WESTERN Ferries (Clyde) has lifted profits and turnover during a year that saw a “return to a level of normality” following a long spell of Covid upheaval.

The company, which operates a frequent, year-round car and passenger service between Gourock and Dunoon, reported a pre-tax profit of £2.5 million for the year to March 31, up from £607,000 the previous time, accounts newly filed at Companies House show.

Turnover increased to nearly £9m from £6m, despite the outbreak of the Omicron variant and the return of Covid restrictions that remained in place until March of this year.

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Directors state the results were a “reasonable result having regard to the market in which the company operates”. But since year-end Western, which celebrates its 50th birthday in 2023, has faced fresh challenges from the surge in fuel prices that has followed Russia’s war in Ukraine and a worsening cost-of-living crisis that has brought renewed uncertainty to Scottish tourism and the wider economy.

Managing director Gordon Ross, who joined the company in 2004, told The Herald: “Western Ferries has shown a degree of recovery as the world has returned to a degree of normality. From April 2022, like any other company, we have been exposed to the current market environment and likewise our customers have been similarly exposed. There still remains a great deal of uncertainty.

“But Western Ferries will still be there next summer. We will still be providing our summer service, we are still going to be community focused, we are still going to be community employers. It will be very much business as usual at Western Ferries.”

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Western Ferries has traditionally benefited during strong periods for Scottish tourism, with its service connecting Inverclyde with the attractions of the Cowal peninsula and the wider Argyll and Bute region. It often sees demand for its service rise when there are problems on the troubled Rest and Be Thankful road.

Western owns four vessels and operates a short crossing between Hunter’s Quay in Dunoon and McInroy’s Point in Gourock, typically every 20 minutes. The company, which employs around 70 people, usually operates with three vessels at any one time to allow for regular boat maintenance but can run a four-ferry service at times of high demand. It can also ramp up the frequency of its crossings by increasing the speed at which its vessels make the journey.

Mr Ross said the frequent cancellations on the CalMac network on the west coast has created a “perception” of unreliability, and Western has made no secret of its ambitions to move into new routes. In the past, Western has expressed support for the network to be de-bundled to allow other operators to bid for slots.

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But so far that idea has been resisted by the Scottish Government.

Western remains keen to introduce a new freight-only service between Troon and Islay, which it believes would support the island’s burgeoning Scotch whisky and tourism industries, as well as the general needs of its growing population. But its ambitions here may have been impacted after Caledonian Maritime Assets, the public body that owns the harbours and vessels on the west coast network, ordered two new vessels to serve Islay, instead of one. The new vessels are being built by a shipyard in Turkey.

Mr Ross said: “Western Ferries are always looking for other commercial opportunities. We have a business model that delivers frequency, capacity and resilience for our customers. We are looking for avenues to apply that business model on to other routes.”

In recent years Western has invested in berthing structures and four link spans on either side of its route, two in both Hunter’s Quay and McInroy’s Point. While capital expenditure was put on hold in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic breaking out, directors are beginning to think about vessel replacement. The oldest vessel in the Western fleet dates from 2001 and the second-oldest from 2003.

Mr Ross said: “Our minds are starting to focus on the future. While we have a settled design, there is still a bit of uncertainty with regards to the best powering solution going forward. The move to net-zero is not going to be a one-size-fits-all for the maritime sector.”

However, Mr Ross said the company was not in a rush. “There is no immediate necessity,” he said.

“The boats are well maintained [and] they are well looked after. But it is something at the back of the board’s minds.”

Other developments in the future may include a new overnight lay-up berth for two vessels in Kilmun, on the Holy Loch, which Western has been exploring for several years. “It is an ongoing process,” Mr Ross said. “We are just going through the final design work.”

The company currently has berthing facilities for four vessels at Hunter’s Quay.

Meantime, Mr Ross was diplomatic when asked to comment on the continuing delay over the delivery of two vessels for the west coast network by the nationalised Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow. The contract was initially priced at £97m but the ferries are now expected to cost at least double that amount, following a breakdown in the relationship between CMAL and the former owner of Ferguson over design disputes.

Mr Ross said: “No one wants to accept responsibility, but no one is without blame. At the same time, the island communities and the taxpayers are bearing the brunt of the delays and the cost overrun.”