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Transport / NorthLink explains what caused last month’s drydock delays

The Hjaltland’s rudder is being removed for a major overhaul. Photos: Courtesy of Serco NorthLink

FERRY operator NorthLink has given further details explaining why the Hjaltland’s return to service following a period in drydock was delayed by two days last month.

Passengers and freight customers were left stranded when scheduled services were cancelled on two consecutive nights on 17 February (northbound) and 18 February (southbound).

Speaking at a meeting of the Shetland external transport forum on Tuesday afternoon, Serco NorthLink’s managing director Stuart Garrett said the drydock delays were caused by a combination of reasons with the weather being a major factor.

He said some substantial work had been scheduled to be carried out on the 20-year-old passenger ferry, including repairs to damage to the hull sustained when another ship collided with the vessel while berthed at Aberdeen harbour last year, as well as a major overhaul of the Hjaltland’s rudders.

He said the vessel had been booked to go into drydock on 5 February but that was delayed by more than a day due the weather.

“The ship went into the basin on Monday (5 February) but it was not before the Wednesday that she went into drydock because of the weather.

“Once we got the rudder off, we weren’t able to lift it out of the drydock because the restrictions on lifting the heavy load because of high winds, and that then led to a delay on the rudder going into the machining shed.”

There were more weather related delays when following the overhaul when the four tonne heavy rudders had to be lifted into position again.

Garrett added: “We can’t test the rudders until both the port and starboard rudders are being fitted – and when they were doing the tests the starboard rudder was working perfectly, but the port rudder was sticking a bit, so they had to drop it again to skim it a bit.

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“That work had to be done, and then it had to be refitted.”

Garrett acknowledged that passengers had been inconvenienced but said that everybody had been looked after including paying for hotels and alternative transport.

The Hjaltland’s sister vessel Hrossey is due to go into drydock in Rosyth next week with similar work scheduled to be carried out.

Garrett described this winter’s stormy weather as “atrocious” and confirmed that in January alone the lifeline service between Shetland and the Scottish mainland suffered eight weather related cancellations, double the amount of last year’s January.

Damage to the Hjaltland’s hull has been repaired during the time in drydock.

Responding diplomatically to westside councillor Liz Peterson’s question if there are more cancellations now than in the past, Garrett said the forecasting tools and data available today are more sophisticated than in the past, resulting in better decision making.

This then often leads to changes in the timing of sailings or partial cancellations whereby the ferry either skips the Orkney call or only sails between Aberdeen and Kirkwall.

“And we certainly don’t have situations where the vessel is out at sea for 24 hours,” he said, referring to crossings prior to Serco taking on the contract in 2012, adding that there had been also no cases of toppled trailers.

Meanwhile, the demand to travel continues to grow with passenger and freight figures both up. Garret told the meeting that in 2023 the ferry service carried a record breaking 400,000 passengers across its network.

There were 4,500 cabins sold in January 2024 which is far greater than a previous January peak of 3,022 in 2019.

When asked if this was because NorthLink no longer offers shared cabins following the Covid pandemic, Garrett said the data the company was getting does not suggest that.

He added that “shared cabins are not coming back” – although some passengers organise their own shared cabins on a Facebook group.

VisitScotland’s Steve Mathieson said the growth in demand for the ferry service was “pretty stark” – but acknowledged his organisation’s role in attracting more people to Shetland.

However, he noted how there is potentially a five year period before new proposed ‘freighter plus’ cargo ships are in operation, which could offer extra capacity for passengers.

Tuesday’s meeting also heard that future bookings on the ferry might be opened up sooner than it has done recently.

Transport Scotland’s Chris Wilock said it had been delayed in recent years due to high levels of CPI (Consumer Prices Index), but once this gets to a more manageable level the process should be smoother.

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