CalMac operates in some of the most beautiful waters in the world, but also some of the most challenging during the winter months. 

Wave sizes have been recorded as the highest anywhere in the world on occasion, reaching more than 40ft in height, or around three double-decker buses, with winds regularly gusting in excess of 80mph, speeds impossible to stand up in let alone sail. 

In these conditions disrupted ferries are a reality of island life, and all in all residents of our west coast communities accept that the elements will play a major part in how they live their lives, and that it will place some restrictions on when they can travel.

Decisions to cancel due to weather are never taken lightly, many of our Masters live in the communities we support and know the consequences. They will only cancel after making a measured decision using all the tools and support available. Decisions will be based on wind speed and direction, gusting and wave height. Above all using their years of experience to determine if it is safe to sail. 

While we cannot control the weather, we can ensure that the fleet we have to support island communities is well maintained, and that when weather is not impacting on services we can deliver a reliable and resilient service to a timetable passengers can count on.

We are investing heavily to ensure this happens. 

We have introduced a Mobile Maintenance Team responsible for carrying out preventative maintenance tasks to keep vessels in service and to provide a fast response to vessel issues, reducing the need for them to be taken out of service. Vibration detectors have now been deployed across the fleet to ensure that issues are identified early and resolved before failure occurs.

During this winter’s dry dock maintenance programme, we are spending more £21 million, which includes a record £9m investment on vessel upgrades. We are innovating constantly to find ways to improve the overall resilience of the fleet. While this is welcome, it creates a challenge to our already tight dry dock schedule. 

Dry-docking is an extremely complex operation requiring us to maintain lifeline services while ensuring each of our 33-strong fleet can get a one to two-week maintenance period over a 26-week window, which requires a complex vessel relief programme across all routes. Not easy when vessels only fit certain ports.

On top of the regular cyclical planned maintenance we are carrying out more then 90 major projects to the fleet this year. This includes new engines, replacement pitch control systems, new bow thrusters, replacement ramps and new generators on various vessels.

Last year 2.9 per cent of our sailings were cancelled due to weather, but when you look at the reliability of our service overall, excluding weather, our reliability is 99.6%, which benchmarks well against any transport operator. 

However, despite this investment and innovative approaches, we still face significant challenges around the age of the vessels we run and what we are asking them to do.

Across our 28 routes, our fleet is now being asked to complete 13,000 more sailings annually than five years ago with the same number of major vessels. Such demands do not come without consequences.

We are carrying more people than ever before, 5.6 million passengers and more than 1.4 million cars last year. This is a 15% increase in passengers and a 37% increase in vehicles over the last five year and we are again heading for another record year. On some routes such as Claonaig-Lochranza the vehicle increase is as much as 80%. 

This is great news for the communities we serve. It brings more visitors, spending more money, helping to sustain and grow island economies. It is also great for local people, increasing flexibility for them getting off islands and back again.

But more sailings means more pressure on the fleet, a fleet that is not getting any younger, the average age of our ferries is 23 years old, with eight past their 30th birthday.

The combination of increased sailings – vessels working harder – combined with their age, will inevitably lead to an increased risk of mechanical failure. Many key parts and systems are obsolete, and the challenge of securing replacements and engineers from European-based suppliers means that is also likely to take longer to get our boats back into service when things do go wrong.

It is these additional passenger volumes combined with a higher number of sailings that we have been tasked with carrying out that is placing more and more pressure on our services. The fleet operates at full capacity through the year, if there is a technical breakdown and a major vessel needs to come off route, we simply do not have any spare. 

We are then left with an unenviable task. All our island routes are lifeline and we need to make decisions to keep these running in a way that will disrupt the least amount of people.

We will divert or deploy vessels elsewhere from the network to ensure that all routes receive at least a partial service, but this clearly has a knock-on effect for other Islands.

While our vessels may be susceptible to both natural elements and mechanical gremlins, passengers can be assured our award-winning staff will be on hand to get them to where they’re going with the minimum of fuss, whatever the weather.

Robbie Drummond is managing director of CalMac Ferries Ltd.