Ignored, or at best unloved, by many ship enthusiasts, the four workhorses of the Western Ferries fleet have an unswerving admirer in Cameron Wilson.
With a sailing every 20 minutes, it’s rare to find all four Western Ferries vessels at Hunter’s Quay at one time. The only chance you get is before the 6am sailing or at the time when the photograph above was taken — around 10pm.
Sound of Soay is berthed at the main Hunter’s Quay linkspan, preparing to sail at 10pm, and alongside her on the old berth is her Birkenhead sister Sound of Seil. The two Clyde-built sisters are double-berthed, with the oldest fleet member Sound of Scarba lying alongside the pier and her younger sister Sound of Shuna next to her.
In the early 2000s, when I was growing up, I was based in the Scottish Borders and the thought of the sea was never big in my mind. But my grandparents lived at Hunter’s Quay. Looking out onto the Clyde from their window during my visits there, I saw the Western Ferries terminal and can recall watching as the ferries came in.
By the later years of my primary education I was able to tell which boats were which: I knew, for example, that Sound of Sanda’s wheelhouse was different to her sister Sound of Scalpay, and that the ‘Scalpay’ had tyres on the side of her passenger accommodation.
My favourite at that time was Sound of Sanda. My grandparents knew the master, Captain Jim Wilson, and over time we became acquainted and he started inviting me up to the wheelhouse. I recall being amazed by all the controls. It may have been nothing compared with Caledonian Isles, but to a nine-year old it was amazing.
As Western Ferries expanded and the linkspans at Hunter’s Quay and McInroy’s Point began to show signs of age, the company placed an order with Fergusons of Port Glasgow for new linkspans, which were fitted by the end of 2007.
This gave Western Ferries two linkspans at each port, making it easier to shift traffic whenever it got busy — especially important for Cowal Games weekends, as it allowed the two Ferguson-built sisters to shuttle while Sound of Sanda and Sound of Scalpay operated on the hour and half hour. Around this time I began to visit the wheelhouses of the other Western Ferries vessels, including Sound of Shuna, the newest at the time, and also Sound of Scalpay, the oldest.
in October 2012 news came that two custom-built vessels, similar to the ‘Shuna’ and ‘Scarba’, had been ordered from Cammell Laird — Sound of Soay and a new Sound of Seil. The ‘Soay’ and the ‘Seil’ were to replace the 1960s-built Sound of Sanda and Sound of Scalpay.
As a new era dawned at Western Ferries, Sound of Shuna was replaced as number one service boat by the new Sound of Soay. Sound of Sanda retired to the James Watt Dock for a period and her third boat sailings were picked up by Sound of Shuna. Sound of Scalpay remained in service as fourth boat until the new Sound of Seil took over — pushing Sound of Scarba down to fourth boat. Sound of Sanda and Sound of Scalpay then set off for their new home at Fort William, to be converted into diving support vessels.
The ‘Sanda’ had long been my favourite of the Western Ferries vessels: I liked the style of her and had good memories of being on her, thanks to my regular visits to her wheelhouse and a trip down to her engine room.
With the new vessels in service I was lucky to get a visit up to Sound of Soay’s wheelhouse on my very first sailing on her. I can remember being impressed with her upgrades, even compared to Sound of Shuna.
But with Sound of Sanda no longer in the fleet, Sound of Scarba — now the oldest vessel — was promoted to my favourite. Her status as fourth boat made sailing on her more difficult, as she was used only for Tuesdays-Thursdays and Fridays-Saturdays at peak times. The ‘Scarba’ has slight differences to the other vessels, her name being slightly off-centre on the walkway above the car deck. The two new vessels are easy to spot, thanks to the Western Ferries branding underneath the wheelhouse and larger windows in the wheelhouse, giving added visibility for their masters.
With so many sailings in one day, the chance to photograph each vessel is relatively easy, and I have accumulated quite a lot of photos of the four red-and-white boats. To share these I compiled a month’s worth of photos, sending one to Western Ferries’ Twitter page every day for four weeks. I have done this twice, so it is safe to say I am reasonably well known by most of the staff at Western Ferries, whether on the ships or just in the office.
With Western Ferries still expanding, and replacement of the older-generation linkspans at each side now in hand, it would seem the service is in a good place. Western Ferries very rarely go off in bad weather. Their ships — able to berth, unload and reload within a matter of minutes — are ultra-functional and custom-built for a short crossing, making it hard for some enthusiasts to see their qualities. But I grew up with them, and still see them as exceptionally reliable little ferries, in a company that looks likely to have many positive years ahead.
All photos are copyright CRSC/Cameron Wilson
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Published on 7 September 2018