Mark Nicolson extols the pleasures of a sun-soaked return trip from Barra to the mainland.
I made my first visit to Barra in early May 2017. My purpose was to sail on my favourite CalMac ship for what turned out to be an unforgettable return trip, spread across two days, on the longest route served by the company — unless you count Clansman’s popular weekly round trip from Oban to Barra via Coll and Tiree. You might ask why on earth anyone would wish to spend nearly five hours on a boat. Well, my answer would be “to enjoy, and make the most of the experience, especially if the weather is to your advantage”.
Isle of Lewis has been serving Oban and Castlebay since March 2016. In that time she has gone through many peaks and troughs, contending with a more tempestuous stretch of sea than even her original home waters of the North Minch. Barra is a much smaller island than Lewis, and she has suffered very few complaints, despite sometimes having to change her timetable to sail either ahead of or before storms. I count myself lucky to have sailed on her on two of the best days of weather so far this year.
It was an early Monday morning, after spending a night in Castlebay, that I lined up ready to board the ‘Lewis’ for her 0755 departure to Oban. This was my first sailing on her since July 2015, and my first since she was modified during her overhaul in 2016, when her life raft equipment was relocated behind the funnels to make room for new MES-style equipment, which, in my opinion, has had a detrimental effect on her fine appearance.
We departed five minutes ahead of time and were soon riding the waves from a strong wind the day before in the Sea of the Hebrides. There was nothing much to see for the first two hours or so, the hills of Barra disappearing behind us as we headed for the Sound of Mull, where we were blessed with magnificent scenery on both sides. As we made our way serenely towards the mainland, we passed various vessels — Hebridean Princess, Loch Tarbert, Lochinvar, Coruisk and Isle of Mull — before reaching Oban, haven for all CalMac ‘buffs’, just ahead of the scheduled arrival time of 1240.
I spent the next 24 hours taking as many photographs as possible, before joining the queue, roughly 24 hours after my arrival in Oban, for the 1330 return sailing to Castlebay.
We left 15 minutes late, and our departure from Oban Bay was further delayed by having to give way to Clansman, arriving on the 1140 from Colonsay, prior to her 1500 run to Coll and Tiree. With Hebridean Princess and Raasay berthed, and Coruisk and Loch Striven following close behind us, I managed to capture all five different generations of CalMac vessels together – a rare treat! The sun was out in full for the second day in succession.
Leaving the Sound of Mull far behind, I had fish and chips for tea in the Mariners Restaurant: the revamped fleet-wide menu did not seem much different to me, aside from a hike in prices. Isle of Lewis’s spaciousness showed extremely well, as it always has — despite this not being a busy voyage. Passengers scrambled to the observation lounge as word came over the P.A. system of a large whale and dolphins in our path, meaning the vessel had to reduce speed for a few moments.
We finally approached Castlebay, having managed to catch up on some of the delay at Oban, so that when we drew alongside at 1825, we were only 10 minutes late. I took some scenic photographs of our arrival before returning to the car deck and then, after disembarking, photographed the good old lady herself alongside the pier at Castlebay.
The downside of Isle of Lewis’s new career is that Castlebay is really the only place she can serve out of Oban, as she is too large and with too deep a draught to berth at piers such as Lochboisdale, Coll, Tiree and Colonsay, where she could be useful in providing emergency/extra sailings. She did, however, recently divert to Craignure to collect a large load, with her new-style bow ramp helping a great deal. It will be interesting to see what her post-Barra career will bring.
In conclusion, might this be one of the most enjoyable CalMac sailings I’ve done so far in my life? I would say so, although it would be difficult to trump my sailing on her from Uig to Lochmaddy in April 2015. Although she is now 22 years of age, Isle of Lewis’ career is certainly not done yet. Every strength to her stabiliser fins!
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