I stand on Tarbert pier, drinking good, disgusting coffee from the ticket-office, thinking. It's a good place to think. In my earliest memories, it is the island gateway. Today, a special place to take a moment as the Hebridean Isles comes and the Hebridean Isles goes.

I'm a ferry nut, for one thing. Besides, the pier is a nexus of community. It is a place of coming, going, meeting, laughter, tears, drama, midges and weather, courting, mourning, despairing, hoping. Words are few but you see it in the eyes.

And I like watching other people work - I could sit and watch hard work all day - and the resourceful endeavours of merry men with ship and rope are enthralling.

Oh, and plain nosiness. Who comes; who goes? Young ones from Glasgow college. Ministers for communions. Himself has a new car. Is that Malcolmina home from Inverness with six mighty bags of shopping? They're away this morning; is it true about the affair?

Ferry life inspired Runrig brothers, Calum and Rory MacDonald, to song on their Heartland album of 1985 . . .

From the distant light of the Weavers Point

The Lochmor faced the gale

With your Gaelic sons in the city long

Round the saloon by the stairs

She tossed around the sun went down

And she fought her way to the shore

And fever of this sea believes

The boys are coming home . . .

I ponder boats. When I was a child it was the hoistloading Hebrides, of 1964; she succeeded the slow, wee, crane-loading ship Lochmor, skippered by that legendary Skyeman, Captain Donald ''Squeaky'' Robertson. A minister dared, from the pier, to berate Robertson's failure to bring the Lochmor alongside Scalpay jetty at a previous call. (The minister, and other passengers, had been ferried ashore by rowing-boat and thoroughly soaked.)

''I'm told, Captain, that you could readily have berthed in the conditions.'' Squeaky eyed him, and to general delight of the audience shrilled: ''And I'm told, minister, your sermon last Sabbath was a piece of nonsense - but surely, like myself, you were trying your best!''

The Hebrides had Captain James ''Hoddie'' Hodgson, who died last year: her master from 1965 to 1983. His feats of seamanship included the events of one night, after hearing the dread cry of ''Man overboard!'' - a silly hippy had been showing his bird how easy it was to walk on the rail. In the pitch black, Hoddie turned the Hebrides, switching on her searchlight, and circled back in a repeated figure-of-eight manoeuvre - and rescued said hippy. The master never had a word of thanks.

The Hebrides and her crew became a Highland institution. The modern roll-on-roll-off Hebridean Isles duly succeeded her in 1986, purpose-built for modern terminals, a bright, reliable vessel and a superb seaboat.

Hoddie was presented, on the retirement of the 1964 Hebrides, with the brass bell of the first, an 1898 steamboat. This bell hung in the saloon of the 1964 vessel till the hoistloader left the fleet. Hoddie in turn gave this bell to the island; it now adorns the Harris Hotel. That first Hebrides sailed until 1955; the old Clyde workers built 'em tough. In 1930 she was a footnote in history, taking part in the evacuation of St Kilda. By the 1950s she was an antique. George Morrison, the ''Breve'' solemnly reassured Stornoway Gazette readers that, despite her venerable age, there was ''no truth in the rumour that she took part in the Siege of Troy, nor was Vasco Da Gama ever captain of her''.

The 1964 Hebrides was the first MacBrayne car-ferry and the first ship with stabilisers and bow-thrust unit. The 1986 Hebridean Isles proved a more efficient ferry and had the electronic toys of her day. She was also the first MacBrayne vessel ever (and controversially) built furth of Scotland, at Selby in Yorkshire; the first to be launched sideways; and the first to be launched by royalty - HRH the Duchess of Kent. Both ships, too, began as the biggest boats ever in MacBrayne service - the Hebrides at 1420 GT in 1964; the 1986 vessel at 3040 in 1986.

Trouble is, at 68 cars the Heb Isles is now too small for heavy summer traffic. The new generation of car ferries is one of monsters.

There's another issue in replacement. In 1986, the public trusted car ferries. In March 1987 the Herald of Free Enterprise sailed on a Friday night from Zeebrugge. Someone forgot to shut the bow doors.

Caledonian MacBrayne waged a determined love-in with us Hearraich. This summer they were authorised to order two big new ferries. One is for the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy triangle. And CalMac are desperate that we like it. So, a few weeks ago, a company official crossed the Minch to consult community leaders. And in a Tarbert office we see unprecedented glasnost. Plans of the new ferry - she will start in 2001, being, as we would say, spared and well - are on

public display.

The drawings of the repeat Clansman are pinned up in the wee registry room. You are ushered through in whispers, as if visiting a bereaved home and invited to see the remains.

The Clansman is a huge boat - 5400 tonnes - which took over the mighty Oban-Coll-Tiree-Castlebay-Lochboisdale run in July. She is high, wide and handsome, but the subject of complaint. Hence CalMac are eager to head Harris off at the pass.

So I pore along deck plans, profile plans, engine details, drooling . . . Ninety cars on the car deck! Ten more cars on a hoistable mezzanine deck! Two MAK 8M32 engines with a maximum continuous rating of 3840kw at 600rpm to propel her at 16.5 knots! Two bow-thrusters!

I remember something. I check the car-deck plans and - yes, at last - a coffin store.

Let me explain. Highlanders, wherever they live, yearn to lie at last among their own. So, quite often, the Hebridean Isles has the solemn duty of bearing home their dust.

But the Hebridean Isles has no coffin-store. The remains have to sit in the tiny first-aid room. Great for a passenger bundled down with terrifying chest-pains. ''Never mind the coffin, Mrs MacWhumph. Anyway, it's full.''

It's never happened, but there's always a first time.

But who needs pictures? The Hebridean Isles is away for annual dry-docking and while she is having her bottom scraped at Troon, we are being served by the Clansman.

We gaze in awe as something the size of a small town hoves in by Tarbert pier. Tarbert pier has a crew of five. The office is headed by Kenny. Kenny is a quiet man with a knowledge of MacBrayne boats as insane as my own; he is a pillar of the West Highland Steamer Club. His wit is sharp; his appearance solemn. Occasionally his mouth twitches. At school, wags nicknamed him ''Smiler''. Kay, quiet, efficient, rarely fierce, does most keyboard or paperwork and is seldom seen at a rope.

Hector, Coinneach and Murdo Farquar, who man the pier, push gangways about - they do rope. Hector has a mirthful mouth and tells good jokes about tourists. Coinneach, powerfully built, sucks sweeties and donates handfuls to children of all ages.

They're very good sweets. Murdo Farquar, decades younger, comes from a line of great Harris mariners. Like me, he sometimes wears silly hats.

All face breakdown, storm, wet abrasive rope, rude and stupid visitors. The job can be dangerous. A ship's mooring warp is near thick as your arm. They rarely snap, but they can; and men have been chopped in two by it.

The Clansman has a bad start. Her first service run from Tarbert is at 07.30hrs on Monday, October 19. It's dark and cold and sleety rain sluices down and passengers glare, not all at me, and wonder why she is not moving, at all, at all. A warp is stuck. She's 45 feet longer than the Hebridean Isles, really too long for our pier, and to help berthing a heavy cable has been specially laid from pierhead

to shore. This is stuck. Has it jammed in

a propeller?

So Kenny has to join Coinneach and Hector and Murdo Farquar to haul and scrabble. We are all wet, freezing; but I do not have to handle ropes.

Twenty minutes late, the Clansman sails off with a jerk. We bundle into the warm office. ''A heavy hawser,'' says Kenny. ''First time we used it, and the last. There's an old one from the Hebrides somewhere; we'll lay it later.''

We talk Clansman. She is fast - takes 15 minutes off the passage - but berthing is epic. Her rope-points at the stern are beyond heaving-line distance from the roundhead. ''It's going to take her a long time getting used to it. You've got to get her in, get her bow fast, get her stern fast, then align her with the linkspan, check the ropes again, adjust.'' It will take days for Tarbert

and the Clansman to build a meaningful relationship, if one of swift, in-and-out encounters. The gangway's a pain. Tides at Tarbert are extreme - there are a full five metres between high and low springs - and the Hebridean Isles has two gangway positions, at gallery-deck and promenade deck levels.

The Clansman only has one. At high tide, even with the longest gangway possible - she brought this one over herself; it's from Coll - passengers will feel they are scaling the Eiger.

We like her lines. One funnel. Shame her lifeboats spoil sight of it. Nice Stem. The revived ''MacBrayne Highlander'' on her prow. But there is little deck-space for passengers. And she heels alarmingly on the turn. We can see her now, moving hard to starboard as she makes for Uig, tilting.

When the Clansman reappears on Tuesday, I am across the loch with camera, to record her first passenger sailing to Tarbert. Other ferry-perves take photos. One is from Edinburgh. One has driven from Manchester. Their lives are devoted to photographing every single CalMac ferry at every single CalMac pier. Honest. If the Clansman's appearance radically changed - like, say, a new mast - they would start all over again.

Today the Clansman loads a mighty fish lorry and lists markedly. It is not corrected. And when she leaves, her belting, forward, catches one of the piles of the pier. For three seconds, ship fights pile: 3840kw at 600rpm! The pile shakes, jerks, frees. There is a horrid noise. Paint is left behind.

Kenny rushes out, questions. We all

think, not saying it, as the Clansman, listing heavily, sails out in rising wind: ''What will happen next?''

Wagnerian farce.

By five-fifteen the light is going and Tarbert pier is in full-blown storm. Wee Angus, and young David, and a few of the local scholars stand determinedly and wait. Word spreads that the Clansman berthing is the best show in town.

Despite the gale, she has crossed in an hour and a half. But, at Tarbert pier, it takes near 40 minutes to tie her up. The wind batters at her stern, out and away. Everyone is drenched; is this rain sloshing over us, or sea? She gets her bow in but the stern goes out some more; she adjusts the stern, and the bow is awry. The boys cannot catch the ropes. Once a hurled heaving line misses Murdo Farquar and winds itself around the lighting mast, three feet above his head.

The tide is high and the Clansman is big and, as she wallows and swings against the pier, we cringe, as if she might fall over and kill us all. At length she is secure. Two old ladies sidle down the precipitous gangway, clutching the rail with both hands, as a wet miserable crowd slithers behind.

Tide defies many. When the Queen visited Harris in 1956 a pompous official asked the jocund Jock MacCallum, of the Rodel Hotel: ''What is the height of the step Her Majesty must take when she crosses from the launch onto the jetty?'' Jock said: ''I'm afraid it's like this. There's a thing in the sea you call the tide. It goes up and down, and there's damn-all you can do about it. She'll just have to loosen her stays and jump.''

Captain Hugh Sinclair has had a rotten day and is tired, but insists on guiding me around, once all is tied, unloaded and quiet. He is proud of his command. Many are proud to know Captain ''Hughie''. A masterly berthing of the old Columba, at Tarbert, in near-hurricane conditions in 1986, is still described in awe by those who saw it.

He is a tall man with nautical beard, hooded eyes, and laconic mien.

''This is the bar . . . nicely fitted; wooden trim . . . cafeteria. Plenty of space; divided colour scheme. Shop - it's closed now.''

The Clansman, aboard, feels like a grand new hotel. All is carpets and colour and soft light and space. The observation lounge has reclining seats with electronic controls. ''They're giving us grief; children of all ages are playing with them. So they're breaking down - aye, there's a seat missing. Some drunk coming back from the Mod on Saturday. He was ashore at Barra before we knew about it. Tore it off the floor . . . ''

The children's play area is a pleasant, squashy place. ''They make some racket, but it's great for parents.'' There is even a dog's lounge, complete with a rail to tie them up, seats for the owners, and a tiled, canine toilet. I am told the pooches fight. The new Harris ferry may have individual kennels.

I am shown about her car-deck. It is divided lengthwise by an off-centre casing, with access stairs to upper decks, the first aid station, and so on. The coffin-store is small, curtained, and discreet.

What I want to see, of course, is the bridge, and as a treat Captain Sinclair admits me. I expect something out of The Cruel Sea: brass, sextants, a big wooden wheel. Not at all. There are great consoles with dials and switches and lights. Computer screens glow. Amazing. With one hand, over one integrated multi-switch, you can vary one rudder, engine, thruster and propeller pitch. ''Apart from berthing, of course, she's on automatic pilot during the passage,'' says Captain Sinclair. He shows the computer in charge of ''trimming'', this controls all the vessel's tanks - sludge; sewage; fuel; stored water; ballast water - and, by telling the computer how many vehicles you have on board and what they are and where they sit on the vehicle deck, they are automatically trimmed to level the Clansman.

Captain Sinclair says: ''In theory, we had a wee problem this lunchtime.'' On the Hebridean Isles, with her single open garage, that large lorry could have been parked in the middle. The Clansman's divided deck made such simple expedient impossible. Captain Sinclair shows me his cabin. There is an office with intimidating desk; a pleasant berth, all facilities.

''Traditionally the captain sleeps starboard, behind the bridge,'' says the Captain, but adds slyly, ''for some strange reason, the Chief Engineer's room is even bigger . . . ''

The last decade has been bad news for

ro-ro ferries. The tragedy at Zeebrugge, and the loss of the Estonia, made many feel the core design of the drive-through car ferry is inherently unsafe. The vehicle space pushes passenger decks up high, giving you a high centre of gravity. And if water enters that open garage, it would take very little to capsize the vessel. A foot of water, sloshing from side to side in tonnes as the vessel rolls, creates a deadly pendulum effect.

The Herald of Free Enterprise sank because her bow doors were of the ''clamshell'' design, opening sideways; her master set sail believing they were closed. That disaster could not happen on a CalMac ship; all ro-ro boats have bow-visors, and if these were up the master could not see where he was going. When the Princess Victoria was sunk with much loss of life in 1953, the sea battered in her stern door; this, incredibly, opened inwards, a blunder not since repeated.

Much of the Estonia calamity is a mystery.

Tom McNeill, Technical Director of Caledonian MacBrayne, speaks with the slow authority of the expert witness: ''The Clansman is our first major unit designed and built since the Estonia tragedy, and it reflects all the new requirements of the MCA - that's the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the safety authority . . . Now one of these requirements is that the vehicle deck be a full metre higher above the water line than the previous standard. That of course pushes the topsides up; it pushes everything up. So the whole centre of gravity is higher and when the ship turns, in a perfectly safe, comfortable and engineered way, she is meant to heel

like that . . . ''

The bow-visor, he says, is built to a most strong new standard. Further, it and ramp are built so that no portion of the ramp intrudes at all into the visor area and so, should the visor come to grief, it will catch no protruding portion of ramp. ''The ramps of all closed ships, by the way, have been modified - cut, or whatever - to eliminate the danger of overhang into the visor space.

''You may also have noticed the deck-level openings along the vehicle deck. They're called freeing ports; all open vessels have them, and they're designed to let water flood safely off if the integrity of the garage space is breeched. On the Clansman they're very visible and there's a lot more of them. The old formula was that the area of freeing ports should equal 0.1% of the length of the vessel in square metres. The MCA now require that they equal 0.3%.''

McNeill pauses, ''Actually, our tank testing proved that the previous requirements were perfectly sufficient.'' He explains how, at considerable expense, CalMac built and tank-tested scale models of all their units. ''With the models of our open ships, like the Clansman - where the vehicle deck is not enclosed at the stern, to allow these vessels to carry volatiles: gas-tankers, petrol and so on - we took off the bow-visors, and the bow-ramps, and wave-tested them - sailed them at highest speed possible, in such conditions, into simulated 15-foot waves. The water flooded harmlessly off. Of course,'' he says delicately, ''we didn't try this with closed ships like the Isle of Lewis.''

He confirms that more ballast at the stern is needed, ''to improve operational flexibility''; the Clansman will receive the surgery in December, and the change repeated on the Uig-triangle ferry. McNeill also confirms the new ferry will have no lifeboats. ''It has now to be recognised that Marine Escape Systems - inflatable chutes and ''igloo'' type enclosed life-rafts are much quicker and safer.''

We discuss old favourites like the Hebrides. I have heard tales of a near-capsize, in a Minch storm, when for a dreadful moment, walls became floors. ''Yes,'' says McNeill, ''beloved as she was - well, a collision between the old Hebrides, say and her sister, the old Clansman, would have had - um - one outcome. A collision between the new Clansman and the Isle of Lewis would be quite different. Those ships are engineered to new levels and could survive massive damage. But there wasn't a collision between the old boats, and there will not be between the new boats, because of the human factors; we have always had superb standards of seamanship, of judgment.

''Masters of skill who shrewdly assess risk. And so you had, well, Captain Hodgson of the old Hebrides . . . these men knew what they were doing; they knew the limits of the ships they had, and the service was perfectly safe.

''There's a culture of safety,'' says Tom McNeill, ''throughout the whole company.'' He's right. In the entire history of MacBrayne operations in the West Highlands - from 1879 - not one life has been lost by shipwreck. I ask about the steep gangway. ''The height of the boarding position is at times a difficulty,'' he says, but insists that a longer gangway must solve it. McNeill, though, is contradicted by Tarbert practicality, especially as waxing moon brings spring tides. After two weeks, unless she is to lie at Tarbert overnight, crew and pier-crew usually give up on the gangway with the Clansman and direct passengers by car-deck and ramp.

For two weekends she actually loads and berths, either side of Sabbath rest, stern-in; it results in far less difficulty with a fixed gangway for crew access.

He stresses that our new ferry will, in many ways be an improvement of the Clansman, if identical in dimensions and profile. ''But, you know; we sit down with the bare plans, and ask people, 'we've got precisely so many square metres here, what do you want in it?' - and, of course, you can't please them all.''

Will the Chairman be a pet and call our new boat the Hebrides? McNeill laughs, and promises nothing. ''My advice to you is to start a campaign!''

''And did you know,'' I tell Robert and Alasdair Dan, slaving over hot computers, ''that the Hebrides of 1964 was the first MacBrayne car ferry; the first boat with stabilisers; first with a bow-thrust; that the hydraulic rams on her hoist were built by McTaggart, Scott & Co Ltd? Oh - and the hoist could lift 24 tons at a speed of 25-feet a minute. And the ramps were interlocked so that only one could be lowered at a time . . . ''

They stare.

''Would you like us,'' muses Robert, ''to arrange a wee whip-round, buy you . . . ''

'' . . . an anorak?'' says Alasdair Dan.

They beam.

''Ramps,'' say I, and hurry down to the pier to meet the boat. Rope, and ramps; sprayed rain in November night. Laughter rings from the gangway. The boys are coming home.