6 things you need to know about the Scottish Island Ferries.

Scotland is surrounded by little islands, some more famous than others. The Isle of Skye for instance, would be a place recognised by most travellers. Some of these islands are so close to the mainland (hmmph the whole of the UK is an island in itself but let’s not get into semantics here) that they are connected by bridges. Others, can only be accessed by boat. Unless of course you have your own light plane or helicopter!

CalMac (Caledonian McIntyre)  have the game sewn up in this respect. Their distinctive black and white vessels ply the routes regularly. The more popular routes have several crossings each day.

As a first time car ferry user I was a bit nervous about going from Oban to Craignure in Mull.

Here are a few tips that may help allay any anxiety you may have about ferry travel if you are not used to it.

  1. Book ahead!

You can book your passage easily on the CalMac website (LINK). They offer lots of different packages that bundle together several sequential island crossings. You should have a good idea of where you want to go before you start. However, their packages are no cheaper than booking single tickets. I booked each of my trips separately because none of the packages fitted what I wanted to do. The advantage of the packages are that you only have to enter your details and pay once. If you do it one crossing at a time you have to do all that as separate transactions. You have to buy a ticket for the people and the vehicle. The ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan does not require a booking. You pay on board or at the ticket office if it is open.

2. Get there on time

There is a scheduled departure time and a last check-in time. Make sure you know when the check-in finishes. Although in my limited experience, there is a lot of hurry up then waiting. You will be directed to wait in various queues (depending on car size I think). First on does not mean first off.

3. Wear warm clothes.

Even though the sun may be shining it will be windy out on deck so make sure you are rugged up with layers.

4. Will you be with your car?

Some of  the ferries have an enclosed car deck. For instance, from Oban to Craignure the cars are underneath.  Others have an open car deck in the centre of the ferry where you can see your car at all times. When you are sailing on the ferries with the below decks car deck you can not return to your car until you are directed at the end of the crossing, so make sure you have everything you need before you go to the upper decks. The ferry opens at both ends. I wondered how there was room to turn the cars around inside!! You drive on at one end and drive off the other end.

5. Do not lock your car.

If you have a car with an alarm system, don’t lock it or activate the alarm system. The vibrations from the vessel will set it off. Again and again, until the friendly staff realize it’s you and come tell you to unlock it.

6. Relax and take it easy.

Listen to the safety instructions. In the unlikely event that something does happen you need to know what to do. The ferry travels at a very even slow speed. On the days I travelled, the sea was calm and quiet. I am sure this is not always the case.  If the weather is too bad the crossing will be cancelled, so don’t worry too much. If the ferry is sailing you’ll be OK. The larger ferries have a bar, cafe and both indoor and outdoor seating. The smaller vessels have at least a vending machine and a small passenger saloon. They all have toilets.

If you are sensory sensitive there are a few things you might want to prepare yourself for

  1. It’s noisy.. There are loud bangs when the doors are opening and closing and a siren sounds when the doors are about to open or close. The cars make a lot of noise comin on and off the ramp. There are safety announcements which are heralded by chimes.The ferry makes a low churning sound when it is sailing.

  2. It’s smelly on deck, especially near the funnels. The ferries use diesel based fuel so there is some smoke and fumes.

  3. There are people of all ages and lots speaking languages that you may not understand. There are also people with pets. You can sit in areas where pets are not allowed (unless they are service dogs). You will be in a confined space and you won’t be able to get away from everyone but there is generally more space out on deck then below decks in the cafe area etc.

  4. It is windy. Even if it was fine on land the movement of the ferry will make it windy outside.  You can stand behind things to reduce the wind or go inside.