The new system came into force yesterday.
The previous arrangements — with a defined group of local boatmen in place since 1994 — has been replaced by an open competition and a more market driven approach “which will improve passenger safety and customer service,” the OPW said.
However, the boatmen who ferry up to 12 passengers in their 12ft-wide, 36ft-long boats, have rejected the OPWs claims about safety and customer service. They offer a highly skilled service and their safety record, with no fatality, speaks for itself, a spokesman said.
The old arrangements saw permits limited to 15 local licence holders. The OPW said while the total number of ferry boat permits will remain at 15, a new “open competitive model” system is being put in place, beginning initially with a competition for four permits which opened yesterday. The intention is to have these”new operators” in place in advance of the 2016 season which opens in May.
At the end of the season, in October, a further public competition will be held for 11 permits and the permit period will be three years.
Existing boatmen will be entitled to bid and criteria for all will include safety, insurance and other Marine Survey Office Licence requirements.
“The existing arrangements have, in the view of the OPW, impaired the natural development of a market-driven approach to provide an excellent service to visitors. Additionally, it is clear that there are a number of qualified boatmen locally who will be able, should the opportunity present itself, to offer an excellent level of safe and reliable service to tourists,” the OPW said.
Terms and conditions may be varied by OPW at any time during the three-year-period, in response to new safety requirements arising “or for any reason related to the sustainable management of the site,” it also said.
The boatmen, who were highly praised by the Star Wars film crew for ferrying crew and passengers over the last two years, have rejected the OPW assertions.
Joe Roddy, who has been ferrying passengers to the island for 50 years and whose son Kenneth now works with him out of Portmagee, said the Skelligs boatmen went beyond the safety requirements set down by the Marine Office. The OPW had not put in proper safety provisions in the landing area on the island, he claimed.
“The boatmen are highly skilled and highly trained.” The OPW had failed to consult properly with the boatmen, he also said. And they were angry and felt the new provisions were “ridiculous” and unnecessary.