Over the sea

Written by on 19 June 2014 in Interviews

Investment and innovation are revitalising links around the west coast

Tom Docherty recalls family days on the beach at Largs, with its Pencil monument – marking the spot where Scotland saw off the Vikings – serving as a memorable landmark.

As a young engineer from Glasgow, Docherty was soon at sea travelling the world, marking the start of a long maritime career. Today, he is back in Scotland settling into his new home – with a view of the Pencil – and a new job, as Chief Executive of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd.

He has taken over from Guy Platten, who was appointed to CMAL in August 2007 at its inception, and is now Chief Executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping.

CMAL, as it is more commonly known, is a publicly owned company with Scottish ministers as the sole shareholder. It owns piers and harbours at 24 locations throughout Scotland, and 31 ferries leased to CalMac Ferries, which operates routes serving the west coast and the Clyde Estuary.

Docherty was previously Managing Director at Red Funnel, which has operated a successful passenger, car and freight business between Southampton and the Isle of Wight for almost 150 years.
He began as an engineering cadet – an apprentice – with Esso, which meant three years of college at Southampton and a year at sea before qualifying. He was offshore for the next eight years, in the Far East, the Persian Gulf, America and the North Sea.

“I met my wife in Southampton and she was able to go with me for some of the time,” said Docherty. “Our first trip was supposed to be to the Gulf and she prepared for a spell enjoying the sun. Last minute, I was switched to the North Sea!”

It became a familiar tour of duty for Docherty as the Brent oil field entered peak production in the eighties. Then, Esso brought him ashore to repair and manage its fleet of tankers and subsequently its marine terminal at Fawley Refinery.

In 1989, Esso’s parent company was hit by the Exxon Valdez disaster when a tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska.

Docherty was tasked with improving the company’s near-shore navigation procedures in the UK, including introducing a method of escort where tugs acted as a form of additional rudder and propeller for the tankers.

It had been used in Norway, where the fjords had long posed a navigational challenge in an environmentally sensitive area, but not widely elsewhere and it took three years to gain acceptance amongst operators in Southampton.

The work meant Docherty got to know the local tug and ferry operator Red Funnel which led to an offer to be general manager, eventually becoming Managing Director. During that time he oversaw a 60 per cent increase in the capacity of three Clyde-built ferries. He also had a spell as manager of the Port of Ipswich and Managing Director of Wijsmuller Towage for the UK and Canada.

The early 2000s was also a period when infrastructure was attractive to investors and Docherty was at the centre of a period of sales and management buy-outs. When those pieces fell into place, he and his wife took a ‘life-break’, travelling the world – not really a busman’s holiday, he insisted, more a chance to really enjoy places that were previously fleeting experiences.

They also bought a yacht and sailed it across the North Sea from Sweden to a berth at Lymington in Hampshire. Docherty started a small property business, now run by one of their two sons, and then: “I spotted the ad for this job,” he said, referring to CMAL. “It described everything I had done, be it ships, ferries or ports.

“I thought it could be an opportunity to return to Scotland and the idea of coming to work off the west coast pulled at the old heartstrings. My wife knows Scotland – she visited my parents in Glasgow many times – and I have lots of family I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with.

“You can see a huge difference, not only in Glasgow but in the coastal towns and it’s such a great place to work; the people are so friendly. And it’s a really exciting time for the company.”

In December 2012, the MV Hallaig, a unique ferry, and the first commercial ship in over five years to be fully built and delivered on the Clyde, was launched by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It is the world’s first seagoing passenger and vehicle roll-on, roll-off ferry to incorporate a low-carbon hybrid system of diesel electric and lithium ion battery power.

The MV Hallaig, which can accommodate 150 passengers, 23 cars or two HGVs on its passage between Sconser and Raasay, was the first of two vessels built at Ferguson Shipbuilders, Port Glasgow, following a Scottish Government investment worth more than £20m.

Last month, the MV Lochinvar, with the same capacity and which operates between Tarbert and Portavadie, was handed over to CalMac. Later this year, the £42m MV Loch Seaforth, capable of operating 24 hours a day with a capacity of up to 700 passengers and 143 cars or 20 commercial vehicles, will begin operation between Stornoway and Ullapool.

CMAL is leading an £18m upgrade of Brodick harbour on Arran, including a new two-berth pier adjacent to the existing pier, an extension of the number of ferry services in the summer, a new terminal building and covered walkway and increased marshalling areas and car parking. It is one of several infrastructure improvement projects around the west coast of Scotland.

“We have an ambitious programme of ship replacement and of improving the port and harbour infrastructure to support Scotland’s communities and economy,” said Docherty.

“We have introduced two world-first hybrid ferries, we are looking at innovative ways of improving the customer experience and there is a great deal of potential to extend the company’s expertise into other areas. It really is an exciting time” 

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