Shetland is pushing for a versatile passenger/freight ship to be added to the North Boat fleet during the period of the new contract which starts this summer.
The nub of the problem during the drydocking season is the inadequacy of the two freighters Helliar and Hildasay which are seen as lacking both the speed and sea-keeping abilities to provide a reliable service in times of bad weather.
They are only on charter with crews until the end of NorthLink’s contract in early July.
A possible answer to the grumbles of the local seafood, tourism and haulage industries is replacing one of the freighters with a so-called ro-pax ship which has the flexibility to carry freight and, when required, hundreds of passengers. Such a ship would mean that during drydock periods the Shetland-Aberdeen route was not left with just one passenger ship and freight ships which can only carry 12 passengers.
The ship could be fully manned to cater for passengers during busy periods, including the whole summer when there are too few cabins to meet demand both to and from Shetland. Other peak periods include school holidays and festivals.
Overall, the extra flexibility would help address some of the problematic constraints which are a feature of the North Boats service and can work against the interests of islanders, visitors and local businesses.
The council’s transport planning executive manager Michael Craigie said the issue had been raised with the government a number of times. The wish for such a ship was included in the council and the local transport agency ZetTrans’ consultation response to the Scottish government on the new contract requirements.
Mr Craigie said: “It would resolve any capacity problems during the drydocking period. That is most significant around Up-Helly-A’. The more important aspect is that in the summer months, when we do have obvious capacity constraints, it would go a significant way to allowing tourist traffic to get to Shetland and off the islands.”
Ideally a new ship would be built, as NorthLink did with the Hrossey, Hjaltland and Hamnavoe. Three years ago ZetTrans tabled the idea of Shetland building one itself using Shetland Charitable Trust funds and leasing it to NorthLink or whoever wins the contract to run the ships from July this year.
One of the ideas floated in Shetland was for the ship to run on liquid natural gas, which would be cheaper and much cleaner than conventional dirty diesel ships.
The ship was also seen as a way of enabling NorthLink or another company to resume passenger ferry links with Norway. The proposal has never got beyond the drawing board.
A suitable second-hand ferry could be an alternative. One which was seen by NorthLink and others as potentially suitable two years ago was the seven-year-old 125 metre Danish Duoedde, which was up for sale in 2010.
She was considered as a replacement for the slow and ageing Clare but NorthLink eventually plumped for the Clipper Racer and renamed her Helliar.
The Duoedde could carry up to 92 lorries and 400 passengers with the potential to increase that to 770. With a service speed of up to 18.8 knots she was also slightly faster than the current freight ships which can do about 16.5 knots.
Instead of coming here she was eventually sold to New Zealand and renamed Straitsman on the Cook Strait between North and South islands.