Trying to make the wrong infrastructure right

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Captain Alan Sinclair is retiring from CalMac after 32 years’ service, during which he earned a reputation as one of the company’s finest ship handlers, writes Andrew Clark.

Known throughout the fleet as ‘The Dooker’, a nickname associated with his Tarbert (Loch Fyne) background, Captain Sinclair bowed out this month with an open email to staff in which he made clear his frustration with CalMac’s management culture and west coast infrastructure — views widely shared by fellow officers but unlikely to endear him to managing director Robbie Drummond.

As one of CalMac’s senior relief masters, he has never been tied to a single ship or route for any length of time — the advantage being that he gained an almost unrivalled familiarity with the quirks of virtually every wheelhouse and harbour in the CalMac domain.

He says the mandatory introduction of the International Safety Management Code (ISM) in 2002, following the Herald of Free Enterprise and Estonia disasters, rectified previous slackness in safety administration, but fostered a climate of suffocating over-regulation. ‘In the past we were trusted to do the job we were qualified for and allowed to get on with it. ISM has regulated it to the point where everything has to be written down as a procedure, inadvertently fostering a blame culture.

‘It tries to standardise behaviour in an environment where there are an awful lot of variables. Managers keep saying “the master is still in charge”, but they’re very quick to wave the red card if the outcome isn’t to their liking. If, for example, there is a mechanical failure during a berthing and the ship hits the quay, they’ll jump on anything that can be blamed on you after the event. “We’ve made all these procedures to stop things going wrong, so it must have been your fault.” But these things happen in a very fluid situation. A master can only do his best. With hindsight it’s always easy to pick holes.”

His favourite boat is the oldest, the Isle of Arran, ‘the last ferry to have been built with proper looking funnels,’ he says. ‘It’s unfortunate that most modern funnels look like Corn Flakes packets. There was character and style in the older boats. If something breaks down with the newer ones, you have to send for an expert from the other side of the world. With the “Arran”, you can just swear at it with a hammer. I’m not keen on so-called “state of the art” electronics or touch screens — not because I’m a dinosaur, but because the latest systems don’t always work, and they usually decide not to work at the worst possible moments, when you really need it to do what you want it to do.’

Even where a new pier has been built, as at Brodick, ‘it’s not very good, because it’s a hollow pier and provides no shelter — it’s very exposed to easterly winds and swell.’

And Ardrossan? The harbour’s exposure to southerly winds and swell at the entrance makes it notoriously difficult to get into when the prevailing wind is anything more than moderate. Although CalMac masters are versed in the ‘do I abort?’ dilemma, Captain Sinclair believes Ardrossan is the one port where the question should never need to be asked.

‘Ardrossan requires a level of experience so that you make the decision at Brodick — you make a decision not to go anywhere near it. “Going to have a look” is not one of my favourite pastimes. As a general rule, if you’re not sure you can manage it with a reasonable safety margin, you shouldn’t be trying. You frequently get the suggestion — “can you not go and have a look?”. What managers want is to be able to say to the public that “we tried”. There is commercial pressure all the time. That — and the paperwork — is what makes the job onerous.’

Captain Sinclair’s valedictory email to colleagues included sentiments directed not just at CalMac’s Gourock management but also CMAL and public policymakers. ‘We need to be planning piers that will accommodate a five-metre draught, and we need to be doing it 10 years ago, not 10 years from now — preferably solid, double sided piers with a linkspan on both sides; marshalling areas for more than the ship’s capacity; departure lounges/waiting areas equivalent to the ship’s capacity. Then we need to be building a suitable fleet for the future. A deeper draughted ship would give increased deadweight, better seakeeping and increased propeller and bow thrust immersion, resulting in improved handling and fuel efficiency.

‘All the management and information technology in the world is not going to make wrong infrastructure right, especially when most of that management is recent, and now has no direct knowledge of our service,’ he added.

A CalMac spokesman said: ‘CalMac’s management culture is open and inclusive. Any member of staff who feels strongly about a subject is free to raise it at the highest level. Our managing director’s door is always open to anyone and we would expect our leaders to raise any concerns internally in order that they may be addressed through the appropriate channels.’

Reproduced by kind permission of the Clyde River Steamer Club.


Captain Alan Sinclair on the bridge of the Clansman in 2017. Photo Andrew Clark. NO_B28captain01