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A Year of Surprises

Irish Sea Shipping Review of 2003

by John H. Luxton

This has been a year of many surprises – pleasant, unpleasant and bemusing. For sometime there had been rumours of a shake-up in Irish Sea shipping operations and 2003 turned out to be the year in which this began, though at this stage it remains to be concluded.

There follows a personal review of some of the maritime happenings which present themselves as being of particular significance. It is a personal review and I dare say some may disagree with some of the comments made below, or may consider I have omitted other important events. If that is the case, why not debate the events of the past year on the Irish Sea Ships Yahoo Group? <click here>


In January 2003 Cenargo filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection and in February Cenargo receivers were appointed. A big question mark hung over the future of the company's operations particularly the Norse Merchant services on the Irish Sea .

The chartering out of BRAVE MERCHANT to the MoD on the run up to the Iraq War led to the ending of the already curtailed Liverpool - Dublin passenger service.  Despite her subsequent return earlier this autumn the passenger service has not recommenced to some local disquiet reflected in letters to the local press.

The Norse Merchant Ferries operation was financially reconstructed towards the end 2003. The year has ended on a much brighter note than it began. There is once again talk of new "super Vikings" for the Belfast route (Stena Forwarder  type) which will enable the MERSEY and LAGAN VIKING to be redeployed on the Dublin service, and perhaps once again reintroduce a the much lamented passenger service.

During the spring everyone was surprised when P&O announced an intention to sell most of their Irish Sea operations to Stena Line. A consequence of this move would be the closure of the Mostyn - Dublin route. At the present time a final ruling on the deal is awaited from the Competition Commission.


Further surprises were to come. Rumours were circulating early in they year that Jim Sherwood was about to sell out the Sea Containers Irish Sea operation.

Given the amount of time and effort put into and acquiring and developing the Irish Sea operation in the 1990s it was something of a shock. However, with Sea Container's needing to reduce debt something large and easily saleable had to be disposed of.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet was the obvious choice.

Fleet deployments within the Sea Containers group, early in the year suggested something was to about to happen.

In February, as SuperSeaCat Three was preparing to reopen the Liverpool - Dublin route she suffered a serious engine defect.  This caused her to retreat into A&P Birkenhead for extensive repairs.

A rather tired DIAMANT appeared from the Channel. Already in need of her own refit the gallant 81m Incat struggled to maintain the Dublin and Douglas services. On occasions DIAMANT was operating at speeds around those of the LADY OF MANN which had gone into her spring-time hibernation in Alexandra Dock.

DIAMANT may have had her mechanical problems, however, her attractive accommodation contrasted sharply with the somewhat utility interiors of the SUPERSEACATS.

Whilst in A&P Birkenhead the redeployment of SSC3 to the Baltic soon became known as did the impending return of SUPERSEACAT TWO to the Irish Sea .

The return of SUPERSEACAT TWO filled many people with disquiet. Given the ship’s poor performance on the Irish Sea in the past many expected a troublesome year.

However, SSC2 certainly surprised everyone, proving to be reliable in operation and having finally overcome the mechanical problems that dogged her in the past. Though from personal experiences I think she still needs sorting out in the plumbing department!

Sea Containers intention to dispose of the Irish Sea services was public knowledge by the time the company’s annual report and accounts appeared in the spring.

There followed an intense period of speculation as to who would buy the operation.

Rumour followed rumour. Names such as Red Funnel, Commodore and Irish Continental Group began to circulate as possible buyers, especially as representatives from various companies had been reported to have been seen around.

In the July the speculation was over, with the surprise that the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company had been sold to Montagu Private Equity. Montagu had once been a subsidiary of HSBC but is now an independent Investment company.

The deal including the sale of BEN-MY-CHREE, LADY OF MANN and SEACAT ISLE OF MANN with a charter agreement for SUPERSEACAT TWO and a management agreement for the Sea Containers Belfast - Troon service.


The Irish Continental Group surprised many Merseyside ship enthusiasts in February by sending the superb ULYSSES to Twelve Quays for several voyages.

ULYSSES surprise appearance happened as a consequence of a berthing mishap at Holyhead. Which though left the Big U virtually unscathed caused major damage to the Irish Ferries Salt   Island berth.

Whilst on Merseyside ULYSSES completed berthing trials at Gladstone Dock. The “Big U” made several appearances on Merseyside before temporary repairs were affected at her Holyhead berth. However, it was to be well into summer before the passenger gangway was back in action at the north Wales port.


The ULYSSES faced a new competitor on the Dublin to Holyhead run from July 2003. - STENA ADVENTURER. The new Korean built ferry might certainly lay claim to being the longest ferry on the Irish Sea, but it cannot take the crown from ULYSSES for being the largest.

Whilst certainly offering considerably more passenger accommodation than its predecessor, the chartered STENA FORWARDER, Stena still shows no sign of carrying foot passengers on the Holyhead - Dublin route. 

Comments received from correspondents who have travelled on the ADVENTURER since her introduction, rate the on-board accommodation as being more in the style of a contemporary motorway service station than the cruise ship facilities offered by the competing ULYSSES. Perhaps foot passengers are not missing out after all?


The replica emigrant ship JEANIE JOHNSTON surprised critics of the cash consuming project by successfully completing her planned transatlantic voyage and tour of the east coast of the United States and Canada .

Heavily criticised by many, the success of this little ship’s tour was not a surprise to those who had kept faith with this enterprising maritime project through difficult times.

The ship is spending the Christmas and New Year holiday open to the public at Custom House Quay, Dublin .


March brought an unpleasant surprise to ship enthusiasts on Merseyside. Rumour began to circulate that Mersey Docks and Harbour Company was declining to renew ship enthusiast's photographic permits.

Unfortunately, the rumour soon turned out to be all but true. Security in the light of September 11 was the reason stated by MD&HC.

Many enthusiasts have offered to submit themselves to Criminal Records checks and security vetting at their own expense to prove their bona fides. Therefore MD&HC's excuse is lame in the extreme.

Mersey Docks and Harbour Company’s action is part of a worrying trend to regard those that have an interest in various forms of transport with increasing suspicion.


banana_republic_flag2.jpg (12867 bytes)Back in the 1970s and 80s transport magazines recounted tales of photographers' experiences with security behind the “Iron Curtain”.

In the "free world" we wondered why eastern bloc countries could regard such an innocent past time with suspicion. Grounds for given for such harassment were usually on the basis of being in the interests of "National Security".

However, we regarded such action as being nothing more than the suspicion and mistrust engendered by undemocratic banana republics that preferred to put the jack boot in, confiscate film and ask questions later!

"Thank goodness, this could never happen here." was the general feeling. But sadly it is now starting to happen here.

In the years ahead it is very important that the groups which represent transport enthusiasts work to remove this increasing element of suspicion on the part of the authorities and some transport operators.

Sadly I feel this problem will not be resolved unless our case is made widely known. Groups must come together and co-ordinate a response.

It is no good just sitting there grumbling! Those who see the pursuit of their hobby being impeded by the "Security Gestapo" - the burgeoning security industry and security advisors must be prepared to act in a sensible, thoughtful but most importantly co-ordinated manner.

Those responsible for implementing security must be persuaded by representative enthusiast groups that the detail with which many enthusiasts monitor movements and activities could actually be nurtured to provide a second line of defence against would-be terrorists.

It remains the responsibility of all enthusiasts to ensure that our hobby can continue, it has endured World Wars, it should not end as a result of the actions of a few fanatical terrorists aided by paranoid politicians. The politicians themselves being propelled by their over zealous security advisors people have a vested interest in peddling their own agenda.


Merseyside played host to three major maritime events. In 2002, Irish Sea Shipping made some unfavourable comments about the 2002 Mersey River Festival.

However, the 2003 event was vastly improved, with a much greater variety of visiting vessels. The River Festival was good, and preliminary information regarding the 2004 festival suggests the improvements will continue. The 60th and final Battle of the Atlantic Commemoration was held on Merseyside over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

Though it was on a much reduced scale to that held in 2003 which also included a review off Anglesey it was none the less a noteworthy event with visiting naval vessels from Germany, Poland, France, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands and the UK participating.

L1060254.jpg (50996 bytes)Perhaps the most spectacular of the Maritime Events was took place on Saturday September 27 - the finish of the 2002 Clipper Race. The start of the 11 month race in October 2002 had been delayed by bad weather. However, the superb weather on September 27, 2003 provided more than adequate compensation.

Though personally, I have never been particularly interested in racing yachts or other mass produced small craft, I decided to take a trip on the Mersey Ferries Clipper special cruise mainly to savour an unusual ferry journey out into Liverpool Bay.

One just couldn't fail to be carried along by the emotion of the occasion interest in modern yachts not! The sight of the yachts being lead across the finishing line led by the type 42 destroyer HMS EDINBURGH [D97], saluted by the fire monitors on the tug TRAFALGAR and accompanied by a host of small craft was one of those truly memorable moments and reaffirming of Merseyside’s ability to stage spectacular maritime events.


L1060769.JPG (42601 bytes)Whilst and event such as the end of the Clipper Race remain etched on the mind for positive reasons, the proceedings of November 2, 2003 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

On Friday October 31 I was sat onboard the vintage passenger ship PRINCESSA awaiting departure from Prince of Wales Pier, Falmouth for an afternoon cruise to the Helford River, it was a bright autumn afternoon, with few passengers around and the promise of an interesting trip.

As I perused the scene text message from ISS correspondent Kevin Bennett brought news of the sudden, surprise announcement that the Cammell Laird south yard cranes were to be blown up within a couple of days. These cranes had become as much a part of the Mersey waterfront as the Liver Buildings.

Sunday November 02 saw me stood with amongst a gathering of other people on the Mersey river wall at Queen's Dock.

Whilst I was there I briefly spoke to an elderly man whose father had worked at Laird's and he  felt he had to come and pay his respects.

As the time moved closer to 11:00 two people, presumably weekend tourists, out walking stopped to enquire as to why there were so many people gathered.

When it was explained they did not appear to grasp the significance of the event which was to unfold within minutes. They carried on walking.

Shortly after 11:00 a maroon was fired to warn of the impending demolition.  A  little later the demolition charges fired and the three yellow landmarks were reduced to a pile of twisted metal on the ways.

The new owners of the Cammell Laird South Yard – Reddington Finance claimed that the cranes had become unsafe, demolition being required for insurance purposes.

Most of those with an interest in Irish Sea maritime matters saw it as a statement by the new owners of the site that ship building there was well and truly over and they intended to proceed with their plans to redevelop the site.


Whether 2004 will hold as many surprises as 2003, it remains to be seen. It may very well turn out be a rather mundane year. There again, twelve months ago, who would have even contemplated some of the surprises which transpired. 

In the meantime I would like to thank all contributors to Irish Sea Shipping for their efforts, without your contributions the site would be much poorer.

Finally I would like to wish everyone a very Happy and Prosperous New Year.

John H. Luxton

December 30, 2003


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