In the second of his articles on Northern Ireland’s vital links, Scott Mackey looks at the lifeline ferry service linking Rathlin Island with Ballycastle. The service is operated by Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd as a subsidised lifeline, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure, using two vessels, and took delivery of a new state-of-the-art purpose-built ferry which came into service in summer 2017.
The Spirit of Rathlin was built by Arklow Marine Services and provides an all-year-round link for passengers and a limited number of vehicles alongside the Rathlin Express catamaran which was introduced in 2008.
Rathlin is located approximately 6 miles north of Ballycastle and the world-renowned Causeway coast. It is the only inhabited offshore island in Northern Ireland, with a population of around 150 people. The island is approximately 4 miles long by 2.5 miles wide. The Rathlin ferry service is one of only two small ferry services which provide a lifeline service and receive government subsidies in Northern Ireland, the other being the link between Portaferry and Strangford in County Down (see feature in Sea Breezes, May 2017).
Historically, an ad-hoc ferry service was provided by islanders themselves using converted fishing vessels. In 1991, a commercial ferry service supported by state subsidies was established. The Northern Ireland Executive endorsed an official policy for the island which provides government support to the Rathlin Island Community to ensure the ‘sustainability of island life and the promotion of a vibrant island economy.’ One of the key strategic objectives, therefore, is to ensure a modern affordable ferry service which will be a contributing factor towards economic development and to help sustain the island community.
Due to the nature of the island infrastructure and the state of roads on the island, vehicular traffic is restricted to residents only. Both vessels are berthed on the island overnight to be available to deal with emergency situations, and the vast majority of the crews are islanders.
Rathlin Island Ferry Limited is the private operator responsible for the day-to-day provision of the service, but operates under a public service contract to the Department for Infrastructure. This contract was awarded in 2008 and re-awarded in 2014. The department is responsible for setting fares, making bye-laws in relation to the operation, approving timetables and setting performance standards. Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd is responsible for the daily operation, provision and maintenance of vessels, marketing and collection of fares.
Services are split into summer and winter timetables, with approximately nine daily return sailings in the summer season and five daily return sailings in the winter.
In 2009, a new passenger catamaran, Rathlin Express, was introduced to the service. At the time, it was claimed this vessel would ‘enhance the tourism product’, but was also introduced to enable the operator to meet its scheduling requirements under the service level contract. The Rathlin Express was built to a design by MDI (Marine Design International) and assembled from a flat pack supplied by MDI to Arklow Marine Services in approximately 9 months. She has capacity for 100 passengers and can make the journey between the island and Ballycastle in 20 minutes. Capable of 20 knots, she operates at a service speed of around 17 knots and is powered by twin Scania Marine Diesel engines driving 5-blade propellers, rather than waterjets. The vessel is the first aluminium ‘class B’ vessel constructed for operation in UK waters and the first purpose-built vessel to serve Rathlin Island.
The previous car ferry, Canna, was built for Caledonian MacBrayne in 1975 and took over the Rathlin Island service in 1997, initially operated by Calmac. In 2008, Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd won the contract for the service and leased the vessel from Caledonian Maritime Assets. The vessel is an island class passenger and car ferry with a two-part folding ramp at the bow to accommodate up to six cars. The car deck is open plan with a sheltered area for passengers at the aft end of the vessel. She could accommodate up to 140 passengers during the summer season, but this was dependent on no cars being carried. Passenger capacity was reduced to 27 during the winter.
While the Canna was maintained and inspected within all normal regulatory timeframes by the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), ensuring it was safe to operate, her age meant it was becoming less reliable and appropriate for use in the future.
Following an extensive period of consultation with stakeholders and islanders, a tendering process was initiated in 2014 and saw submissions from numerous shipyards. The contract to build the vessel was awarded to Arklow Marine Services who submitted a ‘competitive tender which was won against strong international competition.’ Arklow Marine is owned by the Tyrrell family, and can trace its origins to 1864. The Spirit of Rathlin was, therefore, commissioned to be built at the shipyard at a cost of £2.8m with delivery due in late 2016/early 2017. At the same time, the tender contract for the operation of the ferry is for a duration of ten years.