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Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Caledonia (III) History

The CSP's increasingly burdened and inefficient car ferry service to Arran was in 1969 rightly identified by the new Scottish Transport Group as the most urgent route for upgrading to full drive-through operation. Though the 1957 GLEN SANNOX was a fast and extremely comfortable ship, the hoist-loading of vehicles was already obsolete and in any event the hydraulic hoist on GLEN SANNOX was singularly slow. The STG quickly dismissed the CSP management's attempt to revive their 1967 scheme for two large hoist-loading Clyde ferries and, as the Group committed itself emphatically to end-loading operations, local authorities were quick to climb the bandwagon, insisting they would happily provide the necessary linkspans. The Arran route was the most pressing as this was the longest Clyde ferry crossing and most vulnerable to delay at peak periods. The delay was, of course, cumulative – especially in the course of a long summer day, with heavy traffic – and was exacerbated by low tides.

The trouble was that the STG wanted to upgrade the route quickly and, rather than take their time in designing and commissioning another purpose-built ferry for the Isle of Arran, they hastily agreed – in the summer of 1969 – to buy the Swedish car ferry STENA BALTICA. Though only three years old – she had been ordered in 1964, completed at a Norwegian yard in 1966, and had served briefly on “The Londoner” passage between Tilbury/Southend to Calais - STENA BALTICA had latterly been employed in crossing the Kattegat, between Gothenburg in Sweden and Frederikshavn in Denmark.
 
She was now surplus to the requirements of the Stena Line, who were rather too willing to part with the drive-through car and passenger vessel for £600,000 – and, had STG bosses been over the first joyous novelty of ship management, they might have sensed the reality: that this car ferry, even though she was the first in either fleet with both bow and stern doors, was inadequate for most modern commercial purposes. Certainly CSP bosses warned repeatedly that she was too small – had not even GLEN SANNOX struggled at times to take all the tourist traffic offering? - but the Edinburgh quango-men insisted she was quite adequate. The result was a ship that never won more than grudging acceptance from her public and CALEDONIA's CalMac career, at less than eighteen years, is the shortest of any major car ferry in Company history.

PICTURE: Micke Asklander
As MS Stena Baltica


Even with a new ship, preparing suitable terminals proved the stuff of Homeric epic. The STG slyly decided entirely to eliminate Fairlie from the roster, leaving Ardrossan as the sole port for the Arran ferry; it would spare them having to find the capital to rebuild their own Fairlie Pier, the facilities at Ardrossan being the responsibility of the Clyde Port Authority. Ardrossan was favoured by most Arran residents – but the STG blithely ignored warnings by CSP bosses at Gourock that it was an extremely difficult port in certain weather conditions.

Still, the STG did not own Brodick Pier – that had been built by the Duke of Hamilton in 1872, and now belonged to Arran Piers Ltd. In July 1969 this became a wholly owned subsidiary of the CSP. Work started on its conversion early in 1970 – with the building of a vehicle causeway, car marshalling area and linkspan – and was completed in May. Meanwhile the Ardrossan Harbour Co. filled in the basin of the old Ardrossan Dockyard and installed a linkspan at its entrance; the new ferry would berth at the old Jerry's Wharf, adjacent to Winton Pier.

Meanwhile, STENA BALTICA was handed over to her new owners on 31st December 1969 – a few days after the CSP acquired the Bute Ferry Co. Ltd. - and left Gothenburg on 10th January 1970, docking at Greenock three days later. It was only as the work of refitting her for service in the British merchant fleet began that the fully folly of buying second-hand foreign tonnage became apparent. STENA BALTICA fell woefully short of Board of Trade safety standards and especially those required for fire prevention at sea. She would spend nearly five months in the James Watt and Garvel Graving Docks as Scott's of Greenock toiled to bring her to the level required for at least a temporary passenger certificate – and she still had to return for another two months, at the close of the 1970 summer season, to complete her conversion and gain a five-year loadline certificate.

She was nevertheless able to emerge for service on Tuesday 26th May 1970, resplendent in Caley colours and bearing the proud name CALEDONIA, borne by the tough old Denny's paddler only the previous season. The dumpy little ferry – the Company's first drive-through ship and the first with twin funnels – ran trials that evening and again on Wednesday, maintaining a mean top speed of 16 ¾ knots – a good deal slower than GLEN SANNOX (who had won just over 18 knots on trials) and promising something much slower yet in service.

That was bad enough; worse, CALEDONIA was only granted Class III certification for 650 passengers in summer and, in winter, the appallingly low total of 132 on a Class IIA – the maximum who could be accommodated in her four lifeboats. “This new and unexpectedly severe regulation now governs the issue of a Class IIA winter passenger certificate to vessels registered in the UK for the first time,” sighed Iain C. MacArthur in 1971. “This posed Gourock another problem, for this expensive showpiece of STG modernisation is unable to cope even with local holiday traffic on the Brodick route during the winter months.”

CALEDONIA was nevertheless officially commissioned at Gourock on Thursday 28th May by Mrs Alexander Stewart – he still ran the CSP, but was scheduled to make way in June for John Whittle – and the end-loader finally assumed service on the Ardrossan-Brodick station on the Friday evening, 29th May. “Delays in loading and unloading vehicles were eliminated at a stroke”, records Iain McCrorie. “The CALEDONIA could comfortably turn round in twenty-five minutes. This achievement, coupled with the exclusive use of Ardrossan, saving fifteen minutes on the passage to Fairlie, allowed an extra run to be incorporated in the timetable. She therefore gave five double runs per day, with three on Sunday and three in winter. Her actual car capacity, forty, was actually less than her predecessor's,, but because of the height of the unobstructed car deck she could carry more heavy vehicles...”

She could just load fifty very small cars, at a push; but – though CALEDONIA could handle vehicles up to 13 ½ feet in height or lorries with an axle-weight up to 25 tons, and did help develop Arran's commercial traffic as a result, both dimensions were (even in the spring of 1970) below the optimum now mandatory on all new car ferries. At least her MAN diesels were set entirely below the car deck, freeing the vehicle space from obstruction – this assisted, of course, by the twin exhaust uptakes on either side. She was also the first Clyde ship (if one excludes birds of passage like the 1964 CLANSMAN) to have a bow-thrust propeller.
 

But she was not blessed with her predecessor's elegance. At 191 feet, CALEDONIA was 55 feet shorter than GLEN SANNOX. She was a little narrower (though they had a very similar gross tonnage.) She had no open deck space for passengers forward and very little aft, and her thick, dumpy appearance was further exaggerated by the absence of side-ramps or hoist. She had two fat little masts, rather too close together (one forward above the bridge; another between her twin exhaust uptakes) and she was the first Clyde vessel to have two radar scanners.

PICTURE: CalMac Postcard
Passing the Hutchinson Memorial in Oban Bay


Every ship has some redeeming feature, and CALEDONIA's glory was her accommodation, which was furnished to a high standard – she actually boasted a carpeted lounge and bar, luxury long absent from the Clyde fleet. The combined lounge/cafeteria sat forward on the promenade (or upper) deck, seating 144 passengers; there was another lounge aft. Between these lay a passenger hall, with the purser's bureau and shop. Companionways led from this area (and from the very restricted open deck aft) to the boat deck. Here sat two racks of inflatable liferafts and her four lifeboats. The bridge stood forward on the boat deck and a deck house occupied most of the rest, with officers' cabins forward and a lounge bar (with seating for fifty passengers) aft.

It was perhaps a mercy that her passenger certificate was so limited, for the mean amount of open deck area and all her narrow entrances would have made the ship quite unbearable for a four-figure complement. Another big complaint was that she offered no restaurant service of meal; the Company's self-service cafeterias were not, in 1970, of the standard they are now, and many resented having to queue for such limited and uninspiring fare as the new ferry provided.

The speed and ease with which CALEDONIA could decant and load vehicles was undoubted. What really let her down, throughout her career, were her considerable limitations as a passenger ship. The extra daily run in summer did not compensate for her very restricted certificate; GLEN SANNOX had been allowed to carry 1,100 people. Even so, CALEDONIA was quickly embarrassed by the difficulties in embarking or disembarking foot-passengers and this, rather than cars, now became the chief cause of Arran ferry delay. She had only one gangway-position and this was on an unusually high deck by Arran standards. New, elaborate mechanical gangways had to be arranged for Brodick and Ardrossan, and their precise design took time to decide and accomplish. It took more time for her crew to become as adept at unloading people as their mates down below so swiftly became at stowing her cars.

In an attempt to redistribute passenger traffic offering, the system of “embarkation tickets” - brought in latterly for GLEN SANNOX – was extended to massage the numbers traveling at peak periods. At winter weekends, in a bid to counter CALEDONIA's very limited capacity for passengers, new sailings were laid on – outward on Friday evenings and returning early on Monday mornings. Their advantage was largely nullified as they served only to increase the traffic – and the Arran folk themselves took avidly to the opportunity for extended day-trips to the mainland.

To cap everything, she was a somewhat alarming seaboat. In heavy beam-on weather CALEDONIA had a slow and singularly unpleasant roll. But, as John Whittle later wrote, “Other, more publicised problems were to beset CALEDONIA. Ardrossan Harbour has a narrow entry with the added hazard of the nearby Horse Island and in certain weather conditions posed extreme difficulty to the skippers. Speed had to be reduced when entering or leaving the harbour and this made a drive-through ferry with its high slab sides vulnerable to the wind. The resulting cancellations or diversions without doubt caused considerable inconvenience when they happened and, to put it mildly, attracted considerable publicity...”

That was mild indeed. Only that summer's fiasco at Kyleakin threatened to eclipse the CSP's besieged Arran service in the news and probably only the third CORUISK, in 2003, had a more appalling start to her CalMac career than CALEDONIA. “Never before in CSP history had a new arrival, albeit a second-hand one, enjoyed such publicity and notoriety during her first season,” mused Iain MacArthur. “Complaints of overcrowding and uncleanliness were expressed by some passengers while charges of instability and unsuitability were hurled at the newcomer...” “Seldom did a ship have such a bad press in her first few months of service. Most publicised of all were the alleged difficulties in a heavy sea, when she started to roll.” adds Ian McCrorie.

John Whittle, though, was made of sterner stuff. “BBC Television decided to follow up the publicity by arranging for an experienced naval architect to travel on the service and report his views on the Scottish news. He arrived on a day of very poor weather, with high seas and strong winds – but not quite sufficient to prevent the use of Ardrossan. The report showed him on the bridge closely studying the departure and handling on passage as the weather steadily worsened with large waves breaking over the bow and striking the front of the bridge. His conclusion that CALEDONIA was a fine sea boat and he would have no qualms about travelling on her must have allayed many fears, for – thereafter – the complaints and publicity seemed to abate.

Still, 4% of CALEDONIA sailings in 1970 had simply to be cancelled. Measures taken to enhance reliability included substantial modification to the berthing facilities at Ardrossan, carried out by Clyde Port Authority in 1975 with Caledonian MacBrayne making a sizeable contribution to the costs. The modification was designed in close consultation with the regular masters, and certainly helped them to avoid some diversions, but – in truth – there can never be a 100% guarantee at any port.” In her first year, there was an emergency stand-by when the passage could be attempted at all; arrangements (for a price) were in place for CALEDONIA to use the berth of the Belfast car ferry LION; and the Burns & Laird terminal facilities (lounge, toilets and so on) were available to Arran passengers in these circumstances.

From July 1971, CALEDONIA or the relief Arran ferry could use the new CSP linkspan at Gourock; the new berth at Ardrossan was available from April 1976. “While this obviously caused considerable inconvenience,” writes Ian McCrorie, “at least the journey would be completed and the Company did their utmost, by having bus connections and by warning the media expeditiously, to minimise the disruption. The Clyde Port Authority carried out extensive modifications at Ardrossan in 1975 but the problem did not go away. While she was never held in affection like the GLEN SANNOX, the CALEDONIA was eventually accepted by Arran folk and tourists alike.” None of this quite hid the reality that the conversion of Arran's ferry service to drive-through operation had gone sadly awry and that CALEDONIA had been a singularly inept choice for the passage.

In her first refit, that winter of 1970, the ferry's fuel and ballast tanks were repositioned and this did serve to reduce her liveliness at sea. Subtle change in holiday habits, too, slowly eased the passenger pressure on CALEDONIA; the tradition of month-long holidays altered as Arran visitors increasingly took fortnightly or even weekly vacations. As the island's tourist industry was heavily geared to self-catering accommodation – once, as a general rule, let for the month – the intense pressure at month ends started to evaporate. More and more runs were rostered for Friday and Saturday evenings, in 1972 and subsequently; but by now 1976 it was CALEDONIA's very limited capacity for cars that had become the chief embarrassment.

The commissioning of new tonnage and the full merger of the MacBrayne and CSP fleets in 1973 afforded an obvious expedient, and from the spring of 1976 CALEDONIA and the Mull ferry CLANSMAN swapped places – at least on a seasonal basis. Hitherto thirled to Arran, the CALEDONIA left the Clyde on the evening of 28th May and reached Oban at 7 am the following morning, taking up the service to Craignure on the Saturday of the English May Bank Holiday weekend. She ran rather late, that first day, and COLUMBA had to give an extra late afternoon run to help out.

CALEDONIA stern-loaded at Oban and bow-loaded at Craignure; the CLANSMAN had on occasion done this, but generally chose to stern-load at both piers, and so CALEDONIA offered the first true drive-through service to the Isle of Mull. She could manage the crossing in the scheduled forty-five minutes but the awkwardness of berthing at Craignure – it took a full five minutes to tie up and open her bow-visor, out of only fifteen minutes' turn-round time – left little margin for error, especially as it was the most hectic schedule she had ever endeavoured to keep. She only seriously struggled, however, when traffic was very heavy indeed, and her lavish covered accommodation quite gratified the people of Mull – though the local NFU were rightly irate about her inability to carry a 3-deck cattle float. CALEDONIA was also troubled by increasing technical woes – odd breakdowns and bow-visor difficulties – and, in later seasons at Mull, she found the very busy ten am morning run from Oban a considerable challenge; the Company introduced an “Early Bird Saver” fare to counter this.

PICTURE: SoC
Departing Oban in the late 80's

On Saturday 9th October, her summer duties over, CALEDONIA returned to the Clyde and resumed her summer duties later that day, releasing CLANSMAN for relief at Stornoway, etc. Thus CALEDONIA finally found a routine best suited to her dubious capacities. Each summer thereafter she sailed to Oban and gave six crossings daily each way between the mainland and Mull, with four on Sundays, though in June and September her round was finished by six o'clock. Each winter she returned to the Arran run, the off-season traffic being more within her capabilities, and the Company increasingly resorted to supplying a back-up vessel for passengers – in later seasons, usually PIONEER – at especially busy periods. In 1981 CalMac even initiated talks with Waverley Steam Navigation Ltd. for winter charter of the newly acquired SHANKLIN – shortly re-dubbed PRINCE IVANHOE – for this purpose; any deal evaporated with the PRINCE IVANHOE's tragic shipwreck that August 1981.

CALEDONIA saw little service beyond Arran and Mull. On 26May 1977 she gave a special charter sailing from Kyle of Lochalsh to a new Howard-Doris oil platform at Loch Kishorn, carrying a VIP party from the Design Council to view the behemoth, and on Saturday 29th October 1983 she gave a charter cruise to Tarbert Loch Fyne, bolted on to her mid-morning Ardrossan-Brodick run. Her most spectacular outing fell on 29th June 1986 when CALEDONIA paid her only visit to the Outer Hebrides – to Lochboisdale, with a backlog of commercial vehicles. (COLUMBA undertook the six pm return run to Craignure for her on this occasion.) Her winter use at Arran was largely eliminated with the commissioning of the ISLE OF ARRAN in April 1984; each winter thereafter, save for a month's relief on the station, CALEDONIA generally lay idle in the James Watt Dock at Greenock, and in the winter of 1986/87 she was not required for Arran relief at all. Her usual relief at Mull was, ironically, the GLEN SANNOX, whose services the folk of that island would have dearly loved to secure permanently.

But in truth CALEDONIA remained too small, too slow (her service speed was actually reduced in the 1980s from fourteen to a mere twelve knots, in a bid to counter her atrocious fuel economy) and too foreign; by 1986, CalMac were determined to win a purpose-built replacement. 1987 was CALEDONIA's last summer season in CalMac service; at Mull, she was hit more than once by breakdown and, as traffic continued remorselessly to expand, needed rather frequent assistance by the hoist-loading COLUMBA – merely for passengers in March, but for vehicles subsequently. Fog, storm, late trains, a dodgy bow-visor, the odd very awkward and very articulated lorry and her frequent mechanical difficulties also served to make CALEDONIA's final season an excessively exciting one. She was already on the sale-list – with construction of her successor under way at Port Glasgow – and over the weekend of 26th/27th September 1987, a purchaser having been found, the “Caledonian MacBrayne” lettering on her hull was painted out.
CALEDONIA performed her last sailings for the Company, from Oban to Craignure, on Wednesday 21st October 1987 and then humiliatingly ceded the service to GLEN SANNOX, sailing that afternoon for the Clyde. The weather was stormy and she was forced to abandon her overnight anchorage in Rothesay Bay, sailing rather pathetically round the Firth through the night and into the morning – in the company of COLUMBA – until the winds abated. She finally berthed in the James Watt Dock at noon on 22nd October, moving occasionally to allow the latter ship out and in for overhaul. Her sale was at last finalised on Wednesday 23rd December and CALEDONIA was handed over to her new owner, Mr John Docherty of Broughty Ferry, who hoped to renovate her for static use at Dundee. CALEDONIA had already lost the lions from her funnels and needed minor repairs over the New Year weekend after dunting COLUMBA in the dock on 29th December “and also having a minor disagreement with the dock wall.”

CALEDONIA finally left the Clyde on Monday 4th January 1988 – under the passing command of Captain David Neill, best known as master of the WAVERLEY – and reached Dundee safely on the morning of Wednesday 6th. Later that day she moved into the Victoria Dock where workmen soon arrived to undertake her conversion.

Yet floating restaurant proposals came to nothing – Dundee had already proved almost a graveyard for the BALMORAL in that regard – and, a year later, the CALEDONIA was sold on, to Bay of Naples purchaser Linee Lauro, who soon had her in service between Pozzuoli and Ischia as the HEIDI. She was soon found to be sailing, on duties for which she seems to be well suited, though her lack of speed is a cause of some complaint on the busy crossing. The former CALEDONIA was later found in the green and yellow livery of Traghetti Pozzuoli – a far cry from the great islands of Arran or Mull, where this well-meaning ship is recalled with little affection.

PICTURE: SoC
Departing Oban for Craignure.
Iona lies at the second berth.


PICTURE: SoC
Laid-up in JWD awaiting disposal.

CALEDONIA unfortunately recently sank at her berth in Naples only to be raised and towed to Turkey for scrapping. A sad end to a ferry that meant well, but was never really appreciated in the CalMac fleet.

Text thanks to John MacLeod & SoC Crew (C)
 

PICTURE: Iain G Sinclair
Sank at her berth (left)...

PICTURE:
...and raised again.


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