Renowned for his enthusiasm for the CalMac fleet, Mark Nicolson decided that, for his late summer holiday this year, he would expand his knowledge of one of Scotland’s other ‘lifeline’ ferry networks. Here is his report.
For any ferry enthusiast or tourist seeking a recommendation for holidaying in Scotland, the Orkney archipelago will be close to top of the list. Having thoroughly enjoyed my first visit there in August 2017, I decided to do it again in 2018, aiming to explore more of the ferries that sail to the various islands, as well as those operated to the northern Scottish mainland by NorthLink. This year’s holiday was timed to coincide with the Scottish Open Boat Championship, hosted by the Orkney Islands Sea Angling Association, because my father, a lifelong sea angler, had signed up to participate.
Wednesday 29 August
We left our home in Lewis at an early hour to catch Loch Seaforth’s 0700 departure from Stornoway for Ullapool, arriving there in good time after an uneventful voyage. After the 55-mile drive from one side of Scotland to the other, we indulged in a spot of lunch in Inverness, and then headed up the A9 trunk road via the bridges across the Cromarty and Dornoch Firths and the difficult and twisting Berriedale Braes. It was getting sunnier, and we caught sight of several oil rigs on the North Sea.
Soon we arrived in Thurso, the most northerly town in Britain and gateway to the Orkney islands. At the nearby harbour of Scrabster we awaited the arrival at 1900 of NorthLink’s Hamnavoe, this year celebrating the 15th anniversary of her entry into service. Hamnavoe and her larger fleetmates Hjaltland and Hrossey have design similarities with Isle of Lewis, but boast significant hull shape improvements and bow ‘clam shell’ sliding doors. Sharing the new pier complex with Hamnavoe was the cruise ship Albatross, whose passengers were returning from a day out in Thurso town centre.
Taking a brisk westerly in her stride across the tempestuous Pentland Firth, Hamnavoe arrived in Stromness in good time at 2030. Despite the controversy surrounding the reputation of Serco, the outsourcing company that operates the NorthLink franchise, I detected several improvements over the services operated by CalMac. These include a discount on cafeteria meals using my boarding pass, and a ticketless vehicle check-in system that only requires the customer’s unique booking reference number — a great saving on paper-based ticketing. CalMac could learn some lessons here.
Thursday 30 August
After dropping my father off at the fishing boat in Stromness, my day began with a drive via Kirkwall to St Margaret’s Hope to pay a visit to the ever deteriorating Orcadia (ex-Saturn), which has since seen no service since her sale to Pentland Ferries in 2015, and remains laid up on a sandbank at the pier. Pentalina, on the other hand, made her regular arrival from Gill’s Bay on the mainland. Having travelled on her to Orkney in 2017, I felt she wasn’t the best ship I had ever sailed on, due to her limited on-board facilities and the apparent lack of hull maintenance by her operators. Nonetheless, on this occasion I was happy enough to photograph her arrival at St Margaret’s Hope.
Then it was on to Tingwall jetty to witness the call between 1140 and 1150 of the Orkney Ferries-operated Eynhallow. Built in 1987 at the Abels shipyard in Bristol, this vessel appears at first glance to be a much enhanced version of CalMac’s ‘Island’ class vessels, most of which are now operating in Ireland. Eynhallow is responsible for operating the lifeline services to the islands of Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, providing space for 10 cars and up to 95 passengers. Rather than organise a sailing on her, I was content to take photographs as she reversed out. A brief return to Kirkwall allowed me to capture two cruise ships. Magellan, built in 1985 (and previously named Holiday), lay out in the bay, whilst Fred Olsen’s Balmoral occupied the berth at Hatston pier, used regularly by the NorthLink ferries operating out of Aberdeen to Shetland.
On my return to Stromness, the customary arrival and departure photographs of Hamnavoe were deemed necessary. Her departure on her last return sailing of the day (1645/1900) saw her head out into another brisk westerly, with tide and swell coming in from the Atlantic. Hamnavoe is known to pitch and roll in such conditions, and the captains and crews of NorthLink deserve commendation for their seamanship. My accommodation for my trip was a comfortable apartment on the outskirts of Stromness.
Friday 31 August
The ‘halfway day’ of the holiday began with a sailing on Graemsay, the passenger-only vessel based at Stromness. Built by Ailsa of Troon in 1996, this vessel is operated by Orkney Ferries to North Hoy and the island after which she is named. Very rarely does she carry tourist vehicles, as the outside deck has benches bolted into the floor. Leaving Stromness at 1030 and passing the arriving Hamnavoe, Graemsay took the ever rebellious tide in her stride, her rounded ball-shaped bow creating a smooth path in the water even when rolling with the tide. The round trip to the two islands, using a small jetty at each, lasts up to 45 minutes, meaning we were soon back at Stromness just as Hamnavoe was leaving once again for Scrabster — this time with the full sunshine on her side, yielding some valuable close-up photographs.
It seemed there would be no stopping me as far as ferry journeys went, as I dashed over to Houton for a sail aboard Hoy Head. A 1994 product of Appledore in Devon, she has one curious feature in that her passenger accommodation is situated below the car deck, a set up that would not be allowed in the post-Estonia era of SOLAS regulations. We set off at 1140 for a return voyage to Lyness depot on the south of Hoy. Hoy Head also calls regularly at Flotta island, but this voyage called only at Lyness, which we reached at 1215: a quick run ashore for photos before the return to Houton at 1230. As it was sunny and quite warm, I spent much of the voyage in both directions on the open decks of a vessel that bears some resemblance to the double-ended ‘Loch’ class of CalMac vessels, the main difference being that Hoy Head has a bow visor and twin funnels.
Encouraged by the sunshine, I decided to see which vessels were in at Kirkwall for more photos, and there were plenty to choose from. Five vessels operated by Orkney Ferries are based at Kirkwall: Earl Sigurd, Earl Thorfinn, Varagen, Thorsvoe and Shapinsay. The first three are used on services to the northern Orkney islands of Eday, Stronsay, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay. Shapinsay operates between Kirkwall and Balfour, the main village on the island after which she is named, whilst Thorsvoe is kept as relief and spare vessel for the Shapinsay and Houton-Flotta-Lyness services. I decided to hold over a sail to Shapinsay until the following day, and returned to Stromness well satisfied with my day’s travels.
Saturday 1 September
My last full day on Orkney would prove one of double celebration. It began with a return trip aboard Shapinsay from Kirkwall to Balfour. Again, this vessel resembles an enhanced version of the CalMac ‘Island’ class ferries. She was built in 1989 at Hull and received a major lengthening and refurbishment in 2011. In both directions of my trip Shapinsay was dwarfed by two massive cruise ships — AIDAluna, whose hull bears a long squiggly line in the form of a sea urchin, and Norwegian Jade, which occupied the full length of Hatston pier.
Following closely behind us on the return to Kirkwall was Varagen, inbound from North Ronaldsay. Out of the three ‘large’ vessels that operate from Kirkwall, she is the only one to possess proper lifeboats as well as liferafts. A quick walk round Kirkwall Harbour allowed me to get a close look at each of the ships before heading back to Stromness.
Then it was time for more photographs of Hamnavoe, departing at 1645 and arriving again at 2030. The arrival photos captured much stiller conditions than I had seen over the previous three days: the waters had calmed to such an extent that I successfully attempted long exposure photography after Hamnavoe had berthed.
All this was enough for celebration — but then came the news that my father had won the sea angling competition. This meant a late evening dinner – scrumptious beef – at the presentation and raffle of competition prizes at the Stromness Hotel.
Sunday 2 September
The final day of the holiday saw me checking in for Hamnavoe’s 0900 sailing to Scrabster. The vessel has to turn in a tight space as she reverses out, owing to bow-in berthing at Stromness and stern-in on the mainland. After departure I made a visit to the bridge, where I was welcomed by Captain Ivor Mackay. After passing through Inverness for some shopping and lunch, we reached Ullapool in time to board Loch Seaforth’s 1830 sailing to Stornoway. Sharing the bay was yet another cruise ship, Viking Sun, which cleared the way before Loch Seaforth departed on time in misty rain. The weather improved as we drew closer to Stornoway, and I noticed a large rainbow above the stern as the skies cleared.
Reflecting on those five days of holiday, I can draw satisfaction from having seen a different range of vessels to those I’m used to on the west coast. I could not avoid the feeling that NorthLink provide a better style of service than CalMac. It was equally clear that Orkney Ferries’ fleet, although restricted in their accommodation for longer routes out of Kirkwall, are genuine little fighters and dedicated as ever to their tasks. Having experienced better weather than in 2017, I returned home convinced that the Orkney scenery was second-to-none. My advice is that if you have not yet made it to Orkney – ferry enthusiast or not – do so whenever you can.
All photographs are Copyright Mark Nicolson
See also: Mark Nicolson’s Hebridean holiday diary
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Published on 12 September 2018