BUSINESSES were left counting the cost after another cruise ship catastrophe hit Fort William last weekend.
A scheduled call on Saturday by the Marco Polo was scuppered with less than 24 hours’ notice when the liner’s master decided against taking the 22,080 tonne, 578 feet long vessel through the tricky Corran Narrows to the south of the town on safety grounds.
The operators, Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV) cited "a non-availability of suitably qualified pilots to assist the master through the Corran Narrows and into Upper Loch Linnhe".
However CMV say that the scheduled visit to Fort William on Monday (June 4) of a second line, Ocean Countess, is on course to go ahead as planned.
Saturday’s disappointment, which follows several years of wrangles over landing facilities and cancellations by cruise firms, has led to a suggestion that Mallaig, not Fort William, may be better suited as Lochaber’s deep water terminal for cruise liners.
As well as Monday’s call by Ocean Countess, Fort William is scheduled to host visits by the Phoenix Reisen liners Albatross and Amadea on September 11 and 18 respectively.
Local businesses had been urged to push the boat out to welcome the hundreds of passengers and crew expected to come ashore off Marco Polo last Saturday - but many were left with that sinking feeling when news of the cancellation began filtering through from late afternoon on Friday.
Fort William businessman and town community councillor Drew Purdon said: "In the weeks before, we were all being exhorted to be prepared for the influx of passengers.
"On Saturday a number of businesses took on extra staff and I know several of the eateries took in double food orders in anticipation.
"I understand the decision was confirmed on Friday afternoon but there was no official announcement from the council or anyone to let businesses know about it. It just seemed to rely on word of mouth and that’s something which has to be looked at.
"Highland Council and the Fort William Steering Group were certainly taking all the kudos for getting liners to come but it all went very quiet on the no-show."
Dot Ferguson, Highland Council’s Lochaber wards manager, said: "We’re all disappointed Marco Polo didn’t come in.
"We’re looking to work with the company and other operators to try and make sure everything is in place to attract liners to the town.
"There will be a meeting involving various parties in June to discuss the issue."
Provost of Lochaber, Councillor Allan Henderson, who had been due to present a commemorative plaque to the Marco Polo’s captain on Saturday, said: "This is completely outwith the control of Highland Council or Fort William which have each gone to great lengths to host the Marco Polo and, in this instance, certainly cannot be blamed for the change of schedule of the vessel, at such a late date.
"Obviously professional advice from qualified pilots has to be sought and heeded but should have been done much sooner.
"The Corran narrows are obviously not going to be altered and the risk averse world of today is unlikely to be turned back 50-70 years, when large ships regularly sailed up Loch Linnhe."
Cllr Henderson added: "Disappointing as this is, another lesson has been learned and we all need to look forward to establishing a harbour trust for Greater Fort William.
"If the Corran Narrows are deemed unsafe to pass for larger passenger vessels then we must do two things. Firstly, encourage smaller specialist cruising companies to call into Fort William and develop a deep water terminal for Lochaber, in Mallaig, where natural restrictions are not a hindrance or impediment to ocean going ships.
"Buses can still take passengers to places of interest and Fort William."
Fort William and Ardnamurchan councillor Thomas MacLennan said traders who took on extra staff and bought in extra stock to handle the passengers from Marco Polo "deserved better than this latest disappointment".
He said: "Decades ago Loch Linnhe played host to much bigger ships than the Marco Polo, for instance the 715ft SS Caronia, which had a draft of 32ft, a beam of 91ft and gross tonnage of 32,000.
"The Caronia’s passage through Corran Narrows was obviously achieved, without the benefit of things like Global Positioning Systems, modern depth sounder technology and bow thrusters.
"For this reason I firmly believe Fort William can participate in this lucrative market place.
"We’ve had over five years of amateur night in our efforts to get cruise liners into Fort William.
"Hopefully the coming visit of the Ocean Countess will be successful and mark a new beginning in this town’s future."
‘Master felt nervous about Corran Narrows’
A spokesman for Cruise and Maritime Voyages (CMV), said the decision by Marco Polo’s master had been taken after all options had been explored.
He told Lochaber News: "The situation was that it was established that the Campbeltown-based pilots that were available to us were not experienced in taking ships over 100 metres in length through Corran Narrows and into Upper Loch Linnhe.
"Marco Polo was built as a trans-Atlantic liner and is 176 metres long.
"The master is not familiar with Loch Linnhe and felt nervous about Corran Narrows. The prime consideration is the safety of our passengers and crew on board - though we fully appreciate the disappointment the people of Fort William will have felt.
"We attempted to look at alternative anchorage points to the south of the narrows including Sallachan Point.
"We had contracted Soutar’s Lass to act as a platform for disembarking passengers at Fort William and looked into using her to take passengers up the Loch to Fort William.
"Unfortunately Soutar’s Lass is not certificated to go past Corran Narrows and there were no other suitable vessels available."
The spokesman added: "At Friday lunch time Marco Polo was in Stornoway and we hurriedly changed itinerary to go to Ullapool. We also managed to make a stop at Invergordon on the Sunday giving our passengers another Highland call."
Ocean Countess left Liverpool on Tuesday with 725 passengers on board for an eight-night "Diamond Jubilee" cruise. She is smaller than Marco Polo and the CMV spokesman said: "All things being equal and kind weather we will be there at Fort William all day on Monday."