From Cadet to Captain

My journey from Cadet to command of MV Loch Seaforth 

by Capt. Lewis Mackenzie  May 2014

Little did I think back in early 1988, when musing over my career options, that the path I chose would lead to command of the new Stornoway/ Ullapool ferry - MV Loch Seaforth. From a young age I had wanted to pursue a career at sea, and with strong family ties to the islands, always being around the ferries and small boats, this did nothing to quell the idea. It was therefore the best news, when I heard I had been accepted for a cadetship with P&O, and I was excited at the opportunities that lay ahead. Both my Papa’s from North Tolsta and Islay were particularly proud, and took a keen interest in my early progress, and enjoyed my yarns from the sea.

My grandfather, the late Allan MacKenzie (73 North Tolsta), was a proud seafarer like so many in the islands, and his memory is something that has spurred me on to do my best in all I do. My first trip to sea was in October 1988, as a Deck Cadet with P&O Containers Ltd, and my first ship was the MV Tolaga Bay which I joined in Southampton for a voyage to the Far East. With P&O I got the opportunity to sail to many great places around the world, but my favourite route was to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

On that particular voyage we would sail from Tilbury (London), south crossing the equator to Cape Town and then via the Cape of Good Hope to Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Burnie (Tasmania), Sydney, Auckland, Wellington and Port Chalmers. For a young man it was a dream come true to travel the world, doing a job you loved. The return voyage to Europe was via Cape Horn, before heading north and passing close by the Falkland Islands. A lasting memory on this route was watching the albatrosses soaring above the waves. They were amazing to watch in the Southern Ocean, and there was certainly time to pass, on the long four hour watches for 31 days!

After completing my training and studies at Warsash Nautical College in Southampton, I passed my 2nd Mates certificate in April 1991. Then following further seatime, and studies at Glasgow Nautical College, I completed my Chief Officer’s certificate in December 1993. In early 1994 I was promoted from 3rd Officer to 2nd Officer, and my career continued with P&O Containers through until May 1995, when I left to join Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd.

The first Calmac ship I joined was the MV Hebridean Isles in Uig, this was a real change from ‘deep sea’ and gave me the chance to have more of a home life. Quickly I adjusted to the ferry operations and although faster paced I began to really enjoy the job. There was so much to learn at first, but my ship mates were so helpful and the craic was good. At times it did not feel like a job, and I can still say that today after nearly 19 years.

In February 1998, I gained my Master’s certificate, and was promoted to Chief Officer shortly after.

My first full time command came at the age of 36, when in June 2006, I was appointed relief Master on MV Hebrides and MV Isle of Lewis. As well as a great sense of achievement, this was quite a humbling experience too, as you realise the responsibility you have for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew.

Although trained for the job, you never fully appreciate or learn how to do it, until you are there actually doing it! I can tell you a good gale focuses a Captain’s mind, like nothing else can!!

I left Calmac for a time, from July 2008 until February 2010, to become a Marine Pilot at Aberdeen Harbour. During my 18 months at Aberdeen, I piloted around 1500 ships, from the latest offshore vessels to large old cargo ships. This was a real development in my career and gave me a much better understanding of ship handling overall, and the use of tugs to manoeuvre large ships in confined spaces.

On returning to Calmac I was appointed Master of the MV Clansman, which services the islands of Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist from the mainland port of Oban. This was a time I really enjoyed, on a challenging route within the Calmac network.I was appointed as one of the Master’s on the new MV Loch Seaforth in June 2012, and since that time have been involved with the new vessels plans, build process, and preparations for entering service in September 2014.

I consider this to be a real privilege and certainly a career highlight. The whole project has been challenging but very interesting and I am so pleased to have been a part of it. It has not come without a lot of hard work, and you often feel the weight of responsibility for decisions. I have been very lucky to be working, and sharing those decisions with the other two Captains - Capt. John Gillies, and Capt. Byron Griffiths. We are all looking forward to taking delivery of the ship, and bringing her into service, where I’m sure she will prove herself a good match for the Minch!

The vessel which was launched on 21 March 2014, is now in the final stages of fitting out, and taking great shape. She has been built in Flensburg, Germany, by the shipyard FSG. They have a great reputation for quality and are industry leaders in building Ro-Ro Passenger vessels of this kind.

When I am off duty, I like to go hill walking, read, and spend quality time with my family back in Inverness. I am married to Christeen, and we have a daughter Caitlin who is 11 years old. Calmac is a great company with a long history and I am very proud to be part of the journey.