Crossing Time: 60 Minutes
Regular Ship: Loch Portain
Berneray - Leverburgh
Berneray - Harris
1996 - 2003: Loch Bhrusda
2003 - Present: Loch Portain
Loch Linnhe / Loch Tarbert
Berneray: The ferry berths here when not in service. Loading is by concrete slipway, suitable at all states of the tide. There's an adequate waiting area for vehicles and passengers.
Leverburgh: Simple concrete slipway and minimalist pier used for berthing. Electronic displays giving departure details to waiting passengers. Cafe adjacent to the slipway.
The shallow and treacherous Sound of Harris may only be a relatively distance from Harris to Berneray and North Uist but the current ferry crossing takes an hour to cover the nine nautical miles and involves some hairpin course changes along the way.
The islands of Harris and North Uist were always traditionally connected by the 'Uig Triangle' ferry, using the termini at Tarbert and Lochmaddy respectively. This crossing of almost two hours duration meant that for many years there would only be one, perhaps two crossings available each day - and the majority of those would be routed via Uig on Skye, doubling the journey time in the process. A direct service, bypassing Skye was available – a passenger ferry called Endeavour of Berneray offered the service before being replaced by a new vehicle service in 1996. The service was entrusted to CalMac to run and the operator of the Endeavour of Berneray joined the crew of the new service which opened with the 1820 sailing from Berneray on 8th June, returning from Leverburgh at 1935.
The ferry intended for this crossing was actually a newbuild and arrived on the scene in June of that year. The Loch Bhrusda was a revolutionary ferry for CalMac in that she was the first 'Loch' to use a propulsion system other than Voith Schneider units. Instead, the system adopted was a water jet system - and for very good reason. The Sound of Harris is notoriously shallow and some its more dangerous features are sandbanks and rocky reefs. It was decided that the new ferry should not have anything protruding out below the hull - thus ruling out propellers.
The Loch Bhrusda entered service on the new crossing, and although she was late into service, soon became very busy and indeed often sailed full. Her route took her originally from Otternish on North Uist before a causeway was built across to Berneray. Once away from her terminals, the ferry had to follow a set route, marked by buoys due to the nature of the Sound of Harris. Indeed when she first entered service there was a rule laid down that unless the next two buoys ahead were visible, the vessel had to stop dead in her tracks. It was also not unknown for the ferry to come to a rest on a sandbank and have to wait for the tide to rise a little.
Through the remainder of the 1990s she developed the route quite considerably in terms of traffic levels. In the first years of the new millennium it was realised that the Loch Bhrusda would soon be leaving for service elsewhere...
The reason for the Loch Bhrusda's departure was all down to her success and bookings were essential for prospective travellers if they wanted to be assured of a place onboard. From her home on Merseyside came a new and larger ferry in 2003; the Loch Portain and like the Loch Bhrusda, the new ship was propelled by water jets. With a capacity for 32 cars this newcomer was something of a giant compared to her predecessor and when she took over the service in the spring of 2003 she all but obliterated the queues in one go. Up to four return crossings a day could be provided however the timetable continued to be subject to alteration during spring tides.
The Loch Portain’s arrival also allowed commercial traffic to develop. Her car deck was much better laid out and there were no height restrictions at either side which was a limiting factor on Loch Bhrusda. More coaches and wagons could be accommodated on each sailing.
Loch Bhrusda returned to the fray each year, towards the end of the winter timetable to allow the larger ferry to make for the Clyde and her annual drydocking. There had been plans initially to run a second ferry while Loch Bhrusda was providing cover however this didn’t materialise.