The Lough Foyle Ferry Company is certainly the new kid on the block being set up as recently as 2002 with support from Limavady Borough Council and Donegal County Council. Their first vessel was the Carrigaloe ex Kyleakin of Caledonian MacBrayne’s Kyle of Lochalsh - Kyleakin Isle of Skye ferry service and taken on charter from Cross River Ferries of Cóbh. She inaugurated the Magilligan Point ( County Londonderry ) - Greencastle ( County Donegal ) service in 2002.
Traffic on the service blasted through all targets and quite rapidly overtook the 27 car capacity of Carrigaloe, which by the occasion of my first trip on her on 5/10/02 , was already swamped by demand. Trade was helped by extremely high tax rates on petrol in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic of Ireland so that even with having to pay the fare to cross on the ferry it was still cheaper for many people to fill their fuel tanks in the Republic.
A larger ferry to take over from Carrigaloe was duly obtained the following year when the 44 car capacity Foyle Venture replaced Carrigaloe on the crossing. Foyle Venture was formerly the Shannon Willow and previously had been employed on the River Shannon crossing between Kilmer ( County Clare ) and Tarbet ( County Kerry ). The arrival of the Sligo registered Foyle Venture in late May 2003 allowed the Carrigaloe to be returned to Cóbh after a hard year’s work getting the route up and running. Now in the safe hands of Foyle Venture the route and the ferry company continues on an upward spiral of success.
On the Greencastle route the Foyle Venture runs a continual shuttle service throughout the day on a turn up and go basis, with the crossing of the River Foyle taking roughly 10-15 minutes. The Northern Irish terminal departs from the sandy beach at Magilligan Point where a new slipway and pier was built for the service along with a terminal and toilet block. The access road to the pier is through bleak country with Magilligan Prison and an army firing range close by. Greencastle in the Republic of Ireland plays host to the Foyle pilot station and the Londonderry harbour Comissioners’ tug Otterbank as well as an extensive fishing fleet.
Londonderry’s main port has now moved out from the city centre to Lisahally, about 2 miles north of the Foyle Bridge, and this port still handles a sizeable amount of traffic that all passes out of the Foyle past the Foyle Venture’s route. Oil tankers also come into the river for Coolkeragh Power station and there is also a jetty at DuPont’s chemical plant. Mersey and Larne based readers may be familiar with the area as the Larne based tug David F (known on the Mersey as Salthouse and B.C Lamey) was sunk here when she was rammed on the stern by her tow in 1985 while on charter to Londonderry Harbour Commissioners.
Continuing their upward trend Lough Foyle Ferry Company had planned to commence a Lough Swilly crossing in 2003 but this didn’t get started until 2004 when Foyle Rambler inaugurated a seasonal service between the County Donegal towns of Buncrana and Rathmullan on the 28th of May 2004 . The 20 car capacity Foyle Rambler began life as the Stedingen running across the River Weser in Germany and found her way to the Lough Foyle Ferry Company after being made redundant on the opening of a new tunnel.
The new service across the Swilly has resurrected a passenger and cargo service previously run between Fahan and Rathmullan operated by the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. The route closed many years ago and the vessels were sold off to local men who ended up using them as trawlers. Incidentally, the company that previously ran the ferry is still in existence and is probably the only railway company in the world that does not run trains. After all the Donegal narrow gauge railways closed down the company continues to operate after successfully diversifying into road freight and passenger buses.
After only two months of operation I got first glimpse of the service on the 18th of July 2004 when I saw Foyle Rambler during turn round at Buncrana. The Rathmullen crossing is approximately 30 minutes long around half the time for the 42 mile road journey. In contrast to the Lough Foyle crossing Foyle Rambler operates to a timetable of nine round trips daily between Buncrana and Rathmullan. The ship came into Buncrana well loaded from her 1500 sailing ex Rathmullen and departed again on her 1540 service from Buncrana leaving 3 cars on the slipway that couldn’t get on board. Immediately catching my eye were two passengers; a news reporter and his cameraman, the next day the Swilly service featured on Ulster Television news as exceeding all expectations. By mid July 23000 passengers had been carried on the new route since it opened, over half the target for the summer season and the operation had created directly 9 full time jobs as well as indirectly providing countless economic benefits for local shops and restaurants.
The Lough Swilly service is due to finish at the end of September but with the excellent start the service has had it will be returning for next year. Using both the Foyle and Swilly ferry routes people can travel from County Londonderry to the western coast of Donegal in around 2 hours.