A ship out of water: we visit Rothesay ferry in dry dock

An unusual view from the bridge of MV Argyle, looking down over the Garvel dry dock in Greenock.
An unusual view from the bridge of MV Argyle, looking down over the Garvel dry dock in Greenock.

MVs Bute and Argyle have been handling Bute’s main transport link with the mainland for almost a decade - but what do Rothesay’s ferries look like on the rare occasions when they’re not transporting people and vehicles across the Firth of Clyde?

Answer: totally different to what we’re all used to. That, at least, is my first impression when I step aboard MV Argyle - not at Rothesay pier, but at Dales Marine Services’ Garvel dry dock in Greenock, where her annual overhaul began on November 17.

My guide for this behind-the-scenes tour is Robert Kelso, fleet technical manager for CalMac Ferries Ltd. After leading the way up a steep gangway on the dock-side (yes, even steeper than the one on Gourock pier!), Robert takes me straight to the bridge - where captain Ian Beaton still has to oversee everything, even though the ship is out of the water.

Between them Ian and Robert explain the things that have to be inspected and overhauled every year - the 455 lifejackets, the IRB [inflatable rescue boat] and other items of lifesaving equipment being the most important from a passenger safety point of view - and the things which don’t, including the engine, which is fully stripped down and overhauled approximately every five years (though routine maintenance of the engines does happen at every overhau)l.

The engine doesn’t have to be completely rebuilt this year, but one essential item which is destined for removal and overhaul this time around is the forward propeller unit.

This will be (or, by the time you read this, will have been) lifted out of its place beneath the bow, placed on the quayside and loaded into the back of a lorry to be taken to Inverkeithing to be overhauled - one of several jobs which doesn’t actually happen in the same place the ship is being dry-docked.

And that place need not necessarily be Greenock. In fact, CalMac was only able to confirm two weeks or so before my visit that the Argyle would, once again, be destined for Garvel for her overhaul.

“The overhaul ‘spec’ has to go out to tender,” Robert says. “Each vessel’s crew will compile a dry-docking schedule, and agree with headquarters in Gourock what’s going to happen, based on the MCA’s requirements, manufacturers’ recommendations and so on, before it goes out to tender.

“The contractor for the work on the propeller unit is German, but their UK agents are in Inverkeithing, so that’s where the unit will go to be overhauled.

“In the case of the smaller vessels, Ardmaleish on Bute has a contract to overhaul nine vessels this year - that’s obviously good for the community, but we have to make sure we do it fairly, and for the larger ships in the fleet, yards have to bid for the work one ship at a time.”

The major one-off job this year on both the Bute and the Argyle - and, later in the winter, on the Coruisk too - is the upgrading of the lifesaving equipment. A new system is being installed which, in aesthetic terms, results in a big hole being cut in the black-painted part of the hull and a big white square being fitted in its place.

But lifesaving equipment is not about aesthetics, and the key point of this new system is that it’ll be capable of being deployed much more quickly than that it’s replacing - five minutes, rather than more than 30 as previously.

“We felt we could make it a far better system of lifesaving equipment,” Robert says, “and we want to make sure we’ve got the best for our passengers.

“The previous system still complied with all the rules and regulations, but instead of having the ‘silver’ version, if you like, we wanted the gold standard.

“It’ll be a lot faster and a lot simpler for crews to use in the unlikely event of an emergency. A lot of work has gone on for that, but it will make things an awful lot better in terms of passenger safety.”

Other, non-essential, items on this year’s overhaul list include the fitting of a new carpet on the Bute - hands up if you’ve noticed that - and new shutters for the Coffee Cabin on the Argyle.

So far, though, I’ve only been told about the things that are happening to the ship during her overhaul. To see that work actually taking place, we have to descend to the car deck - and the cutting of two large holes in the side of the hull, to accommodate the new lifesaving system I mentioned before, is immediately obvious, right at the foot of the steps, with showers of sparks reminding me why the protective glasses I was given before even stepping on board are essential.

There’s a hole in the car deck floor, too, though this one hasn’t been cut. It’s a hatch which has been opened to allow the lowering and lifting of components to and from the beating heart of the Argyle - the vessel’s engine room.

In spite of the advances of modern engineering technology, the engine room is still a noisy place when the vessel is at sea. Today, though, all is quiet, with no sign of the 2015 equivalent of Dan MacPhail, the engineer on the Vital Spark, grumbling about all the things that could go wrong.

In fact, these days there doesn’t even need to be a Dan MacPhail, clad in a grease-stained boiler suit, wiping his brow with an oil-soaked rag and emerging every so often to complain to the captain about the latest malfunction. On the Argyle, everything in the engine room can be controlled from the bridge if necessary - though there’s still an extensive control area in the corner of the room, with screens, knobs and buttons aplenty, more reminiscent of Montgomery Scott from Star Trek than Para Handy’s Clyde puffer.

Now, I am not a petrol head, so I won’t trouble you with any of the engines’ technical details, beyond saying that the forward and aft engines combined produce 3,566 brake horse-power - rather more than the 100bhp of the average family car.

Robert points out the clutch and gearbox, and the shafts which lead to the propulsion systems at the bow and stern.

“When a rope got caught in the Bute’s propeller a couple of years ago,” he says, “the propeller stopped turning, but the shaft kept on turning, which straight away created a problem.

“Fortunately we work very closely with our component suppliers - in that particular case the supplier is based in Belgium, and got out to us very quickly.

“Connecting with our suppliers, engine manufacturers and so on is a big thing that people don’t see behind the scenes. In this case, if we need them at the weekend, we could call them on the Saturday and I’d be picking them up from the airport on the Sunday morning.

“If you don’t connect with your suppliers and work with them, that’s when you’ve got a problem.”

Out of the engine room, our next stop is the floor of the dock itself - though not before a quick pause on the dockside, where Gary, Dales’ project manager, is confident: apparently the first of the two ships’ overhauls always takes longer, and he says, with a breezy air, that the Argyle will be ready for a return to service ahead of schedule - and with no night-shift working needed either.

And that’s in spite of the weather: although sea conditions obviously aren’t a problem when the ship’s in dry dock, high winds can, for example, stop dockside cranes lifting and lowering some of the vessel’s components.

Down on the ‘dock bottom’, as it’s known, is where I realise just how much of a precision job actually dry-docking a ship can be, though Robert is quick to assure me that the Argyle isn’t just resting on apparently random heaps of wood, as appears to be the case from a first unnerving glance.

“When the boat comes into dock,” Robert says, “they give the yard what’s called a ‘docking plan’ showing where all the main members are on the vessel.

“These blocks are not placed in any old way - there are frames, steel bars, going all the way round the vessel like a rib cage, and these blocks are placed right underneath those bars, rather than against the steel plates of the hull.”

Dry-docking also gives the opportunity to apply a new coat of paint to the outside of the vessel - and we’re not just talking cosmetics here. Anti-fouling paint can play a significant role in the smooth running of the ship - it reduces the amount of marine growth which accumulates on the hull and which in turn increases the amount of friction between the ship and the water.

And the effect of that friction is more than you might think. “To take it to an extreme,” Robert says, “one cruise ship where I was engineer wasn’t coated with anti-fouling paint at first. After we put the paint on it reduced the fuel consumption by 30 per cent.

“With the Argyle it’ll be just a few per cent of a difference, but that’s still significant - and for the same reason, the propeller blades will get a polish as well.”

And with the wind getting up, and the light fading, that’s the end of my time on the dock floor - and, after a more few quayside snaps of the ship in the dock, the end of my tour too, leaving the vessel’s crew, and the Garvel work team, to get on with the task of getting the ship ready for her return to service.

And they have no time to lose: most of CalMac’s larger ships have been to Garvel for overhaul at some point in their lives, and indeed the only vessel in the fleet which is too big to fit in the Greenock facility is the new Stornoway ferry, MV Loch Seaforth. With that kind of workload - contracts permitting, of course - it’s comforting to know that while the Argyle, the Bute and many of their fleetmates may not have been built on the Clyde, they are still helping to keep the maritime expertise of the Firth, and of Scotland, alive.