TV series ‘Island Crossings’ does good PR for CalMac 

CalMac’s crew and shore staff shine throughout ‘Island Crossings’, giving us a behind-the-scenes view of the ships: ‘What stands out instantly is its frankness — the programmes don’t shy away from CalMac’s problems’

Rob Beale says the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall TV series gives a human face to CalMac’s problems, showing ferry crews as saviours of the fleet.

I usually shy away from fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but BBC Scotland’s latest has been an enjoyable watch. ‘Island Crossings’, an eight-part series, was filmed in 2022, so it does not cover the prolonged absence of Hebridean Isles or the introduction of Alfred. What stands out instantly is its frankness: it doesn’t shy away from CalMac’s problems. Within the very first minute, engineer Gemma Louise McLoughlin of Caledonian Isles reminds us that “It’s crazy because this ship has been in service longer than I’ve existed.”  

Gemma Louise McLoughlin, engineer on Caledonian Isles: ‘This ship has lasted longer than I’ve existed’

Each episode has a ‘main story’. Episode one features the Arran run and the build-up to the Highland Games on the island. Episode two is the Tiree cattle mart. Three focuses on seafood processing company Barratlantic, four is the Mull Rally. Five (9pm on Sunday 20 August, repeated at 8pm on Tuesday 22 August) is titled ‘Modern Apprentices at Sea’, and Six (Sunday 27 August) covers overhauls: the advance blurb reveals that ‘One ferry’s overhaul costs £2.8 million, but unforeseen issues could result in an extended dry dock with huge implications for the network and island communities.’

The programmes last about an hour and the series is available on BBC iPLAYER for the next 12 months.

Pervading each episode is the constant reminder that some of the ferries are old and prone to breakdown or weather-related disruption. ‘Island Crossings’ graphically conveys how vital the ferries, their crews and shore staff are to islanders and tourists alike — much more than meets the eye.

For example, if Isle of Lewis is delayed or cancelled between Castlebay and Oban, residents of Boulogne won’t be able to purchase their scallops, and Barratlantic won’t get paid for their £30,000 order. 

In one episode Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac Ferries Ltd, is filmed getting involved in the start-up routine onboard Caledonian Isles.

CalMac MD Robbie Drummond: ‘Average age of the fleet is 23 years. A third of the vessels are past their expected lifetime. Maintenance costs have gone up 70% in the past five years’ — but nowhere in the series is a finger pointed at the Scottish Government or Transport Scotland

His visit raises an interesting conundrum. The ageing vessels are increasingly using obsolete technology. When bits malfunction or break down, they have to be repaired or replaced, often with new parts, resulting with a mix of old and new, some parts of which are not necessarily compatible and need to be adjusted to work as they should. The care and maintenance lavished on the fleet can only go so far. If the parts don’t exist, they can’t be replaced. 

In another episode we follow a group of apprentices getting trained up for their first days afloat with CalMac. Some are heading to the catering departments; others will become port staff and some will be deckhands. 

Despite the unreliability of the fleet and the weather, the staff shine through, giving us a behind-the-scenes view of the ships. For enthusiasts this means getting to see engine rooms and bridges to which we aren’t usually privy.

The crew remain jovial throughout all that is thrown at them, and do their best to accommodate the needs of passengers, be that un-booked locals needing a last-minute trip to the mainland, or the port manager at Lochboisdale sorting out the transit of the Co-op lorry to Barra when both Isle of Lewis and Lord of the Isles are out of service. The lorry driver went from Oban to Uig, across to Lochmaddy — then finally made it to Barra via Eriskay! 

Office staff response to service disruptions: ‘Fingers crossed, darling, we’ll let you know anyway’

My experiences of CalMac are only for leisure — day trips and holidays. I am only ever mildly inconvenienced if there is a disruption.

I actually had my first cancelled sailing the other day when the 0550 Lord of the Isles sailing from Lochboisdale was cancelled. In the event I managed to change to the 0730 from Lochmaddy with no problems at all.

If the intention of ‘Island Crossings’ was to paint the company in a good light, it has done a good job.

With the seemingly constant breakdowns of one vessel or another in the past year or so, the series couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Perhaps inevitably there has to be a positive ending to the show. The ships depart, the shellfish arrives — and the holidaymakers get their break away.

‘Island Crossings’ will remain available on BBC iPLAYER for one year.

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Like MV Loch Nevis, CalMac has to battle stormy seas: ‘With the seemingly constant breakdowns of one vessel or another in the past couple of years, the series couldn’t have come at a better time’

Published on 20 August 2023