The Loch Class Vessels
The ‘Loch Class’ ferries are widely seen as a creation to take over from the small ‘Island Class’ ferries of the 1970s and increase capacity on the various routes they took charge of. It can however be argued that the origins of these vessels can be traced as far back as 1970 – two years before the first ‘Island Class’ ship; Kilbrannan was launched.
In 1969 the short crossing to Kyleakin on Skye was at this time served by several small side loading ferries; Portree, Broadford and Coruisk, each carrying about 8 or 9 cars on their open car decks, and two smaller ships; Lochalsh, and Kyleakin. Between them they were responsible for keeping the main means of access to Skye running smoothly, however problems at Kyle of Lochalsh had reached unacceptable levels in terms of traffic queues and a new solution was urgently required.
In 1970 the first example of a major revolution in transport up the west coast was brought into service – the new Kyleakin. Her design was very simple in that she had a large open car deck, wide enough to take four lanes of eight cars. Passenger accommodation took the form of a lounge and upper deck running down one side of the car deck, on top of which was the wheelhouse. At either end of the vessel there was a hydraulically operated ramp which was lowered onto the slipways at Kyle and Kyleakin, allowing cars and passengers to board or disembark simultaneously. She was also propelled by Voith Schneider units at either end of the hull. These units allowed for a high degree of manoeuvrability – a feature often required in the winter storms! The Kyleakin entered service in mid August 1970 and was an instant success.
Her sister and permanent running mate Lochalsh, a vessel of the same design and differing only in the mast arrangements, joined her the following year. This drive through design proved to be highly successful. No more was there a need for ferries to tie up alongside the pier – the rotating propeller units were easily able to hold the vessel in position at the slipway. Nor was there a need for drivers to manoeuvre their vehicles into position on the car deck, for they now just drove onto the car deck and parked in one of the four lanes. The design was also successful because it allowed vessels to be highly interchangeable – especially those built later on. Indeed the Isle of Cumbrae which was loosely based on the Skye ferries spent winter months assisting and relieving on the Kyle crossing.
It can be argued that the Kyleakin and Lochalsh were indeed the forerunners of the many ‘Loch Class’ ships that we now see plying to and from the many islands served by Caledonian MacBrayne today. Indeed, in 1977 when a new vessel was required for the Largs – Cumbrae Slip crossing on the Clyde, the result was a smaller version of the two Skye ferries. Isle of Cumbrae took over the route in April 1978 from the redundant Largs and Coruisk, both of which were replaced at Skye in 1970 and subsequently converted to bow-loading. Isle of Cumbrae carried 18 cars on her open car deck in three lanes of 6. She too had passenger accommodation down her starboard side and also had ramps at each end of the car deck, which were of a two-part folding design, like the ‘Island Class’ ferries, and it was this design of ramp that became the adopted design; seen in all the subsequent vessels.
The new Cumbrae vessel was able to carry 18 cars in each direction to and from Largs every half hour and as a result the queues which had a regular occurrence, simply didn’t get the chance to form. This was the case until the mid 1980s when it was increasingly evident that several routes would benefit by receiving new ships. It was then that the new wave of ferries were ordered, delivered and put into service.
CalMac had identified four routes which required improvements in capacity; Largs – Cumbrae Slip, Colintraive – Rhubodach, Lochranza – Claonaig and Fishnish – Lochaline. Three of these routes were still in the care of bow loading ships, the fourth being in need of a ferry, or ferries that could simply carry more cars. And so it was that in July 1986 the first two of four new ferries began their careers. The Loch Striven and sister Loch Linnhe initially started their careers many miles apart, at Cumbrae partnering the Isle of Cumbrae and solo at Lochaline, replacing the little Canna respectively. This arrangement lasted for a month before the Loch Linnhe and the Isle of Cumbrae switched places.
The new ferries were English built and were again a development of the previous design. They were built with passenger capacities in mind and for this reason they had passenger accommodation down each side of the ship and only two vehicle lanes on the rather cramped car deck. Following their settling-in periods the new ferries handled the Cumbrae run and all its traffic with ease.
Ferry number three joined the fleet in the autumn of the same year and took over as sole ship on the crossing from Colintraive to Rhubodach on Bute. The arrival of the new Loch Riddon spelt the end for the previous incumbent ferries Portree and Broadford which were sold out of the fleet. The last of the four sisters, the Loch Ranza, entered service in 1987 on the ‘back-door’ to Arran, replacing the little Rhum on the half-hour sailing from Arran to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula. The introduction of these four sisters proved to be of huge benefit to not only the routes they were attached to, but also indirectly to the Lochaline – Fishnish crossing which now boasted a vessel that carried three times the number of cars as her predecessor. Drivers could now turn up at the terminal and be virtually guaranteed of a space on the next sailing. The Isle of Cumbrae also allowed a development of commercial traffic on the route – something which was prevented prior to her arrival as the Canna was just too small.
It was to be another four years before new ferries joined the ‘Loch Class’ family. In 1990 traffic had built up once again on the short crossing to Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh that 24 hour running was introduced and the resident ferries were starting to struggle to carry all of the traffic being presented for shipment. As was now the recognised solution, two new ‘Lochs’ were built – the largest such vessels to see service. Loch Dunvegan and Loch Fyne took over the route without much ceremony and the smaller Kyleakin and Lochalsh were sold for further service in Ireland.
The new sisters could each carry 36 cars and 250 passengers across to Skye on every crossing. To speed up the process of loading and unloading, their ramps were adjusted so as to allow them to be fixed in an ‘unfolded’ state, like the former Skye ferries. Following in the tradition set by their predecessors, one of the new twins would carry out the overnight sailings as well as being joined by the other for the peak sailings (ie in daylight hours).
Unfortunately though, the Loch Dunvegan and Loch Fyne were already counting down their final days on the Kyleakin crossing even when they entered service because of the go-ahead being given to the Skye Bridge project. The understanding was that the ships would be moved to another route upon being made redundant. Nevertheless the two ‘Superlochs’ as some called them, continued to serve Skye well until the end on a grey day in October 1995 when the concrete bridge was finally opened. The Loch Dunvegan and Loch Fyne then retired to the James Watt Dock and were laid up awaiting sale – despite the original condition set down at the time of construction.
While all this was going on up north, events were unfolding elsewhere in the CalMac network too. The Fionnphort – Iona crossing which had, since 1979 been in the care of the Morvern had seen an explosion in the numbers of tourists travelling to Iona since the introduction of the Isle of Mull in the Oban – Craignure route in 1988. By 1992 the Morvern had become simply too small to cope with the volumes of passengers that were now a regular occurrence on a summer’s day. Even with the spare ferry Canna and later the Rhum to assist between 11.00am and 3.00pm it was clear that a larger ferry was required. At the same time it was also becoming clear that the Loch Ranza was feeling the strain at the Claonaig – Lochranza run, as the route became more popular with tourists. Here too, the only solution was to bring in a larger replacement. The two new ferries duly arrived on the scene during 1992. First out and into the water was the Loch Buie. She differed somewhat to all the previous members of the class in that her car deck had a height obstruction in the form of an additional lounge that spanned the width of the vessel towards the bow. She had a car capacity of 10 which was deemed adequate for her intended role at Iona (only islanders’ cars are conveyed) After a mishap involving a Voith Schneider unit and the slipway which required repairs and a spell off duty, Loch Buie finally entered service in spring 1992, seeing off the Island Class from the Sound of Iona.
The other new arrival of 1992 was the Loch Tarbert on the Claonaig crossing. She was built by the same yard as was the Loch Buie earlier in the year and was basically identical in hull design – but the similarity ended just about there. The car deck was three lanes wide, displacing the port side passenger lounge, although there was an upper deck suspended above the car deck on the port side. The starboard accommodation was retained, giving the new ferry a car capacity of 18 – a 50% increase on the Loch Ranza. Upon her arrival in 1992, another cascade of vessels occurred. This time the Loch Ranza was given to the people of Gigha as their dedicated ferry – and introducing drive-through facilicites there for the first time. In turn she replaced the bow-loading Bruernish. This was another clear example of how these ‘Lochs’ were able to bring about improvements on the routes they served on.
There was another gap before more ferries arrived on the scene and it was 1996 when this eventually happened. A new route had been identified and earmarked for development across the shallow Sound of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The purpose of this route was to remove the double-legging runs that Hebridean Isles often did on the Uig triangle, to Tarbert on Harris and then to Lochmaddy on North Uist. The new route would allow the Uig ferry to concentrate on making all sailings from Uig direct to one island or the other as opposed to in series. The depth of the water in the Sound of Harris basically dictated the type of ferry that would be required and so in 1996 another variant of the ‘Lochs’ arrived on the scene – the Loch Bhrusda. The depth of the water also suggested that an alternative propulsion system should be fitted instead of the tried and tested Voith Schneider system. The reason for this was to ensure nothing protruded out beneath the hull. A water jet system was chosen for the new Mersey-built ferry, although this required a lot of practice for the ship to be handled well.
Loch Bhrusda also varied in overall appearance too. She was the first ‘Loch’ to have a bridge that straddled the car deck – although given the torturous channels she would have to navigate this was clearly the common sense decision, as opposed to having a lower bridge on the starboard side of the ferry. Her accommodation layout was basically the same as the Loch Tarbert in that she had 3 lanes on her car deck and her passenger lounge was along the starboard side of the hull. Her home ports were Leverburgh on Harris and at first Otternish on North Uist, although this changed to Berneray upon completion of the causeway to the small island soon after she entered service. The new route became an instant hit with vehicle reservations becoming all but essential by the end of the 1996 season.
A further new vessel followed in the summer of 1997. Initially named Loch Aline she was renamed Loch Alainn prior to entering service as it was realised that the original name was already in use. As her name suggests, she was built for the Fishnish – Lochaline crossing which had for 11 years been served by the Isle of Cumbrae. The latter ferry was once again finding it difficult to cope with the traffic levels on the increasingly popular crossing from Mull to Morvern, and her small car deck was limiting potential commercial traffic growth.
The new Loch Alainn entered service spending a short while on the Colintraive crossing as a ships cascade was just starting and there were a number of vessels switched from one route to another. Firstly the Loch Riddon was moved to the Cumbrae run in place of the Loch Striven, which in turn went to the Western Isles to serve the island of Raasay (replacing the Raasay in the process). Loch Alainn spent a short while filling in on the Kyles of Bute before switching with the Isle of Cumbrae in July of that year. Her new career on the Fishnish crossing did not go according to plan however and berthing problems on Mull at low tide coupled with a major engine failure forced her removal from service after only a month in service. At this point we go back to the two 'Super Lochs’ which had since October 1995 been languishing in a dock awaiting sale. Fortunately any potential sale deals had fallen through and the Loch Dunvegan was hastily sent to the Sound of Mull to take over the Lochaline crossing. This was not to be either as she sat down on the job shortly after taking up service too. It then fell to the only remaining vessel available, the Loch Fyne, to take up residence in the Sound of Mull and keep the route open. Barring overhauls and a brief spell at Mallaig, she was to remain the Lochaline – Fishnish ferry for almost twenty years.
The Loch Alainn was brought back into service again in February 1998, following repairs, although this time on the Colintraive crossing for a short while before switching with the Isle of Cumbrae once more and taking up a new permanent residence at Largs in May. The Isle of Cumbrae had been at her old haunts following the transfer of the Loch Linnhe to the Tarbert – Portavadie crossing on Loch Fyne. Upon the Loch Alainn’s arrival at Largs she returned to the Kyles of Bute for the rest of the 1998 season. It is a tribute to these ferries that they can be readily moved around the network. Had this not been possible following the Loch Alainn’s failure in 1997 then there would have been severe disruption as the only spare vessels would have been the Island Class ferries that had survived the sales of 1992 and 1995.
The changes had not ended however, for the Loch Dunvegan’s return to regular service on the Kyles of Bute crossing allowed one further cascade to take place. The Isle of Cumbrae was transferred to the Tarbert – Portavadie crossing which in turn allowed the Loch Linnhe to move into the Western Isles to take up service on another ‘back door’ route to Mull – this time from Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. This she duly did and displaced yet another Island Class ferry that had previously been looking after the route. This crossing was also to benefit with the coming of the drive through ferry and capacity was doubled. Coupled with the extra capacity the Loch Fyne brought further down the Sound of Mull, CalMac were in a position to expand their range of day trips on offer to tourists, such as the Ardnamurchan Circular (a hopscotch ticket covering mull, Ardnamurchan and Morvern in a day).
Although not strictly a member of the ‘Loch Class’ a new vessel was launched in 2000. Named Lochnevis she was a replacement for the 20 year old Lochmor on the Small Isles run out of Mallaig. She was only single ended but was versatile in that she was readily able to use both slipways and linkspans with her huge stern ramp. She was a far superior ferry to the Lochmor and was quickly accepted by the Small Isles residents. Following sea trials on the Clyde, she called at Colintraive for berthing trials and also visited Sconser for the same reason – this was nothing to do with the need to provide cover on those routes; rather to demonstrate the vessel’s ability to berth at the slipways alongside structures that were to be installed at Rum, Eigg and Muck in due course. Canna already had its pier and it was simply a case of a new slipway to be built next to it. These piers were duly constructed and ready for use in 2004.
The next chapter in this story came in 2003 when the inevitable occurred and just seven years after her introduction, the Loch Bhrusda was replaced on the Sound of Harris crossing by a larger fleetmate. The new Loch Portain was actually a foreign vessel; the hull being constructed abroad and then shipped over to the UK. Capable of carrying 32 cars, she offers a 100% increase in capacity in comparison to her predecessor. Her appearance was quite different to any of the other ‘Lochs’; with her accommodation being located well above the car deck. She alleviated the capacity problems on the Sound of Harris crossing for the time being? However experience has shown time and again that as a new larger vessel is introduced on a route, traffic levels will eventually grow to meet what is on offer. Soon after this happens demand begins to exceed supply and it becomes time for another new ferry – and so the cycle continues. Loch Portain’s arrival meant that Loch Bhrusda was freed up to take over another route, bringing it into CalMac’s network – that between Ardmhor in the north of Barra and the tiny island of Eriskay. The loudest ferry in the fleet duly moved south and took over the Sound of Barra route from the Loch Linnhe, temporarily running until the Loch Bhrusda arrived on the scene.
The next chapter came in 2007 and attention turned back to the Clyde once more. The Largs - Cumbrae Slip route was identified as in need for greater capacity and the contract to build a new ferry was duly signed with Ferguson’s up at Port Glasgow. Named Loch Shira, the new Cumbrae ferry took her place at Largs in early June 2007, replacing the Loch Alainn. For some time it had been known that the Loch Alainn was to be sent into the Western Isles. She had run trials in February that year on the Sound of Barra service, with a view to taking over there once the new Cumbrae ferry had arrived and after a couple of weeks lying as back-up ferry at the wires at Gourock, Loch Alainn did indeed venture out across the Minch and displaced the Loch Bhrusda from regular service. The smaller ferry was now relegated to the role of spare vessel, to lie idle at Fairlie, Gourock or Sandbank until required for relief work. This new role actually expanded her area of operation and she subsequently saw service at Cumbrae, Lismore, the Small Isles, Armadale and Raasay, as well as charter work to Glensanda and of course annual stints back in the Outer Hebrides.
The Loch Shira settled in well on the Clyde and quickly became popular with those she served. She still ran in partnership with the Loch Riddon, whose car deck had no height restriction. Apart from initial teething troubles which required Voith engineers from Germany, her introduction was relatively smooth. The ship she replaced, the Loch Alainn, settled down equally well at the Sound of Barra with few, if any disruptions during her first summer there.
It was to be the next decade before any more new ferries were constructed. With a fanfare of publicity, a new project involving hybrid technology led to the development of three double-ended ferries between 2012 and 2016. The first of these, Hallaig, was destined for the Raasay service. She was intended to be in service for the summer of 2013 but the inevitable delays involved with new technology and the regulations and MCA requirements associated with it meant that it was to be the end of October before she was able to enter service and replace the Loch Striven. Lochinvar followed in 2014 and was deployed to the Tarbert – Portavadie crossing. This should have spelled the end for the Isle of Cumbrae, however technical problems meant she was kept at Tarbert on standby. The final hybrid ferry was earmarked for the Claonaig – Lochranza route and took up the role in late summer 2016. She would also take up the winter combined service from Tarbert to Portavadie and Lochranza.
The hybrid ships enabled the ferries they replaced to be redeployed elsewhere. Loch Striven, after a spell of Clyde relief, found herself based in Oban as she took over the Lismore service from the faithful Eigg. Isle of Cumbrae, as mentioned above, was kept at Tarbert as a standby while teething problems were ironed out on the Lochinvar. She was back in service on the Tarbert – Portavadie run from the start of the 2016 season, for Lochinvar had been transferred to the Mallaig – Armadale run. Loch Tarbert meanwhile was moved to from Lochranza to Tobermory, where she became the regular ferry on the Kilchoan service, displacing Loch Linnhe and demoting her to a relief role.
The other designated spare boat, Loch Bhrusda, was moved up to Mallaig in 2016 where she became part of a highly unusual three-ship service to Skye. The Coruisk had been redeployed to Mull amid a storm of controversy and the Armadale service was a hotch-potch of sailings by Lochinvar, Loch Bhrusda and Lord of the Isles, in between her Lochboisdale sailings. The season was dogged by problems – Lochinvar was unable to load vehicles at certain states of the tide because of the angle of her ramps and the linkspans. The following season’s solution saw Lochinvar being switched with the larger Loch Fyne and she took over the popular Lochaline – Fishnish route while Loch Fyne had her ramps modified to suit the linkspans at Mallaig and Armadale.
And so the story of the Lochs is up date. Just as the ‘Island Class’ ferries of the 1970s did, they have not only served to meet traffic on the secondary routes but also to actually generate it. As this trend continues, it is surely just a matter of time before the cycle starts all over again and yet more new ferries will be needed. With the perceived lack of investment in the ferry fleet, especially obvious when compared to the 1980s and 1990s, showing no signs of abating, it is likely that the current fleet will not be added to for several years yet.
Text from SoC Crew