Broken ferry leaves locals and tourists high and dry

Islanders are facing difficulty getting to and from their homes due to increased tourist traffic on the reduced capacity services

Report and pictures by Bill Heaney

The view from the window of our esplanade apartment of the passing pageant of ferries, eight metre yachts, day trips round the bay small boats and fishing trawlers gave the peaceful impression that all was well with the world in Oban, tourism capital of the West Highlands.

However, it wasn’t quite that. A ferry on a lifeline route has been removed from service after an engine fault put strain on an already busy crossing.

The MV Coruisk, which carries passengers back and forth from Oban to Mull, was out of operation due to a problem with its engine propulsion management system.

Islanders were already facing difficulties getting to and from their homes due to increased tourist traffic on the reduced capacity services, but busy trains and buses full of visitors kept arriving at the pier head.

Oban was comfortably busy, basking in an unexpected heatwave which had brought visitors flocking at last to stravaig along the esplanade, stretch out on the sands at Ganavan, eat in the restaurants or put their own menus together for picnics with deliciously fresh shellfish bought from the shack on the pier.

And watching the mist rolling in from the sea beyond Kererra.

And there were other attractions too such as lessons in glass-making ornaments which kept fair-skinned young folk such as Jane Heaney, pictured left, occupied while others simply sun-bathed. Or took boast  trips round the bay to see the seals.

Mussels, oysters, lobsters, they were all on display at the shack which was doing a roaring trade. And the Sauvignon Blanc was flowing down nicely.

Up in the Square the queues at the Pokey Hat lengthened in a tandem with the temperature rising exponentially. Wavers and double nougats were the order of the day.

However, a residents’ committee said there have been numerous instances of farmers unable to get stock to market, mourners being unable to attend a funeral, and a patient returning home to the islands had to be brought in by helicopter because there was no space aboard the ferry for an ambulance.

Joe Reade, chair of Mull and Iona Ferry Committee, said: “This can’t go on for much longer. Additional ferries need to be brought into the fleet urgently, whilst we wait patiently for Ferguson’s to complete the two ferries that should have been delivered three years ago. The islands are suffering, and urgent action is needed.”

CalMac, the ferry operator, said that with high demand on sailings, some traffic would have to travel to Corran Ferry and over to Mull on the Lochaline to Fishnish crossing where a second vessel from the Clyde area would be deployed on Thursday.

Robert Morrison, operations director for CalMac, said: “We are conscious the continuing service issue with MV Coruisk is having a direct impact and alternative routing may be difficult for some of our customers.

“Our teams with the supporting external specialists are working strenuously to find a solution to return the vessel to service.”

CalMac had been exploring the possible chartering of a catamaran, the MV Pentalina, for the Oban to Craignure, Mull, route but islanders had their hopes “dashed” when negotiations failed.

Robbie Drummond, the ferry operator’s managing director, said berthing trials had been successful but that the vessel’s owner Pentland Ferries pulled out.

He said: “We are surprised and disappointed by this unexpected news. However, this was entirely a decision for Pentland Ferries in relation to the use of its vessel.

“We will continue to work closely with Transport Scotland and Pentland Ferries and should they revisit that decision and make the vessel available to us at a future date, we would consider this option again.

“I know this news will also come as a great disappointment to our communities particularly those we had been discussing the detailed options with. I thank them for their patience and support as we continue to search for suitable alternatives available for charter to enhance capacity and resilience within our network.”

The whole of Scotland moved to level zero on Monday, although Mull along with several other islands were already in the lowest tier of the country’s five-level restriction system.

But despite the easing of restrictions and physical distancing being reduced to one metre in indoor public settings, reduced capacity on CalMac ferries remained unchanged.

Mr Reade said: “Our largest ferries are carrying a fraction of their capacity. We have no alternative means of getting to and from the island, and this is impacting on every aspect of island life and economy.

“Just when we should be trading our way to recovery from Covid-19, our economic lifeblood – tourists – cannot get here because of CalMac’s carrying capacity.”

Some superb fish dinners are to be had in Oban’s many restaurants.

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