Jean Knowles and the Ileach on Port Askaig Islay

If the Ileach Newspaper would have received a pound for each letter that's been written and printed about the Port Askaig reconstruction and linkspan they could have built a new linkspan themselves, and it would most likely be in right place too! You probably guessed by now that this article is about the Port Askaig reconstruction. I guess you can call this article the "Ultimate Guide to Port Askaig Problems" since it contains an excellent overview of the events that led to the upcoming and a not foreseen reconstruction of the linkspan because it can't handle the new Islay Ferry which is due in spring 2011. The first part of this article is written by Dr. Jean Knowles and it appeared in the Ileach of 6 November 2010. The second and third part appeared in the previous Ileach.


Repairs on the Linkspan after a collission with a ferry

The articles on page 3 of the Ileach issue 37/26 (bottom of this post), are only in effect a brief resumé of the scenario at Port Askaig. The re-development of Port Askaig had detailed plans submitted by Argyll & Bute Council in 2000 but were ‘called in’ for a public enquiry because the developer and the planning authority (and future beneficiary of income) were one and the same: Argyll& Bute Council. At that time the chairman of the Roads and Transport committee was Cllr. Robin Currie. The project had already been slow in gestation since the greater part of the funds in the original costing were to come from Europe under Objective 1 funding. This funding stream ceased to be available after 2000, and special permission had to be obtained to keep the funds despite the delays in using them. Continue reading...

The project was specifically Argyll & Bute Council’s and at that time there appeared to have been little contact or consultation with Caledonian MacBrayne, which was one of the factors which caused me concern. It was however thought that the re-developed Port Askaig would be able to take one of the larger vessels within the Calmac fleet; the one which was specifically named, was the ‘Isle of Mull’, five metres longer than the ‘Isle of Arran/Hebridean Isles’ and ‘Finlaggan’. The project engineer at that time was the same man who was responsible for the previous re-development of the pier, and he was already quite open that he would be retiring within a relatively short space of time and thus unlikely to see the project through to its conclusion. He also said that the design was not the most functional but one which answered the constraints of design which he had been given, eg. no raising of the pier surface, no significant periods of closure to mainland ferries, no removal of the pier buildings and re-construction.

In the documents presented for the planning enquiry there was substantially more written about the view from Jura than the functionality as a port and the legend ‘Port Ellen is un-suitable in winter weather, whereas Port Askaig is an all-weather facility’.This was re-iterated verbally when I questioned the author directly and he was adamant that diversions NEVER take place from Port Askaig, despite there having been a diversion the previous day!

One of the regular masters did put in a note expressing concern about the difficulties in manouevring a vessel, with the plans showing the pier extending further into the sound and thus being more exposed to the actions of wind against tide, but he was moved to a different route within the year and is now retired. I opposed the plan because, to my mind, it represented something which was under-designed for the need, and not aspirational but ‘just enough’ at best, and likened it to inadequate, non-curative surgery.

Since the planning enquiry the design has changed substantially. The Jura ferry was not intended to be using the same linkspan as the mainland ferry, but this was done to avoid the problems of developing temporary alternative berthing at the time of the construction of the Jura concrete ramp, which is also not ‘fit for purpose’. There was no mention of a new vessel for Islay when the facility was planned; aspiration was maybe for the deployment of a superseded vessel from elsewhere, such as the ‘Isle of Mull’, and the public’s suggestion of a two vessel service was pooh-poohed. The linkspan at Port Askaig is huge, more than wide enough for the new vessel were it to have been placed further away from the pier. After all, the refurbished linkspan at Port Ellen is to be re-positioned for the Finlaggan to use.

At the meeting in August 2010 in Port Ellen, the representatives of CMAL were able to confirm that the Finlaggan would be able to use piers anywhere throughout the rest of the network, but the question not answered was; Which vessels can the present configuration at Port Askaig/Kennacraig/Port Ellen accommodate?” I think this would make a suitable FoI enquiry for both Argyll & Bute Council and CMAL.

Although the pier at Port Askaig APPEARED to be extended by the new roundhead, the new linkspan was longer by the same amount, so the dockside length remains the same. Would the ‘Isle of Mull’ be able to manoeuvre safely to dock with its bow protruding a further five metres into the tide race? And how would the bow-ropes be securely attached (given that some of them have been pulled out already and the blocks in the roundhead shifted by centimetres)?

So here we are after the autumn equinox facing ‘a minimum eight weeks’ of all CalMac ferries operating in and out of Port Ellen. Potential concomitant disruption to crossings for the Jura ferry which is now confined to suitable states of the tide-disregarding weather, while CalMac sailings are bearing the brunt of increased freight traffic due to a greater demand for fuel tankers because of the sub-sea electricity cable failure and our current reliance upon ‘Islay power’. Around the same time as the Port Askaig development, came the need to upgrade Bruichladdich pier of which little more needs to be said.


Articles Ileach 37-26 - Port Askaig laid bare
“We asked for facilities which would allow vessels with a beam of up to 20 metres” - CalMac
The magnitude of the fundamental design problems at Port Askaig were laid bare this week when Argyll and Bute Council, on being asked by the Ileach who was going to fund the modifications to the linkspan to enable the new Islay ferry ‘Finlaggan” to dock, initially continued to insist that it is not their responsibility. They further insisted that the pier as currently configured meets specification and that CalMac/CMAL had been consulted at every stage during the design and build process.

The Council position was apparently supported by CalMac’s submission to the Ferries Review which states: “The vessels built for CalMac however are built to a specific set of dimensions allowing a maximum length of 100 metres, a maximum beam of 15.8 metres and 3.2 metres maximum draught. These dimensions have been chosen in order to allow the company the flexibility to deploy any of these vessels to any port in the network.” It goes on to say “The linkspans that are in service at the ports on the network effectively limit the beam of ships using them to 15.8 metres at the present time. The use of a fender may permit narrower vessels to use the linkspan but if wider vessels were to be used then the linkspans would require modification.” The ‘MV Finlaggan’ does not meet this specification It has a beam of 16.4 metres and a draught of 3.4 metres.


The reconstructed and pretty looking terminal building at Port Askaig

Faced with the Council criticism, and despite what they have presented to the Government, CalMac not only contradicted the Council, they responded with a robust statement saying that Port Askaig does not even come close to meeting their requirements. A spokesman said: “We are absolutely clear that the cost of the alterations to Port Askaig should be met by Argyll & Bute Council and they have accepted that. This is because when we were consulted on our requirements for Port Askaig some years ago, we asked for facilities which would allow vessels with a beam of up to 20m to use it. This was requested to “future-proof” the port. Unfortunately this was not provided so when it became clear modifications were required for the MV Finlaggan, ABC agreed to do this and the contract has now been awarded. We are content that works are progressing but it is not a matter for us how they are funded”.

Argyll and Bute Council subsequently modified their position and issued the following to The Ileach: “You may be aware that the Project Engineer who was responsible for the detailed consultations for the scheme has since retired. We are aware that there were discussions in respect of future proofing the installation. There will also be a post project evaluation audit which will, we expect, reveal the position. “In respect of payment for the modifications, agreement has been reached regarding funding for the necessary works.”


Ileach Editorial Note - Size Matters
The obsession with ever larger ferries has to stop. While it is obviously unbelievably incompetent to have built Port Askaig so that it does not fit the Finlaggan, the idea that CalMac/CMAL could seriously contemplate a future mega-ferry for Islay with a beam of some 20 metres is perhaps even more worrying. The Finlaggan is too big already, and as a result, it does not fit its ports. This is a pattern which cascades back through the company’s history, and it has drained the exchequer of money and the islands of both opportunity and population.

Still this megalomaniacal tendency continues. The CalMac submission to the Ferries Review calls for “more and larger vessels”. A new ‘superferry’ is apparently seriously being considered as the solution to the impending departure of the ‘Murneag’ on the Ullapool/Stornoway route. Happily, the sensible communities of Ullapool and Stornoway seem to have cottoned on to this latest megawheeze at an early stage and may be able to stop it. They want the sensible solution, which is two smaller ferries, far more flexible and offering twice the frequency. Exactly the benefits that Islay has found have accrued since we moved to the two vessel service that is now essential to our well-being.

An exact analogy to demanding ever larger ferries would be for busy train operators, instead of running more trains more often, instead demanded ever larger trains, needing ever wider tracks and ever longer platforms. Similarly, if Eddie Stobart responded to the growth in his transport business by demanding that ever larger trucks be built, that the road network be widened to take them and all the loading ramps in the country be changed to accommodate his latest mega-fleet, we would all, quite correctly, think he had lost the plot. Happily, Eddie has done nothing of the sort....