A brand new ferry to pursue

Lawrence Macduff was full of anticipation at seeing Pioneer in service: here is his photo of her funnel during the fitting out process at Leith on 12 May 1974. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Camera in hand, Lawrence Macduff has developed the knack of being in the right place at the right time for much of the past 50 years of west coast shipping history. Here, in the latest of his ‘Confessions of a cameraman’, he follows the debut of Pioneer, one of the most popular ferries of the CalMac era — and recalls a later occasion when she rolled….and rolled.

A brand new ferry to pursue in 1974

At this stage in my enthusiast life I had not seen many brand new ferries enter service, but since the West Highland Steamer Club visit in July 1974 to see the new Islay ferry Pioneer under build at the Robb Caledon shipyard in Leith, I was full of anticipation at seeing her in service.

I had a preview thanks to my colleague in crime, Jim Aikman Smith, who had heard the ship was doing sea trials. Jim, of course, was mobile, so he picked me up somewhere and we headed for Cloch Point to see this low-set, purposeful looking new ferry charging up river. With our cameras clicking furiously, she passed us at a fair clip, and then started to lean to port and then starboard as her stabilisers were tested [see photos below]. We were slightly out of range but it was some sight seeing the great expanse of red underbody as she heeled over to either side. Jim then chased the ship up to Gourock where we filmed her coming in to the link span. Chasing was of course the norm!

When I heard she had entered service before the Glasgow September holiday weekend, I arranged b&b and took the Western SMT connection down to West Loch Tarbert on Friday 27th September. The clear night augured well for a fine day to follow and so it proved. West Coast’s Campbeltown-bound coach dropped me off at Kennacraig in plenty of time for Pioneer’s scheduled passing, and in due course the little ship appeared, creating the most stunning bow wave I had to date seen on any ship. Her bow wash appeared to be heading up her hawse pipes, while beside her stern quarters her tail wake looked as though it was high enough to flow into her car deck freeing ports – a self sinking ship in the making!

I was in the right place at the right time, so there was no beach scramble (as there would be many a time on subsequent visits), but it was the usual push to get a series of pictures taken with my Galaxy 300mm telephoto lens before spinning it off and substituting my 135mm lens for more broadside views. What a wonderful invention variable focal length zoom lenses have become!

‘One of my trademark photos’: Pioneer advancing up West Loch Tarbert on 28 September 1974. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

It was quite satisfying later in life to find that my striking telephoto picture of Pioneer, tearing up the West Loch with her famous bow wave, was to become one of my trademark pictures.

All I had to do now was sit in the sun, listen to nature all around and await the return of Pioneer later on and effectively repeat the process. West Coast Motors’ little 24-seater returned me to Tarbert where I stayed overnight. The next big mission was to catch Pioneer again at full speed, this time from the shore near Corran Point. The local Tarbert-Campbeltown bus provided the link, and after a longer walk, I found myself on the shore in another excellent vantage point, where Islay and Jura could be identified as a suitable background to the image.

Sadly, the sun ‘did a Jim Aikman Smith’ and died on me just as the ship was coming into range on her outbound voyage: it was one of Jim’s regular laments, with which I had every sympathy, that the minute a boat was within sight, a little black cloud materialised out of nowhere.

Midsummer soaking in Skye in 1979

My favourite Pioneer had now taken up duty as Mallaig-Armadale ferry and so, during my usual summer break, I headed north in the sort of dreich weather that invariably accompanied the Glasgow Fair, took a b&b room at the Anchorage in Mallaig and had my first trip of the year over the sea to Skye.

It was a day that would have suited the month of November. With wind and sea running in the Sound of Sleat (probably well named, off season), the conditions were anything but suited for photography. But I wasn’t for leaving empty-handed. I noticed that Pioneer’s stabilisers were in use on the crossing, and though the swell was southerly, there wasn’t that much movement.   

‘She started to list to starboard as the swell took her’: Pioneer approaching Armadale on 21 June 1979. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

The rain came and went as I landed in Armadale. I sheltered in the pier waiting room, saw Pioneer leave and then awaited her return. Cursing my luck on this, the longest day of summer daylight in the calendar, I decided to risk negotiating a seaweed-strewn slippery beach to reach a rocky promontory from which I thought I might get some zoomed pictures of the ship forging her way towards Armadale pier. It was all I could do to keep on my feet, with golf umbrella in one hand and heavy camera bag in the other, but I managed to avoid a disaster.

There had in fact been a catalyst for this mad venture, as the previous year I had been on the same beach in slightly better weather to see the former Clyde ferry Bute come in. She had rolled a little on approach, but the mountain background was one other big appeal. So, finally set up, the wind whipping the umbrella and the rain coming down, I managed to get the camera focused on the ship. Despite everything, I was steady enough, and started to shoot as the ship neared my range.

She then started to list to starboard as the swell took her, and kept going…. and going, showing acres of underbody, before rolling back to port. I was concentrating so hard on keeping the umbrella up, the camera dry and remaining on my feet, that it didn’t really register on me what was happening. After two or three roll sequences, she stabilised as she approached the pier and I realised that her Master would have retracted her stabilisers on approach, and wind and sea had done the rest. It was clearly shallower in the vicinity of the pier than I had ever realised.

This became another photograph that was a trademark just because of the circumstances. Occasionally, being a ‘madasafish’ photographer pays off.

Pioneer off Cloch Point on stability trials on 11 August 1974. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

‘She then started to lean to starboard as her stabilisers were tested’: Pioneer off the Cloch on 11 August 1974, with Maid of Cumbrae berthing at Dunoon Pier in the background. Copyright Lawrence Macduff

‘…..and then to port…..’ Copyright Lawrence Macduff

Boating with a Box Brownie
Remembering Jim Aikman Smith
Three Lochs Tour: Loch Shiel, Loch Boisdale and Loch Snizort
Kerrera, bank keys and the ‘King George’
A fitting introduction to the Kingdom of MacBrayne
Golden memories of the Inner Islands mail
‘Hielan Mary gets all the best steamer views!’
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Published on 28 September 2018