Different ships, different places, different faces: Colin Tucker celebrates the unexpected variety on offer to anyone with long or regular experience of sailings to Lewis and Harris.
Over the past 50 or so years I reckon I have crossed the Minch more than 2,000 times. Most of these crossings have been on the ships which regularly performed the run. From Mallaig and Kyle this was the ‘old’ Loch Seaforth and Iona; and after the mainland port was changed to Ullapool, on the extended Clansman and Isle of Lewis. Between Uig and Tarbert I had crossed many times on the 1964 Hebrides, and on her successors Hebridean Isles and the present Hebrides. Now that I am resident on the island, crossing to Ullapool is a regular experience, and sailing from Tarbert happens almost as often. Isle of Lewis, the ‘new’ Loch Seaforth and Hebrides are as familiar as old friends, and I easily become engrossed in a good book in a corner of the observation lounge for a couple of hours on a crossing, although the scenery of mountains, islands, sunrises and sunsets never fails to enchant.
But over the last few years there have been a surprising number of occasions when my journey to or from the mainland has not been on one of the regular ferries. This can be accounted for in three ways. There are the times when the annual overhaul becomes due, and all of a sudden Loch Seaforth is no longer lying alongside Number 3 quay, and speculation grows as to which ship will be on the run for the next couple of weeks. A second reason for a different ship relates to the occasions which seemed to become more frequent as Isle of Lewis grew in age and seeming unreliability, and a relief ship had to be obtained in a hurry. While these two factors were beyond my control, the third reason for sailing on a different ship was on the rare occasions when I found I could make a crossing of a different nature, a different day out. There are also times when ships are to be seen in different places, or in unusual company. These form the ‘variations’ on my theme of ‘Crossing the Minch’.
Thus, in the course of routine trips to and from the mainland I have now crossed to or from Stornoway on Hebrides and Clansman in the course of their normal relieving duties, and on Isle of Arran and Hebridean Isles when they were rushed (if these vessels can so do!) to Stornoway to save a breakdown-stricken Isle of Lewis. Between Tarbert and Uig I have now sailed on Clansman and Finlaggan, on the latter returning home on a Sunday and thereby gaining a longer voyage by nature of sailing via Lochmaddy. On another occasion when Isle of Lewis was incapacitated, we decided to go via Tarbert. So too did a coach-load of stranded passengers. The crew of Hebrides clearly did not know they were arriving, for the ferry set off with the coach in sight of the pier. Having just completed her 180-degree turn in the loch, Hebrides obligingly returned to pick them up. Thus I was on board on possibly the only occasion when she berthed facing outwards at Tarbert. Such excitement!
Two other occasions involved not being on board the ferries. On the day the Red Arrows came to celebrate a Port Authority anniversary, I had a splendid pierhead view from the end of Number 3 quay, watching them perform their antics above Isle of Lewis. The second occasion was the time I was able to look down on the passing Loch Seaforth from the 12th deck of the cruise ship The World, anchored just outside Arnish – far from the usual view of her. Shortly afterwards I had a seal’s eye view of the ferry as we returned to the ferry terminal on one of The World’s tenders.
The arrival of Loch Seaforth in 2015 brought a whole new set of variations. There was the hectic drive to Tiumpan Head to catch a first glimpse of her on her way down the Minch en route to the Clyde. There was the excitement of the day the ‘new ferry’ was finally going to arrive at Stornoway; the streets of the town were at gridlock as everyone came out to watch her sweep past Arnish light, make a couple of rounds of the harbour and then head off again. Later I gained a sneak tour round the ship when she was moored at Arnish.
Shortly after that I made my first crossing on her from Ullapool – we had thought it was to be Isle of Lewis, but as that ship had hastened off to dry-dock at Birkenhead, we were able to sample the delights of ‘our’ new ferry.
Later in the summer pressure of traffic on the Ullapool route prompted CalMac to introduce extra weekend sailings. Thus it became possible, as I crossed on Loch Seaforth, to watch Isle of Lewis approaching and then passing mid-Minch. It was not often that I had seen her at speed. Then came the necessity of closing the linkspan at Ullapool. This firstly coincided with a trip to the mainland, crossing to Ullapool on a passenger-only sailing. I think there were no more than a dozen other passengers – it was as if I was sailing on a private yacht.
With Ullapool closed to vehicular traffic came the introduction of the sailings between Stornoway and Uig, a journey which had to be made! On studying the varying schedule of Isle of Lewis, drawn up on account of her deep draught and tidal conditions, I worked out I could make a triangular journey – firstly by bus to Tarbert, then on Hebrides to Uig, where there would be time to watch the latter departing and Isle of Lewis arriving, and then returning home on the latter ferry.
This made for an excellent day out, especially the novelty of the last leg, when there were completely new views of the north end of Skye, the Shiant Islands and the east coast of Harris and Lewis. Being close to the Shiants and the Lewis coast brought back memories of sailing on the old Loch Seaforth, whose route from Kyle took her closer to these areas.
I must have praised the enjoyment of the day out to such an extent that my wife decided she would like to go to Uig and back. So just three days later we boarded Isle of Lewis and made the round trip to Uig. It was another most enjoyable trip, the only minor disappointment being that with the wind still blowing from the same direction we again passed to the east of the Shiants; I had heard that the previous day the ship stayed closer to the Harris shore, which would have been that little bit different – another variation.
When the 2015-16 winter timetable appeared it did not take me long to discover the changes in the Tarbert and Lochmaddy sailings – two ships on the run! It did not take me long either to work out that on certain days it was possible to sail directly from Tarbert to Lochmaddy, catch a bus to Berneray and return via the Sound of Harris. Another day out had been hatched. By leaving the trip until as late as possible in February, I thought the daylight would start that little bit earlier and the weather might be kinder. I got the first bit correct, but driving between Stornoway and Tarbert I ran into a whiteout going over the Clisham. With speed reduced I reached Tarbert to watch ropes being cast off and Isle of Arran backing out of the pier. Nothing daunted, I made an even earlier start two days later, ensuring I was at Tarbert well before the 0700 sailing time.
If I was expecting a quiet boat then I was correct in my assumption. But little did I guess there would be no fewer than two other CRSC members on board. As can be imagined there was plenty of chat over breakfast in the saloon, although as the other two were both engineers much of the conversation passed me by. It did give me the chance to look at the rugged Harris coastline, and to reflect this was in a way a celebratory trip, for it was exactly 50 years since I had first sailed between the two ports on the 1964 Hebrides. The return leg of the trip was also a variation, for Loch Portain was away for overhaul and the crossing was made on her predecessor, Loch Bhrusda – different, but definitely not so comfortable.
Thus, although I live at the extremity of the CalMac network, there is variety to be found on my local routes. On my most recent crossing to Ullapool we left Stornoway dwarfed by the Cunard cruise liner Queen Elizabeth at anchor outside Arnish light, her red and black funnel a reminder of the old link between Cunard and David MacBrayne — another variation.
What will be next? My thoughts are turning to Lochboisdale to Mallaig – it would be a two-day trip on four ships. Perhaps I can fit it into my diary, add Lord of the Isles to the list of ‘Minch ships’, and make yet one more variation to my theme.
Click here to buy Colin Tucker’s book ‘Steamers to Stornoway’ from CRSC Shop at a special discount to the recommended retail price.
COLIN TUCKER’S ‘MINCH SHIPS’
To join CRSC and share your shipping interest with like-minded people, click here.