Shetlander Malcolm Jamieson has been skippering the ferry and cargo ship Concordia Bay in the Falkland Islands, and here describes a typical week in the life of the ship and its crew.
As most people will be aware, the outer islands of Shetland went from the shipping service provided by the Earl of Zetland to inter-island ferries in the early 1970s. In the Falkland Islands, there is a new service that provides both services with the same ship.
Concordia Bay operates both as passenger ferry for crossing Falkland Sound, linking the two main islands of East and West Falkland every Friday and Sunday and alternate Wednesday’s, and as a cargo service calling into 13 islands and two settlements. The cargo runs are divided into three areas – south east, south west and north west islands. The schedule covers all three areas every six weeks.
The service is still in its infancy and I happened to be the master of Concordia Bay when I took the ship into the newly completed ferry terminal at New Haven on the west coast of East Falkland in October 2008, followed by a formal opening by His Excellency the Governor a couple of weeks later.
During the past few months, the ship has carried cargo ranging from salad cream to wind turbines, flour to floorboards, beer to baths to bulls and wool by the tonne. The ship, with a crew of eight, is 45 metres long, and basically a landing craft capable of landing cargo and vehicles onto beaches with the six metre long bow door, and the surveying of beaches is ongoing. In the meantime, cargo is landed using a seatruck, a single-engined craft with a bow door that has been used in the Falklands for years, since most islands do not have adequate piers or jetties.
The following is a basic insight into the working of the ship as I took her to the northwest islands (the Islands of Pebble, Saunders, Carcass and West Point) in between the scheduled ferry runs from the home port of New Haven to Port Howard.
From New Haven, 75 miles from Stanley, the closest settlement is Goose Green, which became a household name during the conflict in 1982. Before the terminal was built, New Haven was mainly known for having a penguin rookery (not as tame as the Gutcher geese in Yell, but we’ve had the occasional inquisitive visitor).
The picturesque settlement of Port Howard lies at the north end of the harbour of Port Howard and has the impressive backdrop of Mount Maria at over 2000ft high. Port Howard itself is a working farm of around 200,000 acres – the farm has 60 miles of coast line and 40 miles of border fencing.
West Falkland covers a land mass of 1,750 square miles, compared to Shetland with 567, but the human population barely scrapes 100. I was no stranger to the west when I first joined the ship, as my wife was brought up in Port Howard and I have been coming down here on and off for 11 years, having done fishery patrols around the Falklands and South Georgia in the past.
My day on the ship when at New Haven normally starts around 0700, with weather forecasts from local radio and weather charts received by email. On West Falkland the ship berths bow in to the jetty at Port Howard and a new terminal has just recently been approved by the Falkland Islands government.
29th April started with a marginal forecast. We sailed for Port Howard at 1000 and the weather deteriorated as the day progressed, so by the time we got to West Falkland before 1200 I had cancelled the return leg and spent the night at Port Howard, returning the following day. From berth to berth, the ferry crossing is normally 1 hour and 40 minutes. Friday the 1st May was another ferry run that went according to schedule.
Owing to sheep movements for the NW trip, it was decided that we would do it in two stages. The first stage was to do the 40 mile trip up to Pebble Island and back in the same day with sheep for the Sand Bay abattoir. So once all passengers and vehicles had left, the ship loaded a cargo container and two livestock containers, together with the seatruck and assorted hurdles and gates. The livestock containers are based on a standard 20 ft container and holds sheep in three tiers.
The 2nd May began calm and clear and we had a very good passage up Falkland Sound with numerous whales blowing. Between Pebble Island and West Falkland there is the Tamar Pass – a narrow and fairly treacherous piece of water where, at full rip, the tide runs in at up to 10 knots. The morning of the 2nd though was very peaceful as it was slack water, but there was insufficient water to get alongside the Pebble Island jetty, so we ended up waiting a couple of hours. Once alongside, cargo was landed and diesel was pumped ashore into tanks. We remained at the jetty for loading sheep, even though they were brought to the ship with the seatruck. We loaded just over 200 sheep and sailed for New Haven and had pretty much high water for going through the Tamar Pass. (Tamar Pass has quite a reputation – one ship a few years ago entered Tamar, got turned round and spat out the way it came in.)
Prior to the ferry run on the 3rd May the deck got a good hose down so that the two-legged passengers never noticed any evidence of the four-legged passengers. Following the ferry run we loaded two cargo containers, a livestock container and a horse box together with the seatruck to be ready for an early departure.
The 4th started with a forecast of 40-50 knots, with expected gusts of up to 80 knots, with blizzards. That made us wait a day . . . three days as it turned out, although we never got much snow. With two whole days cut out from the cargo trip, we had to try and do the whole lot in one day, but with a settled forecast, we didn’t expect any problems.
We sailed on the 7th and had a very good run that took in all three of the most challenging passages. We took in the Tamar Pass and had a small amount of cargo for Pebble before carrying on west, passing through the North West Passage and the Reef Channel. Reef Channel separates Saunders Island and West Falkland and involves tricky parts from beginning to end, where the distance off reefs and rocks leaves very little margin for error.
Continuing west along the north coast of West Falkland, we anchored in Death Cove for the night.
The 8th May started for me at 0600, and I had everything ready on the Bridge as we heaved up the anchor to make the short crossing of the Woolly Gut to Westpoint Island for starting cargo work at 0700, to coincide with first light. It was a quiet morning, but in the summer season the island has an albatross population of 14,500 pairs. It’s a short run to the north and east to Carcass Island where we landed cargo and fuel before loading 44 rams. Carcass is no further north than any of the rest of the North West islands, but palm trees swaying in the breeze add a tropical touch to the rest of the surroundings.
From Carcass we began our way east, and once back through Reef Channel, we landed cargo and fuel at Saunders as well as loading a bull. Saunders Island is a 31,000 acre working farm run by one family who make up the whole human population. But the island is also home to up to four species of penguin and a colony of black browed albatross, so is popular with locals and visitors alike. Landing doors, windows and timber for extending self catering accommodation indicates continued investment in tourism.
All cargo for this run was now finished, and since we didn’t have the tide or daylight on our side, we went to the north of Pebble, removing the need to go through Tamar Pass, before heading south down Falkland Sound.
The rams and the bull were all heading for pastures new on West Falkland. It was midnight by the time we went in through the Port Howard Narrows to anchor for the night. The landing of the livestock coincided with heavy sleet and wet snow so it was fairly miserable on deck in the morning. Back into New Haven later in the day and the ship was all ready for passenger service for the following day once more.
Cargo for the south east is loaded in Stanley, and all cargo fuel for all three areas is loaded there also. The south east run includes the Islands of Lively, Bleaker, Sea Lion, Speedwell, George and Barren. The run also includes Fox Bay on West Falkland to land gas cylinders and usually about 40 tonnes of diesel before heading to Port Howard to pump ashore fuel.
Sea Lion Island isn’t a working farm but has a lodge with a very good reputation. The island is home to nearly 50 species of breeding birds and is about 10 miles south of East Falkland, requiring little or no swell in order to land cargo onto a makeshift landing. Anchoring close enough to the shore for pumping fuel is close enough to see and hear elephant seals on the beach.
Bleaker Island, of just over 5,000 acres, can’t be too bleak as it was recently voted as being the most popular place to visit within the Falklands, and is home to two families.
There is not much difference in distance from New Haven to go north of West Falkland or south to get to the south west. Going south involves the rugged and exposed coast, open to the full force of the South Atlantic. Going north offers more scope, including shelter, and once clear of West Point you have 30 miles of open sea before reaching New Island.
New Island is made up of two separate nature reserves. I’m certainly not the first Shetlander to visit New Island – Christian Salvesen sent men from their station at Olna to work the whaling station around 1910, and remains of the station can be seen on the shore.
Weddell is the largest island after East and West Falkland at around 63,000 acres, and the coast there is a mass of inlets and bays. No longer a working farm it does boast some very tame Patagonian Foxes, which were introduced.
The other island is Beaver and is not inhabited all year round.
Cargo stops at settlements and islands normally last only a couple of hours. During the southern summer, the ship loads bales of wool of around 200kg each, which are craned onboard and put into containers using the ship’s small forklift (the annual average Falklands export of wool is about 1,800 tonnes).
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With so many of the islands having unbeatable wildlife on the doorstep, we have sometimes had to jostle for position to get to settlements with expedition-style cruise ships.
Now having some paternity leave, I’m already looking back on a great little job, but our southern sojourn is just about at an end and it’s time to see how that sycamore I planted back home in Uyeasound is doing, as I haven’t seen it since last year.