Crossing Time: 25 Minutes
Regular Ship: Catriona (Winter) / Isle of Cumbrae (Summer)
Tarbert (Loch Fyne) - Portavadie
Mainland - Mainland
(Kintyre - Cowal)
1995 - 1996 Rhum (Seasonal)
1998: Bruernish/Loch Linnhe
1999 - 2014: Isle of Cumbrae (Summer) / Loch Tarbert / Loch Riddon (Winter)
2016 - Present: Isle of Cumbrae (Summer) / Catriona (Winter)
Various members of the Island Class and Loch Class vessels on relief.
Tarbert: A small vehicle queuing area before the concrete slipway, sticking out into East Loch Tarbert. There is also a car park next to the slipway, with sufficient space for a dozen or so cars. For foot passengers there is a small shelter just up from the slipway. Nearby there is the village of Tarbert with various shops and supplies.
Portavadie: Very few facilities here. Brand new waiting room and toilets at the top of the slipway. There are seven spaces in the vehicle queue and a bus stop just round the corner. No other facilities to be found at this terminal other than a small car park and an electronic sign giving ferry times and phone numbers.
The ferry across Loch Fyne had been wanted for several years before it actually materialised. Drivers wishing to get from Cowal to Kintyre or vice versa were faced with an arduous drive of around 80 miles around the top end of Loch Fyne – a drive that would often take over two hours. It was for this reason that the ferry was started initially on a trial season to see if there was potential for growth.
1994 saw the slipways completed adjacent to the sailing club in Tarbert and in a sheltered bay at Portavadie on the eastern shores of Loch Fyne, ten minutes’ drive from Tighnabruaich. The long awaited crossing became a reality and was a joint venture between CalMac and Argyll & the Isles Enterprise. Initially the route was in the hands of the well-travelled veteran Island Class ferry Rhum.
To say the trial season was a success is an understatement. If anything a vessel the size of Rhum provided insufficient capacity and towards the end of the 1994 season, as word spread about the new service, she began leaving traffic behind more and more – quite an achievement for a service very much in its infancy.
The following two seasons saw Rhum return to Loch Fyne after her spells on winter relief duties. Unfortunately though, because the route at that time was only seasonal, there was a limit to how much growth could be achieved in terms of traffic carried. Perhaps inevitably, a limited winter timetable was offered in the late 1990s. In fact this killed two birds with one stone for the ferry was also utilised between Portavadie sailings to provide tanker runs to Lochranza on Arran. (Caledonian Isles was unable to convey the tankers due to her enclosed car deck).
By this time also, greater capacity was required and the winter seasons often saw either Loch Linnhe or Loch Striven being used. It wasn’t until the 1998 season started that full drive-through operation was brought in all year round and even then it was only as a result of unforeseen circumstances elsewhere. Loch Alainn, less than a year old and having broken down and been permanently replaced at Lochaline, now needed employment after lengthy repairs. She was sent to Largs as main Cumbrae ferry, displacing Loch Linnhe and it was she (who also saw her first service briefly at Lochaline 12 years earlier) that became the regular ferry at Portavadie. Days of reversing on or off were gone and commercial traffic could now use the route. Coaches now had a viable alternative option to get over to Kintyre.
Loch Linnhe was not remain in charge for long however, for 1999 saw Isle of Cumbrae freed up from the Kyles of Bute and moved a few miles west. With a further 50% increase in car capacity and a longer operating day the scene was set for the next fifteen years. Isle of Cumbrae would serve from the start of the summer timetable (usually late March) to late October. The winter months would see Loch Tarbert and then Loch Riddon providing the combined Portavadie and Lochranza service.
Fast forward to 2014 and change was afoot. Hybrid technology was the buzz-word of the day and the small ferry fleet was CalMac’s testing ground. The first hybrid to arrive was destined for Raasay. The following year it was the Isle of Cumbrae facing redundancy as the new Lochinvar arrived on the scene. New shoreside infrastructure was installed at Tarbert, enabling the new ferry to charge her batteries overnight. The larger Lochinvar continued with the established timetable, starting work with the 0800 sailing and finishing up to 12 hours later in the high summer. Her capacity of 22 cars meant she could take all the traffic being thrown at her.
Normally this would be the end of the story if the usual pattern were being followed; too much traffic > new vessel required > bigger ferry takes over > traffic problems gone… However this time matters elsewhere intervened and the Lochinvar was called away for the 2016 season in the Western Isles. The Isle of Cumbrae returned to regular service once more after spending 2015 as spare vessel. She is well suited to the route and is popular with her crew. Summers are now in her care while the winter months nowadays usually see the third hybrid ferry, Catriona plying back and forth.