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The north-south spinal route through the Western Isles is once again vulnerable to disruption today (Monday 13 November) as sea crossings struggle against the odds.

And although weather conditions are certainly a factor, it’s vessel breakdowns in the CalMac fleet which are having most impact at sea.

The Sound of Harris service is already fragile due to an engine problem on MV Loch Portain which prevents her sailing in rough conditions.

Her former support vessel, MV Loch Bhrusda, headed south on 5 November to pick up the Sound of Barra crossing while MV Loch Alainn departed for annual overhaul.

But today CalMac has notified a technical issue with MV Loch Bhrusda's propulsion unit which requires further investigation, so the vehicle service between Eriskay and Ardmhor has been cancelled.

Uist Sea Tours is running their charter vessel, MV Karleen Belle, on a passenger-only service to normal timetable. There will be a review for sailings on Tuesday 14 November later today. 

In a bid to mend the inter-island transport network, CalMac last week positioned the on-hire vessel MV Alfred to cover between Lochmaddy and Tarbert, providing a work-round for the Sound of Harris and a route towards the mainland for some traffic.

But Alfred was diverted to the Ardrossan-Brodick route over the weekend after another ferry broke down, leading to more cancellations between Harris and Uist today and tomorrow.

CalMac says the Alfred is due to leave the west coast today, arriving back in Tarbert tomorrow (Tuesday) and picking up service from Tarbert to Lochmaddy and back, twice a day, from Wednesday 15 November.

Meanwhile more light has been shed by Alfred’s owners, Pentland Ferries, on the cost and background for Alfred’s loan to CalMac.

The Orkney ferry company said the £6 million of extra funding to leave their ferry with CalMac for another six months was helping to keep their own service affordable for Orkney islanders, and maintaining staffing levels.

In a statement last week Pentland Ferries’ managing director Helen Inkster said: “I can confirm that, following the successful deployment of MV Alfred on the West Coast routes over recent months, we have signed an agreement with CalMac Ferries for an additional six-month charter.

“This is not a decision that we have taken lightly, but it is a move that will strengthen the business and allow us to develop and invest in the future of the service, while providing continued resilience on CalMac’s West Coast routes.

“As an immediate result of this arrangement, we are able to announce that we will freeze fares for our passengers on the route up to the end of March 2025, an initiative that would not have been possible without the CalMac charter.

“With both the MV Alfred and the MV Pentalina continuing in operation, we will also be maintaining an expanded workforce while continuing to deliver a service fully focused on our passengers.

“We now look forward to continuing to work with CalMac Ferries and serving the island communities in both Orkney and the west of Scotland.”

The picture shows MV Alfred during berthing trials in Lochmaddy earlier this year (Anonymous/Uist Noticeboard).