Ferry passengers petrified in 15-hour storm nightmare

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Key points

• A journey between Ullapool and Stornoway took 15 hours

• Winds of 80mph and waves 15 metres high battered the boat

• Skipper Alan Smith had decided it was safe to make the crossing

Key quote

"I've never been so terrified in my entire life. That boat was in serious trouble. I really believed that I was going to die." - Mr Collins

Story in full IT IS normally one of Scotland's most spectacular ferry journeys, inching through the Summer Isles and allowing passengers views of the spiky peaks of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven.

But for those on board the MV Muirneag last Friday, the CalMac route between Ullapool and Stornoway became memorable for very different reasons after the 3.5 hour journey took 15 hours to complete in 80mph winds.

At least one passenger became so frightened for his life that he wrote a farewell letter to his wife and children believing he would never see them again.

An investigation has now been launched into why the boat was allowed to set sail in such bad conditions.

Witnesses described scenes of chaos on board the vessel as it veered miles off course as it attempted to cross the Minch on Friday.

Cars slammed about the deck, crashing into other vehicles and smashing deck lights. Lorries were also damaged, freight was catapulted off trailers and oil and cargoes of fish farm food were spilled.

Below deck, seating and tables were said to have been wrecked and crockery was sent flying through the air as the ferry was buffeted by the storm.

The Muirneag, chartered by Caledonian MacBrayne for the daily crossing, left Ullapool at 10:15am on Friday with 18 commercial vehicles, ten cars and the maximum 12 passengers on board.

The west coast and Western Isles were battered by storm-force winds, but skipper Alan Smith decided it was safe to make the crossing.

However conditions worsened considerably quicker than expected and the ferry was soon pounded by waves up to 15 metres high.

The vessel was blown off course and the captain also took evasive action, desperately trying to seek shelter from the mountainous seas.

During the ordeal, one passenger, Steven Collins, 22, from Bragar in Lewis, suffered minor concussion after banging his head against a bulkhead and had to be airlifted off the vessel by a coastguard helicopter which braved the severe conditions to carry out the rescue.

He was flown to hospital for treatment but was released shortly afterwards.

Having taken nearly five times longer than expected, the journey finally ended when the ferry arrived in Stornoway at 3:35am on Saturday, but the repercussions continued.

Mr Collins's father Paul, who was also on board, initially claimed he was assaulted by the ferry captain and police were called in to investigate before the complaint was dropped.

Mr Collins senior also criticised CalMac after claiming his 1961 classic Rover car was destroyed. He said: "Lives were put at risk. Grown men were extremely scared. The ship was out of control. We were abandoned by the ship's crew and they disappeared for hours. One driver cut his leg but there was no crew to get him a bandage.

"I've never been so terrified in my entire life. That boat was in serious trouble. I really believed that I was going to die."

"They were asked to lash down the car when we came on board but they just used a rubber chock instead. There was oil all over the deck.

"The Rover was bouncing off the railings, slithering across the deck and smashing into other vehicles.

"The captain tried over 15 times to turn the ship and failed. It was ignorant and arrogant of CalMac to allow that ship to leave Ullapool." Another passenger, Kenny Smith, said: "I started writing a farewell letter to my wife Carron and three children. I thought I was dead and would never see them again. It was madness to sail with that storm coming."

Lorry driver John Edgeley added: "Someone has to explain what the hell that tub was doing out in hurricane-force winds. It is not a reliable boat but we were out in a storm. I have never been so frightened for so long. I thought I would never see my family again."

The Marine and Coastguard Agency said it has begun a preliminary investigation into the lashings of the vehicles on board the ferry.

CalMac is conducting its own internal inquiry and said the Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the Health and Safety Executive are looking into the incident. The owner of the ferry is also conducting its own checks but yesterday claimed the incident had been exaggerated.

CalMac said safety management, including the securing of vehicles and cargo on the ferry, is the responsibility of the owners. The company said it did not wish to comment on the master's decision to put to sea.

A spokeswoman said the vessel was off-course due to a combination of the weather and the captain seeking shelter. She said: "At no time was the ship out of control. It was under the full command of the captain who was seeking shelter as a result of the poor weather."

She said CalMac received no reports of passengers being abandoned or of a passenger injuring his leg.

The spokeswoman added: "We do not know the extent of the damage as yet. We are contacting the hauliers involved to assess damage to vehicles and are dealing with any insurance claims from that through the normal channels."

A statement from ASP Ship Management, agents for the ferry owners, said: "During the Muirneag's passage from Ullapool to Stornoway on Friday, the weather deteriorated earlier than had been forecast and the vessel had to take evasive action. During this time some cargo did shift and was damaged. This included a car that apparently had faulty brakes."

It added: "Whilst the weather was violent, at no time were the passengers or the vessel in danger."

Alan Cunningham, ASP's fleet manager, added: "It is always the master's decision whether to sail or not. The service frequently does not sail because of weather conditions, especially at this time of year.

"On this occasion the master decided it was fine to sail but unfortunately the weather deteriorated far faster than he expected and the vessel got caught in it."

The Muirneag suffered no damage but is presently undergoing pre-planned routine maintenance and is due to return to service today.

The MV Muirneag, pronounced moornyak, was built in 1979 and came into service on the Stornoway-Ullapool route in August 2002 .

Named after a mountain in Lewis and meaning "the beloved one", it was the first time that a major ship operated by Caledonian MacBrayne was given a Gaelic name. It replaced the MV Hascosay which was moved to work for NorthLink Ferries in the Northern Isles.

Shortly after the Muirneag started on the Ullapool-Stornoway route there were complaints of damage to two lorries during a crossing of the Minch in bad weather.