Caledonian Mac Brayne have a large and faithful following on the west coast of Scotland; they have a vast variety of routes, both long and short, and a large fleet of vessels of such variety and quality that any shipping enthusiast up there can't go wrong. Last year I travelled to Islay from Kennacraig on the Isle of Arran a sail of two hours. This year while in Oban I decided to take a return trip to Craignure on the ISLE OF MULL. The sail is only 45 minutes each way but the vessel used would be quite capable of serving the Isle of Man Steam Packet. She is called the Isle of Mull.
Her vital statistics are;
Built:1988 Ferguson, Glasgow. Gross Tons; 4,719; Length; 90.03 Metres; Breadth; 15.8 Metres; Draught; 3.19 Metres; Speed; 15 knots; Pax; 1000. Cars: 80. Ro-Ro: 150 lane metres.
Soon after she entered service in 1998 the ship was found to have deadweight problems and was taken in hand to have over 20 feet added to her length.
We decided to take the mid-day sailing and about an hour before I went into the terminal to buy a couple of day return tickets. Simplicity itself! I handed over the money they gave me the tickets- £5.90 each. No searching on the computer; no puzzled looks and sharp intakes of breath as a snag was noticed; no conversation with a colleague on what offer needed to be processed; not even a boarding card; oh, and no self important security adolescents trying to look, er, self important. No I just paid the money and within 5 seconds got the tickets. As you may have guessed I am more used to the Sea Containers system, designed to make you feel they are doing you a great favour letting you sail on their ship! I was also told I needed to be ready to board 10 minutes before she sailed- not 60 minutes as is more usual at Liverpool, Heysham etc.
Boarding the Isle of Mull was simple also. She berthed at 11.45, passengers and cars disembarked, we and a load of cars got on and she sailed at noon. The ship was clean and in good order.
As the ship departed her berth I wandered out on deck to see what it was like. The outside space is good; plenty of room down the sides on the boat deck, a very sheltered area aft and a large observation deck up top abaft the funnel. There are plenty of red seats of the plastic variety. It was a fine sunny day and to appreciate the sail and the beauty of the scenery outside is the place to be. As the ship clears the harbour at Oban the views are indeed splendid; the island of Mull is ahead, to port in the far distance Colonsay can just be seen while much nearer on the starboard side is the island of Lismore. The ship cruises at 15 knots and it would be a sin to go any faster. I did drag myself away from the outside to have a brief tour of what the ship offers internally. Just underneath the observation deck is an enclosed observation lounge with red bench type seats and large windows; the place to be if it rains. The main passenger accommodation is however one deck lower on what I would call the shelter deck. Right aft is a reasonable bar area, then another lounge area, a small shop and the forward is the cafe area which again is of a reasonable size. Along the sides of the vessel there are also area of aircraft type seating of a much higher quality than that found on the Steam Packet's SeaCat. The whole accommodation could be summed up as functional rather than luxurious; not as good as the Lady of Mann, of a different type to the Ben My Chree but better than SeaCat Isle of Man or SuperSeaCat Three.
By 12.35 we were passing to port a large castle type building which I later found out to be Duart Castle and by 12.50 we were berthed at Craignure. We did not disembark but just showed our tickets to the crewman on the gangway and that was that. We decided to take a light lunch and were served by two grumpy individuals wearing silly white trilbies who by their facial expressions were suffering from piles, chronic indigestion or possibly a mixture of both. Not letting that bother us however, and comforted by the thought that corporate compulsory cheerfulness will one day infect Cal Mac also, we proceeded to the outer deck aft and enjoyed the sail back to Oban; another 45 minutes of sailing bliss!
If you get the chance to sail Calmat this year do so. I can thoroughly recommend them. As for the ISLE OF MULL she is a fine vessel, perhaps a bit big for the Oban to Craignure sail but I believe she also does the much longer run to Colonsay. Apart from her speed of 15 knots ( I don't know what her top speed is) she would not be out of place in a Steam Packet fleet before the advent of the SeaCats- or indeed after they have gone....possibly!