Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hebridean Princess (ex Columba) - Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, in 1975 the Columba - the Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry built in 1964 which now operates as the "boutique" luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess which the Queen chartered recently - moved her summer base from Mallaig back south to Oban to take up a new role as the ferry serving the islands of Coll, Tiree and Colonsay and performing the "Sacred Isle Cruise" to Iona and Staffa. (Hitherto, that cruise had, ever since 1936, been given by the venerable steamer King George V but she was retired in 1974.)

The Columba (left) at her Oban base, the North Pier, in 1975. On the right is her sister, Clansman after lengthening and conversion to a drive-through ro-ro ferry: in 1975 she was operating the Columba's old (1964-72) route to Craignure on Mull. Photo credit "hebrides"
The Columba's 1986 summer schedule was typical. On Monday morning, she sailed from Oban at 08.15 up the Sound of Mull for Tiree via calls at Lochaline (09.20), Tobermory (10.30) and Coll (12.15). Arriving at Tiree at 13.15, she retraced her steps back via the same calls to Oban, arriving there at 19.00. But the day wasn't over yet for at 22.00 she sailed for Colonsay where she arrived at 22.30 and spent the night.

On Tuesday morning, the Columba left Colonsay at 06.00 for Oban where she arrived at 08.30. Then it was the "Sacred Isle Cruise" leaving at 09.15, sailing up the Sound of Mull and out round the west of Mull, close by Staffa for a view of Fingal's cave and then to Iona where she arrived at 13.30. Weather permitting, passengers were ferried ashore by the Fionnphort-Iona ferry for an hour or so before the Columba set off again at 16.00 to return via the south coast of Mull and the Firth of Lorne to Oban, getting back there at 18.45 (Price of the cruise in 1986 - £10.45).

Wednesday's schedule was the same as Monday's (Coll & Tiree then Colonsay in the evening) and Thursday was the Sacred Isle Cruise again but on Fridays, the Columba left Oban at 05.30 and sailed directly to Tiree, arriving there at 09.30. She then returned via Coll getting back to Oban at 15.00 and this earlier arrival allowed an onward connection by bus or coach to Glasgow (arriving 20.50 and 21.02 respectively). The Columba then sailed at 16.30 for Colonsay from where she returned the same evening.

On Saturdays, it was out to Coll and Tiree via Tobermory (but not Lochaline) at 06.00 and back via the same calls to arrive back at Oban at 16.30. There was no evening sail to Colonsay on a Saturday and Sunday was spent tied up at Oban's North Pier.

The Columba in the Sound of Mull in 1986 - the name of her owners was painted on the hull in 1984

When built, the Columba and her two sisters, the Clansman and the Hebrides, had been equipped with passenger cabins and this enabled the Columba's summer schedule in the 70s and 80s to be marketed as "Mini Cruises". For example, on Tour A, three nights, you boarded at Oban on Monday evening in time for the sail down to Colonsay and spend the night on board there. Tuesday and Wednesday nights were spent alongside at Oban having spent the days on the Sacred Isle Cruise and the run out to Coll & Tiree respectively. The price in 1986 was £63 per person (£20 supplement for deluxe cabin with en suite shower and toilet) and breakfast, lunch and "high tea" in the self service cafeteria was included.

 The restaurant on the Columba (or one of her sisters) as seen in a 1967 MacBrayne brochure - the table service and white tablecloths had been replaced with self service and formica in the 70s

The two pictures below are from a MacBrayne's brochure of 1970:-

In winter in the 70s and 80s (when the Sacred Isle Cruise didn't run and Coll & Tiree and Colonsay were looked after by the Mull and Barra-'Boisdale ferries respectively) the Columba continued as the relief car ferry and was laid up at Greenock when not required where she is seen below in dry-dock in another superb picture by hebrides

That picture shows the vehicle loading hoist (down at car deck level) very clearly and also another less well known feature of the Columba and her sisters. Note the two vertical sliding doors, one up (left) and the other down (right). If you think they look a bit over-engineered just to seal the car deck while at sea, you'd be right. Commissioned at the height of the Cold War, these three car ferries were designed to be floating "citadels" (command posts) in the event of a "NBC (nuclear, biological or chemical) attack" and these doors were part of the equipment designed to hermetically seal the ship's accommodation. They were also equipped with apparatus to spray the decks to wash off nuclear fall-out etc.  
Cold War considerations aside, MacBraynes' priority in the 1960s and early 70s had been the introduction of car ferry services to the Western Isles even if, to begin with, this meant adopting less than ideal hoist-loading. In the 1980s the priority became to convert all the services to ro-ro.

In 1988, Calmac decided to axe the Sacred Isle Cruise and commission a new ro-ro ferry - the Lord of the Isles - which was also equipped with a hoist to cover the transition to serve Lochboisdale (ro-ro since 1974), Castlebay (converted to ro-ro 1989) and Coll & Tiree (converted to ro-ro early 90s). As the last remaining purely hoist-loading ferry in the fleet, the Columba was redundant and sold.

A vignette from an early 70s MacBrayne's brochure

But instead of going to the Aegean or the Red Sea pilgrim trade where most redundant British ferries go, the Columba was sold to a new venture started by a Yorkshire family who had previously operated canal boats: keen amarteur sailors in the Western Isles, they were storm-bound one day in Loch Scresort on the Isle of Rum, when they had the idea of offering exclusive "yacht-style" cruises on the west coast ...

... and as once again this post is getting overly long, this is a good point to break before the next instalment to come.