The skipper of the MV Isle of Lewis looks set to be working on extra day after his expected retirement from the job, which was due tomorrow (Wednesday December 11th).
After a day of technical problems and two days of weather cancellations, the Isle of Lewis is expected to make her next trip on Thursday December 12th.
But Captain Alex Morrison is well-used to the potential for disruption – from weather and other causes – after 52 years at sea, 22 of those as master of the Isle of Lewis.
The CalMac skipper was due to step ashore in Oban at the end of his final shift tomorrow, with several weeks leave due before he officially retires in January 2020. His 70th birthday falls in 2020, but the seasoned skipper simply won’t let the people of Barra down.
He’s had politicians and celebrities visiting him on the bridge, but it’s the ordinary traveller, their comfort and getting them to where they want to be, that really matters to this ship’s master.
Alex Mòr has been synonymous with the CalMac ferry MV Isle of Lewis since 1997, the year he joined her as master. He was by then 30 years into a career at sea that’s longer than many of his passengers have even been alive.
A native of Borve, Lewis, Alex left his parents’ croft in 1967, to become a 17-year-old cadet with Denholms of Glasgow, ship managers. They sent him deep sea – first to Narvik in Norway on the SS Gleddoch and later to destinations as far-flung as Russia, Japan, Australia and the USA.
His move to CalMac was almost accidental – planning for a change of employer, he followed a tip from a shipmate and applied for a ‘stop-gap’ job as a second officer aboard the MV Iona in Oban in March 1974.
Alex has never regretted the move to CalMac and would still recommend the company to any prospective cadet. “I don’t think there’s another job like it, any way you look at it” he says. “The way they treat people at CalMac – it’s the job you should try and strive for. Get all your tickets and go for that, you won’t regret it.”
His long relationship with the Isle of Lewis started on the Stornoway Ullapool run in 1997 and will draw to a close as he enters Oban from Castlebay this week. For many travellers, Alex Mòr and his ship have always been together and even he admits it’s more like a marriage than a job.
“The Isle of Lewis has been my ship since 1997 – we’ve been together for a long time. We seem to understand one another. You have to be careful how you handle her, like any other woman, and if you are careful, then perhaps she’ll answer the helm.
“She is almost the perfect design of ship. The only problem with her is her hull shape round the bow area – it doesn’t lend itself to comfort in bad weather. She’s fast in good weather and a good carrier, a big improvement on what we had before.”
The ship’s quirks have gradually become clear over the 22 years they’ve been together and good forecasts and long years of experience have meant that Alex can usually predict what he’s going to come up against once he gets the ship out of the harbour.
He stayed with the Isle of Lewis when MV Loch Seaforth took over the north Minch crossing. Ship and master were sent round the ports of the west coast to test how she would perform in other ports. “She has a draught deeper than most ships and it limits where she can be in service. The only place she would work that was not tidal was on the Barra run.
“They decided to give the Barra people a daily service as a summer trial, which was so successful that they wanted to continue it in the winter. But we have to let the weather influence us; you need a ten-hour weather window to operate that route, so you try to operate to timetable, but it’s not always possible.
“It’s been a successful service, but people are people and they don’t like it when she doesn’t run. Expectations have been raised by our success and we can’t always meet those expectations.”
Alex will be 70 years old in 2020, and the travel to Oban at the start of his rotation could soon become tedious, but he’s satisfied that he has done an essential job, for many years, to the best of his ability.
“I’ve done my very best to provide a public service. I’ve enjoyed it, I’m going to miss it and have very mixed feelings about the last run, but I’m grateful to the good Lord for giving me continued good health.
“It’s been a great pleasure to have served the people of Lewis, Harris and Barra over the years. If you’re true to your profession there are many beneficiaries. Do your job to the best of your ability and everybody scores.”
More time at home with his wife Violet beckons, with visits from his four children and nine grandchildren, and a long list of jobs he’s been putting off. “My wife has given me enough jobs to keep me going for about 300 years. But I’ve kept up my training and my tickets are still valid for a few years, so if I get fed up, I might just run away to sea!”
The picture shows Alex on the bridge of MV Isle of Lewis (picture by Mark Nicolson). He’s also pictured in the welovestornoway.com office with his numerous discharge books – testament to 52 years at sea.