Hebridean Sun + CalMac Pride + Shared Interest = Happiness

The lure of the Hebrides: the Paps of Jura as seen from Finlaggan’s open foredeck on 27 October

CRSC’s excursion to Islay on 27 October 2018 was a succession of thrills — five ferries, glorious weather, spectacular views, a Finlaggan bridge visit and the special satisfaction of sharing an enthusiasm with like-minded folk. Robin Copland reports on a memorable day.

It takes a special kind of enthusiast to get to Bishopton railway station by eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. You have to be keen. You have to get there by train, or know the way already, because the local road signs are appalling! Anyhow, we all got there and settled ourselves onto our bus for the first leg of a multi-leg adventure.

Arriving at McInroy’s Point by 0840, we were ushered onto Sound of Seil for the short sail across the Clyde to Hunter’s Quay. Here we were in the excellent engineering hands of Club member and Review editor, John Newth, so we positively skipped across the river.

Cameras clicked and the digital world took the first of the day’s many punishing hits as its collective memory was clobbered. CRSC president Roy Paterson seemed to be orchestrating things nicely at the bow, but — to be fair — I think he was just taking a picture.

With Club stalwart Lawrence Macduff at the wheel, we were soon enjoying the lovely drive from Hunter’s Quay along the shores of the Holy Loch. Recent (well, 25 years ago) memories of the American submarine base and more distant ones of the LNER service from Craigendoran pier were mulled over as we approached Sandbank.

Turn left onto the B836 and more of Scotland’s scenery at its finest came into view, as we climbed through frost-tinged meadow towards Loch Tarsan. Mention of the exceptionally low tide at the head of Loch Striven led to speculation about whether or not the bus would make it onto the short-ramped Isle of Cumbrae from the steep Portavadie slip.

But hang on. Tighnabruaich and Portavadie are to the right at the foot of the B836 and we have just turned left, heading towards Colintraive. Is this some devilish surprise that Cruising Coordinator Neil Guthrie has built into the day’s activities? Yes and no!

It turns out that we are slightly ahead of schedule, so there is just time to detour and see Loch Alainn in unfamiliar surroundings: she was deputising for Loch Dunvegan during the latter’s annual dry-docking, and was preparing for her 1000 sailing to Rhubodach.

A few enthusiasts positively sprinted along the road towards the slipway to capture Loch Alainn at her temporary home. The bus also sprinted along the road to turn opposite the slip. The ferryman rushed from his eyrie to find out what was happening. “No need to worry,” I explained. “It’s a CRSC outing.” He looked at me, smiled, shook his head and wandered back to his office — and we sped on to Portavadie.

Cue more scrambling for the best place to photograph Isle of Cumbrae as she made her business-like way towards the slip. I love these wee interludes. You can see other prospective passengers looking quizzically at the goings-on. Yes, it was a lovely day with blue skies and a wee chop on the sea, but why is everyone taking pictures of what looks like an unremarkable wee ferry? They’ll never get it!

Slowly, Lawrence guided the bus onto the ferry. Apart from a bit of a grounding at the back, all was well. The 1045 service was agreeably busy on the last day of Isle of Cumbrae’s service on the route this year, and the crossing was brisk and enjoyable. Scotland in autumn with the sun beating down and the wind blowing along Loch Fyne — what could be better?

We had an hour or so in Tarbert. Though familiarity can breed contempt, it really is a most splendid little fishing village. Most of the party found somewhere convivial to enjoy a refreshment before heading for Kennacraig and our appointment with Finlaggan.

She approached the pier slowly, sailing just past it before turning to starboard and letting the wind guide her into her berth — a ferry photographer’s dream, as she turned from broadside through 90 degrees, presenting her bow to the lens. Her berthing was otherwise uneventful, and with the bus parked up, 41 CRSC members and friends collected their tickets from Neil before embarking in plenty of time for the 1300 departure to Port Askaig.

Finlaggan is a well-appointed ship with plenty of space and a comfortable choice of both seating and catering. One thing we all noticed and commented on was the professionalism and friendliness of every one of the crew that we met. They give the impression of pride: pride in their ship; pride in the service they provide for their customers. Some have served on the ship since she came into service in 2011.

The crossing was windy but smooth, with many of us braving the open deck space in front of the bridge to admire glorious views of the Paps of Jura bathed in sunshine. The headwind grew stronger as we sailed up the Sound of Islay, where it confronted a flood tide at its peak. Port Askaig is a tricky quay to negotiate at the quietest of times. This was not the quietest of times, so the ship was manoeuvred gently alongside.

We had already been told that, due to the increasingly fierce northerly, the Colonsay call was cancelled — a sensible decision, given that the ferry has to use the south side of a very constricted pier there, meaning next-to-no room to manoeuvre if there is a battle with a beam-on wind. If that was the bad news, the good news was that, to occupy our time alongside at Port Askaig, Captain Callan Sloan had invited CRSC members to visit Finlaggan’s bridge and engine room.

He and his crew freely gave of their time to make us feel welcome and answer any questions (there were many!) that we cared to put.

The modern-day bridge is a far cry from bridges of old. Modern technology abounds, but one thing that Captain Sloan said has stuck with me. He talked of the legendary masters of old who basically sailed their ships as if they were their own. The culture now is more collegiate.

Where in the old days, the Captain ruled (and still does, to a degree), nowadays there is a mentoring system. Yes, the number of rings on officers’ shirts still signals rank, but one-stripers can feel they have a valuable contribution to make — something that might not have been true 50 years ago.

Down in the engine room, the same culture applies. Those of an engineering bent were in seventh heaven as the engineering crew showed us round their domain. The control room was a haven of peace and tranquillity, and as far removed from the engine room of, say, Waverley as it would be possible to imagine.

There was plenty of adventure left in the day. For some, the attractions of the Port Askaig hotel bar were overwhelming. For others, a wee side trip on Eilean Dhiura across the Sound to Feolin on Jura proved irresistible. Traversing a now really quite choppy sea, the little ferry had to battle the tide before making headway towards the slip. She rocked and rolled — and a great time was had by all!

As soon as the bow visor was down at Feolin, we were off and up the jetty to capture the moment (with tame deer, pictured right, observing our antics from further along the shore) before scrambling back on board for the crossing to Port Askaig.

Finlaggan’s return voyage to the mainland, against a backdrop of gently fading light, was uneventful: most took the chance to eat dinner. Arrival at Kennacraig was after dark, and then we were once again in Lawrence’s capable hands, as our bus headed north up Loch Fyne. The drive across Rest and be Thankful, then via Balloch and the Erskine Bridge to Bishopton, passed quietly — apart, that is, from the gentle snores of the sated.

Contentment reigned, and the thoughts of your correspondent (and others, I suspect) turned to New Year: a wee CRSC trip to Arran, perhaps?

CRSC President Roy Paterson at the bow of Sound of Seil — first of our five ferries

First sight of Finlaggan, advancing up West Loch Tarbert as our bus arrives at Kennacraig

Lawrence Macduff had his ramps handy in case they were needed to help our bus onto Isle of Cumbrae at Portavadie

Finlaggan at Kennacraig (1)

Finlaggan at Kennacraig (2)

Finlaggan at Kennacraig (3)

Finlaggan at Kennacraig (4)

Handover of tickets at Kennacraig ferry terminal, with CRSC cruising coordinator Neil Guthrie and CalMac’s Donald MacLean

Five bow ropes — protection against a fierce northerly after berthing at Port Askaig

Port Askaig entertainment: Finlaggan hose drill on the aft car deck after discharging vehicles

Captain Callan Sloan engages with one of the bridge parties organised by Finlaggan’s Chief Steward Karin McNair for the benefit of CRSC members

Captain Callan Sloan, 38, made a major contribution to the success of the CRSC excursion to Islay: he answered all our questions with patience and humour. Born in Girvan and now resident at Ayr, he knows CalMac from top to bottom, having started his career as a galley boy on Isle of Mull in 1996 and advanced to 3rd Officer on Lord of the Isles in 2002. Starting in 2010 he was Chief Officer of Hebridean Isles for three years, and then joined the delivery team for Loch Seaforth, the ship that was his first command (as night master) in 2017. Since April 2018 he has alternated as master of Finlaggan and Loch Seaforth.

Before leaving Kennacraig on the 1300 crossing to Port Askaig, some of the CRSC excursionists gathered on the top deck of Finlaggan for a group photograph. Among those pictured are Carrie MacKinnon and Neil Guthrie at the back and Davie Wright, Gordon Law, Roy Paterson and Bill Coull at the front — and among those in the body of the group are George Boswell, Andrew Downie, Norman Leitch, Robin Copland, Ian Montgomery, Andy Anderson, Duncan Wilson, Eric Schofield, Lawrence Macduff, Jane Ann Liston and Pat Marron (apologies to anyone not named). The conviviality among our group was palpable, though everyone was free to do their own thing. Most chose to have dinner after dark on the return voyage.

Engine room visit, courtesy of motorman Ronnie Torrie (far right)

Finlaggan chief steward Karin McNair (left) with 3rd Mates Jonathan Irvine and Colin Rogerson. Karin facilitated our bridge and engine room visits, and could not have been more helpful — a great ambassador for CalMac

Smile for the camera: Robin Copland captures Jane Ann Liston and Neil Guthrie on board Eilean Dhiura

Boisterous return crossing from Feolin to Port Askaig on Eilean Dhiura, masterfully handled by Peter Connel on the bridge

Landing at Port Askaig with deckhand Euan Urquhart

Port Askaig panorama — snapshot of a memorable day

Homeward bound: Finlaggan heads back down the Sound of Islay at 6pm

Farewell to Finlaggan at Kennacraig at 8pm — she was already boarding vehicles for Port Ellen as we drove off into the night

Photos by Robin Copland, Neil Guthrie, Roy Paterson and Andrew Clark

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Published on 31 October 2018