BIGGER, faster and more weather-resistant ferries are being planned as the next generation of vessels for CalMac’s west coast network.
Major changes to harbours and approach channels would be required to accommodate them, with dredging, and blasting to clear rocks.
The plans by CalMac fleet owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (Cmal) mark a significant change of direction from the past practice of designing ferries to fit ports.
The larger vessels would have greater carrying capacity, higher speeds and more manoeuvring power, and be better able to withstand bad weather.
They promise to cut journey times, make crossings more reliable and pleasant for passengers, and attract extra traffic.
Routes which could benefit include the storm-lashed passage between Mallaig and Lochboisdale in South Uist, and the main links to Arran and Islay.
The first of the new ferries could be in service by the early 2020s, and be up to the size of CalMac’s largest vessel, the 116m-long (387ft) Loch Seaforth, which operates between Ullapool and Stornoway.
They would be larger than the rest of the 32-strong fleet, including the latest two 100m-long (333ft) ferries being built.
Cmal has now launched a three-year study into the project. Chief executive Tom Docherty said: “Demand seems to suggest larger ships, which would mean dredging ports and creating safer channels, such as by blasting rock.
“We will be identifying the ports and harbours that would require improvements. We will also have to look beyond the limits of the harbour, as CalMac is restricted by the depth of water in most places.”
Tricky approaches include the narrow sea loch to Tarbert in Harris. Ardrossan harbour, on the Arran route to Brodick, also has a narrow entrance.
Docherty said bigger ferries had multiple advantages: “The Loch Seaforth is much more resilient and reliable than the ships she has replaced.
“The longer the hull, the faster the ship. If it’s bigger, it’s going to be a more reliable and more comfortable ride for passengers. In a small ship in a big sea, it’s going to be rough, In a bigger ship, it will be smoother.”
He said the new ferries would travel at up to the Loch Seaforth’s 19.2 knots (22mph) top speed compared to 16.5 knots (19mph) for the latest two vessels, which were ordered last month.
CalMac managing director Martin Dorchester said: “The key to the future is to open up the breadth and depth of harbours so we can have the best choice of vessel.”
Jonathan Riley, bid director for Serco, which is competing against CalMac to run its ferry services, said: “This is a logical and very sensible move.”