Pioneer sale sparks fury

CALEDONIAN MacBrayne has sold the former Rothesay relief ferry MV Pioneer - provoking a furious response from an Argyll businessman who says he wanted to buy her, but was repeatedly told the ship was not for sale.

The Pioneer, which has been laid up in Greenock since last November, has been bought by an unnamed operator who plans to use the ship to serve the islands of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea, straddling the Equator.

However the sale has provoked an angry response from Campbeltown businessman Russ McLean, who said he had received no fewer than 23 communications from CalMac managing director Lawrie Sinclair, giving repeated assurances that although the ship was not for sale, if she were to come onto the market Mr McLean would be one of the first to have a chance to bid.

Mr McLean told us: “Over the past two years I've had 23 communications with Lawrie Sinclair and had repeated assurances that she was not for sale, yet she's been sold in a hush-hush deal.

“As far as I'm concerned the ship was sold behind our backs.

“For a state-owned company to do a back door deal...I'm not sure if it's legal, but it's certainly not right.

“We gave CalMac legal and moral assurances that we wouldn't compete with them. We had ample opportunities to compete with them but we didn't - for example when CalMac staff went on strike at Christmas 2001.”

Mr McLean added that his plans could have created up to 20 jobs in the area, and said he was now considering whether to buy a ship and start a service competing with CalMac to Arran or Islay.

He went on: “We want a full and proper explaination from Lawrie Sinclair for the back door sale of MV Pioneer.

“CalMac is an iconic Scottish company and deserves better than Lawrie Sinclair as managing director.

“He's completely misjudged the situation and we want to find out if he has breached any protocol.”

Mr McLean told us the Pioneer was valued at offers over 250,000 some 18 months ago, but said that when CalMac's shipbrokers realised it was his Argyll Group firm placing the bid then the ship was suddenly not for sale.

Said Mr McLean: “If it is found out that they accepted less than 250,000 for the ship I will not hesitate in gaining a court order to send in the auditors to surcharge the direcors.

“I will pursuing this to the highest level. I've written to Lawrie Sinclair and if I do not receive an adequate response from him then I'll go to the CalMac board, and then transport minister Nicol Stephen.”

Mr McLean also made an appeal to Lawrie Sinclair “to turn a bad situation into a good one” by donating 1000 to the Anthony Nolan Trust in a bid to improve relations.

Hugh Dan MacLennan, CalMac's head of communication and customer services, told us: “There was a confidentiality clause in the agreement, which is fairly standard practice, so we cannot name the operator which has bought the ship.

“We also can't tell you the price MV Pioneer was sold for - that will become known in the account assets next year.”

Mr MacLennan did say the Argyll Group made no offer for the MV Pioneer and that the unnamed operator “placed an unsolicited bid, and it was in excess of our two valuations of the ship - it went to the board and the offer was accepted”.

Mr MacLennan also told us that CalMac was not obliged to advertise the sale of its ships.