First it was the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994. Next it was the abolition of duty-free shopping in 1999. Then came cheap airfares. It seems there is always a death knell being sounded for ferries in Europe.
The ferry industry, however, continues to endure. And while some routes have succumbed, others have fought back and still retain a healthy market share. I have always maintained there is no such thing as an up-to-date ferry map, and this is probably more true now than ever before.
It was with this in mind that during a visit to the United Kingdom and Ireland last month, I made time to sail on two key ferry corridors: P&O’s Dover to Calais service on the Dover Strait, Stena Line's service from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, and Irish Ferries' from Dublin to Holyhead (my old Irish Sea stomping ground).
Each offered a travel concept tailored to the particular crossing: P&O with their newbuilds ‘Spirit of Britain’ and ’Spirit of France’, Stena Line with their HSS fast craft, and Irish Ferries with their cruise-style ‘Ulysses’.
First off was the ‘Spirit of France’. This £160 million (USD250 million) new ship joined her slightly older sister on the 90-minute Dover-Calais route in February, and with her shares the title of the largest ship to have been built for the Dover Strait. At more than 47,000 gross tonnes and 213 metres in length, they can carry more than 1,000 cars and up to 2,000 passengers.
They are 20 per cent longer than the ‘Pride of Dover’ and the ‘Pride of Calais’, the ships they have replaced, but do not carry more passengers than the 1987-built sisters. This creates an immensely spacious experience, something that is nowadays key in the minds of operators and designers alike.
More than ever, brand ferries have moved towards enticing customers not just as a means to getting from A to B, but for a genuinely enjoyable and leisurely onboard experience in the face of intense competition from airlines and the tunnel.
Onboard, passengers will find an international food court, bar and cafe, shopping, a brasserie, games room, an impressive full width family lounge, an alfresco bar, bureau de change, free WiFi and an exclusive club lounge.
Travelling Club Class
I was served a glass of champagne upon arrival onboard. Here, “guests” have complementary tea, coffee, soft drinks and newspapers – all served by stewards. One can even sit back and enjoy the sea views, or perhaps enjoy the exclusive outdoor deck, all while a free Personal Shopper service collects onboard purchases from the shop.
The shop reminded me of those found in an international airport. There was a time when onboard shops accounted for the all important ABS - average onboard spend. But that was in the heady days of Duty Free. Now, instead of cigarettes, chocolate and alcohol, a much smaller space is filled with designer handbags and sunglasses!
On my crossing back to Dover, I noted that there were 10 coaches on the ‘Spirit of France’’s vehicle decks. It would be wrong to claim the ships are so large just to give passengers more space. Freight is of course the key reason for the size, and up to 180 trucks can be accommodated with ease. The needs of freight drivers have of course been fully catered for with a separate drivers area. This comes complete with restaurant, showers, a private outdoor deck and lounges where seats have TV screens set in the backs.
On a technical level, the ships each have two engine rooms - one fore and one aft, in order to comply with SOLAS SRtP standards, which demand safe return of ships to port within six hours of an incident.
They are also bring “environmentally friendly” to new levels; offering significant advances in fuel efficiency through a hydro-dynamically efficient hull form that optimises vessel performance with minimum fuel consumption.
The hull form was developed after considering the water depth and wind speed along the service route. Extensive model tank tests were conducted at Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN) in Holland prior to finalising the hull shape. These efforts lead to the development of a hull form with efficient hydrodynamics.
The unique hull form and propulsion system allows the ship to cruise in shallow water with minimum drag. The design was also optimised to achieve greater performance with excellent manoeuvring characteristics. This was seen in full effect when leaving Calais - the 'Spirit of France' impressed by swinging off the berth, in her own length, in the confines of the port rather moving astern to clear water as her earlier fleetmates do.
An important energy saving feature in the ‘Spirit of France’ and her sister is the use of boilers to heat water. This uses the waste heat generated from exhaust gas and using the steam to generate power for the water treatment plant.
All too soon my round trip in the ‘Spirit of France’ was over and it was time to disembark at Dover. As I went ashore I could not but ask myself why would anyone want to spend a minute of a holiday on an aeroplane or in a tunnel when they could enjoy all of this?
Next up was a craft with which I had the pleasure of working with when she entered service, Stena Line’s revolutionary 'Stena Explorer'. This cutting edge craft entered service on the Holyhead - Dun Laoghaire service on 10 April 1996.
The big boast of the 'Stena Explorer' was her seakeeping qualities. Her designers claimed that she would sail in seas of up to eight metres and still provide her passengers with a comfortable journey at full speed.
For her delivery voyage from Finland to the UK, Stena Line could not have wished for better weather conditions - NE Force 9-10 winds in the North Sea. She performed magnificently. Indeed, on arrival at Holyhead on 21 February 1996, a piece of unsecured timber which had been used as a fender was still in place resting on her transom! In service however, her Maritime & Coastguard Agency Permit to Operate restricted her operation to waves of up to four metres significant - the highest of any fast craft operating from UK ports.
The ‘Stena Explorer’, with a top speed of more than 40 knots, takes much of its technology from the world of aviation. The smaller of the two different types of gas turbines are used in the Swedish Airforce's fighter, attack and reconnaissance aircraft, the Saab Gripen, while the larger of the two types is used in the long-haul Boeing 747 aircraft. There are several reasons why Stena's designers elected to use aircraft engine type gas turbines as the power source. They produce cleaner exhaust fumes than conventional diesel engines, require less space, weigh less, have a high level of operational reliability and are virtually vibration-free. However, they are also incredibly thirsty engines, and it is this that has caused the downfall of a truly impressive short sea ferry concept; the 'Concorde' of the seas.
The General Electric gas turbines are aero-derivative, with each of the two hulls containing two types, one large and one small. The larger develops approximately 22,370kW at 3,600rpm, while the smaller develops approximately 15,000kW at 6,500rpm. The maritime versions of the gas turbines are fuelled by a clean gas oil with a very low sulphur content.
In narrow waters the 'Stena Explorer' can be powered by the two smaller engine packages, giving a maximum speed of 25 knots. When the larger modules are in operation, the vessel has an approximate top speed of 32 knots, and when all four modules are operating at full power, the ferry's speed can exceed 40 knots.
And this is how I found her on my crossing; leaving and entering port on all four turbines, but making the crossing on two at a speed of around 26 knots. As fuel costs soared up to a high of USD147 for a barrel of crude, and the global economy went into freefall, the ‘Stena Explorer’’s sailings have gradually decreased from a peak of up to five round trips daily in 1996, to just one round trip per day in the peak season from May to September.
As I looked at the vessel from my vehicle in the waiting lanes at Holyhead I was still filled with a sense of awe; her unique profile is as impressive now as it was 16 years ago when we looked upon her as a ship of the future. Despite the withdrawal of her two sisters, Stranraer’s ‘Stena Voyager’ and the Hook of Holland’s ‘Stena Discovery’, the 'Stena Explorer' still had the ability to turn heads.
Onboard were around 600 passengers, all of whom seemed to be making full use of the craft’s outlets and generally enjoying the crossing. I on the other hand wandered around in a rather pensive mood. The craft was spotless and her newly recruited seasonal crew were a credit to Stena Line. But for me, as the 40-knot craft trundled along at 26 knots, knowing that this would more than likely be her last season in UK service, the gloss was somewhat lost. Even her motion was not what it once was, an uneasy roll in a slight sea, presumably due to her slower speed. The link with Dun Laoghaire, the Irish terminal for the Holyhead ferries since the early 1800s, was dying.
My return to the UK from Ireland was made from Dublin Port, seven miles across Dublin Bay from Dun Laoghaire. This is from where Stena Line offers up to four sailings a day with the flagship ‘Stena Adventurer’ and the slightly smaller ‘Stena Nordica’. Both ships are highly impressive and with the former providing 3,500 metres for freight and cars there is little doubt that the HSS service had most likely prolonged Dun Laoghaire’s life as a ferry port; the harbour simply could not cope with a ship of 211 metres in length.
My crossing back was not with Stena, but with Irish Ferries and the largest ferry on the Irish Sea, the ‘Ulysses’.
Built by Aker Finnyards (STX) in Rauma, Finland, the ‘Ulysses’ came into service in February 2001. With a gross tonnage of 50,938 tonnes she remains the largest car ferry on the Irish Sea, providing four kilometres of space for 1,342 cars or 240 articulated trucks.
With a crossing time of just over three hours there was time to sit back in the spacious Club Class Martello Observation Lounge and Bar on deck 11. Here we had a superb full Irish breakfast served to our table by a friendly steward. Our appetites well satisfied it just remained to sit back with the complimentary Sunday papers, occasionally looking up to take in the magnificent sea views, being located above the wheelhouse. There was no uneasy rolling on here!
Passing us at sea was Irish Ferries’ fast craft ‘Jonathan Swift’, also heading for Holyhead. This 86 metre craft has supplemented the sailings of the ‘Ulysses’, and before her, the ‘Isle of Inishmore’, since 1999. She represented Irish Ferries’ entry into the high speed sector and very quickly her owners grasped the ideal MO for such a service. This was not a fast ferry to sow the seeds of eventual replacement of conventional ships by giant multihulls. Rather she was a supplement to the RoPax/cruise ferry product. As I sat in comfort, after a hearty breakfast, and with newspapers spread out before me, I pondered this partnership on the central corridor crossing. Bucking something of a trend on many other fast ferry routes there has been no rush to replace the ‘Jonathan Swift’ after as little as two years in service. She has a regular crew and is very highly maintained. Perhaps most importantly, she is not pushed when weather conditions are marginal for a comfortable crossing.
Having disembarked at Holyhead I discussed the Irish Ferries model with a local friend; a retired conventional and fast ferry Master. He told me the ‘Ulysses’ was like a mother ship and the ‘Jonathan Swift’ her baby sister. When the weather is bad, she tells the fast ferry to stay in bed. “But when its good, come on, come out to play,” he chuckled. He hit the nail firmly on the head. If fast ferries were operated in partnership with larger conventional RoPax ferries, instead of trying to replace them, then just maybe there would be a few (non-freight) of their type in northern European waters today.
Before heading home to Australia there was just time to visit Portsmouth to witness the scene there. Ferry activities are dominated by Brittany Ferries and what a sight the impressive ‘Mont St Michel’, ‘Bretagne’ and ‘Normandie’ made as they went about their business. The ‘Bretagne’ is now the senior citizen of the fleet at 23 years old, yet she still looks as fresh as the day I first sailed in her to Spain in 1989!
Unfortunately Condor Ferries’ 86 metre fast ferry ‘Condor Vitesse’ came limping into Portsmouth for an engine change out one week before the busiest time of year - the British school summer holidays. To lose a vessel at this time of the season must surely have hurt her owners, already the subject of some bad press in the Channel Islands media for poor reliability.
The heady days of fast ferries appeared to be all but over.