THIS might come as a surprise, but I often feel sorry for CalMac. It simply cannot win.

In recent years, there’s barely been a day when CalMac, in one form or another, has not been in the Scottish headlines. The trouble cannot all be laid at CalMac’s door – but it is always its striking livery which is in view.

The Herald reported last week that people are losing confidence in CalMac. It’s based on a survey of 240 holiday makers in Mull which was undertaken by the holiday home manager. Apparently, 18% would not travel to Mull again until the issues are resolved.

There’s absolutely no doubt that confidence in the service has been knocked – both in the islands and elsewhere.

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There is, however, more than one reason for that; the struggling fleet, the cluster-bùrach that is the new boats, the ongoing failure to communicate well with island communities and, quite frankly, media outlets like The Herald itself.

That particular paper has generated more outraged ferry-related rants over the past few years than most would imagine possible.

Multiple “exclusives” each week recycle the same tired facts and figures about the ferries. There is a dedicated ferries newsletter to ensure that CalMac is given a regular kicking to as wide an audience as possible, and then they have the gall to report on a public lack of confidence. It’s enough to make a cat laugh.

If only those headlines were from a place of genuine concern for the islands, and not an opportunity to make a dig at what is unfailingly referred to as the “state-operated” service.

For those who don’t live and breathe west-coast ferries, CalMac is a government-owned entity and operates under the larger umbrella of Transport Scotland, which manages ferry services, contracts and infrastructure developments.

The physical assets, such as ferries and harbours, are owned by Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), also a public body under Scottish ministerial ownership.

The CalMac contract is up for renewal and the Government wants to avoid putting it out to tender, so it has recently extended it. That generated a good few furious column inches.

This extension will add another year to the existing contract and is intended to allow more time to finalise the direct awarding of the next contract period to CalMac without opening it up to competitive bidding. We’re assured that the Scottish Government's intent is to ensure that these vital transport services continue to support island communities effectively.

Intent is all well and good. Reality is something entirely different. So what is that reality?

First up, there are the old boats. Which is almost all of them. CalMac serves 31 routes – from short regular crossings to longer deep-water routes.

To do that, there are more than 30 boats in the water at any given moment navigating tides, weather, journalists, armchair mariners and mechanical failure.

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The oldest in the fleet is the MV Isle of Arran which launched in 1983. Hats off to her. I was born only a year earlier, and while I’m not yet leaking, I’m definitely creaking. She’s currently covering for the MV Caledonian Isles, 10 years her junior, which is having a prolonged spell in drydock.

Prolonged spells in dry dock have been a feature of recent years.

The average age of vessels is about 28. Keeping that lot running smoothly would be quite the task for any company. Over the past few years, the carefully planned annual overhaul schedules have been thrown entirely out of whack by all manner of repairs and issues needing addressed, including but not limited to what was euphemistically called “areas of steel wastage”. Rust, to you and me. And there’s plenty of that.

Better late than never, the Scottish Government ordered new boats – the ill-fated Glen Rosa and Glen Sannox. Designed to modernise our service, the vessels are being built at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow. Spectacularly overdue and over budget, both of these boats have caused more than a little grief for the Government with recriminations flying back and forth – blame has been placed at every door.

And we’re not out of the woods yet. The vessels feature dual-fuel engines, allowing them to operate on both marine diesel fuel and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

LNG apparently enhances fuel efficiency and reduces emissions. Sadly, the LNG will have to be imported and then driven up from England. One wonders what the carbon cost benefit analysis makes of that one. The Glen Sannox is due to enter service at the end of July. We’ll see.

Finally realising that two boats were not enough to solve the degeneration of the 31-route network, and that Ferguson’s was not the right choice, four additional ferries were ordered from Cemre Marin Endustri shipyard in Turkey.

Two will serve Islay and two will serve the Uig triangle. They are progressing well – to the extent that they are making headlines for being both on time and on budget, which speaks volumes.

The material issues with boats knocks confidence, certainly, but it’s not something CalMac has a huge amount of control over. Its boats are running almost constantly in some cases – which must make maintenance more than a little challenging and a period of running boats on heavy diesel did the older engines no favours.

The problem, of course, is the knock-on effect. There is an expectation these days that we should be able to go where we want and when.

Once upon a time, people left the islands relatively rarely. With the increase in tourism, and families spread over broader geographies, boats are increasingly busy. When summer services are running at capacity, all it takes is one cancelled sailing to create the mother of all domino effects.

There is no redundancy in the network. No spare boat, no spare anything. It only just works. Until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work, it has a habit of doing it quite spectacularly. At these moments, even the most cynical send up a wee prayer for the comms and customer service teams.

When things do go south in an impressive fashion, islanders are surprisingly forgiving. Our local port offices are staffed by people who do their absolute damndest to get boats in and out. They will pull out all the stops to get you a spot in an emergency.

They manage cancellations and rebookings and the opinions of local Facebook groups with admirable patience. We also know it's not CalMac’s fault that it is working with one propeller tied behind its back.

But we’re not daft. The booking system is full of wrinkles that haven’t been ironed out – and that’s not the Government’s fault. We can see the PR and we know it doesn't consider residents a worthwhile audience.

We’re captive, after all. We travel because we need to, not because we want to. That said, the campaign “Isle be back” caused great hilarity as we all pointed out we’d just be grateful to get home, so it at least served to boost morale.

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It’s the obfuscation around why boats are off that drives us crackers. That, and the mysteries of the service matrix that seems to always decide that South Uist should lose their boat, plus whatever sorcery it is that triggers or does not trigger a mezzanine deck.

And then for good measure, we have the ardent central-belt SNP supporters saying that the ferry issues are overblown because they can’t cope with anything that criticises the Government.

Which takes us nicely back to parts of the media – and the opposition parties – who can’t find a good word to say about the ferries in order to attack the Government, before loudly proclaiming how awful it is that confidence in the service is being lost and that island communities are suffering as a result. It’s as predictable as an area of steel wastage on the good ship Arran, and even less amusing.