Cancelled sailings cause frustration

There is growing dissatisfaction with the vital lifeline service operated by Serco NorthLink with cancelled sailings and partially completed trips apparently becoming a regular feature of winter operations.

Delays in both northbound and southbound sailings of the passenger ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey on Monday and Tuesday and cancellation of the southbound freight boat Hildasay and delay of the Hrossey in the other direction on Tuesday were just the latest in a string of such incidents in apparently unexceptional weather.

On Sunday 14th December, the northbound Hjaltland terminated her trip in Kirkwall and returned to Aberdeen by mid-day on Monday. Pentland Firth ferries to and from Orkney were also disrupted that day.
With the isles in the grip of the festive season, Christmas shoppers dreading empty supermarket shelves and returning hamefarers facing travel delays, it is the worst time of year for disruption to the ferry timetable.

It has been claimed that the Hjaltland and Hrossay are unsuitable for the North Sea and that in any case the service is being unnecessarily interrupted for operational reasons other than the weather.
But the company has denied any considerations other than safety are factors in cancelling or rescheduling sailings.

Serco NorthLink spokeswoman Marion Cordiner said: “There have been disruptions to our timetable due to adverse weather conditions. Our priority is always the safety of our passengers, crew and cargo. Any decisions to re-schedule or cancel sailings are made with this in mind.”

In a letter to The Shetland Times (page eight), Vic Thomas of Clousta demands to know “why one year in the NorthLink calendar gives us a lifeline service with more delays and cancelations than in several years put together of the former P&O service?”

Mr Thomas continues: “Whatever the reasons, it’s imperative come the next contract, that the local communities of both Orkney and Shetland have a say in what service we need and not the rigged sham that saw NorthLink and then Serco take over.”

He asks: “Are the ships so useless? Is NorthLink so scared of being sued if someone falls over on a rough passage? Does NorthLink save money by not sailing?”

Mr Thomas’s letter brought agreement from Thomas Leask who dubbed the North Boats “Caribbean cruisers”.
However, Julie Ritson pointed out that “people’s safety and comfort is more important than putting people’s lives in danger … I for one would rather the boat didn’t sail in bad weather than put my life in danger.”

Shetland External Transport Forum chairman Allan Wishart said he was convinced that the service would be improved when it next went out to tender in 2018. But he pooh-poohed the claims of “armchair skippers” and said that he had every confidence the NorthLink masters were making decisions based on their own judgment on safety.

Mr Wishart, a former chief executive of Lerwick Port Authority, added: “There’s no doubt that disruption is causing upset and inconvenience – but after working in the harbour for 20 years I’m a firm believer that the master of the ship knows best.

“The captain of the ship is ultimately in charge of the ship. I’d be very surprised if there was any other influence being brought to bear.”

Mr Wishart said there were genuine capacity issues that had to be addressed, but it was very difficult to get any sort of transport service that could handle peak demand. He had been on one trip this winter that had 65 passengers going south and 73 going north on ships built to take 500.

It is also increasingly likely that the Hjaltland and Hrossay will remain in service after the next ferry contract is issued in 2018.

Northlink operations manager Stuart McCallum told Lerwick Community Council last month that new, larger vessels “would depend on the new Nigg Bay harbour area development” south of Aberdeen. But there is uncertainty over when and if that massive £320 million project will go ahead.

Mr Wishart said that new, purpose-built ships could be introduced at some stage in the lifetime of the contract. There were many issues to address, such as the optimal length of duration of the contract, which was won by Serco with a last-minute bid that brought much criticism of the way the tendering process was handled by the Scottish government.

He said it had to be borne in mind that Shetland was a net contributor to the national economy – an important node in the multi-billion pound oil industry and with a seafood export industry worth £300 million. As such, any investment in the ferry service should be regarded as a national asset.


Add Your Comment
  • BRUCE smith

    • December 24th, 2014 11:09

    Come on we live on an island . And there have all was being delays by air and sea . And as for P&O refurbished old boats . Yes they may have sailed but how May,time were they late . My family sailed from shetland at 18:00 hr on Thursday and only got into Invergorden 18:00hr on Sunday ???? Du you want to go back that . And the time the st Claire lay on her side east of shetland ??? . You can make them as big as you want . There’s no boat that can sail in all conditions . BRUCE

    • Ali Inkster

      • December 26th, 2014 13:47

      Yes Yes but when the master thinks the ship is unsafe to sail in force 6 to 7 westerly then we need to reassess if it is the master or the ship that is incapable of doing the run. This is not a recent development but has been obvious since the ships first arrived. But whatever the cause for the ships not sailing in a strong breeze it needs to be rectified. Our councilors need to be taking the fight for new ships to the scottish gov not making excuses for them. Your job is to represent our interests Allan, not the interests of the politicians in Edinburgh.

      • Dawn Stewart

        • December 27th, 2014 22:35

        I am getting pretty sick o reading aboot da Northlink bashing.

        1. It is not just about the ‘breeze’, it is about the swell which is a different force to be reckoned with entirely. 2. The Scottish Government fine the company a substantial amount of money if they are tied up in port for any length of time, so they obviously don’t take a decision not to sail lightly. Furthermore, the general current ‘let’s sue’ culture and nature to try to get something out of a bad situation also has a detrimental impact on all health and safety elements, and thereby a knock-on effect regarding risk and as a consequence the decisions that are subsequently made. 3. To be a skipper, you obviously need to be qualified to do so and have considerable seagoing experience. The letters calling a professionals decision such as this into question, is downright rude and insulting. 4. Maritime law changed to ensure that passengers are not allowed to travel below sea level, meaning the amount of cabin space is limited. Obviously therefore, the more cabins you have, the bigger and higher the boats have to be and with port size limitations and the sheer finance that would be required to accommodate demands may simply be impossible to achieve.

        Spare a thought for the crews (and their families) who sail for 2 weeks at a time in often horrendous conditions in the unforgiving North Sea during the winter months. is it going to take a major incident with serious loss of life before everyone stops whining? Or does the finger of blame then point to the officers in charge at the time who were placed under so much pressure to sail that it was considered worth the risk to endanger lives?

        Isn’t this supposed to be the season of good will? Whit da hell his happened to wir community? The constant moaning aboot onythin’ and everythin’ ‘ seems to have taen wir culture ower, which is quite frankly, sad.

        Hopefully we might get some more positive contributions/news stories in 2015, or is dat type o content no sae interestin’ tae read?

  • Paul Dalley

    • December 24th, 2014 22:19

    Surely it would be better for everyone if the boat went further south than aberdeen where you have ports capable of taking larger ships more capable of handling the rough weather I personally love travilling to shetland by boat and have never so far had any problems luckily in the last 40 years some fairly rough weather recently but we still sailed on time I think the new boats are too tall and act a bit like a big sail in high cross winds its a bit uncomfortable but I think they are quite capable

  • Neill Connor

    • December 28th, 2014 16:47

    I was supposed to be living in Shetland by now, but have not got there yet. The 1st time was my own fault arriving at the boat after boarding had closed and the second due to the sailing being cancelled due to bad weather. The weather forcast on the cancelled sailing didn’t appear to severe with only rough seas and force 7 gales. The boat had sailed earlier in the week in worse conditions but i respect the Captains decision to cancel the sailing as he is ultimatly responsible for passengers, the crew and his ships safety.
    I am looking forward to moving to Shetland but i am dreading the ferry crossing. Therefore when i attempt the crossing again in January, and if it is cancelled, i’ll be a bit cheesed off but respect the Captain for his judgement.

  • mike perry

    • December 28th, 2014 19:52

    Dawn Stewart Comments have hit the nail on the head, What puzzles me is, surely in the Shipping world, there must be two suitable Ships available to replace the present ships, for when the contract is renewed.

  • David Spence

    • December 29th, 2014 13:30

    I am sure the Scottish Office do not charge Serco for the boat being tied up if the weather is not suitable for sailing? However, where does one draw the line between Serco saving money in not sailing to this of what the Captain (I presume the Captain is also paid by Serco?) may say in regards to the suitability on whether or not the boat should sail.

    I also suspect in this day and age of our legal system becoming more like America’s (regrettably) where you can sue for literally anything, the reluctance of Serco to sail the boat on the off-chance a passenger may sue the company because they fell or slipped due to the weather conditions or sea swell (god forbid if a passenger tries to sue Serco for being sea-sick…….no doubt some lawyer will see an opportunity there)

    Serco, from the islanders point of view I think, have demonstrated that providing the lifeline service to the islands is a situation of maximizing profit over and above the needs of the islands and the people of the islands. Since Serco have taken over (and I still question as to how on earth they ever got the contract in the first place) it has become very obvious that they are putting profit ahead of anything else as circumstantial evidence plainly shows.

    I would find it very unlikely that a company would go to the trouble of providing 2 or more ships (which may be more suitable for the North Sea) costing several hundred million for the sake of a 6 year or less contract. It is a case of putting up with what we have been given, I hasten to say.

    • Dawn Stewart

      • December 29th, 2014 19:44

      More moaning. Sweet joy!

      I do not intend to argue about the points I have made previously as I stand by them fully.

      Happy New Year to all when it arrives.


      • Ali Inkster

        • December 29th, 2014 22:07

        At least we can be sure of when new year is going to arrive, unlike the ferries

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