Ferry passengers can rest assured that they will travel in safety, a senior manager of the company that runs the lifeline Northern Isles ferry service has assured Lerwick community councillors.
Summoned to give an account of what Serco NorthLink has done to tackle yobbish behaviour on the Hjaltland and Hrossey, marine manager Captain Stuart McCallum said that extra security staff had been employed and there had been a drop in onboard incidents. Additionally, the master has full powers to divert the ship, call the police and even lock-up felons if need be.
Capt McCallum’s visit to the town hall followed repeated complaints and press coverage of outrageous behaviour, attributed mainly to workers at Shetland Gas Plant, on the Northern Isles ferries this summer.
Capt McCallum, a veteran of tousy west of Scotland ferry routes, was thoroughly grilled by fellow mariner Jonathan Wills who alleged that loutish behaviour, first reported in The Shetland Times, was an ongoing problem.
Dr Wills said: “I have had young friends who have been seriously inconvenienced by the loutish behaviour of a tiny minority.” These included a young German student who had been “racially abused by louts”.
Dr Wills said that the concern remained that the ferries were not sufficiently well staffed, and that “people who have committed outrages” were continuing to be served drink. “At what point is NorthLink going to manacle and handcuff and put people behind bars?” he asked.
It was also extremely bad publicity for the tourist industry, Dr Wills said. The situation had led to most councillors receiving complaints from their constituents. “I want reassurance that captains have the full authority and resources to deal with incidents,” he added.
Capt McCallum said that since the July incidents, onboard security had been beefed up and that at times when large numbers were booked at short notice – when flights were cancelled for instance – extra security staff were taken on board.
He emphasised that any trouble was by no means exclusively caused by gas plant workers and that NorthLink continued to work closely with Petrofac and other contractors, with which it shared a good relationship.
Captains were empowered, he said, by the merchant shipping act to detain and restrain unruly passengers and could divert to Kirkwall or any other port to have them arrested.
Capt McCallum declined to go into numbers of security staff employed “for operational reasons” but assured community councillors that “robust procedures” were in place and “are enforced”.
While any incidents that warranted police action were normally reported by the ship’s captain, NorthLink management could also decide to involve police on reviewing any complaints.
Bar and catering staff also took the conduct of passengers very seriously and were licensed and fully trained in “alcohol awareness”, he said. Staff could also deploy the ultimate sanction of closing the bar, but given that 99 per cent of passengers were blameless, this risked punishing the many for the misdemeanours of a few.
Councillor Allan Wishart asked if there had been any recent incidents and said that several recent trips he had made on the north boat had been “very peaceful journeys.”
Capt McCallum revealed that one recent incident had involved an ex gas plant employee “who got a bit unruly” when returning south after a trip to the Lerwick Sheriff Court.
But he added: “There has been a marked reduction in incidents since robust procedures were put in place.”
Community council chairman Jim Anderson asked what NorthLink’s plans were for additional accommodation on the ferries as this was the major problem on the route.
Capt McCallum, said that while that question was outside his scope, it appeared that ferry sizes were constrained by the limitations of Aberdeen harbour and building larger ships would be dependent on a new harbour several miles south at Nigg Bay.