Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 00:46 UK

When the boat comes in

By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News, Islay, Scotland


How Cal Mac's ferries keep Western Isles afloat

A man wearing wrap-around shades is issuing orders into a walkie-talkie, as the 4,000 ton ferry backs onto her berth at Port Ellen on the island of Islay.

"Aye, three feet. Now two feet," says Murdo, a first officer with an eye for classy fashion accessories. "We don't do metric on Caledonian MacBrayne."

There is something slightly archaic about a ferry company that, in an age of competitive tendering and profit-making private companies, is owned by the Scottish Executive, and needed 31m of public subsidy last year.

Running 26 ferry routes with a fleet of ships larger than that of the Royal Navy is a job no other company wants.

There is no money to be made here. It is a service to the islands; an economic necessity.

Business support

As if to emphasize the point, a petrol tanker rolls off the ramp at the front of the ferry.

Paul hathaway of the Islay brewery
It's Argyll and Bute who'll have the least level playing field
Paul Hathaway, Islay Brewery

Not to benefit the motorists of Islay, but to fuel the island's famous whisky distilleries, with names such as Bowmore, Lagavuillin and Laphroaig.

The crew on the ferry acknowledges its role as an economic lifeline to businesses on the island.

"If we weren't on service, the island would just die," says Captain John Webb.

"The businesses would move out. And the residents would move out."

Calmac, as it is known here, tries its hardest to live up to that ideal.

The company has recently provided extra ferry services to Islay, and last winter there were only two or three days when its ferries could not make the two-hour crossing from Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre.

Tough to compete

But not everyone on the island is completely satisfied.

Caledonian MacBrayne
31 ships
1160 employees (770 sea-going)
26 routes
5.3 million passengers in 2007
31.4m subsidy in 2005/2006

James Monaghan, who runs the Islay Crab export company, relies on the ferries to send live crabs and scallops to northern Spain.

"Cost is a big issue," he says.

"We have a job to compete with companies on the mainland.

"I think there should be some kind of concession for local businesses."

Aditional costs

The ferry service to Port Askaig, Islay's other ferry terminal, has also been extremely patchy, because of extended work on the jetty.

However Paul Hathaway, a former Rolls-Royce worker from Derby, tells a different story.

Captain John Webb steers a ferry out of Kennacraig
If we weren't on service the island would just die
Captain John Webb

Eight years ago, he and a colleague set up the Islay Brewery in the village of Bridgend. Today is bottling day, and the rhythmical clinking of glass is a reminder of just how extreme the economics of doing business on this island really are.

Each bottle costs him 18 pence to buy. But to get it to Islay costs a further 5 pence, and to export the full bottle back to the mainland costs 5 pence again.

Even though he's just shipped 1,000 bottles to Japan, costs like that mean the brewery is only now just breaking even.

Nevertheless, Mr Hathaway is pleased with the service he gets from Caledonian MacBrayne.

"I think we do get a good service from Calmac," he says.

"They've improved the service. We now have two boats all year round, plus additional boats in the summer."

Level playing field

But should Calmac impose a fuel surcharge - it hasn't yet - that could deal a fatal blow to the business.

Cal Mac ferry Hebridean Isles enters Port Ellen on the isle of Islay
There is no money to be made from these ferries

And there is widespread concern about the forthcoming pilot scheme for "road equivalent tariffs", a plan to reduce some ferry fares on the principle that passengers should pay no more on a ferry than they should if they were driving the equivalent mileage.

The problem is that the pilot scheme will apply only to islands further north, like Barra and Lewis, and not to Islay or Jura in the south.

Both Mr Hathaway and Mr Monaghan say that would be unfair.

"It's ridiculous," says Mr Monaghan. "How can we compete when they're paying half what we are?"

"It's Argyll and Bute who'll have the least level playing field," Concurs Mr Hathaway.

Global gain

Back on the ferry the Captain and first officer are discussing another controversial, but rather less political issue; which Islay malt tastes the best.

Port Ellen, isle of Islay
The island offers a good life, and good whisky

"You'll no go wrong with Laphroaig," says Murdo.

"Tastes like Jeyes fluid to me," replies the captain.

Which underlines the point that what comes out of this island is too good to lose.

Either for the islanders who supply it, or for the whisky connoisseurs who adore its peaty flavour around the world.

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