Look What The Wind Blew In

By Gerry Burke

When tourism minister Fergus Ewing opened the new step-on-step-off pontoon at the Loch Fyne village of Strachur, local boat owners were delighted and the government agencies that funded it hoped it would attract some visiting yachts and cruisers as large as 15 metres.

Many leisure mariners indeed have visited the village which boasts a post office, bistro, two churches, two pubs and a filling station which doubles as a well-stocked convenience store.

But the prize catch of the year weighed in at over 2,000 tons when the 111- metre, Hebridean Princess altered course and destination last week on her “Castles and Stately Homes Cruise” and dropped anchor in the bay.

The five-star visitor any major resort would gladly lay out the red carpet and a brass band for was welcomed by moorings association secretary Ian Arnold who was handed a generous donation to bolster funds after helping secure the vessel’s “jolly boats”.

It was the second time in a fortnight the £3,000-a- week “royal” vessel had parked up and shuttled her well-heeled passengers to the 90 metre pontoon which flexes with the state of the sea. The upper Loch Fyne bay provides a perfect alternative sheltered anchorage when weather conditions rule out more exposed destinations on its Arran and Bute circuit.

And Strachur’s good fortune is all due to the dangerous state of the historic pier at Inveraray which earlier this year forced another cruise ship to deploy D-Day style landing tactics to get elderly passengers ashore.

While the royal burgh’s traders share the handicap of Rest and be Thankfull landslips they can only mourn the loss of such prestige custom as Princess passengers are coached directly to selected visitor attractions. Others have simply settled for the scenic attraction of Strachur itself.

And the bay is likely to continue as a choice port of call.

The vessel’s owners, Hebridean Island Cruises, are understood to be considering using the facilities on a regular basis at the beginning and end of their summer season when the vessel is Clyde-based.

The ship which the Queen chartered to celebrate her 80th birthday is the former MacBrayne’s car ferry MV Columba which served the Isle of Mull among others carrying up to 600 passengers, 50 hoist-loaded cars and, often, sheep on the hoof bound for the Oban market.

She now offers a “stately home experience” for up to 50 passengers who can start the day with malt whisky-flavoured porridge and end it with dinner jacket and cocktail dress dining. The clientele is described as “discerning, wealthy, fifty-plus and mostly British.” The cruises are “unsuitable” for children under nine.

Ian Arnold had just completed an advert for the Welcome Anchorages Guide when the master of the Princess called him out of the blue on the first arrival night.

He said: “I thought he wanted to discuss proposals for some time in the future but the ship was already off Crarae and heading our way. What a fantastic sight she was — the last word in luxury on board. They gave a very generous donation to our funds just when our public liability insurance is due.

“It’s hard lines for Inveraray but very good fortune for us. She landed 27 passengers on the first visit and 37 the following voyage. There was a coach laid on to take some of them to visit Inveraray Castle and Ardkinglas with lunch at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. But a surprising number chose to investigate Strachur itself.”

He added: “The bay here is ideal when the wind is from the south or east and the pontoon can easily cope with their 18-foot tenders. It really is a great asset for the community in more ways than one.

“I know a lot of boat traffic heads up towards Inveraray on the opposite coast and quite a few do manage to find us when they return after failing to land there. Our local guide in Welcome Anchorages will put us on the map for them.”

Over at the George Hotel in Inveraray owner Donald Clark was philosophical about the situation. He said: “ We are saddened our historic pier, a fishermen’s facility from the 1700s, has fallen into its present state. But we have to congratulate Strachur on their very good fortune and enterprise.”

First Published in the Dunoon Observer November 2014