Three in a row for Kintyre Express – what next?

KE Fleet at Cushendall

On Friday the full Kintyre Express fleet of three 11 metre Redbay Stormforce fast passenger ferries made their familiar crossing of the North Channel to come in to the pier below Cushendall Sailing and Boating Club.

They were there to attend the christening of the newest, KE III. by Mrs Cathy McLaughlin, of RedBay Boats, her builder.

The business case – what next?

Colin Craig

As speakers as the reception, including local and Norther Ireland politicians, noted, the Kintyre Express service is proving the business case for the route. The question is – what next?

Kintyre Express owner and MD, Colin Craig of West Coast Motors, above, says that 2011 was about getting the service up, running and known. Job done – on both sides of the channel. So far audiences have been fairly equal.

This year. 2012, is about market growth.

Next year depends on this year – but he has a strategic and achievable development plan.

RedBay Boats is building a prototype 16.5 metre workboat, configurable for a wide range of uses, one of which is a fast passenger ferry, delivering the same speed as the 11 metre, enhanced sea-keeping characteristics in her greater size and weight and carrying 30 comfortably seated passengers.

This boat is going down to the 2012 Seawork boat show at Southampton from 22nd to 24th  May and will be making a courtesy visit to Campbeltown shortly after that.

She is a well conceived commercial proposition and is predicted to be a head-turner. In the passenger configuration she could carry 50 on bench seats for certain uses but her 30-seater comfort mode is a very attractive commercial offer for a wide variety of routes.

She can also be serviced afloat, without coming out of the water – there is standing room around her below decks engines. She has a long service interval and RedBay reckon she would only need to come out of the water once a year. All of this is operationally – and therefore commercially, appealing.

Colin Craig says: ‘I’ve not made it a secret that our ultimate aim is to develop Campbeltown-Ballycastle into a bigger (passenger) boat providing, of course, we can achieve this season the passenger growth we feel is there to be built.

‘We have considered basing one boat in Ballycastle and working one from either end but the service is not quite at that stage yet – perhaps next year, if we continue to operate 11metres.’

This is the ‘if’ question.

Colin Craig goes on to say:

‘Providing current journey times can be maintained, I believe the 16.5m could be the ideal boat for this service. Its sea keeping capabilities will enhance reliability of service and may allow the service to run all year round.

‘The additional capacity enhances the commercial viability of the service and I feel will appeal to a more mainstream customer base who at present are put off by the small size of the 11m.

At 30+ seats the economic benefits for both sides start to get pretty chunky and it can, most importantly, be achieved without massive amounts of public money.’

West coast ferry services – the future beckons

A man whose thinking ranges over the spectrum of what is affordable and effective in the development of transport services for Scotland and for the west coast, Colin Craig sees that the Scottish Government could use the very real opportunity of the development of this particular boat: ‘… to redefine how ferry services can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of those currently being provided around the West Coast.’

He sees this being done: ‘… either by way of enhancing the existing network by providing additional fast links to our islands or by integrating them in such a way as to achieve very serious cost savings without compromising the level of service being provided under the existing subsidised model.’

Research shows that many of CalMac’s ferries are sailing in the winter with the most minimal number of passengers and vehicles. These services are highly inefficient in cost and in over-supplying thin demand.

While there is a clear need for the lifeline services these ferries provide, such a service does not have always to be delivered by a boat manifestly over capacity for the job. Flexible, inventive and integrated service thinking, with the extended repertoire the RedBay 16.5 metre will bring, could see the islands with as good or better a service and the public purse facing much more modest demands for ferry subsidies.

This is the sort of thinking that genuinely moves service provision  to new dimensions.

And for the private sector, operators of trips to St Kilda from Argyll and the Isles are going to be having a serious look at the RedBay Stormforce 16.5 metre. Both her commercial and sea-keeping capabilities look tailor made for runs like this. (Oddly enough, Tom McLaughlin was wearing his Puffin tie on Friday – from the Puffin pub on St Kilda.)

Another perspective on boutique ferry services

Kintyre Express I and II made the trip from home base at Campbeltown in Kintyre. The youngster to be christened at Cushendall – the reason for the convoy – came from Troon. She had the company owner and MD. Colin Craig of West Coast Motors, in the pilot seat and, amongst others, Strathclyde Police DCI Gerry McLean riding shotgun. (Don’t worry – they don’t yet have Marine Gatsos.)

Waiting at Cushendall was another security specialist, Gareth Jenkins of the Norther Ireland police force who is in charge of all of the small ports from Warrenpoint – on Carlingford Lough in the south east of the province, to Derry in the north west. With a name like his Gareth should be Welsh but no – he says his parents have a sense of humour.

The presence of Gerry and Gareth is yet another strand of what the business of running these nippy little ferries involves – maritime security.

Obviously, with coastlines as complex as the west of Scotland and the north east  of Ireland no security force can monitor all of it constantly, although they’re pretty mobile. They both ask members of the public to keep their eyes open and if we see any boat in an unexpected place or doing something that seems a bit unusual, to phone them at the time and let them know.

Strathclyde Police have two public awareness projects on the go at the moment – Kraken (for marine movements) and a Suspicious Airport Behaviour (for air movements). Small boats and small planes can serve a variety of purposes of legitimate interest to counter terrorism units – and in these difficult Blair-legacy times, we all need to keep our wits about us.

Both Gerry McLean and Gareth Jenkins have a lot of respect for the friendly efficiency of the Kintyre Express team and relations between them are clearly built on mutual trust.

Kintyre Express today

KEIII steers out astern on a jolly

The Kintyre Express service is working to do two things:

  • support the economic development in tourism of the areas at either end of its scheduled service between Campbeltown and Ballycastle;
  • prove the case that there is a real and growing market for a well judged type of ferry service between the two destinations.

The current service has made a lot of people, ourselves included, unable to contemplate the tiring tedium of plodding off way south to Cairnryan and catching a big ferry out of Loch Ryan and over to Larne or Belfast – and vice versa.

An hour and a half to Ballycastle or Campbeltown, with a hire car or a local taxi at the other end if necessary, is compelling – and the drives to and from both places are therapeutically lovely.

There’s something youthful, fun and relaxed about Kintyre Express, whatever age you are. If you like more calm, sit at the back. If you like to engage, sit up front. The boats also carry literature on what’s available at each end of the route so if you’ve taken an impromptu trip, you can make some plans in transit. The new boat has a purpose built literature shelf in the cabin ceiling so feel free to explore what’s there.

The pilots and cabin staff are unfailingly helpful and interested – setting a service ethos that comes from the top and stands Kintyre Express in very good stead. They actually like people.

All three boats carry golf bags and bikes as well as personal luggage – both proving a hugely popular service. The two destinations each have easy access to world class golf courses like Royal Portrush, Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes; and both provide fabulous cycling territory.

The new boat has been customised to support the needs of both of these types of user even better. She can take more golf bags and can carry 12 bikes. The renowned Argll business, Owen Sails, has been commissioned to make a special spray cover for them on the stern deck – Kintyre Express respects the level of investment in good bikes these days.

And Kintyre Express is doing what has become an annual special – taking motor bike road racing fans over for the legendary North West 200, run out of Portrush  – they now call it ‘The Relentless North West 200′ and so it is.

Race Week is from 13th to 19th May and the 200 – Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event – is on 19th May. Kintyre Express leaves Campbeltown at 7.30am and leaves Ballycastle on the return trip at 6.00pm. Coach transfers between Ballycastle and Portush are included in the £70 return fare. last year they had to take two boats. Anyone interested can book online or phone 01586 555 895.

Arriving at Cushendall

Calum and Haydn in The beast

As the boats came in to berth at Cushendall pier on Friday, they were met by Connor McLaughlin of the family behind boatbuilder, RedBay Boats – in the marine machine known as The Beast. What teenage boy could resist it? And Connor’s seamanship was impressively skilled and deft. (Above, Connor has handed the wheel to Haydn Chambers of Kintyre Express who is now considering mortgaging his house.)

This boat was built for a river police fast patrol in the south east but their budget was slashed and they were unable to complete the purchase -  so The Beast prowls the North Channel tempting other buyers with a professional need or leisure thrill for speed.

At full tilt she burns 50 gallons of petrol an hour and could do Cushendall to Sanda Island in 12 minutes, or into Campbeltown in 30.  She is one serious boy’s toy as well as the perfect pro boat she was designed to be, for professional security chasing. She looks awesomely intimidating with her high rearing black bow. A definite ‘Don’t mess with me.’

Connor nips her around the Kintyre Express boats, carrying a pilot from one to another which is making a quick trolley ride up to RedBay Boats Yard for a fast tweak while she’s here. He shoots off to welcome in the new boat, the last to arrive as the run from Troon is much longer.

This is the first time all three boats have been together in the same place at the same time, the first time they have presented a complete fleet presence. They do look good – very spick, jolly, sporty, seaworthy and ready for anything, all of which they are.

The team for the naming ceremony

Peter Stogdale teasing Dougie Martin

Last year’s new boat, KE II, has, in her first 12 months, done no fewer than 15,000 sea miles under her skipper Haydn Chambers – who has such an affinity with her that he keeps looking over his shoulder while he pilots the new kid.

In Cushendall for the naming is fleet plant manager, Dougie Martin whose usual lens-radar lets him down and we actually get  three shots of him before he ducks away. In this one (above) , Purser Peter Stogdale is teasing him about his pink Machrihanish Dunes golf jumper and the ever humorous Dougie is colouring up to match.

Ann Martin, Dougie’s wife, is at the event as well. She works in advertising for the Campbeltown Courier, part of the Oban Times group and has brought copies of the new one-page foldable visitor maps produced for Ballycastle and Cushendall – one front, one back.

Pipers head off to change

Aboard KE II are four young pipers, above, from Campbeltown Pipe Band – Susan, Stephanie, Scott and Frank. They collect their kit and go charging up to the yacht club to change, ready for the christening.

The reception at Cushendall


Up at the clubhouse, the welcome could not be warmer. A blazing fire flares in the grate below major yachting moments caught on camera – and below a slender and alarmingly low freeboard rowing skiff hanging from the ceiling at the bar. Tom McLaughlin (below), who started RedBay Boats 35 years ago, was on the team that once rowed this across the North Channel.

Tom McLaughlin speaking

The buffet at the club was done by the enviably wonderful Harry’s bistro cafe-bar in Cushendall – owned by Paddy McLaughlin, brother of Tom of RedBay Boats. This is a family very like the Craigs (brothers William and Robert below),  with inventive entrepreneurship allied to a care for quality and a sense of community responsibility.

Brothers and the fleet

It is impossible not to mention the Scotch Egg in the buffet. Never has a Scotch egg delivered like this one – so soft it changed shape in your fingers, with pliant and delicious sausage meat under the crumb and a tiny soft boiled egg – quail or bantam? – in the middle. Unforgettable.

When the speeches started – introduced by Andrew McAlister who noted that his name is serviceable on both sides of the channel, we heard from local and Northern Ireland politicians, clearly supportive of the Kintyre Express initiative and, one hopes, looking to the future. Oliver McMullan MLA, (below) was particularly vigorous in seeing the potential for development.

Oliver McMullan MLA

We then heard from Colin Craig of West Coast Motors and Kintyre Express, noting that the service was proving the business case  for the route, that it had room to grow and that politicians on both sides should now be paying attention and looking newly at extended possibilities. He talked about the business connections made by the service between both destinations and between businesses operating at either end.

Tom McLaughlin of RedBay Boats, in his own address, launched - out of left field, a surprise piece of information of Argyll interest.

He said that when they began production of the Redbay Stormforce series, they went for a 9 metre boat. Then an Oban businessman who tried it out said to him that it was a great boat but they needed to add two metres to its length.

McLaughlin pooh poohed the idea, saying it would never sell.

The response was that if RedBay produced an 11 metre Stormforce RIB, the businessman would buy the first two. That was walking the talk and was not a challenge to be turned down,

They did. He did. And Oban’s Puffin Dive is still running Stormforce 11 metre numbers I and II in their striking bumble-bee yellow and black livery around the richly resourced diving grounds of the north western waters of Argyll and the Isles. They’re still going as well as the day they were delivered and KE III is the 75th Stormforce 11 metre out of production – bearing a special plaque to mark her place.

The naming

PIpers with Paddy/Harry on wall

The four Campbeltown pipers piped up a storm – here with Paddy Mclaughlin (of Harry’s Bistro Bar) on the wall behind them – and played generously to an appreciative audience long beyond what they had been asked to do. There is no sound on this earth like the pipes and over water they are the pied pipers of the instrument world.

The launch

Tom McLaughlin prepped the champagne bottle for his wife Cathy who did the launch honours – impeccably and accurately.

Flowers 2

She was given a bouquet of flowers especially brought from Kintyre, by Mrs Jennifer Craig; and a very special dram was paraded on the active foredeck of the now formally named KE III, by Colin Craig and Tom McLaughlin. Tom McLaughlin may have briefly looked unsteady but he hadn’t touched a drop. Honest.

Tom McLaughlin and Colin Craig

At the entrance to the pier behind them, ‘Gilbert’ flashed a white blend of welcome and warning.


The pioneer Kintyre Express skipper, the able and likeable Wilson Smith from Troon, made a rather familiar acquaintance of ‘Gilbert’ at the photocall this time last year when the new KE II was being collected from RedBay Boats. ‘Nuff said. He’s probably still blushing. ‘Gilbert’ is in this story to give Mariri Johnston from Kintyre Express  a
smile from times past, since illness ruled her out of being there on Friday to see the result of all her organisation.

Expecting fun

After the ‘launch; of KE III, she and her fleet sister, KE II took guests out for an eagerly anticipated whirl around Red Bay. After all, the day was all about boats.

And the homecoming

Leaving Cushendall in the haze

Haydn Chambers and his wife Tracy (below) were escorting the Troon visitors home on KE III so Colin Craig took over KE I for the return to Campbeltown.

On pier 1

All three boats got a bit competitive for a while as they left Cushendall in the haze, above, together. They put the boats through their able paces and it was exhilarating stuff. The wake-shot, below, shows just how far Colin Craig was taking no hostages.

Wake shot - Colin Craig on helm

On the final approach to the entrance to Campbeltown Loch, KE II could be seen alongside through KE I’s cabin window, as both boats aligned under Davaar Island to make a team return to their berths at the pontoons under the soon to be reopened Royal Hotel.

KEII below Davaar

A new boat for the Kintyre to Antrim service had been named and embraced by the fleet.

A focused cluster of soundly commercial options had been floated for the development not only of this important business and cultural link, but of maritime transport services for the west coast of Scotland.

This was an action packed and an optimistic day.

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