Island Princess came in to Kilcreggan Pier at 12.30 today for her inaugural passage to Gourock. Aboard her were her skipper and crew; Mark Aikman of Clydelink; the Clyde Port pilot Clydelink had asked to have for the starting period of their new operation – and the friskiest ’79 year old’ we’ve ever seen; Stephen Nielston, Rothesay-based Harbour Master General – well what else can you call a man responsible for all of Argyll and Bute Council’s working piers and harbours; and a couple of joy-riding unofficial passengers.
The boat and her crew had spent the morning working up, making approaches to their berths at either end of the destination and getting their routines straightened out.
Yes, much of it was tentative but they were a new crew suffering from the political fallout of the almighty mess SPT and Argyll and Bute Council have made of the contract for this route and they knew they were under the keen eyes of a highly critical and rather hostile audience. We felt for them.
While the new service, replacing Clyde Marine’s Seabus, has created seven new jobs, three council staff at Kilcreggan pierhead, one full time and two part time, are being made redundant because the new service is handling berthing shipside not shoreside.
With the men who are losing their jobs locally respected and popular – not to mention Bella and Stella, piermaster John Bellshaw’s hardworking meeters and greeters who are also dispossessed – local resentment is understandable. This has been a cheerful and efficient team and they really will be missed.
Bella and Stella didn’t quite know where to put themselves today, clearly feeling that the approach of a boat meant that they were on duty yet sensing somehow that this one wasn’t for them. Bella (above) was dying to get involved, urging the crew on from above.
The standoff between the Kilcreggan community and the new service is largely because the boat and its crew are the visible and manifest evidence not just of change but of chaotic change – yet the primary fault is not theirs.
Any business is entitled to bid as it will for public sector tenders. The decision and the arrangements agreed are in the hands of the tenderers.
Anyone is entitled to take a job that’s on offer and the Island Princess crew today were universally careful about what they were doing, good natured, open faced and philosophical about the markedly uncelebratory circumstances of their first sailings.
They refused to take fares from passengers, saying that they were practising all of their routines and were glad to have them aboard as guinea pigs.
Mark Aikman (above left, with the Pilot) was also visibly aboard to support his team. The same thing cannot be said of a notably craven no show.
Councillor Duncan Macintyre, Argyll and Bute Council’s Transport Spokesperson and its main nominee to the SPT Board, was yesterday urging his colleagues representing the Helensburgh and Lomond Ward to turn up for the ferry’s first sailing into Kilcreggan, asking for a good show.
Guess who didn’t bother to be there today? Yes. Indeed. Councillor Duncan Macintyre.
Mark Aikman of Clydelink did nothing but submit a bid that was successful but has become the butt of transferred hostility. He was there.
SPT management have serious questions to answer about their handling of the tender – and we understand that legal firm Brodies are acting for Clyde Marine in the matter. Yet they were there – joining the ferry at Gourock for its return to Kilcreggan.
If these folk can front up, why can Councillor Duncan Macintyre not appear to support a service to whose introduction he has been party, not face up to the Kilcreggan pier staff who have lost their jobs and not eyeball Helensburgh residents who have lost their leg of this ferry service altogether? His was a pretty gutless absence.
Some of his colleagues – from all sides of the council, answered his call and were there throughout.
First to arrive was opposition Councillor George Freeman (above centre), Leader of the Argyll and Bute Independent Councillors Group. He is a vigorous critic of SPT’s and the council administration’s management of this tender; and is also a committed supporter of the pier head staff who are being made redundant.
Then Argyll and Bute’s MP, Alan Reid (below, top), who lives in Dunoon and at Cardross near Helensburgh, arrived with administration Councilor Vivien Dance.
Kenneth Smith (above, bottom), the SNP candidate for Lomond North in the Helensburgh and Lomond Ward came too. All three taking the first ferry trip over to Gourock and back, as did we.
Kenneth Smith spent time on the crossing talking to the ever efficient, ever approachable and authoritative Harbour Master, Stephen Nielson (below, talking to Councillor Vivien Dance).
We have met Mr Nielson at Oban Harbour, Dunoon Pier and at Loch Striven when the Maersk B-class cargo ships were there on cold lay up. He also looks after all of the council’s other piers and harbours – like Craignure, Port Askaig and Bruichladdich for examples. Always a reassuringly experienced presence, some day his memoirs will make fascinating reading.
As Island Princess came in to Kilcreggan for the second time, the pipes skirled across the water from the pierhead. Councillor Danny Kelly, a Kilcreggan resident, had arrived to welcome the boat and had persuaded his talented nephew (above) – who regularly does the honours for the paddlesteamer Waverly – to add to the occasion.
Bella and Stella – who is something of a diva – posed for the camera, one on each of John Bellshaw’s feet.
So what did we think of how the first sailings went?
Let’s start with the boat. It managed fine today in unchallenging weather and sea conditions and with few passengers aboard. Its relatively small and spartan cabin area in the bow will clearly not hold the numbers who use this route at busy times. Very many will have to travel in the open – and often the wet, on the large open after deck. If many crowd into the forecabin, as they will in wet and windy conditions, it looks to us as if the boat will bury its nose a bit. It appears to have that tendency as it is.
No one can, now or later, use the Island Princess upper deck on passage. In contrast, the Dunoon to Gourock passenger ferry’s Argyll Flyer has a glorious top deck.
What is it with this attractively scenic route that serially condemns passengers hungry for the sights to be confined to water level or inside the passenger cabin where views are, of course, restricted? Seabus was just as unable and caused just as many mournful complaints – and she was commissioned for the route.
There was a large crew on board today and, in these early days, the back up is clearly worth while. Clyde Marine, with experience behind them ran Seabus with a skipper and one crewman, using the Kilcreggan pier staff for rope handling in berthing.
Island Princess is unlikely to operate for long with the crew numbers she had on board today. That would make no financial sense set against the £20k it is saving in not using the pier staff at Kilcreggan.
Some routines set up for today – and some of the equipment – we would have thought are also likely to change as the service, the boat and the crew bed in.
Today there was a warp on a loose noose left in position over a bollard on Kilcreggan Pier, swinging over to the low water landing stage. Crew were catching this with a boathook to draw down the rest of the warp and secure the boat for disembarking and embarking. The same set up and routine was in place at the Gourock end.
In a choppy sea this would be a less certain manoevre; and the noose is very vulnerable to passing children with an eye for mischief. who could easily lift it clear of the bollard and drop iot down. What would the crew do on an approach to Kilcreggan if they found no warp to hook and they had no shore staff to take one thrown from the boat?
Then there is the gangway being used at the moment. This seems too narrow to operate safely in a swell where a small child or a less stable adult could easily pitch through or over the loose warps threaded through the stanchions at either side. These also allow no secure support for passengers to grab, as opposed to the steel tubed fixed side rails on the Seabus gangway (below).
Today the gangway was able to run more or less horizontally, but at different states of the tide it may have to be set at a sharp enough angle, supporting a solid line of passengers with luggage. We are not confident that this gangway is strong enough not to buckle in the middle under this sort of pressure. (As a comparison, the Seabus gangway is shown above coming down on to Kilcreggan Pier on a high tide.)
It will also be very difficult to handle when operated at an angle as it has no rollers to run it out and in. And when it is stowed aboard, it simply lies pretty much across the full width of the upper deck, isolating the wheelhouse. This cannot be safe.
When we were reviewing our photographs for this article, we realised that the gangway, as it was operated at Gourock today, seemed barely to connect with the shore facility (above). In a swell, rolling the boat to and fro at her berth, it would have taken little to drop the gangway here. The Seabus gangway, in the same position (below), covered a substantial area of the shoreside platform.
All of these things will of course change as this service beds in. Everyone is aware that the Island Primcess only got her MCA operating licence with minutes to spare before close of business on Friday afternoon. Of course, much of today’s routines were improvisational to a degree – and this is an issue to be addressed squarely to SPT and to Argyll and Bute Council whose mismanagement has produced this situation.
Nothing in these remarks should be taken to refer to the new contractor but to the risible management capability shown here by these two bodies.
Argyll and Bute Council’s Health and Safety management happily pronounced themselves satisfied with the arrangements proposed. They cannot knowledgeably set foot on boats very often.
It would be instructive to see them stagger ashore at Kilcreggan or Gourock on this gangway in the sort of chop or swell experienced often enough in the Clyde – and to see how they managed when they grabbed for this ‘rail’ in a rocky moment.
Treats at both destinations
Truffling around as we do, there is some useful information we can pass on to those using this lovely route.
At Gourock, Cafe Continental – up the main road across from the rail station where the ferry comes in, not only has good coffee, food and drinks but has a large observation eating area at the back (above), overlooking the Clyde waterway on three sides.
At Kilcreggan, across the road and to the right from the entrance to the pier, there is ‘cafe at Kilcreggan’ (above) – a bright, cool place. easy to be in, with great coffee and food. They do take away so, as we were off to explore, we carried off a coffee and a memorable slice of cherry tart. We’ll be back.
Up the hill a bit to the left (north) of the entrance to the pier is the Kilcreggan Hotel (above) with regular returnees who come over simply to meet and lunch there.
In Cove, a little to the north of Kilcreggan on this Rosneath peninsula is the Knockderry Country House Hotel (above), an instantly attractive building with interior work by the renowned Glasgow architect William Lieper, with memorable rooms and with what reads like – and is five starred – fabulous food.
The Rosneath peninsula is, like so much of Argyll and the Isles, a world apart – timeless, gentle, waterbound, with rolling landscapes, shingle beaches and intriguing views over the Clyde, across Loch Long and to Ardentinny in east Cowal; and on the east side it has the panorama of the Queen’s Harbour of the Gare Loch and the enormous UK submarine base at Faslane. These are complex and interesting neighbourly relationships.