Missing the Boat

Stuart Craig recently missed a boat. Some may think he ‘missed the boat’ some time ago! But his mishap got him thinking…..about missing boats!

Stuart Craig

Stuart Craig, CRSC‘s Membership Secretary, is a notorious island hopper. He recognises a medicinal quality in CalMac ferry ‘hopping’, seeing such voyages as the ultimate source of relaxation, and he has written acclaimed books about this increasingly popular pastime

Have you ever missed the boat? I’m not speaking metaphorically, I mean an actual boat. You’ve arrived at Brodick pier to watch the last sailing slip away, without you, in the dying sunlight. Perhaps you know of someone who stepped ashore at Muck to take a picture of the ferry, only to realise that because they didn’t immediately step back on board they’re going to be stranded on the tiny island for two days.

The thought of this may induce an unsympathetic smile, except on the face of the unfortunate victim, but let’s be clear here, missing a boat isn’t much fun — although I would suggest with considerable confidence, and personal experience, that missing a flight is even less fun.

I have ‘missed the boat’ on a handful of occasions. In my case it was usually due to me misreading a timetable. On an ‘Island Hop’ in the early 1990s I had myself and my two colleagues standing at Kyle of Lochalsh pier waiting on Lochmor to appear to take us on a cruise. And we waited and waited…. My pals only began to forgive me after I’d bought the second round of beers, which was some time after I’d settled the considerable taxi bill to reunite us with our hotel.

On a subsequent ‘Island Hop’ – yes, I was fortunately forgiven to the degree necessary for them to gallantly venture out with me again – a couple of ferries were missed due to a large slice of over-optimism combined with a rather propitious interpretation of a timetable. As we drove off Iona at Mallaig, I foolishly assured our island hopping driver Ian that he could make Oban in time to park the car and take the mid-afternoon sailing by Isle of Mull to Craignure. To trump that, we would be able to catch the bus to Tobermory and board Lord of the Isles back to Oban. What a great idea, I championed.

Only it wasn’t. Despite these being the days when one could abandon a car anywhere in Oban without fear of it being towed away, and when you didn’t need to check-in 30 minutes before sailing time, there was no way Ian could drive us 86 miles in 100 minutes. So that was another unscheduled, exclusively subsidised visit to the pub, as we watched Isle of Mull drift out of Oban Bay.

‘We could choose a lounge each in which to stretch out’: Isle of Mull en route to Port Askaig

One classic way of ‘missing the boat’ is to get onto the wrong one in the first place. CalMac have often shown considerable patience and compassion over the years in trying to get every passenger to their intended destination, especially when their ‘customer’, as they now like to call us, boards the wrong ferry. There are several tales of unscheduled calls at Craignure by the Barra-bound boat to drop off those who were unable to pay attention to simple instructions.

The author and artist Mhairi Hedderwick relates sympathetically a misadventure of a different type in her excellent book An Eye On The Hebrides. The unfortunate passenger found herself bouncing vertiginously across the Sea of the Hebrides aboard Claymore to Barra when she should have been greeting her family on Craignure Pier. To exacerbate the woes of an already nauseating journey, the ship was unable to berth at Castlebay and had to make her way across the mountainous seas back to base in Oban.

It can’t be easy to get on the wrong ferry, surely. Just a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining Isle of Mull at the unseemly hour of 0715 for a special sailing from Oban to Craignure and on to Port Askaig. This was to provide extra capacity to a festival on Islay, a gesture that all eight passengers (including Eric Schofield – whom I just happened to bump into – and myself) aboard the ship on the Mull-to-Islay leg greatly appreciated. Not only could we stretch out supine on the seats, but we could choose a lounge each in which to do so. The ship took around a hundred foot-passengers across to Craignure on the first part of our four-hour sail, leaving the remaining eight aboard.

Standing beside me on the upper deck was a ninth passenger, who had clearly not heardthree tannoy announcements that the ship would not be returning to Oban but would be sailing to Islay. It was only when a crewman approached her and asked if she really intended going to Port Askaig that she remembered that she was supposed to get off at Mull. The remaining lucky eight aboard were all approached by three separate crew-persons to check our itinerary. Good thinking, CalMac, for they were never going to turn this ship around.

MV Isle of Mull at Port Askaig on 1 June

It was a superb sail that day, but the call into Craignure, which had only been added to the itinerary a few hours earlier, threatened to scupper my plans. As Isle of Mull was now going to be later into Port Askaig, the ‘regular’ sailing from Port Askaig to Kennacraig by Finlaggan was put back 45 minutes. I had my bicycle with me, and after swapping addresses with the other seven passengers (we had got on so well), I had no option but to take this sailing as planned, as I intended getting home that evening via Arran. As I disembarked at Kennacraig and puffed my way over the hill to Claonaig I could see my intended ferry, to Lochranza, heading off into the Kilbrannan Sound. Yes, Catriona would be returning later, but by the time I reached Lochranza I would only have 65 minutes to cycle over the hill to Brodick, a 15 mile journey, for the 1815 and last (yes last!) ferry to Ayrshire and home. As I’m not Bradley Wiggins, I was never going to manage that. I would ‘miss the boat’.

It had been a long day: up at 0600, four hours at sea, so many people to chat to, three separate ferries…..and I just wanted to get home. Not forking out £200 for a room for the night may have somewhat heightened my enthusiasm for getting on that train at Troon. So what were my options? Hide the bike and take the bus from Lochranza, which would get me to that 1815 sailing? Sail back to Oban – that option had by now gone. Thumb a lift from a vehicle big enough to take my bike? Spend a portion of our kids’ inheritance on a hotel room? Or just lie on the ground and cry?

Well, you’ll just have to read on to find out.

One of my favourite ‘missed the boat’ stories dates from the 1960s and concerns the mother of my late good friend and fellow island hopper Gibbie Anderson. Just for the record she is ‘late’ too, but that has no relevance to the story. The family were on holiday in Rothesay, and it was decided that, despite a somewhat belligerent sea, they should take a wee sail to Ayr aboard the turbine Duchess of Hamilton. Gibbie would later (and frequently) recall that the swell the steamer headed south into was such that the screws were rising out of the water with each plunge. Gibbie apparently loved it, but his mum was soon regretting having ever stepped aboard. When the ship reached Ayr Harbour, Mrs A. reeled ashore and vowed never to set to sea again – at least not that day. Despite her family’s pleas that all would be smooth on the return passage, poor mother refused to re-board. She took the train home to Glasgow and returned to Rothesay to continue her holiday the next day, when the sea had presumably calmed itself down.

Isle of Mull leaving Port Askaig: did anyone ‘miss the boat’?

The all-time best ‘missing the boat’ story has to be the oft-repeated tale which was frequently recounted by Ian McCrorie. Now please forgive me if I get the steamer, the time or even the pier wrong here. As the ever perceptive Mark Twain once said “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So this is my version. Mr Smith caught the 0810 paddler from Dunoon every weekday, in order to catch the train at Gourock to his workplace in Glasgow. One morning he was running late, and as he raced down Main Street he spotted the steamer at the pier. He accelerated to a sprint, raced up the pier and quickly realised that he would be able to leap the gap between steamer and pier, and thus make his sailing. He did just that, collapsing onto the ship’s wooden deck with the contents of his bag tumbling around him. A crewman stood over him. Mr Smith smiled “I made it!”

“You needn’t have bothered,” replied the deck officer, “we’re late too, we’re just coming in!”

So, over to you, dear reader…. If you have any interesting tales about ‘missing the boat’ please share them. There are many of us out there in the ether who would love to have a giggle at someone else’s nautical misfortune.

Oh…. I almost forgot…….did I get home from Arran with my bike? Well I did. I did what any other sensible person would do: I called a taxi to meet me at Lochranza. I was able to get the bike into the taxi and I managed to catch the 1815 sailing by Alfred to Troon, where I took the train back to Glasgow. By off-setting the cost of the taxi against a hotel bill, I reckoned I was £170 better off!

Please send your ‘missing the boat’ story to info@crsc.org.uk

A review of Stuart Craig’s island-hopping book Finally… Away with the Ferries can be read here, and you can buy your copy here.

See also: The Last of the Island Hops — a seven-part series by Stuart Craig

Published on 21 June 2024