Saturday, March 14, 1998
08.15 LIVERPOOL - DUBLIN
Commander: Captain Marenco
Pilot: Captain Crellin
When I arrived down at the Sea Terminal at around 07.20 there were already many people in and around the terminal. By the time I had checked in, boarding of foot passengers had commenced. At present foot passengers have to board SUPERSEACAT TWO via the link span as the passenger access doors are too high above the stage to be reached by conventional gangways. However, it is intended to provide a door on the starboard side which will match up with one of the INCAT SeaCat's boarding platforms. Fitting the doors, when they arrive, may take several days consequently SSC2 would have to be taken out of service.
Work is underway repairing the articulated sections which link the landing stage to the span itself and as a result only half the width of the span is available. However, this arrangement did not cause undue hindrance to passenger boarding.
Once on the craft, foot passengers are directed to the rear starboard or port side staircases that lead up to the main deck. They enter into the Cafe & Bar area. Unlike the first generation InCat SeaCats the bar and cafe servery areas are separate. Bar to starboard, cafe to port. Behind these areas are the galleys and toilet areas.
The main cabin is then entered with seating being of the "bingo hall" variety. In the centre of the main cabin is a wide staircase leading up to the upper deck. Behind this staircase is a confectionery/newspaper stall offering similar facilities to that on the B deck of the LADY OF MANN. Beyond that is a partitioned area leading to the Duty Free Shop. Into this area another staircase descends from the upper deck forward cabin. Also in this partitioned area are stairs descending to the forward car deck area. The partitioned area looks as though it is designed to channel queues into the rather small duty free shop, which does not appear to offer the same wide range of goods as was available on the LADY OF MANN - particularly towards the end of her period of service.
On the upper deck there are two saloon areas. The forward is a smaller "bingo hall" style saloon. I actually heard one "wag" say when does the game start! From the centre of the forward saloon stairs descend to the duty free shop. In the port and starboard sides a short flight of steps leads to the bridge viewing area which provides views forward through the bridge and aft across the cabin roof. The viewing area is small compared to the InCat SeaCats. In the centre of this area is a small sculpture of the Molly Malone statue in Dublin City Centre.
The bridge area itself is much larger than that on the InCat SeaCats. The Captain and First Officer seats are located, airliner style, around a centre console with a large status and monitor to the centre. To starboard are computerised charts and navigation positions. Further starboard are the engineers' positions with computer and CCTV monitors. On the bridge wings are the docking positions.
The aft cabin on the upper deck is the First Class Blue Riband lounge. This for a modest supplement offers an at seat service of complimentary drinks [including beer an spirits] in a very pleasant atmosphere. There are a number of facing table window seats each side, open railway carriage style, with back to back seating offered without window seats to the inside. Private toilet facilities are also offered.
The seats are really comfortable, much better than most of those offered in railway first class carriages. They are wide and adjustable, with a small reading light set into one of the headrest wings looking rather like an eye. Cloth antimacassars bearing the Blue Riband logo are also fitted. To the centre, rear of the area are located the toilet facilities. There are also controls for TV volume and music/radio with a headset jackplug socket provided in the armrest. Presumably one can request head sets. TV monitors are recessed into the ceiling. There is a small sales point and servery area.
The supplementary fare is just £10 per single journey [i.e. £20 return] its is easy to recover that from the complimentary drinks!
It is possible to buy a yearly pass to the lounge for £100 or pay as you go. Obviously for regular travellers the £100 is easily recoverable. Problem is application forms for the Blue Riband pass were not readily obtainable. Onboard, I was told to get one from the Liverpool Sea Terminal on arrival. "Sorry we don't have them you'll have to write to Pam Clark at Imperial Buildings .....!" I never thought I could really enjoy an "indoor" trip on a ship, but here, given the comfort, large windows and quiet atmosphere it was most pleasant and the return journey from Dublin passed remarkably quickly.
The only problem I can see is that one can only see out of one side of the cabin - best choice would appear to select the window seats on the Welsh coast side port out, starboard home if travelling from Liverpool! The blind side in approach channels can be partially compensated for of course with a radio scanner!
Outside the open deck is reached by exiting the bar area down a short passageways both port and starboard which leads to a very small balcony area. The stern of the ship by the bar windows where the ropes and bollards are located is "crew only". The upper open deck is reached by staircases from the small balcony. Chains were noticed hanging at this point on which signs were located stating "Upper Deck Closed Due to High Winds" - basically it looks as though if the weather gets interesting passengers will be penned in the cabin areas with only the very small open balconies
Not a pleasing idea for enthusiasts or for passengers suffering seasickness who might actually benefit from a spot of fresh air. To make the upper deck safer it might be an idea to make the side rails as high has the stern rails. The side rails are about the same height as on the LADY OF MANN. On the open deck are six garden bench type seats and a number of grab rails. The open deck offers much more space than on the Incat vessels. The port and starboard funnels protrude through the deck and are basically of very light, almost flimsy construction, encircling the exhaust pipes. There is a small covered area leading into the first class Blue Riband lounge' emergency exit. Passenger access is not allowed along the side of the craft in front of the Blue Riband Lounge windows.
Prior to departure on the outward journey I had found myself a spot close to the starboard funnel which looked as though it would offer some protection from the wind once SSC2 started to move. Unfortunately that annoying practice of chasing passengers into the cabins to watch the safety broadcast which occurred when SEACAT ISLE OF MAN was first introduced has resurfaced. Though requests continued to be made on SCIOM crew appeared to give up actually trying to usher passengers inside.
My argument is that such practice is not carried out on the conventional vessels, and Stena did not do it when operating INCAT vessels on the Dun Laoghaire - Holyhead route. Listening to the broadcast was considered sufficient. In other words is it really necessary? Just to listen to the broadcast should be considered enough. It may look like good customer care but to others its just nannying. Most ordinary passengers like to be outside on a vessel when it departs if not for any other part of the journey. Others also find it an insult to their intelligence as they as a matter of habit read emergency notices and can read the safety on-board cards.
After being chased inside I made my way to the bridge area. With everyone else obediently sat in the seats watching the video I watched bridge the crew. The craft was brought off the stage at 08.20 a few minutes behind schedule 08.15 departure time. There was a good load of 530 passengers and 76 vehicles. Once the ship was clear of the stage the captain and first officer transferred to the main flight deck seats, Captain Crellin acting as pilot stood at the side of Captain Marenco [Hope that's how you spell it! The crew just referred to him as "our captain" and I am certain I heard someone else call him DeSanctos].
The Rock lighthouse at New Brighton was passed at 08.33 and rapidly accelerated to cruising speed. I made my way up onto the upper deck again and found quite a few passengers trying to brave out the winds. Eventually most retreated down below. Placing myself in the shelter of the funnel I had found a comfortable spot. The air passing through the funnel housing being by the exhaust, though the location was not as warm as the stern ramps of the LADY OF MANN - I have been colder on the upper deck of the KING ORRY! Surprisingly the engines do not appear any louder than those on the LADY OF MANN.
Shortly after passing the Seaforth Tower the large VLCC ALADIA TIDE was overtaken and passed outbound. At Crosby light the James Fisher vessel SILVERTHORNE was passed inbound. Shortly before the Bar the GRACECHURCH STAR was overtaken.
SUPERSEACAT TWO passed to the south of the Bar Light taking the southerly track. [At least one of the new Italian masters likes the southern route rather than the northerly route favoured by Captain Cowin!] Though I wonder if any will venture close enough to Anglesey to pass between the cliffs and Middle Mouse?!
A number of ships were at anchor at the bar waiting for the tide amongst them the tankers STOLT AVOCET, NORGAS SAILOR, another unidentified LPG tanker, two unidentified coasters and a large scrap bulker. Slightly further west was Union Transport's UNION TRADER.
The Douglas gas platform was passed at 09.10 and we were some miles north of Llandudno Pier at around 09.23. A couple of other vessels were spotted including a Shell coastal tanker either ASPRELLA or ARIANTA. A small beam trawler was seen heading north. South Stack was passed at 10.48. I then went down to the bridge viewing area. After a few minutes the engineers followed by the other officers became rather animated.
The first officer making the announcement that speed had been reduced to around 29 knots because of difficulties with one of the engines. From what I could see peering through the viewing windows with binoculars it looked to be the inner port side engine - the SuperSeaCat having four diesel powered water jets. The mass of Howth Head and Lambay Island were gradually appearing over the horizon and someway ahead could be seen a P&O European Ferries ro/ro vessel on the Liverpool to Dublin run.
At one point the speed indicators on the centre console showed speed falling to just over 22 knots. Suddenly one began to wonder if the remainder of the day's journey would be undertaken at something akin to the LADY OF MANN's cruising speed.
Speed appeared to pick up and slowly we began to gain on the P&O vessel. We speed then increased to around 29knots though it fluctuated quite bit. P&O's ship turned out to be the LEOPARD, SSC2 passing just a few hundred yards to the north.
P&O's EUROPEAN ENVOY [ex-IBEX] was passed outbound from Dublin bound for Liverpool at around 12.10.
SSC2's 12.10 arrival time came and went. The Baily light was passed at 12.28 and shortly afterwards STENA CAMBRIA - recently reactivated to cover STENA CHALLENGER's refit, and operating without fleet names, passed outbound from Dublin to Holyhead.
On approaching berth 49 at Dublin it was apparent that construction work was underway at the adjacent Merchant Ferries berth. Presumably to do with the planned introduction of new tonnage later this year when they also commence operations between Liverpool and Dublin. Among some of the ships noted in Dublin Port where COASTAL BAY, and PELWORM of Coastal Container LinesSCC2 turned and backed onto the berth where a road tanker was waiting with bunkers. Ropes were one at 12.55 ahead of the revised arrival time which was noted to be at 13.10. The journey had taken 4 hours 35 minutes - only an hour or so faster than some of the best times provided by the LADY OF MANN!
A very rapid turnaround was effected at Dublin. As passengers began boarding P&O's LEOPARD, overtaken earlier on the in bound journey passed by. Though passengers had to share use of the linkspan with vehicles, SSC2 let go her moorings at 13.37 with return load of 216 passengers and 22 vehicles.
It was time to indulge in the delights of the Blue Riband Lounge. Paying my supplement to the attendant I selected a starboard window seat and made myself at home. Dublin Bay buoy was passed at 13.52. At 14.31 HSS STENA EXPLORER was noted heading west bound for Dun Laoghaire. Shortly before passing South about 6 miles south, was seen STENA CAMBRIA which had been passed outbound from Dublin earlier in the afternoon.
South Stack was passed at 15.22 and Skerries at 15.32. The first officer advising that we were still operating at reduced power and travelling at 30 knots.
Just prior to reaching the Bar The UNION TRAVELLER was still noted at anchor in Liverpool Bay SSC passed south of the large Candian timber Carrier OAK which was manoeuvring, this vessel was nearly lost in bad weather out in the Atlantic on January 1st and was very fortunate to make Liverpool on that occasion. We passed south of the Bar at 17.11, finally getting ropes on the landing stage at around 17.56 just over one hour behind schedule. KING ORRY which was due to take the outbound 19.15 sailing to Douglas was standing off north the stage at approximately the sealed entrance to Salisbury Dock. The Landing Stage was quite full of cars waiting for KING ORRY. The SUPERSEACAT was due to come off the Landing Stage to allow KING ORRY to berth as soon as discharge was completed. The return Journey time was 4 hours 19 minutes.
It is not difficult to assume what problems would have arisen had the SUPERSEACAT TWO been further delayed as, with the linkspan moored in position only one vessel can use Prince's Landing Stage at a time. It should be interesting to see what happens as traffic builds up with the approaching holiday Easter Holidays as the present facilities at the Pier Head have reached their capacity - the planned new terminal facilities are needed as soon as possible.
My impressions of the SUPERSEACAT TWO are mixed. In many respects she appears to be a much more robust craft than the InCat fast ferries. There were one or two locations on the decks of SEACAT ISLE OF MAN where the deck plating moved with a disconcerting clank.
The bar and cafe areas are better designed than on the Incat craft and an interesting menu is provided. On the return journey I tried some Irish Stew which was nicely served complete with a large chunk of Soda Bread. This was served at my seat in the Blue Riband lounge on a large blue plate. At seat service is available throughout the craft, but managing the seat back pull down tray with such a large plate plus say a cup of tea might be difficult. I would imagine there is a need to move on diners/drinkers from the bar/cafe areas where some decent table space is available and not allow the hogging of seats for the duration of the trip especially when the ship is busy. A wider range of drinks is available at the bar than previously, having a slightly more Irish flavour in terms of choice, though Murphy's Stout is no longer available having been replaced by Guinness, however, it is cheaper.
The high-density airline style seating makes the main cabin areas appear uncomfortable particularly when the craft was quite full as on the outward journey. The seating layout on the LADY OF MANN was so much better, more informal, with lots of nooks and crannies into which one could hide and relax, and which suited groups and small parties. Basically there was something for everyone's' taste! The seating layout of the LADY makes her look bigger and more spacious than she actually is it is a pity that the seating on SSC2 could not have been arranged differently. Only when she had over 500 or more on board did things start to get uncomfortable.
I must admit I did like the Blue Riband Lounge and its very attentive at seat service. The low density, comfortable seating was impressive quiet and quiet ambience was really enjoyable.
The prospect of restriction of access to the outside decks if it is considered too rough/windy is something which is not pleasing. Having experienced and enjoyed quite a few trips on deck on the LADY OF MANN in exciting conditions the prospect of such restrictions is not welcome!
I also wonder how SSC2 will perform in adverse weather. Yesterday winds were, according to the First Officer updates, at around 15 knots [force 4] north-westerly with 1 metre wave height. Generally the crossing was smooth - though the craft did display some tendency to roll and from time to time a wave would be encountered which appeared to send a jolt through the whole vessel. As someone said when I was in the duty free shop "There goes another porpoise". Passing through the cafe bar area during the outward crossing some passengers appeared to have difficulty carrying glasses. I await a trip in livelier conditions with great interest.
Then there is the reliability of the vessel to consider. She has already spent some time in dock at Wright and Beyer undergoing repairs, yesterday problems were encountered. Perhaps one could be more forgiving if she was just running in, but she has been on the English Channel for six months last year. However, short channel hops are rather different than the sustained four, 120 mile journey sectors required each day once the full timetable commences in April. From April there will be less scope for recovering the timetable should severe delays be caused by weather or technical factors.
I sincerely hope that the Liverpool - Dublin route is successful as it provides a much more convenient link than that offered via Holyhead. However, as the LADY OF MANN demonstrated the viability of a conventional ship on that route during 1997; is a more lightly constructed and potentially more temperamental fast craft really the answer?
I'll be on SSC2 again next weekend so I hope that a more reliable trip will follow. It will certainly be interesting to see how the service develops during year. Though conventional ship competition is on the horizon with Merchant Ferries inaugurating a Liverpool - Dublin ro/pax service this summer. However, that service will he handicapped for some time until the on-river linkspans are available.