ISLANDERS are being hit with a new crisis with the loss of two of CalMac's ten largest lifeline ferries for weeks, with one suffering rust while concerns have surfaced over continuing food shortages, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

It has emerged that 35-year-old MV Isle of Mull and 29-year-old MV Hebridean Isles have suffered serious problems for weeks causing major disruption in the ferry network which has led to the closure of one route as ferries have been switched around. MV Isle of Mull has suffered hull rust issues and subsequently engine issues while MV Hebridean Isles has had bow visor faults.

And ferry users have complained that concerns over the ferry being unable to berth at Ardrossan meaning a crucial 7am service used for deliveries is cancelled has led to food shortages on Arran around Christmas.

Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull & Iona Ferry Committee said: "The big issue here is what this all says about the state of the ferries.

It is continued disruption to everyone's lives. It is down to incompetent management and not having the proper vessels."

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Some 18 of of CalMac's 35 working ferries deployed across Scotland are now over 25 years old.

The oldest in the CalMac fleet is is the Isle of Cumbrae which is 47-years old.

In 2021 the state-controlled ferry operator spent more than £28.5m on repairs to their vessels last year, compared with just £9.5m in 2011.

Since the SNP came to power in 2007, the average age of Scotland's lifeline vessels has soared from 17 years to nearly 26 years. Back in 1974 the typical ferry was just 13 years old.

MV Isle of Mull was due to emerge from its month-long annual overhaul on December 23. It remains out of action nearly three weeks later.

Users have been concerned that it has left the key services to Craignure on Mull with just one boat - MV Loch Frisa which can only carry half the number of cars that the Isle of Mull can accommodate.

The Herald understands that the initial delay was down to what was described as an emerging problem with what CalMac officials had described as "steel wastage", otherwise known as rust that needed essential repairs.

The Herald:

But now there has since been an issue with the vessel’s port main engine which means it remains out of service.

CalMac messages to the ferry user group show that Isle of Mull left Aberdeen on Wednesday morning, heading back to Oban but suffered an engine breakdown when passing through the Pentland Firth, and made for Lyness in Orkney under escort by a tug.

Repairs to the port main engine were expected to start on Friday.

There are now serious doubts that it will be able to provide support to maintain services with the eight-week closure of Uig harbour on Skye's north coast to replace the ageing infrastructure. The closure has led to a rearrangement of services as the closure impacts on the so-called Skye triangle between Uig, Lochmaddy on North Uist and Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.

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The issues with Hebridean Isles emerged on Boxing Day when it was withdrawn from the busy Arran route to undergo repairs to a bow visor seal.

Further issues were registered three days later and in January 3 it was withdrawn again while the other vessel on the service to Brodick MV Caledonian Isles was offline for an annual overhaul, limiting islanders to a one vessel service.

Five days later after repairs were complete, it remained sidelined due to a new issue with the bow visor locking mechanism.

By January 10 MV Catriona was shifted from the Tarbert to Portavadie to provide support on the service to Arran's other port Lochranza. User groups say that led to suspension of services between Tarbert on Kintyre and Portavadie on the Cowal peninsula for nearly a week starting on January 6.

As of Friday it remained out of action due to what CalMac called an ongoing issue with a bow visor hook and is not expected back in action till at least February 3.

Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group said: "It is the scenario that everyone has been warning about that is likely, given the age of the boats, which makes them less reliable. The decision not to get other vessels available is difficult to understand. Building new boats doesn't resolve the problem now.

"It is the continuing challenge that just isn't being solved. It is almost laughable. The knock on effects are quite serious."

He believed issues with food supplies around the festive period were down to problems with the ferry being unable to berth at Ardrossan causing knock on effects on the early 7am service from Ardrossan being unable to run which is used for freight.

The Herald:

Images of threadbare fresh food shelves were taken on December 30 - and users say food supplies were an issue throughout the festive period.

Mr Bourne added: "The key question we face is most deliveries are booked on the 7am out of Ardrossan and that is one of the most unreliable sailing in our timetable because the boat cannot berth there because of the condition of the fendering which is in such a poor state," he said.

"They want to have the truck leave the depot in the morning first thing, get on the 7am ferry, drop off, and be off again and back in the depot in the eight hours. If the 7am doesn't run it causes chaos. "

Mr Reade said there were concerns at the length of time that the Isle of Mull would remain out of service.

"Those engines in that boat are no longer being manufactured, they were designed in the mid-80s," he said. "The company that made them doesn't exist. They are trying to get parts. But it may be they don't exist.

"It is just a threadbare service caused by long-term bad management."

On Friday, CalMac sent a circular to user groups saying that as MV Hebridean Isles cannot currently operate from Ardrossan, as port infrastructure limits the vessel from operating stern only, the vessel will instead operate a freight only service between Troon and Brodick.

But it warned that no foot passengers or cars can be carried given port infrastructure limits.

It is not yet clear which vessel will be called on to carry out this service.

A CalMac spokeswoman said: “Severe weather disrupted sailings in December, including those carrying food supplies. However, as soon as sailings resumed and space was available, all food lorries were to Arran shipped before Christmas. The poor weather has continued into this week, which has led to unavoidable cancellations and route diversions.

“There have been delays in vessels returning from their legally required annual maintenance periods, which does place a strain on services because there are not any spare vessels we can use to replace them. In these instances, we sometimes have to move vessels around the fleet in order to support busier routes. For example, commercial traffic has been successfully shipped to and from Arran this week via Claonaig on the mainland to Lochranza.”

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We recognise the importance of ferry services to island communities and the many different challenges islanders face when carrying out their daily lives. This is not just about transport performance in itself. It’s about delivering the confidence needed to sustain island populations. 

“There have been ongoing technical issues with vessels resulting in cancellation of sailings. During these periods of disruption, ferry operators prioritise food supplies and as part of the local resilience partnership they remain in contact with local communities and hauliers. CalMac has just confirmed MV Hebrides will be introduced as a freight vessel for the next three weeks to free up additional capacity on MV Isle of Arran for non-freight customers while MV Caledonian Isles is away at her annual overhaul.

“The Scottish Government has invested more than £2 billion in our ferry services since 2007 and we continue to work towards introducing more capacity and greater resilience on the Clyde and Hebrides network. As part of the islands connectivity plan, we will set out a long-term investment programme for vessels and ports which the Project Neptune report called for and islanders need to see.”