five minutes and captured her berthed at every possible angle within the time I was allowed ashore. The best of 15 minutes was spent unloading traffic, and I’d just made it back onto the car deck when the ramp was raised for the return to Stornoway. Having arrived at Lochmaddy just before 1850, we left at 1915.
Finlaggan passed about a mile away while making her way towards Uist herself, although it was too dull for proper photos of her. The return to Stornoway was uneventful as the light faded. We berthed stern-in on the opposite side of No. 3 pier alongside Loch Seaforth. Heading for home, I felt this was the finest day I’d ever spent aboard Isle of Lewis.
On March 31 Mark Nicolson will give a talk to the West Highland Steamer Club in Glasgow on ‘The Isle of Lewis on tour’.