19th April 1974
Current / Last Route
27th August 1974
Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd
A peak in Wester Ross
Moss Rosenber of Norway
Three 7-cyl, Wichmann Diesel
Hoist & Lifts:
1974 - 1995: Ullapool - Stornoway
Oban - Craignure
The new shorter route to the Outer Isles was becoming increasingly popular with both tourist and commercial traffic and the aging, lengthened and underpowered Clansman was struggling to keep up with the pace in 1973. It was obvious that another vessel was needed for the Stornoway crossing. CalMac, always on the look out for second hand vessels as well as new, came across a Norwegian built ferry and announced on the 12th December 1974 announced that they had acquired her, and named her Suilven after a mountain on Lewis. She was originally intended for a service across the Oslofjord in the country of her builders. To be named Basto VI, she and her sister ship Basto V were designed to take 120 - 180 cars, ample for the Lewis crossing. Her Norwegian owners had problems with the twins new terminal length and had to put her up for sale while she was still on the stocks.
With her sister laid-up and herself left with just the keel laid in the yard, CalMac jumped at the chance of an inspection of her completed sister. It was found that to increase capacity vehicles were loaded onto a lower deck under the main deck via lift ramps. This space usually filled with bilge and ballast equipment would not be accepted by the British Safety Standards Board. Along with being below the fire line it was known that these were required to fill the entire beam of the ship and not just the side compartments that Basto V had. Along with a few minor standards across the ship it was decided that the time and cost would be far greater than could be allowed. They then turned to the keel of her twin sister - now this was a better option, a few design changes here and there and hey presto!
She was completed in a three way contract between her builders, the Norwegian ferry operator and CalMac to the fit the new British safety standards. After a brief stall when the electrical contractors went out on strike, she made the crossing of the North Sea to her new home on the western seaboard of Scotland and Gourock on the 19th August - in no way her longest crossing of her career to come!
On arrival at the company HQ onlookers were astounded by her sheer size for a vessel in the fleet at that time. Calling briefly at Oban to 'show the flag' she took over from the Clansman on the 27 August 1974. Very much a state of the art vessel for her time, she set new standards for the Lewis service and was to remain there for most of her career with the company. When she entered service Suilven had the highest vehicle capacity in the fleet which was well utilised on the Stornoway service which attracted heavy numbers of commercial traffic. She settled down to operated two crossings per day in summer reducing this to mainly one during the quieter winter periods. She berthed bow in at Stornoway and stern at Ullapool - a tradition that continues today. There weren't many faults with the proud new ship but she did now and again have the tendency to switch one of her engines into reverse through her complex electrical controls - resulting in a circular motion. This was quickly rectified by experts from the German company who fitted them in the vessel originally.
The Norwegians also designed her with a combined passenger / catering / bar saloon which didn't really suit the new passengers requirements and a screen was erected to cordon off different areas. Later in her career she was fitted with stabilisers at a annual overhaul at Greenock which gave passengers an even smoother ride across the often choppy Minch.
She worked to a pretty tight timetable in her lifetime with CalMac, she was given 3 1/2 hours to complete the passage and a 1/2 hour to turn around and return back. In 1979 the single day winter crossings were increased to two return sailings per day (except Sabbath Sundays) to keep up with the amounts of traffic she was generating. Traffic levels had grown so much in fact that she had to offer two more single returns per week. These were carried out on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the off season. Nothing much changed as she continued her set pace back and forth from Stornoway except the timings between 1981 - 1984 but these settled down after the latter and she got back into place serving the most northern route in the network.
Her overhaul reliefs up to 1983 were always carried out by her predecessor the 1964 Clansman until 1984 when the new Isle of Arran was used and then Hebridean Isles the following year. While on another annual overhaul in 1983 she was the first ship in the fleet to have 'Caledonian MacBrayne' fixed to her side with huge white metal letters. She was also fitted with aircraft style seating (including the lifejackets!) in her lounge along with being carpeted through out. She also interestingly became one of the official weather ships supplying meteorological information to the Met office.
For 15 years Suilven had not served on any other route apart from that for which she was built. However this run of unbroken service on the Minch came to an end in October 1989 when the National Mod came to Stornoway and the Oban-based Isle of Mull's extra passenger capacity was required for the gathering in Stornoway. For a few days leading up to 15th of October the two ships switched places and Suilven took up service on the Oban - Craignure crossing, joined by the Pioneer to make up capacities. This was not her only wander however, as she was sighted at Lochmaddy, Tarbert and Uig in a short space of time. Sadly for most of the folk that came to love her on the crossing she was well suited to, she had become a victim of her own success and a replacement arrived on the scene in July 1995 in the shape of the giant Isle of Lewis.
The moment where old met new at the mouth of Loch Broom was captured for posterity, as they passed each other in Suilven's last few days with CalMac. However it was not all over for the faithful fleet member and her seaworthiness was quickly spotted by another respectful company in New Zealand, so yet another epic chapter in her stared career was about to begin. Strait Shipping vowed to keep her name and Suilven made her way under her own power to the other side of the world. She was destined to sail between Wellington and Nelson, between the north and South Islands of New Zealand and lasted there for many happy years - respected as much as she was in cooler Scottish waters. She became the unwitting star of amateur footage that surfaced on the internet while she was in this role, sailing in a truly horrendous swell in the Strait and demonstrating her seaworthiness for all to see. Her last sailing from Wellington to Nelson began on the morning of 26 March 2004, and she returned to Wellington on 27th March for lay-up at Aotea Quay whilst air-conditioning units were fitted in preparation for yet another new venture. She had again become a victim of her on success and was sold onto Bligh Water Shipping, of Suva, Fiji, a new shipping company with no previous ships. They traded as Suilven Shipping, as denoted by the name painted on the port side of the ship in large white letters to replace the previous Strait Shipping logo.
Her port of registry was changed from Wellington to Suva and she sailed from Wellington in the late afternoon of 16th April 2004 on a five day voyage to Suva. She retained the name Suilven in a tribute to her successful career. She was initially planned to sail with up to four hundred passengers on a regular service between Suva (on Viti Levu), Savusavu (on Vanua Levu) and the island of Taveuni, about 150 kilometres east of Savusavu. Her new schedule provided lifeline services, albeit to slightly different islands from her original role! However something that did not change was the high regard her owners, crew and passengers held for her, with the same respect that Western Isles folk did on her dedicated route.
Suilven was sold on again in 2012, this time to Venu Shipping Ltd, also of Fiji. Tragically this was to be her last role, for on 24th November 2015 Suilven capsized and sank in Suva harbour, with reports of shifting cargo to blame. No lives were lost as she had only been carrying cargo at the time. Nevertheless another CalMac legend met a sad end.