At our CRSC meeting on Wednesday 8 February 2017 Ken Charleson, Managing Director of Hebridean Island Cruises Ltd, offered us a fascinating insight into the life and times of luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess. Formerly MacBrayne’s Columba, the dear old vessel has now spent more years as a cruise ship than she did as a car ferry. Ken has been involved with Hebridean Princess since 2003 and passionately demonstrated why she occupies such a proud place in his heart. Report by Stuart Craig.
Many of the 75 in the audience had a chance to see round the ship in the autumn of 2015, but now we were able to learn about her history and the companies that have operated her since MacBrayne days, from the man who understands intimately what is involved in operating cruises in the Hebrides at the upper end of the market.
Ken Charleson gave us a brief history of the ship, from her launch in March 1964 at Aberdeen, through her Western Isles career as Oban to Mull (and beyond) ‘steamer’ and into private ownership. He began by announcing that although he rarely used notes he would tonight as he felt that “..the audience knows more about the ship than I do.” As the presentation progressed it was clear that this wasn’t the case, and I never noticed him looking at his notes once!
Between the numerous photographs, old and new, Ken threw in fact after fact about his beloved ship. At one time in her MacBrayne days her capacity was as much as 870; today it is 50. She now carries 37 crew, and has her original DC generator, chain telegraph and Crossley engines. Her cruising speed is kept at 10 knots, 95% of her guests are British and Her Majesty the Queen has chartered her twice – although the name of the cabin she occupied is a tight-lipped secret.
Columba’s last sailing for MacBrayne was in September 1988. She was then bought by Tony and Susan Binns who had the innovative idea of converting her to the luxury small-cruise ship that she is today. She was converted at Prior’s of Great Yarmouth where amongst other alterations the profile of her bow was straightened, her hoist removed and more after-deck cover was added. She commenced her new career in May 1989 and has plied her trade around the west coast ever since; plus visits to St Kilda (twice each summer), Fair Isle, Ireland, Norway, the Channel Islands and even Greenock! Over the years she has had different owners and various ups-and-downs, some of which made one particular Royal very sick.
Ken’s entertaining tales gave us a clear picture of just how much he loves his job and his ship. He threw some gems to his audience:
“She is a working museum…..we are custodians of maritime history.”
“As Columba she was the first MacBrayne boat to sail on a Sunday (1972), but we still don’t take her into Stornoway on the Sabbath.”
“Fifty-three years on she is still sailing the waters she was built for.”
“There is no better place to holiday than the Hebrides and West Coast of Scotland.”
He speaks the truth – 65-70% of the ship’s guests are repeat customers. One lady has cruised on her 70 times, and another took seven cruises on her last year.
Ken spoke with great enthusiasm and knowledge of the ship and her cruising itineraries. He is clearly a man who ‘knows his stuff’. After taking some questions Ken was offered a vote of thanks by Robin Copland.
On 1 March 2017 Hebridean Princess will emerge from winter layup in James Watt Dock, Greenock, for the first of her early-season Clyde cruises. For the rest of her 2017 itinerary click here. For a report on CRSC’s visit to Hebridean Princess at Greenock in November 2015, click here.
Next CRSC meeting: Eric Schofield on ‘Taking Passage to Arran — Part 1: The CSP Years’, at Jurys Inn, Glasgow, on Wednesday 15 March at 7.30pm. All welcome.
The copyright for some of the above photos belongs to Bryan Kennedy, whom CRSC gladly acknowledges with thanks.