Last Thursday reporter KEITH MACKENZIE and photographer WILLIE URQUHART went for a look around Caledonian MacBrayne’s pioneering new vessel which will ply the route between Raasay and Sconser…
A little before 8 o’clock on Monday morning a small piece of maritime history was made as the MV ‘Hallaig’ edged out of Churchton Bay.
Following weeks of sea trials, that initial official crossing between Raasay and Sconser made the vessel the world’s first in-service, sea-going hybrid ferry — showcasing a template operators Caledonian MacBrayne and the Scottish Government hope will be replicated across the shorter routes of the west coast.
The ‘Hallaig’ is distinctive because it sails by harnessing both diesel and electric power — an environmentally-friendly combination that should reduce the route’s carbon emissions by some 20 per cent in the coming years. Hybrid ferries are common on rivers throughout northern Europe — but the ‘Hallaig’ is the first to be tested out at sea.
The technology that underpins it seems undoubtedly impressive — though unfortunately, as the operators would soon find out, carbon footprint counts for little if the vessel is unable to sail at all.
Before her first morning in service was over the ‘Hallaig’ was back on Raasay pier — tied up, and broken down as a day of celebration began to turn into one of embarrassment for the operators, and of concern for islanders.
A technical glitch with a propeller unit was CalMac’s official explanation for the breakdown. But Raasay residents — already frustrated that the ferry didn’t come in service much earlier in the year as they initially expected — will be anxious that the first day hitches aren’t a sign of things to come.
Last Thursday there seemed little sign of trouble as the vessel continued on some of her final sea trials.
The ‘Hallaig’ — named after Sorley MacLean’s epic poem recalling the island of his birth — might not be the largest or the quickest ship in the CalMac fleet, but battery power means it can certainly claim to be the quietest.
In total the boat carries two banks of 108 lithium batteries which are plugged in and charged on the pier each night.
Harnessing 20 per cent of its power through these battery packs keeps the ferry virtually silent — and on a flat calm day like last Thursday it was difficult to tell when she had left port.
Operators say they are confident the new vessel — dubbed the Toyota Prius of the seas — will use about 20 per cent less fuel than its regular predecessor on the route the ‘Loch Striven’.
Those who have steered the new boat say they have been impressed by how she has performed so far.
Relief skipper Gavin Crawford — who through the summer works on the ferry between Arran and Kintyre — was at the helm last Wednesday, as winds of around 50 miles per hour blew through the small channel which separates Raasay from Skye.
“She proved her worth yesterday — she was still doing 9 knots, even in 50 mile an hour winds,” he said.
“The ‘Hallaig’ and the ‘Striven’ have the same power, but this one seems to deliver the power a lot better.
“It’s bigger but it seems to hold its speed. Yesterday, in those conditions, the ‘Striven’ was plying along at 4 or 5 knots, where this was going at 9 knots.”
Over the past year and a half crew members have been undergoing a variety of training courses — both in the UK and in the Netherlands, where the electrical system was developed.
Skipper Angus MacLean has worked on the route for the last 19 years, in that time skippering both the ‘Loch Striven’ and her much smaller forerunner the ‘Raasay’. His impressions of the new vessel, built at Ferguson’s yard on the Clyde after a government investment of £20 million, are largely positive.
“The size and control systems take a bit of getting used to,” he said. “We’ve had to undertake a variety of courses to get us up to speed with all the technology. But it’s very good, and we’re looking forward to getting started.”
In recent years Angus says his life aboard was made a lot easier after operations on Raasay shifted from the creaking pier at Suisnish, to a brand new facility at Churchton Bay.
“Many a sleepless night that place gave me.” he notes, as he sails past the 100 year-old pier near the island’s southern tip.
Earlier in 2013 Highland Council also completed a £2 million upgrade of the berthing facilities at Sconser. Crew members are quick to point out that in order to guard the ferry against the strong winds blowing down Loch Sligachan, they would have preferred the extended slipway to have been situated on a different side to the pier structure. But nevertheless, all the improvements have been welcomed by a community where so many livelihoods rest on a reliable, and up to date ferry service.
The new vessel will be operated by two four-man crews — increasing the overall manpower for the route from six to eight.
Motorman Paul Camilli – a part Italian who moved to the area in 1989 and who has worked on the ferry for 11 years – shared his skipper’s enthusiasm.
“We can’t wait now,” he added. “It’s a wee bit more complex to start up and shut down so the day will possibly be a wee bit longer for us. But it’s so stress free without the noise and vibration. And of course all these extra steps means I’m going to be really fit!
“The first time I was on board, I didn’t realise we’d left the pier. It’s so quiet compared to what we were used to.
“We would have preferred to have had her at the beginning of the year and originally, going back a couple of years when it was first talked about, they were hoping to have her in service for Easter. That would have coincided with the “big house” reopening and that would have been a real coup.
“But she’s here now and we’re all itching to go.”
The “big house” to which Paul refers is Raasay House and outdoor centre, which reopened earlier this year following a £4.5 million refurbishment after fire had ravaged the building in 2009. Alongside the new ferry, and new harbour facilities on either side of the crossing it all constitutes a substantial injection of close to £40 million of public funds in recent years. But it’s an investment locals understandably argue is no less than essential.
CalMac’s managing director Martin Dorchester did his best this week to reassure locals that the hybrid venture will bear fruit. “We are pleased to be able to bring the MV ‘Hallaig’ onto the Sconser-Raasay service and are sure she will be popular with both island residents and visitors,” he said. “In addition to greater capacity for vehicles, she has improved passenger facilities including the introduction of wi-fi in passenger areas. She is a very new ship with some innovative features and some glitches are to be expected, so we are easing her into service with a ‘soft launch’ while she beds in.”
If the island’s small community of 150 residents is to prosper in the years to come, they will all be hoping he’s proved right.
The MV ‘Hallaig’ in numbers
Length: 43.5 metres
Breadth: 12.2 metres
Design Draft: 1.73 metres
Gross Tonnage: 499GT
Service Speed: 8.5 Knots
Vehicle Capacity: 23 cars or two lorries
Passenger Capacity: 150