Rob Beale is one of many enthusiasts who have converged on Ardrossan over the past week to satisfy their curiosity about the first catamaran vehicle ferry to operate on a CalMac route. Here are his impressions.
Like many shipping enthusiasts I have been keeping one eye on the movements of Pentland Ferries’ pair of catamarans in recent years. Rumours abounded on internet forums and socials about whether one or other of Pentalina or Alfred would be chartered to CalMac for extra resilience on the west coast network.
There’s no need here to delve into the west coast woes: suffice to say multiple routes started the 2023 summer schedule with a reduced service. Arran had put up with a smaller vessel than usual on the route for months and then the postponement of its two-ship schedule. Alfred undertook berthing trials at a number of west coast ports but it became likely that she would serve Arran at some point.
She entered service between Ardrossan and Brodick on Friday 12 May, taking two runs a day on an un-bookable turn up and go basis. I took the earliest opportunity to get myself north from Kendal for a sail.
Not only is Alfred a new vessel on a route, but for those of us based in England, she is positively exotic, hailing from the Pentland Firth. In ordinary times, to catch a sail on Alfred would be a minimum three-day journey for me.
And so I found myself jumping off the train at Ardrossan Town station on Monday 15 May.
I made for the north side of the harbour marina for photos of Alfred, which has been sailing from the Irish Berth. She is an imposing vessel — up close she is massive. In February I laid eyes on Pentalina for the first time when she lay at Greenock and I remember thinking she was big. Alfred is much larger.
We loaded via the stern ramp for the 1105 sailing to Brodick. Some early foot passengers were allowed to board before the cars but most, including me, had to wait for the vehicles to drive on before we boarded. Not being a drive-through ship, she loads in an interesting way: cars drive up the port side of the vessel, turn at the bow and come down the starboard side, ready to drive straight off at the other end. Large loads and extra cars reverse onto the middle lanes.
Once loading was complete, I took a tour of the ship. Passenger accommodation is spread over two decks in a horseshoe shape. The lower of the two decks has two comfortable saloons running along each side. There is a children’s play area on the starboard side and a cafeteria in the corridor joining the saloons at the forward end of the vessel.
Sadly I was unable to sample the catering as, for now, the cafeteria remains closed. A vending machine is all that is available, the same as is on offer aboard Loch Frisa on the Oban-Craignure run – a crossing of comparable length.
The upper deck is on bridge level. There are two sun decks, one along each side of the ship, with a sun-lounge looking astern situated above the cafeteria. For the crossing she was designed for, her facilities are more than adequate. The Ardrossan-Brodick crossing has a similar passage time as Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope, and with a supermarket meal deal purchased before boarding, I didn’t go hungry.
The crossing was smooth with not much rolling, and she maintained a steady 15.1 knots. After berthing at Brodick, we were off the boat five minutes before her scheduled arrival time. Due to not being a drive-through vessel her turnaround times are slightly longer than the traditional mono-hulls. This gave me 40 minutes to get some snaps of the catamaran at Arran and have a short wander around Brodick, prior to boarding again for the 1255 return sailing.
I had considered taking Caledonian Isles at 1355, but as Alfred would not be making a counter sailing that I could photograph, I opted to head straight back on the newcomer. With a blast from the exhausts as the Yanmar 6EY17W engines revved up, we started cutting our way through the water back to the mainland – again five minutes early. We made good time and were on the approach to Ardrossan at 1335.
I thought we might be alongside really early, but the impressive berthing manoeuvre at Ardrossan took some time. Alfred passed the breakwater bow first then turned to port and spun her stern round by Winton Pier, before squeezing through the small entrance to Eglinton Tidal Basin where the Irish Berth is.
With 30 minutes to spare before my train back to Glasgow, I hung around for a few more photos. I was glad I did. The crew lowered the Fast Rescue Craft for a bit of fun training.
I had a pleasant voyage on Alfred to Arran and back. She is comfortable, smooth and fast. I doubt we’ll see her like crossing from Oban to Castlebay or Ullapool to Stornoway, but a couple of these craft in the fleet could be a welcome addition — one as second vessel at Arran, and one (designed with Oban in mind) to serve as second vessel on the Craignure run, with Colonsay trips added in.
I say Colonsay because the vessels on that run are rarely stretched and if a vessel is going to run light, an economic vessel may as well be used. Alfred is very cost effective. According to Pentland Ferries she can run for up to six days on the fuel needed for one day on most traditional mono-hull ferries of equivalent capacity. Also, at a cost of £14m (in 2019), we could have quite a few for the same cost as the vessel she is currently covering for, which — nearlysix years after launch — is still outfitting at Port Glasgow.
Reference for green credentials if you need it: https://www.insider.co.uk/news/debut-most-environmentally-friendly-ferry-20785525
Rob Beale, a skipper with Windermere Lake Cruises, lives south of the border but sees plenty of benefits in CRSC membership. You can join CRSC here and, like him, share your interest in ships with like-minded enthusiasts.
Published on 16 May 2023