As a Post Office manager at Largs earlier in his career, Jim McMath would occasionally make the ferry crossing to Cumbrae and wonder ‘how on earth do they do this all day?’. Now a relief seaman/purser on CalMac’s small ferries, he finds there is no shortage of variety: Jim has the ‘best job ever’. Interview by Andrew Clark.
It was one of those mornings when unforeseen events produce unexpected results. Jim McMath, a CalMac seaman/purser, was taking an off-duty walk up the hills behind Colintraive, where he had been working on Loch Dunvegan. He turned round and — wow! There was Hebridean Princess coming through the Narrows of the Kyles of Bute.
Jim managed to get out his phone in time to capture her as she passed the Rhubodach ferry on her way down the East Kyle. He was not so lucky with his fancy new camera. He hadn’t brought his tripod, and in the heat of the moment his shots were a bit blurred. Never mind: that photo of the two vessels together was special.
A longtime resident of Largs, Jim is one of a pool of relief crewmen who travel up and down CalMac’s network of small ferry routes, delivering ferries before and after overhaul, and filling in for local crew who are on holiday or sick leave. “We go everywhere,” he says. “We just wait for the phone call, and then it’s a mad dash to get to wherever we’re supposed to go.”
Sometimes he finds himself with the same delivery crew for two or three long voyages, but usually he will join a ‘regular’ crew for a week or two, “so you get to know all the faces and the different locations from Lochranza to Raasay.”
A former Post Office delivery manager in Largs, where he still lives, Jim, 58, can’t belief his luck being paid to have the run of Scotland’s west coast. He joined CalMac in 2009, initially on the ticket desk at Largs ferry terminal, and “applied for everything” within the company, eventually graduating from nightwatchman on Caledonian Isles to seaman/purser on Loch Tarbert on the ‘back door to Arran’ service in 2012, followed by a spell on the Cumbrae run with Loch Shira in the winter of 2013-14.
Since then he has been “everywhere”, with the exception of the Sounds of Harris and Barra, and also the Gigha run, where overnight accommodation is a problem. Usually he sleeps in his own caravan, which he takes on board for a delivery run or drives to his destination if he is on duty there for a few days.
His favourite is Lochranza-Claonaig, where “most of the passengers are holidaymakers and everyone is in a good mood, nice and smiley. Coming back across the Kilbrannan Sound from Claonaig, that vista [of the Arran hills] changes every time. We see porpoises, sharks and minke whales. When you’re finished for the day, you can go fishing, golfing or walking” — just as he was doing that morning at Colintraive when he caught sight of Hebridean Princess.
Jim has a cheery temperament — he is one of those people for whom the cup is always half-full rather than half-empty — but says the job has its occasional challenges. Some drivers try to avoid being parked near the bow or edge of the vessel in case their vehicle catches the spray. Others get confused by yellow lines. “Cyclists are the worst — they’re the purser’s nightmare,” he laughs. “The men in lycra like to tell me how much their bicycle cost ‘and I’m not putting it there’. If there’s a notice saying ‘No cycles here’, they’ll put it there.”
Much of his winter is spent “moving boats from one place to another”. A recent delivery voyage involved taking Loch Linnhe from Rothesay (after overhaul at Ardmaleish) to Raasay. The trip began with a call at Largs to load crew cars and caravans, and the first night was spent at Campbeltown. The vessel left at 5.30am the next morning for Tobermory, arriving about 7pm. After departing the following morning at 7am, the vessel reached Raasay in time to take up the 2pm run. Jim spent the next six hours on his way homewards, “driving over the Skye bridge instead of under it”, as he had just done on the delivery voyage.
Far from feeling isolated within the CalMac fold, Jim says the dozen-strong relief pool regard their lifestyle as “a very sociable existence. Sometimes we get the squeeze-box out, or the mouth organ. We like to have a laugh at night.”
Read more about CalMac’s ‘small ferry’ crews:
Published on 14 November 2018