Main The Fleet Ships of the Fleet Isle of Lewis History

By the early 1990s, after nearly twenty years of faithful service by the SUILVEN, the Ullapool – Stornoway route was in urgent need of attention. The crossing still took nearly four hours in the hands of the Norwegian import and the old SUILVEN was beginning to show her age, especially when compared to vessels such as HEBRIDEAN ISLES, ISLE OF MULL and CALEDONIAN ISLES.
It didn’t come as a huge shock when CalMac announced they were inviting yards to tender for the contract to build a new vessel specifically for the most northerly route in the network. What the route really needed at this point was for a large vessel which was capable of dealing with the many tourist vehicles and coach-borne foot passengers as well as the numerous wagons which required shipment from the mainland. With this in mind, the dimensions of the proposed newbuild were increased from what had previously been the norm; from a width of 15.8m to 18m and a length in excess of 100m. Her increased width meant that there were very few ports she could actually be accommodated at. The new ferry was going to be the largest to sail in the fleet – just as the SUILVEN had been from 1974 to 1988 when ISLE OF MULL was introduced.

Ferguson’s of Port Glasgow were awarded the contract and set about constructing CalMac’s new flagship on the slipway, just a stone’s throw from the A78. Motorists using the dual carriageway between Glasgow and Greenock on a regular basis were able to watch the new ship taking shape over the course of a year or so. Up on the slipway she towered over the shipyard buildings. From the road outside, it looked as though the bow of the newbuild was actually poking out over the top of the offices and lying directly over the main road!

was launched on 18th April 1995. In terms of appearance she was a further development of the ISLE OF MULL and CALEDONIAN ISLES design in that she had a fully enclosed car deck. She was actually the last ship of this design to be built for the company to date. Her passenger accommodation was spread over two decks further up, and one of these decks also incorporated crew accommodation.

Picture: SoC Crew
Running the Skelmorlie measured mile

Picture: SoC Crew
Arriving at Stornoway behind Isle of Arran

Fitting out was carried out a short distance away and by mid July the ISLE OF LEWIS was ready to go. Her sea trials were carried out on the Clyde, where she dwarfed all other fleet members in a style reminiscent of SUILVEN's arrival in 1974. Her powerful engines gave her a top speed of around 19 knots and allowed a regular service speed of 18 knots. Not only the largest member of the fleet but also now the fastest too. After collecting  her gangways and some crew cars, she left Ardrossan in the last few days of July 1995 and proceeded into the Western Isles and the Minch to her new home. Berthing trials were undertaken at Uig, Lochmaddy and Tarbert on the way up to Lewis in order to assess her suitability on the ‘triangle’, should she ever be required to cover there.

New facilities to accommodate the ISLE OF LEWIS had been approved but these were not ready in time for her arrival and entry into service. When she arrived at Stornoway for the first time, she had to edge into what is now the old freight berth. As with the ship she was to replace, the new arrival lay bow-in on Lewis and stern-in on the mainland. Her greater width meant her stern ramp had to be off-set to port, otherwise she could not load from the Ullapool linkspan. Her bow ramp, although in the centre of the ship, had to have its forward section ‘aimed’ to starboard so as to land correctly on the Stornoway linkspan.

Picture: Chris Murray
Riding the swell in the Minch

Berthing trials were undertaken at both ports and her crossing time was very impressive – around 2 hours and 45 minutes which shaved at least 45 minutes off the previous duration.  While she lay in Stornoway on 30th July, her crew committed what many islanders consider the ultimate sin – they worked on a Sunday! Adjustments were made to the bow ramp in an attempt to increase its speed when being raised and lowered. These seemed to be successful and the following day she entered public service, assisting the SUILVEN with heavy traffic. The older ship stood down on 1st August and lay in Stornoway for a few days while the ISLE OF LEWIS settled in. With no need for back-up cover, SUILVEN left Lewis for the final time a few days later and a new era began on the Ullapool – Stornoway route.

Initially there were problems in keeping to the new timetable, and the ISLE OF LEWIS did run up to two hours late in the first few weeks of her career, but as her crew became more familiar with the loading arrangements on the huge car deck, faster turn-round times were achieved and by the end of the summer she was able to keep to her schedule.

was easily able to accommodate all the traffic demanding shipment. Her vehicle capacity was for upwards of 120 while her spacious passenger decks could comfortably hold nearly 700 passengers. Her car deck was split into two by a central column. Her port side car deck was three lanes wide while that on the starboard side was two lanes wide. Also along each side was a mezzanine deck which could be raised or lowered according to the traffic requirements. Access from the car deck to the passenger areas was via two stairways, one on either side of the hull.
Picture: SoC Crew
Entering Stornoway harbour
Picture: SoC Crew
Berthing at Ullapool

The stairways brought passengers out in the entrance square on deck 4. This was also the area where the passenger gangways were lined up and also housed the vessel’s information desk. Forward of the entrance square was the massive cafeteria which overlooked the bow and occupied the full width of the ship. Heading aft, one found a designated dog area and a truckers quiet lounge before reaching the reclining lounge and bar at the stern. There were four means of access from deck 4 to deck 5. One was from a stairway from the information desk leading up to the port side promenade deck while another one went from the entrance square up to the observation lounge. There was also access from the cafeteria up to the observation lounge near the bow, while towards the aft and on the starboard side there was a stairway from the reclining lounge to the starboard promenade deck.

Open deck space was not something the ISLE OF LEWIS was short of. Deck 5 consisted of the observation lounge at the bow, crew accommodation further aft and also incorporated an open promenade deck stretching right down both sides of the ship from a point immediately aft of the observation lounge, right to the stern. There were also four stairways leading up to the top deck which was again open and provided copious amounts of seating for those passengers either taking advantage of the summer sun, or more often for those brave souls taking on the Atlantic gales which are not unknown at that particular latitude… The only feature that the ship could have done with which would have been a big popularity winner would have been to include an open deck forward of the observation lounge so that passengers could take in the scenery outside and not be stuck in the lounge.

The new ferry’s schedule called for two sailings a day from September to May and then three sailings daily during the high summer timetable in operation during June, July and August. Of course, Sunday sailings were still not included in the timetable due to local objections among some islanders, despite annual calls for seven-day sailings from others. With the exception of a few relief or additional sailings on the Uig – Tarbert – Lochmaddy routes and her first ever visit to Oban on the morning of Saturday 18th February 2006 (for refueling purposes), the ISLE OF LEWIS has not sailed on any routes other than her own. For her first few winters, when she sailed for annual overhauls, her space was taken by the smaller ISLE OF MULL for around three weeks, although from 1998 the favoured relief ship was slightly larger, in the shape of CLANSMAN. Neither vessel was as popular due to their slower speeds, but at least CLANSMAN was able to complete the crossing in 3 hours 15 minutes.

Picture: SoC Crew
Heading into Oban Bay for refuelling

An interesting problem did arise shortly after the ISLE OF LEWIS arrived. Over the years, many passengers did complain about a loud banging noise which could be heard in rough weather and some were worried by this. The root of the problem lay in the shape of the vessel’s underside and her lower bow. The banging was caused by waves hitting the bow at an awkward angle which itself was a result of the vessel’s greater width. Another complaint, really from the outset but voiced more often in recent years was the fact that, although she was the fastest ship of the fleet, she could still only sail at 18 knots. What the regular users really wanted was a ship that could achieve 21 or 22 knots and complete the crossing in a little over two hours. There was speculation that she would be re-engined in recent years but as yet these rumours have come to nothing.

Despite being only 11 years old, the ISLE OF LEWIS does sail full on a regular basis. In 2003 a dedicated freight vessel was brought in to reduce hauliers dependence on the daytime sailings but even so, passengers still find themselves on very busy crossings, particularly on the 1715 from Ullapool. Whilst there are no plans for her to be redeployed and replaced by an even larger ship, this cannot be ruled out for one day in the next few years. A vessel of her size could, providing piers and linkspans were adapted to suit her, be a great asset on routes such as Ardrossan – Brodick where there has been much growth in traffic in recent years.

Watch this space…

Text thanks to SoC Crew (C)

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