Congratulations to Colin Mcnicol, skipper of CalMac ferry Isle of Cumbrae. When three ferries congregated at Tarbert, Loch Fyne, on 11 May 2018, Colin had the presence of mind to get out his camera and record the unprecedented scene for posterity. Interview by Andrew Clark.
If ever there was a case of ‘the right person in the right place at the right time’, it was on Friday 11 May, just after 4pm — plenty of time in hand for Isle of Cumbrae’s next crossing from Tarbert to Portavadie. Standing on the bridge and glancing out into the loch, Colin Mcnicol had to blink twice. What he saw was not just one CalMac ferry in the offing but two — Loch Tarbert and Catriona, both newly arrived from Lochranza and waiting for Isle of Cumbrae to vacate the Tarbert slipway.
“The minute I knew the three boats were to be together, I realised there was a chance of a special photo,” says Colin, a CalMac skipper since 2014. Isle of Cumbrae had not yet loaded up for her next run, so it was a relatively simple matter of handing the camera to someone ashore, moving his vessel out of the way while the other two discharged and loaded, and then returning to the slipway for the 4.15pm run across Loch Fyne.
Colin even managed to grab a shot of the three ferries from the bridge, using his phone while Isle of Cumbrae was waiting for the other two to discharge.
“It was a special day — a knock-on from Clansman’s problems,” recalls Colin, referring to that vessel’s protracted visits to Garvel Dry Dock this spring, which had a knock-on effect on other units in the fleet. With Isle of Arran temporarily deployed to Islay, Arran had to make do with a single Ardrossan ferry, and a second ferry was put on the Lochranza-Claonaig service to ease the traffic.
“Claonaig is very exposed in an easterly wind, and sometimes Catriona has to divert to Tarbert,” Colin explains. “On 11 May both of the Lochranza ferries had to do that. Loch Tarbert left Lochranza ahead of Catriona, but with Catriona’s increased speed, she caught up. That’s how all three were at Tarbert at the same time.”
Colin is as familiar with CalMac’s hybrid ferries as he is with the 40-year old Isle of Cumbrae: his first boat as skipper was Lochinvar, and he takes charge of Catriona when she is on the Portavadie run in winter.
“We need the larger vessel at Tarbert in winter because of the middle-of-the-day run to Lochranza,” he says. “That sailing is almost like a cruise — long enough to give us time for maintenance jobs that would otherwise have to be squeezed into a few runs. But Isle of Cumbrae is ideal for the Portavadie run in summer. She’s the perfect carrier, for all that she’s old.”
He appreciates the finer points of both ships. For passenger and crew comfort, Catriona wins easily. “The ‘hybrids’ are beautiful boats, but they just don’t have the same character as Isle of Cumbrae.”
Can he be more specific? “With the newer, joystick-controlled ships, you don’t ‘feel the road’ so well,” he says. “On the other hand, with Isle of Cumbrae, you’ve got to have your wits about you. She can be a handful — she’ll throw you a curve-ball at times. You’ll be coming in nice and sweet, and suddenly she’ll sheer off to one side. No berthing is the same. If you’re not paying attention, she’ll soon wake you up.”
Colin, a jovial 35-year old, is a Tarbert man who was on North Sea supply ships before joining CalMac more than 10 years ago. He worked his way up to Second Officer, predominantly on Caledonian Isles, but when the job at Tarbert came up, with the opportunity of getting home at night, the chance was too good to miss. His ‘opposite number’ on the Portavadie run is Campbeltown-based Lawrence Allibone.
It was Colin’s boyhood dream that one day he would work for CalMac. For his 12th birthday his mother baked him a cake showing Isle of Arran, and his birthday present was a trip (via Lochranza) to Brodick for a return crossing to Ardrossan. Kenny Nicolson, an uncle who worked at Kennacraig, would get him onto the ferries there for the occasional trip to Islay, during which he would go up to the bridge and “pester the masters.”
Now Colin is master of his own ship, but there is still a remnant of the teenage enthusiast about him — enough to seize the opportunity of snapping three ferries together at his home port.
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