Fears that Whalsay will be reduced to a one-ferry operation because the Hendra has to be scrapped have been allayed by Shetland Islands Council.
Last week’s decision by councillors to ditch plans to build a new super-ferry to replace the Hendra prompted fears that the Marine Coastguard Agency might force the 28-year-old ferry to be removed on safety grounds, causing chaos on a route where two ferries are currently struggling to cope with traffic.
EU rules from 1998 require new ferries to have their passenger saloons above the car deck. Older ferries with saloons below deck, including the Hendra, Geira and Fivla in Shetland, were allowed to continue for a limited number of years before being replaced or rebuilt.
The council decided its affected ferries had to be replaced to bring them up to the standard of newer craft, such as the other Whalsay ferry Linga.
But with no replacement now in the pipeline for the Hendra, a former Whalsay ferry skipper Peter Walker Anderson and others warned that the MCA might order her out of service.
Mr Anderson said: “Now that the ferry replacement programme has been abandoned, and if no money can be found soon for the fixed links, will the MCA still allow this ageing boat to operate here? Whalsay is considered an open sea crossing in the eyes of the MCA and because of this comes under tighter scrutiny than other ro-ro ferry services in Shetland.
“Whalsay residents, and possibly those in the North Isles, may suddenly find themselves a lot worse off than they are at present. All it would take is for a box not to be ticked at the MCA HQ then the vessels will be obsolete.”
However, it emerged this week that pressure was successfully brought to bear on the MCA some time ago to relax its rules due to the large number of UK ferries facing the scrapheap.
The rules were changed with EU permission in December 2006 with the result that the old style SIC ferry no longer had to be rebuilt or removed by the deadline of 1st July 2009 or, in the case of the slightly newer Bigga, in 2010. The ferries are not be allowed to be used in other EU countries.
Council marine superintendent Colin Reeves said the merchant shipping notice MGN 1811 had “changed the originally accepted belief that the Hendra class vessels require to be taken out of use”. He concluded that Mr Anderson’s concerns for the Whalsay service, while correctly stating the original problem, were “no longer valid”.
Last week the Full Council threw out plans to spend £26.2 million building sturdier terminals and a 31-car super-ferry for Whalsay. Instead it decided to hold off for a number of years to see if outside funding for tunnels becomes available as UK and EU economic fortunes recover.