The Scottish government has asked Shetland Islands Council to pay up to £25,000 towards the cost of a relief ferry to shorten the disruption to NorthLink services to and from the islands during the dry-docking period.
Councillors will hold a special meeting on Thursday to discuss the proposal for a £250,000 charter of the Hebridean Isles to run across the Pentland Firth while NorthLink’s Hamnavoe is in dry dock from 23rd January to 13th February. The SIC share of the bill would be between £15,000 and £25,000.
That would mean the Hjaltland or Hrossey would not be required to cover for the Hamnavoe, reducing the disruption to the Shetland service from nine weeks to six.
The proposal has angered councillors in Orkney, which is served not only by the Hamnavoe but by the fast Pentalina catamaran and the Lerwick-Aberdeen service on alternate week nights.
Scottish transport minister Keith Brown visited Shetland last week to discuss the issue and promised that there would be no repeat of the extended dry-docking period under the new Northern Isles ferry contract which is due to begin in July. This year each vessel requires to be taken out of the water for extended survey.
Councillors will discuss the proposal pending legal advice that it has the power to agree to it.
In a report SIC executive manager Michael Craigie states: “During recent docking periods there has been significant disruption to services in adverse weather. The main reasons for this are that when the freight ships get disrupted they do not have the benefit of the sea keeping capabilities and additional speed of the passenger ships to catch up from the disruption and get back on timetable.
“Also, the single passenger vessel often ends up out of position and isn’t available in Shetland to pick up time critical and valuable freight that needs to connect with other distribution networks to the rest of the UK, Europe and further afield to destinations such as America and China.
“This has had particular consequences for seafood exporters who need reliable journey times in order to meet the demands of supply chains, especially for the time critical southbound sailings. This allows them to get full market prices for their fresh products and ensures that the industry’s reputation for high quality and reliability is maintained. Customers are worldwide and they expect reliability as much as quality.
“The docking period also clashes with Up-Helly-A’ this year and there may be capacity problems as a consequence of only having one vessel on the route. The proposal would ensure the normal two vessel service over this period.”