The Last of the Island Hops — Part 6

Another year, and Stuart Craig and pals are ready to head west on their next ‘Island Hop’. But how long can they carry on doing this? And does everything always go according to plan? Unfortunately not, as we shall see…..

Stuart’s fellow travellers in 2011 were the usual suspects — Gibbie Anderson, Ian McLaren and Andy Anderson. You can read about their 2009 adventures here and here, and 2010 herehere and here.

Fortune favours the brave? At some points during this trip, Stuart Craig, Andy Anderson, Ian McLaren and Gibbie Anderson began to wonder

Day One — Monday 8 August 2011

The tug has Waverley’s bow firmly grasped in its jaws as it pushes the front end of the paddler out into the river. Appropriately the tug is called Biter. The dear old lady seems to need a helping hand nowadays in order to be set in the right direction – bow pointing downstream.

Island hops traditionally take place in May, but our latest escapade has been moved to August; which means it’s Waverley season, and the chance to include her in our itinerary was too good to miss. Not all of us can partake in this first leg, however, and as this whole island hopping thing was my idea, it certainly wasn’t going to be missing out. As part of my plan, one of us must strategically position a car at a secret Ayrshire location. Yes, you’ve guessed, it’s Andy.

The plan for the first day is as follows: Andy drives to Ayr and leaves the car in some unfortunate’s driveway, then jumps on a northbound train to Largs. Meanwhile the rest of us sail from Glasgow Science Centre on the steamer, pick up Andy at Largs, and continue on to Ayr where we pick up the car, drive it to Ardrossan and catch Saturn to Brodick. You following so far?

So off Gibbie, Ian and I splash, downstream past Glenlee and the new Riverside Museum and then past Govan Shipbuilders who are hard at work building the mid-drift of Queen Elizabeth — the new aircraft carrier, not our beloved monarch. Biter sails alongside us part of the way and we have passed both Rover and The Second Snark by the time we reach the retail paradise (my wife’s words) that is Braehead.

Gibbie finds the upper Clyde depressing nowadays, as he can vividly remember the final clamour of shipbuilding from numerous yards that were around post war. He and I disappear down to see the engines – the actual engines. The piston big-ends pounding and the slavish, lazy rocking of the valve gear have the two of us speechless, as always.

‘There is a frisson of excitement amongst us’

There is a frisson of excitement amongst us for we will soon add Ayr to our long list of Island Hop destinations. But as Waverley leaves the shelter of the narrow river and heads purposefully down the Tail-o-the-Bank there are murmurings on deck, and that frisson shivers itself out and fades to a muffled whisper. Is it true? We’re not going to Ayr?

The atmosphere on deck has changed – all 35mph of it. A blustery north-westerly has turned up to spoil the party and the rumours from the bridge are accurate. The cruise will terminate at Largs and the ship will then head up the Kyles to more sheltered waters.

“But what about Andy?” I try to phone him but as usual his steam-powered phone refuses to connect. We have hotel rooms booked on Arran, but how are we going to get there? Island Hop 2011 is in real danger of collapsing by the time we pass Dumbarton! So in true Reporting Scotland style, let’s leave the three of us bouncing down the Firth and head further down the Firth to see how Andy is faring.

Having driven to Ayr and parked his Jag, Andy headed down to the harbour where the strengthening wind alerted him to potential problems. Fairly quickly he learned from someone, perhaps a gull, that Waverley would not be sailing into Ayr that day. With quick-thinking he realised that the only way to save the Island Hop was to get his car to Ardrossan and then get himself to Largs to meet us disembarking the paddler at Largs.

But another impediment manifested itself. The poor weather had also cast doubt on our planned Saturn sail to Brodick. If she couldn’t sail then half of the day’s sailings to Brodick would be cancelled. So it would be propitious to leave the car at Ardrossan and book it onto the Caledonian Isles sailing at 1515 – and hope we can all get there in time. Having cleverly worked all this out for himself Andy drives to Ardrossan, makes the 1515 booking and catches the next train to Largs, thinking all the time that the rest of us are oblivious of the changing circumstances.

Loch Riddon at Cumbrae Slip — another ferry to add to the tally

It is almost 1300 when Waverley struggles up to Largs Pier. For an awful moment it crosses my mind that she won’t be able to berth here either in the gusty conditions. We three would then be heading off to piers unknown and Andy would be enjoying the next three days of Island Hopping on his own. But I should have more faith in the skipper and the rope-handlers. We are soon reassuringly alongside and spot Andy semaphoring from the pier like a demented cheerleader.

The four Island Hoppers reunite at the pier. The two novelties planned for this first day are not going to happen: no Waverley to Ayr, no Saturn to Brodick; but we are going to get to Arran. All we have to do now is catch a train to Ardrossan and sail over to Brodick on the ‘Caley Isles’. However, in the spirit of these trips, I see an opportunity to add two vessels to the day’s peregrinations. “Lets’s go to Cumbrae?” I suggest. “Both ferries are running, we could take Loch Shira to Cumbrae Slip and Loch Riddon back to Largs!”

All three of my pals give me a look of apathy, as if I have just suggested swimming across. So I leave them to their cream scones in Nardinis and go myself. I take Loch Shira over and Loch Riddon back – oh sorry, I’ve told you that already. We meet up later at Largs station and take a train to Ardrossan Harbour via South Beach.

“What an interesting day this is turning out to be,” I smile. Reaction to my observation is not universally gratifying. “It’s all right for you,” replies Andy. “You’ve been on three ships and spent three and half hours afloat. I’ve spent the day driving around Ayrshire and shuttling back and forth between Ayr and Largs!”

As predicted Saturn is lying idle, sheltering at the Irish Berth at Ardrossan. But fortunately Caledonian Isles is operating to schedule, and at 1530 we are heading across the Firth to Arran — all four of us aboard a ship at last.

Day Two — Tuesday 9 August 2011

Finlaggan, new in 2011

We have never stayed on the western side of Arran. The view from our hotel gives an alternative perspective to the hills of Kintyre, over which we will soon be heading. Unless she’s broken down or there is a howling gale on the far side of Kintyre today, we will be sailing on a new ship to Islay. Luck hasn’t been shining down on us so far, and this morning neither is the sun. The new Finlaggan will be taking us to Port Askaig on Islay, but not till 1800. So we have time to kill — and an extra ferry to sample, of course. From Lochranza at the northern tip of Arran we must sail to Claonaig, just six miles from the ferry terminal at Kennacraig.

To kill time we will head down the Kintyre peninsula and take a trip to Gigha. Our next ferry is Loch Tarbert, which we meet up with in good time. “Secure your line of advance,” says Gibbie….as he has said on every trip since 1989! We are carried over to Claonaig and then Andy’s blue jet speeds us over the hill to Kennacraig. At one point I could swear all four wheels were off the ground at the same time.

But what is that tied up at Kennacraig? It’s the new Finlaggan! Gigha looks like it is getting ditched as we head to the pier to seek an explanation. She has swapped rosters with the other ferry on the route, Isle of Arran, and Finlaggan will be taking the next Islay sailing – at 1300! We amend our booking and reflect on a change of fortune. Had Finlaggan not been berthed at the pier we would have headed off to Gigha in sublime ignorance and missed out on our new ship. “See – I told you, always secure your line of advance,” says the Man.

Andy on the bridge, showing Captain John Gillies what’s what

“Aye all right, Napoleon,” his brother responds.

Finlaggan was built in Poland and launched in June 2010. Able to carry 85 cars and 550 passengers, she has become the dedicated Islay ship. Externally she looks like a bigger version of the new Bute ferries, Bute and Argyle, but inside the resemblance vanishes. With her polished mirrored glitz, she looks like a CalMac version of Caesar’s Place. In the centre of the main deck is a glass edifice which looks like the central control panel of Dr Who’s Tardis.

“Are you impressed, Gibbie?” I ask.

“Well, it depends on what angle my teeth are at.”

So the rest of us are none the wiser. But he elaborates: “She’s very nice, but it’s just a shame she wasn’t built on the Clyde at Fergusons.”

[2020 note from Stuart: ‘careful what you wish for!’]

Finlaggan is the first ‘new’ big ship we have sailed on together since Hebrides in 2001, and the good news is that John Gillies is the master. Why? Well, John knows Andy and has vaguely heard of me, so we get an invite to the bridge. Curiously, I would have thought that knowing Andy would have precluded us from being allowed on the bridge, but John is a decent chap.

Up in the glass tower Gibbie and Ian — the two old engineers — ask all sorts of technical questions designed to baffle the rest of us, while Andy and I are simply fascinated by the glass floor of the bridge wings, where the Sound of Islay is racing scarily 40 feet below us. The panorama is superb.

At Port Askaig

John kindly fills us in with the latest ferry news. It appears that due to the weather forecast Isle of Arran is currently anchored somewhere off the east coast of Islay and Hebridean Isles is laid up at Campbeltown. The wind is expected to lessen tomorrow, but not the rain, so our planned sailing to Colonsay should be safe, albeit wet.

The crossing to Port Askaig takes two hours, by which time we have explored every inch of the ship – well, the inches that mere punters can access. We enjoy a late lunch and, by the time we finish Gibbie’s chips, we have arrived at Port Askaig. After arriving at our hotel, my suggestion (yet again) of taking in an additional ferry falls on ears that are not so much deaf as totally indifferent.

So I cross to Jura on Eilean Dhiura alone – thus giving me a three-ferry advantage over my lazy cohorts. Before my jaunt we watch Finlaggan turn into the lively ebb of the sound and get seemingly carried away south, the onboard car alarms heralding their annoyance as she goes.

At 1730 Isle of Arran materialises out of the gloom to take up position at Port Askaig for the 1800 sailing to Kennacraig. It’s now her turn to be swept away downstream. Three hours later we spill out of the bar – just briefly – to watch Finlaggan berth for the night at the pier. Will she be taking us to Colonsay tomorrow? We’ll just have to wait and see.

What happened next on the guys’ 2011 island hop? Look out for Part 7, coming soon.

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Published on 15 June 2020