Balmoral's First Trips of the Season

By Ashley Gill

The first day of Balmoral's season occurred unusually in the Western Isles with a charter. A group of vintage car enthusiasts chartered her from Kennacraig to Port Ellen where they were to sample some of the island's finest whisky at a local distillery. Once back aboard they sailed direct to Oban where they arrived just after sunset. The Balmoral berthed at the Railway Pier, usually reserved for the Calmac car ferries, her usual berth at the North Pier being taken by a naval vessel.

The first day of the public season, Saturday 15th May started sunny and Balmoral looked very smart lying at the North Pier. Sadly only 35 passengers joined for what was to be an excellent sail to Port Askaig and Campbeltown. Having cleared the Sound of Kerrera, Balmoral headed for the north end of Jura. In fact, Balmoral was to enter waters that are restricted for her larger sister the Waverley down the west side of Jura. As we passed the notorious Gulf of Corryvreckan, which separates the islands of Scarba and Jura we were given an example of how still conditions really were. We passed close by a becalmed yacht that was being rowed towards the Gulf! Jura, despite being nearly 30 miles long is very sparsely inhabited and no roads penetrate the western shore. In the whole length of the island only two lonely cottages were spotted.

We were soon turning south into the Sound of Islay and some of the famous Islay distilleries came into view. We took a close look at Banahaven distillery which still has a steamer pier (perhaps an idea for next year?). Not far from there a stranded trawler lies on its side on the foreshore, slowly being eaten by the elements. Not long after passing Coal Islay distillery, Port Askaig came into sight. We were well ahead of time and we continued down the Sound whilst the pier staff were contacted. We eventually came alongside about 30 minutes early, in time to see the new Jura ferry Eilean Dhiura leave to collect a single car. The Calmac gangway fitted perfectly onto the Balmoral's bridge deck so we were soon streaming ashore. Port Askaig is formed of only a few buildings including the hotel, post office and Calmac buildings. However, as most passengers were enthusiasts, photography was the order of the day. A good vantage point could be achieved on a cliff overlooking Balmoral for those with a head for heights.

We were soon heading out of Port Askaig after the first historic call. We soon met the luxury cruise vessel Hebridean Princess, formerly the Calmac car ferry Columba. Whistle salutes were exchanged on what may have been the first meeting of these two vessels. We later heard that she had been delayed awaiting disposal of an old mine in the Sound of Islay. She was quickly followed by the Isle of Arran on the ferry run from Kennacraig to Port Askaig. No salutes here, as the two ships had met early the previous morning at Kennacraig. After McArthur's Head Lighthouse we set course directly for the Mull of Kintyre. As we approached a sea mist descended which lasted until Campbeltown. At Campbeltown some passengers headed for the coach back to Oban whilst others headed for their hotels.

A load of over 200 joined for the first ever Waverley Excursions evening cruise from Campbeltown to the Sanda Isles. Some who travelled down to Campbeltown on the Waverley earlier in the day as part of the two steamers weekend also joined. The weather cleared again as we set off to see the sun set over Sanda and the Mull of Kintyre.

The next morning was a very early start at 0630 for Girvan. Some hardy souls joined for a very placid cruise close to Ailsa Craig to Girvan. We arrived some 45 minutes early, again providing the opportunity for some photographs to sprint round the harbour. The Girvan Lifeboat came out to celebrate Balmoral's first call and with Balmoral now dressed overall looked a fine sight. The lifeboat followed us up the coast eventually turning back off Turnberry. We also viewed at some distance a catamaran on the new Troon to Belfast service. At Ayr another good crowd joined in the spring sunshine. We then set off direct for Brodick and Millport. At Millport we stood off to allow the Waverley to sweep majestically into the bay, not running at all late. We then awaited the signal to uniquely double berth at Millport Pier, where a large crowd awaited to photograph the occasion. Martin has already descried the trip around Great Cumbrae island. The two ships called separately on the return leg and then Balmoral retraced her course.

You can read about the two steamers' meeting from Waverley's perspective in an article by Martin Longhurst on the Waverley Web Site which includes some pictures of the Balmoral at speed.

The next day she sailed from Ayr and Girvan cruise towards the Mull of Galloway before repositioning to take up her Irish Sea sailings.

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