With Stena Navigator about to leave her current route from Scotland to Northern Ireland, Master of the ship Captain Alistair McCarlie talked to Nicholas Leach about the ship, his career and the future of the Cairnryan-Belfast route operated by Stena Line.
When did you start your career at sea?
I began in August 1989 after leaving school. I went to the recruitment training agency Clyde Marine, which was recruiting cadets due to a shortfall in British officers in the merchant navy at the time. Larne born and bred, I always wanted to go to sea. My first ship as a cadet was the gas carrier LPG/C Lincolnshire, working for Bibby Line out of Liverpool. We travelled worldwide, going to the USA and the Far East as well as round Europe.
What other companies have you worked for?
I was with Bibby until 1999, working on gas carriers, as well as a few trips on ro-ros, and then I got married and by chance got a call from Stena Line offering some relief work. The week-on week-off pattern was more suited to family life, and as the job was closer to home it was appealing. But I got my master’s ticket in December 1998 aged 26, having been sponsored by Bibby’s. I came onto Stena Caledonia as second officer and stayed on Caledonia until 2009 up to relief master. I got my first command with Stena aged 31.
Did you want to work in the ferry industry?
When I started with Bibby I never thought of working on ferries, but circumstances changed and the opportunity to work on ferries came up.
How long have you worked on this ship?
I have been on Stena Navigator since September 2009 as Master, when she was the second conventional ferry on the North Channel route working opposite Stena Caledonia to increase capacity and after HSS crossings had been reduced. She was originally with SeaFrance (ex-SeaFrance Manet) and came to the route after a period of lay-up in Dunkirk. The SeaFrance delivery crew brought her here and she was handed over to Stena Line, who oversaw her refit. This took about seven weeks and involved substantial accommodation work. She was changed from the French to the British flag, and London became her Port of Registry.
What is her schedule?
Stena Navigator operates 24 hours a day between Stranraer and Belfast, with a crossing time of two hours and 50 minutes to Stranraer, but the crossing to Belfast is three hours because the ship has to swing twice, both out of Stranraer and into Belfast. She works back to back with Stena Caledonia, sharing a timetable.
What are the crewing arrangements?
The minimum crew carried is 48, with cabins for that many, and the maximum passenger capacity is 1,192, but no cabins are available for any passengers. There are 13 officers (ship management), 16 crew and 17 in the on-board services department, but if there are more passengers more crew are carried for on-board services. Passenger numbers peak in the summer, but we know in advance how many are travelling on a crossing. Night and day crossings can both be busy, with freight being carried mainly at night.
What shifts do you and the crew work?
There is 24-hour crewing, with day and night masters. The officers all work 12-hour shifts, with week-on week-off rotas for the officers and crew. All the officers are UK-based, some of the crew are Polish, and the on-board services staff are all from the UK, predominantly locally-based from her home port of Stranraer.
What has changed since you started working at sea?
The paperwork. The amount of administration and human resources management work has greatly increased, with the onus on each ship to run its own budget and look after manning and general certification for the vessel.
Have you been involved with the future plans for the ship and the route?
I have not been directly involved, but Navigator, Caledonia and the HSS will be replaced later in the year by ships currently working in the Baltic. They are due to come to the route in the autumn to commence service on 1 November. The ships will be refitted and overhauled before coming into service, and the existing three vessels will be taken out of service, but their future is unknown. The new ships, which will be considerably bigger with more freight capacity, will increase capacity and provide greater flexibility for the route, and greater frequency of service. They are longer, with a deeper draught and will operate out of the new port at Cairnryan, which offers better facilities and faster turnarounds, reducing crossing times to about an hour and 40 minutes.
How does poor weather affect operations?
It is difficult to know when to cancel the sailings if the weather is poor. We could sail in almost anything, but the comfort level and safety of passengers is paramount. When we reach the berthing parameters it is time to cancel a sailing. If the wind strength and direction is such that in port conditions exceed the ship’s safe operating limits, then we would consider a cancellation. This year we have cancelled sailings twice due to weather conditions.
Do you have any ambitions for the future?
I am looking forward to getting the new ships and new ports on this route established and up and running. I have enjoyed working on the current ships, Navigator and Caledonia, but am looking forward to the new ships coming into service.