Friday, 9 December 2005


Island bloggers and islanders the world over will be looking at the title of this blog entry and think: "We've all got our stories on that, don't we." I haven't set foot on a ferry for a little while, but in the three months before I came to Lewis in November 2004, I spent more time on the high seas than off it. A slight exaggeration, but not far off the mark.

This autumn has seen a seemingly never-ending litany of gales. Very interesting from a meteorological point of view, but a nuisance if it means your ferry is cancelled. That doesn't just upset travelplans, but also means that no food gets into the shops. In the Western Isles, everything has to be shipped in across the Minch; Western Isles meaning the chain of islands from Lewis to Barra. Here in Lewis, we have a dedicated ferry for freight. Until a few years ago, the Isle of Lewis (the regular Calmac ferry out of Ullapool) would be block-booked by the local hauliers for transporting goods onto the islands. Very necessary, but also taking up space that could otherwise be used by visitors. Since 2002, MV Muirneag sails from Ullapool to Stornoway and vice versa overnight with lorries. She is a bit of a tub, only one engine and no auxiliary thrusters. Last January, she had difficulty manoeuvring in strong winds and ran aground off Cuddy Point in Stornoway Harbour.

Four weeks ago, she nearly sank.
On Friday 11th November, a hurricane lashed the west coast of Scotland, moving on northeast later in the day. During the seven days beforehand, three other gales had prevented ferry sailings, and there was a backlog of freight and vehicles waiting on either side of the Minch. Although strong winds were forecast for the day, both ferries left Ullapool in late morning, between 10 and 11 a.m.. The gale strengthened quickly through lunchtime, and the Isle of Lewis sought shelter off the east coast of Lewis. Muirneag ran with the wind, north, in appalling conditions. The passenger ferry managed to come in during a lull in the storm, just before 6 pm. The freight ferry was driven 60 miles off course, to the north of the Butt of Lewis, being pounded by 50 foot high waves. Vehicles on board began to slide about, passengers lost their footing and one was hurt. He was airlifted to hospital in Stornoway.

For several hours, the captain found it impossible to turn into the wind, but finally managed to make a turn. He came into port at 3 a.m., about 15 hours after setting forth. There was a lot of damage to freight, containers and vehicles on board - a vintage Rolls-Royce for instance was very badly dented. Caledonian MacBrayne, the regional ferry operator, has conducted an investigation, the results of which will be published next week. The central question of which was why the ferry set sail in the first place, knowing a storm was forecast.
I have compiled a separate weblog about events on the day, which you can view on St Martin's Storm Blog. I have published pictures of the conditions on the day in an earlier entry.

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