A Tour Round the CalMac Network and Fleet

The ferry world’s marathon runner: Robin Copland addresses the audience at the start of his whirlwind tour of Clyde and Hebridean network. His talk was simulcast to members worldwide and the video is available further down this page

CRSC began its programme of meetings for the 2022-23 winter at Jurys Inn, Glasgow, with the traditional President’s Address. In the event, there was nothing ‘traditional’ about it. The ebullient, exuberant Robin Copland, who will occupy the Club’s hot seat for the next two years, took us on a madcap, whizz-bang ferry chase, undertaken in May (mostly on his own), in which he notched up more CalMac ships, piers, slipways and agonisingly early starts in eight days than most of us manage in a year.

Andrew Anderson, Robin’s immediate predecessor as President, sums up Robin’s account of what must surely go down as one of the most exhaustive and exciting ‘adventures of the year’.

Further down the page, you can click on our video of the talk, and we also print the tribute which Lawrence Macduff paid to the late Captain Sandy Ferguson at the start of the 12 October meeting.

Robin stressed the importance of meticulous planning when undertaking such an ambitious tour schedule. Click on image to enlarge

Robin Copland’s opening remarks set the tone for what was to follow in his President’s Address, writes Andrew Anderson. His objective — no mean feat — was to sail on each and every vessel of the current CalMac fleet. It came as little surprise, then, when the subtitle to his endeavours was revealed as ‘Away with the Ferries (on Steroids)’!

The show began with a detailed run-through of all the planning of timetables, routes, accommodation and fine-tuning required to reach his objective within just over a week’s scheduled holiday. The CalMac route-map was regularly displayed as the evening unfolded, dissected into bite-size pieces to give the audience a real sense of the challenge.

From Day 1, commencing at Ullapool and working south to Day 8 on the Firth of Clyde, we ticked off Loch Seaforth (largest), Carvoria (smallest) and, give or take a few, everything in between.

The sailings ran from Oban to the Outer Hebrides and return (longest) to Rhubodach-Colintraive (shortest) — all recalled in our new President’s inimitably jocular and entertaining style. Robin’s fluent spoken delivery was matched by his superb sequence of images and even some video clips, including one memorable sequence showing Loch Portain swishing past the camera on her way to the Sound of Harris ferry’s overnight berth at Otternish.

(Cal)Mac Cheese: Robin enjoyed a square meal on ‘Heb Isles’ en route from Oban to Colonsay. Click on image to enlarge. But even on smaller ferries with no catering facilities, he had a rare good time. His trip to Raasay on Hallaig, for example, was rewarded by a memorable lemon slice and cup of tea at Raasay House, with a view towards the ferry slip and the Cuillins beyond. See video below for further images

At the same time we learned of hiccups on the planning front, touched upon CalMac gastronomic delights (yes, superb macaroni cheese) and empathised over missed breakfasts at ‘stupid o’clock’.

But had we forgotten something? Yes, Day 9 was revealed as a surprise return to Oban to bag MV Clansman, renowned workhorse of the fleet, on her return voyage to Coll and Tiree.

In summary, Robin achieved:
1,069 miles (driven)
8 nights away
30 CalMac vessels sailed on
44 voyages (pier to pier)
51 piers/slipways

Somebody, please calculate the nautical miles!

The very few ‘failures’ — all caused by last-minute changes to the CalMac schedule — were the missed sailings on Caledonian Isles, Coruisk, Loch Nevis and Loch Buie.

Robin’s tour was a remarkable achievement.

When he plans his next itinerary (hopefully a little less challenging — maybe a couple of days of hopping round the network?), I’m going to ask if I can join him.

When you open the video below, please make use of the ‘full screen’ version by clicking the small box in the bottom righthand corner. Thanks to Robert Newth for the live broadcast, and to John Newth for recording and editing the video. You will find a small selection of Robin’s camera shots at the foot of the page, beneath Lawrence Macduff’s tribute to the late Captain Sandy Ferguson. 

Before Robin’s presentation, Lawrence Macduff paid tribute to Captain A. B. (Sandy) Ferguson (1938-2022), who died on 23 September after a distinguished career with Western Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd.

Sandy was born in Greenock in July 1938. When war broke out in September the following year, his father was called up to serve in the RAF, and his mother felt that the family would be altogether safer at Carradale where they had relatives. As a child on the Kintyre coast, Sandy developed an affection for the sea in general and fishing in particular. After hostilities ended, the family returned to Gourock, but continued to enjoy many holidays in Carradale.

When Sandy left Greenock High at the age of 15, he had no qualifications, but was keen to become a herring fisherman working out of Carradale. His parents were less than enthusiastic because of the uncertain nature of this industry, but Sandy had his eyes on a career at sea, and the rest is history.

Following training as a navigation cadet at James Watt College, Sandy began his maritime career in 1954 — initially on ocean-going ships, gaining valuable experience and progressively obtaining his certifications. In 1963, two years after joining Denholms, he secured his master’s certificate at the remarkably young age of 25.

By 1967, now married to Rita and with a young family, Sandy understandably wished to find work closer to home. Having answered a Greenock Telegraph advert, he joined the newly created Western Ferries (Argyll) Ltd in the capacity of mate, quickly advancing to become senior master.

In 1973, the newly formed Caledonian MacBrayne was looking for qualified officers with ro-ro ferry experience. Sandy, having just the background required, was signed on as mate, and quickly became master. Over the next 17 years he served on many of the company’s ferries. Promoted to Assistant Marine Superintendent in 1990, he became Marine Super three years later and retained this position until retiral in 1998.

Sandy’s career in the ferry industry is told in fascinating, often graphic detail in his wonderful book From Burma to Barra (Ardminish Press, 2008). It is now out of print, but Sandy’s family hope to have the title digitised. To the best of my knowledge, only one other CalMac master, Captain Robin Hutchison, has written of his experiences with west coast ferries — another highly readable book.

Having had family homes in Kintyre, firstly at Tayinloan and latterly at Tarbert, Sandy and Rita moved to Dunoon in 1980, a better location for their two sons’ further education and more conveniently situated for access to Gourock HQ and other parts of the CalMac network.

As fellow residents of Dunoon, my partner and I came to know the Ferguson family in the mid 2000s, and were able to attend Sandy’s funeral service in Greenock on 6 October. Everyone present — notably his widow, all his family, together with many retired CalMac masters, colleagues and friends —  was able to honour the memory of a true professional, who will be much missed.


Ullapool was Robin’s starting point: Hebridean Princess viewed from Loch Seaforth

Loch Seaforth heads out into the Minch from Stornoway

Hebrides approaching Tarbert (Harris)

Loch Portain heading for her overnight berth at Otternish

Hallaig en route to Raasay

Loch Fyne at Armadale

Loch Fyne in the Sound of Sleat

Loch Bhrusda at Mallaig

Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale

Will someone please remove those trees?!

Lochinvar leaves Lochaline

Seen but not sailed on: Coruisk was one of only four CalMac ferries that eluded Robin’s grasp on his eight-day tour

Vehicle deck on Catriona, midway between Claonaig and Lochranza

CalMac signage in English and Gaelic

Argyle mid-firth, with the island of Bute in the background and Wee Cumbrae on the left

Farewell to Tiree: Clansman on the final day of Robin’s CalMac-athon

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Published on 20 October 2022