A Winter 5 Ferries


Which ferry? Where? Answers can be found beneath Rob Beale’s account of his five-ferry odyssey

In the depths of winter, many ship enthusiasts hunker down and dream of warmer, sunnier days. Not Rob Beale: midwinter is a time of opportunity.

I enjoy attending Clyde River Steamer Club meetings in Glasgow on the second Wednesday of each month during the winter. But it is a long way for me to come, from my home in Kendal, to sit in a room for a very interesting 90 minutes. To get more out of my trip I try to make time for a sail, maybe a relief ship at Largs or Rothesay, and I usually get around using public transport. Finding new things to do has become harder and harder, so when the opportunity came to tick off not only a new vessel but a new route too, I just had to do it.

The winter-only crossing from Lochranza to Tarbert had so far eluded me, mainly due to the impossibility of doing it using buses and still reaching Jurys Inn in time for the CRSC meeting at 1930.

Woken by the alarm at 0500 I was on the road by 0520, heading up the most scenic motorway in Britain over Shap summit. Despite the inch of snow on the road, Carlisle was reached by 0630 and I was soon on the train racing over Beattock as the sun rose over the snow-topped Southern Uplands. According to the National Rail website, Glasgow Central is a major station, and therefore a minimum of 15 minutes should be allowed to change trains. Oh no. My train was due in at 0820 and my next conveyance – for Ardrossan Harbour – was due out at 0834. Add to that the eight-minute delay on my train from Carlisle and I only had six minutes to get from one end of the station to the other.

Departure from Ardrossan

Departure from Ardrossan bang on time at 0945: cue for a bumper breakfast aboard Caledonian Isles, with ample opportunity afterwards to view Ailsa Craig and the Cumbraes — copyright photo Rob Beale

First off, I ran round the station, almost jumped the ticket barriers and made my way to platform 12. Two trains were in at the one platform, both heading to different destinations: get this wrong and the whole day would be ruined! As the train drew away from the platform I waited with baited breath to hear the list of stations, remembering the time I boarded a train at Haymarket for Falkirk, but ended up in Shotts! Thankfully I called it right this time and could relax as Ayrshire slipped by. Before long the jolt of the points signalled our switching to the Ardrossan Harbour branch and the first vessel of the day came into view. Caledonian Isles, freshly in from Brodick, was just being refuelled as I purchased my hopscotch ticket — Ardrossan to Brodick, and Lochranza to Claonaig. “But, I was wanting to go to Tarbert!” I said.  “Don’t worry son, ignore the destination on the ticket, you’ll get where you need to be.”

The snow clouds had cleared and the sky was blue as I ambled up the rather steep gangway onto the regular Arran ferry. After watching departure bang on time at 0945, it was time for breakfast. The non-appearance of a rush on the 0700 and 0820 sailings resulted in a huge amount of bacon and sausage left over, and the very generous person serving me gave me six (yes six!) rashers of bacon and four sausages on my bun which could only hold two of each!

Suitable sated I rushed back on deck to see our approach to Brodick. I always enjoy this. The views of Ailsa Craig and Holy Isle to port and the isles of Bute and Cumbrae to starboard were stunning and it looked positively tropical up near Fairlie, juxtaposed with the view of Goatfell covered in snow, as we neared Brodick pier. This too, has been of interest over the last year or so. Every time Brodick is reached something has changed with the new linkspan complex. My latest visit was no different, with the brand new pier building nearly complete.

Harbour redevelopment at Brodick

Harbour redevelopment: ‘every time Brodick is reached something has changed’ — copyright photo Rob Beale

Once I was standing on my first island of the day, I boarded the bus for Blackwaterfoot via Kildonan and the south of the island. Judging by the timetable, this would connect with a bus at Blackwaterfoot which would take me to Lochranza for 1246, in plenty of time for the arrival of Catriona at 1340. Anyway, once aboard the bus, I explained my plans to the driver, who told me that despite the buses showing as connections at Blackwaterfoot, they rarely actually connect, and I’d be better off going straight to Lochranza via Corrie.

Not to be outdone, I headed for Blackwaterfoot via The String, and had 40 minutes there to enjoy the views and the beaches complete with seals. Duly at 1207 we set out for Lochranza on the next bus, just as the bus from Kildonan came round the corner.

We didn’t wait, and the connection was missed. If I’d done the bus trip via Kildonan as originally planned, I’d have missed my next ferry at Lochranza. Up at the northern end of the island there was a whirling wind and the temperature had dropped. I had also left my gloves on the bus so I had a very cold wait for Catriona. Due to the nature of her route, you catch sight of her almost an hour before she arrives, but it seemed as if she wasn’t getting any closer. They say a watched kettle never boils. Well, a watched Catriona never berths!

With impeccable timing her ramp grounded on the slip at 1340. A couple of cars and a fuel tanker unloaded. The whole reason for this crossing (in the absence of the Claonaig service in winter) is to bring hazardous cargoes to Arran: Caledonian Isles is unable to convey them without doing extra sailings, due to her enclosed car deck.

On Catriona’s ‘back-door’ sailing all passengers and vehicles need to be reserved because, if hazardous cargo is onboard, passenger numbers may be limited to 12. One other foot passenger boarded with me. Three cars were loaded. Two others didn’t show up, so we set off, at 1345, for Tarbert with six passengers on board.


Catriona at Lochranza — copyright photo Rob Beale

This was exciting. A new boat, a new route and, looking at the map, we would be sailing along uninhabited stretches of coastline between Skipness and Tarbert. I didn’t know where to look — down the Kilbrannan Sound, across to Inchmarnock and the Kyles, or up Loch Fyne. The camera kept clicking away as the light deteriorated and the weather kept getting worse. I resigned myself to Catriona’s lovely warm cabin and resorted to quick forays up on deck, wrapped like a polar explorer. Feeling really intrepid, I was the only passenger braving the elements. Apart, that is, from the crew, half of whom were acting like it was still summer, with rolled up sleeves. It was three degrees!

I had a good look round the new ship. The third hybrid to be launched for CalMac, in the wake of Hallaig and Lochinvar, Catriona had only been a couple of months in service when I boarded her that day. She has a spacious lounge on one side with two observation decks above. No passengers are allowed on the deck on the other side. Three wide lanes satisfactorily catered for the vehicles on offer that day. It is interesting to note the change from the 1986 Loch class vessels, where two marked lanes struggle to fit a car on.

Once the last house was passed just north of Skipness I was in new territory. The occasional ruined farmstead could be spied through the binoculars in amongst the extensive forestry. Then, before I knew it, Tarbert appeared round the corner. We scraped up the slipway at 1455, 15 minutes early. I was staying on, for Portavadie. I could have got off at Tarbert for a photo, but it was a bit dreich!


Arrival at Tarbert in winter — copyright photo Rob Beale

With a full car deck we set off on my third crossing of the day at 1515. The winter timetable on this route has a four-hour gap from 1115 because of the need to service Lochranza, which explains the full car deck. By now it was getting dark and still raining. Portavadie was where I was dependent on others. With the next bus from Portavadie not due to leave until 1845, Ian McCrorie had kindly offered to help fulfil my plan by picking me up in his car, and we hastily set off for Colintraive, for Loch Dunvegan’s 1630 crossing to to Rhubodach. The heating in the car helped to thaw my fingers out, and once on Bute I was ready to enjoy a coffee overlooking Rothesay Harbour.

We were hoping to catch Coruisk for Wemyss Bay but it was the familiar shape of Bute which greeted us as we headed across the road for the 1730 sailing. There is something very enjoyable about sailing in the dark, having full confidence in someone else to get you to your destination, even though you can’t see where you’re going. The experience was all the better for having a CalMac bridie to fill the hole in my stomach that had become slowly more apparent since that bacon and sausage bun eight hours earlier.

Back on the mainland we headed to the CRSC meeting by train to hear Richard Orr’s talk about his time aboard Marchioness of Graham, and afterwards I headed back to Carlisle on the Dumfries line, eventually reaching Kendal at 0100. It had been a 20-hour day, but worth every minute.

It’s rare now that Steamer Club members can find new things to do on days afloat, but I managed two at once. Hopefully this winter I’ll get one more ticked off my list. I have yet to catch Coruisk between Gourock and Dunoon.

I would urge anyone who hasn’t, to head over to Lochranza for the sailing to Tarbert. It is a beautiful sail and the longest on the Clyde in winter. Who knows how much longer it will remain? If the new Arran ferry has an open stern it may be able to convey hazardous cargo, and the winter ‘back-door’ won’t be necessary. Then again, it may prove popular enough to persuade CalMac to keep it on anyway. Here’s hoping!

Rob Beale is CRSC’s vice-president. Catch up will all CRSC’s previous posts by clicking on News & Reports.

Answers to top-of-page questions: on board Catriona, passing the wilderness north of Skipness on the voyage from Lochranza to Tarbert.


Catriona at Portavadie — copyright photo Rob Beale

Loch Dunvegan at Colintraive -- copyright photo Rob Beale

Loch Dunvegan at Colintraive — copyright photo Rob Beale

Approaching Wemyss Bay on Bute -- copyright photo Rob Beale

Approaching Wemyss Bay on Bute — copyright photo Rob Beale