Carrying just 50 guests, Hebridean Island Cruises’ ship, Hebridean Princess, has a reputation for exceptional service, fine food and wine and the very warm welcome extended by its crew of 38. Over the course of more than thirty seasons, Hebridean Island Cruises have introduced their passengers to some of the most striking locations in the British Isles.
In 2012 the company started a fundraising partnership with Sea-Changers that has now raised almost £40,000. Earlier this month Sea-Changers Co-Founder, Helen Webb, spoke to Ken Charleson, Managing Director of Hebridean, about the company, their partnership and the impact this has had on their company and passengers.
Helen : So tell me a bit about Hebridean Island Cruises Ken.
Ken: Our season starts in March and we spend most of it in the West of Scotland. We tend to stay in the more sheltered waters of the Clyde and the Clyde Estuary, the sea lochs: Loch Long, Loch Goil, Loch Fyne before moving up to Oban which is really considered as our home port - we've been in and out of Oban since 1989. We're well known in that area. We head to the Inner Isles in late March/April, we're always up there for Easter. We like to take an Iona for Easter Sunday and then we head to the Outer Isles late May to June. We visit St Kilda which is the furthest site we go into the Atlantic and the UK's only double UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a favourite place of ours. We tend to stay in these waters right through to mid-July. Then mid-July to August we head away. So, this year we should have been in Norway but unfortunately that was cancelled. That's been postponed until next year. So, what we're doing for 2021 is basically offering what was our 2020 programme and we’ll go back to Norway in 2021. Which means 2022 we'll head to the South Coast and the Channel Islands, France, Belgium, into the Thames and then 2023 go up to the Northern Isles of Orkney and the Shetlands. And then in September we move back into Oban and the Western Isles again.
Before the end of October, when the clocks change we head back onto the Clyde and do a few cruises around the Clyde. Then we spend the winter sitting in Greenock. We dry dock the ship (The Hebridean Princess) every year. She was launched in March 1964, so we dry dock the ship each year to keep the maintenance going. She’s a very unique vessel. She still operates with her original engines and stabilisers, which are not retrofitted but original, which was unusual in 1964.
Helen: A lot of your customers will be people who will come year on year and they'll just experience the different cruises that you're offering.
Ken: Yes. There are two cruises we do every year. One's a Spring Surprise and one's an Autumn Surprise. We have two captains and they take one each. People book up with no idea of the itinerary. All they know is that they start and finish in Oban. And people just love it and, of course there are a lot of regulars. In 2019 73% of our guests were repeat guests who had been on the ship before. There are a few loyal guests who come multiple times each year. And there are those who don't mind where they cruise or the destination of the ship. It's not just the physical limitations, the physical ship itself, which is quirky, quaint, and very nice, but it's the crew too. Our longest serving crew members have been on board for 28 seasons! The majority (of our staff) have been with us for up to 10 plus years.
Helen : On those trips people must have experienced some amazing nature and wildlife. Have you got any standout moments when you've been sailing that you thought “can't beat that, that's just the best”?
Ken: No because to be honest there are so many. As an aside we've just had a pod of bottlenose whales on the Clyde in Victoria Harbour. A few years ago we had orcas in the Clyde as well. We did a wildlife trip coming back from St Kilda and we had a pod of about 150 pilot whales bow riding the ship as we came back in across the Atlantic towards the Outer Isles. We’ve seen a white tailed eagle on the approach to Skye, and otters are lovely to see there. Iona’s a great place for dolphins. Quite often you'd be sailing into a small port, like Iona, and there's a pod of dolphins. You could touch them because you're so close to them. We actually run specific wildlife cruises, we do two a year. One of our guides is Dave Sexton, he works with the RSPB and runs the Mull Eagle Watch, he's the man who looks after the white tailed eagles on Mull. We end the wildlife cruise with a trip to his secret hide to watch the white tailed eagles wherever it is that year - the hide moves every year. So that's become a really popular choice.
Helen : That sounds fantastic. You can totally see why crew and passengers alike just fall in love with it.
Ken: Yes, not just the wildlife but the communities as well. You’re landing on islands with populations of less than 20 people.
Helen : Ken, we've been working with you now for seven years and you've raised going on for £40,000. It's a great amount and one to feel proud of. I wondered from your perspective what's been the benefit of working with Sea-Changers?
Ken: I think not just from the customers but from a company point of view, it definitely highlights awareness that we owe so much to the oceans and the seas round about us. I love the coast and I see the mess that the beaches get into. Even just the small things as we try and phase out single-use plastic bottles, to go to paper straws. I found out when we did research when we were phasing out paper straws that to get a paper straw that didn't contain any plastic was actually quite difficult because most of them contain some form of non-biodegradable materials. I found a lady that did nothing but manufacture paper straws. So to conserve the sea and the wildlife we immediately started buying from her. That's something that we probably wouldn't have had the awareness to do, had we not been involved with yourselves. And I think from a guest perspective you just need to see how many of the guests are happy to donate to know how they feel about us working with you.
It's something we've been talking about for too long, the state of our seas and they have got to the point where they are not recovering.
Helen : Have you noticed on the cruises the impact of what is happening to the environment? You described all the beautiful sights you've seen, but have you also seen some of the less positive signs of what's going on in the oceans?
Ken : One of the things it does highlight is the issues when you go to some of the islands with a population of 10 to 20 people. We also go to uninhabited islands. So, you actually see the rubbish that's ashore there and you think that cannot be from the population, as no one lives there. So it's how far-reaching the impact is of what we do, no matter where we are, you can actually tell from some of the stuff washed up, it's not even from the UK. It’s quite frightening to see the impact of what we do, no matter where in the world it happens, it can impact on somewhere else. What we do in the UK could impact on the Arctic and Greenland, it can impact anywhere. And that's been quite an eye-opener when you see that first-hand. You go to a place that has very few visits but then you see this rubbish and you think, well, how did that get here? It's just amazing the damage that is done.
Helen: We've just funded a project called 'On the Trail of the Killer Whale' who have completed major beach cleans in remote parts of the Shetland Isles involving the community there. They collected tonnes of rubbish and a lot of that was fishing gear.
Ken: Yes, I’m always surprised by the amount of fishing gear we see. Discarded fishing gear prevents us anchoring in some areas. We've done our own beach cleans as well. It's amazing what you pick up. The guests are more than happy to get involved. So, we've got an army of litter pickers. I've even got a litter picker in my office. I've got a small stream behind the office and we get the most amazing wildlife there. Every time there is a lot of rain and all the banks get covered in rubbish I go out and give it a clean.
Helen: So what is next Ken?
Ken: Well we hope we will be back in service in 2021. It will be exciting to get back with our guests, we can’t wait to see our customers.