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Voyage Report: Merchant Ferries

by John H. Luxton

May 30/31 1999

22.30 Liverpool - Dublin

DAWN MERCHANT

Leaving home at around 19.45 I arrived at Canada #3 Branch Dock at around 20.10. DAWN MERCHANT was at the berth already loading freight.  She is one of two Astilleros Espanoles Seville  built vessels constructed for Merchant Ferries [part of the Cenargo Group] specifically for the Liverpool to Dublin service.

Weighing in at 22,000 grt DAWN MERCHANT and her sister BRAVE MERCHANT are impressive looking ships with a length of 180m. They have a freight trailer capacity of 120 and a passenger capacity of 250. Of which 114 can be accommodated in 57 two-berth cabins.

Proceeding into the terminal to collect my ticket and boarding passes. I was told to return to my car and "Security will open the gate for you". Returning to the car the gate to the vehicle-checking shed was opened. Entering the shed security formalities where quickly dealt with and a small sticker attached to the car.

The security guard helpfully suggested that my father and I might like to go into the departure lounge to wait. Outside the lounge stood the small, blue bus used for boarding foot passengers. However, it appeared more interesting to watch the freight being loaded. The "tugs" speeding back and forth with unaccompanied trailers. With the occasional truck going on board. A small road sweeper was seen to come off the vessel having presumably been busy cleaning the vehicle decks.

Merchant Ferries advertising suggests that boarding would be permitted from 90 minutes prior to departure. With a 22.30 departure one would have imagined boarding would be permitted from 21.00. This wasn't the case. Perhaps it was because there were so few passengers? Behind my car appeared a van and two other cars.

Boarding commenced at around 22.00. Cars were directed to the forward end of the main vehicle deck [Deck 3] close to the staircases by the Polish ABs. Leaving the car, access to the passenger decks [7 and 8] is by stairs or lift. Access to the lift is via a few steps. It is unfortunate that a flat access to the lifts could not be obtained, as is possible on Sea Container's SuperSeaCats or the BEN-MY-CHREE, for the benefit of disabled passengers. However, Merchant Ferries do claim that assistance can be provided for such passengers if prior notice is given.

Arriving on deck 7 one is immediately struck by the décor. It's rather different! Being used to the almost clinical brightness of the interior of SUPERSEACAT THREE [which is even brighter than SUPERSEACAT TWO], or the light interiors of the products of Van der Geissen, the dark décor is something of a shock. However, everywhere is well lit and the scheme is very effective.

On deck 7 is the main passenger reception area from where cabin key cards are obtained. Within the reception area is a very small duty-free shop, probably a sensible move given that duty-free will disappear very soon. Duty Free prices are not as low as those provided by Sea Containers or Merchant Ferries. The shop is counter service rather than self-service.

Next to reception, in the centre, are the entrances to the "Winning Post Restaurant" aft and the "Jockey Club" lounge bar, forward above the bows.  At the entrance to the bar, forming a centrepiece is an impressive equine sculpture. Yes, you might have guessed, the ships have a racing theme. Rather appropriate given the fact that Liverpool is the home of the world famous Grand National and Ireland is noted for its race horses. It also conjures up an image of speed. These vessels are fast for conventional ships easily capable of undertaking the Liverpool - Dublin route in around 6 hours if only Liverpool had an on-river linkspan! DAWN MERCHANT takes its name from the race horse Dawn Run whilst BRAVE MERCHANT takes its name from Dancing Brave.

The restaurant is self-service, though waiter service was advertised as being available on the evening sailing. However, this did not materialise. Meals are charged at set rates for one, two or three courses. There is a separate seating area "The Enclosure" which is reserved for drivers.

Décor in the restaurant is lighter with wood veneer with much metal in evidence in evidence including the Spartan looking seats. The restaurant crew appears to be a mixture between UK chefs with Filipino waiting/serving staff.

Obviously I decided to try out the three-course meal. The soup was tasty but not particularly hot. For main course I tried the roast lamb. This was again tasty but lacking in substantial warmth. For desert I tried a strawberry mousse which was quite acceptable. Tea and Coffee is available in self-service pots with real cups provided! Price for a three-course meal is £9.95 - comparable with Irish Ferries three-course lunch. Though that is waiter served. There does appear to be some problem keeping the food warm.

DAWN MERCHANT cleared the berth at 22.34, just behind schedule swinging to port and then moving astern to line up with Langton Lock. Entering the lock at 23.09 about 11 minutes were spent waiting for the level to equalise with departure from the lock at 23.20. Much vibration followed as the bow thrusters were used to help swing towards the sea.

After a meal it was time to take a wander out on the open deck. Now this is where the new Merchant Ferries vessels really score in my view. Those people who enjoy Sea Container's LADY OF MANN will enjoy DAWN MERCHANT and BRAVE MERCHANT!

There are open decks on levels 7 and 8. On deck 7 the open deck is partly covered offering shelter. Behind the accommodation area of deck 7 is the lifeboat assembly area. This is a large open space, well sheltered if one stays nearer the accommodation superstructure. This is reminiscent of the LADY OF MANN's sheltered stern ramp, but much bigger.

Aft of the assembly area the deck divides. In the centre is the open area of the upper vehicle deck, which appears to be used by hazardous cargo and reefer trucks/trailers. The open deck continues aft at each side to the funnels. However, there are gates here, which were noted to be closed at some point and open at others. There appears to be a distinct lack of "crew only" notices which makes this ship appear very enthusiast friendly. The ships rails whilst obviously adequate do not appear anywhere near as substantial as those provides on Sea Containers and Irish Ferries vessels. It would be an unwise parent who did not keep a firm hold on a small child.

After wandering round the open decks for a while and watching the locking procedure at Langton I had made my way to the Bar. On the outward trip there were very few passengers, most appearing to be truckers. The Bar is large, there are areas for smokers and non-smokers and a "TV corner". Seating is a mixture of sofas / coffee tables and seats and tables. Upholstery is in blue. The bar area is very bright and surrounded by some high stools.

A good selection of drinks is available, the bar staff also making the effort to ensure that Guinness is served correctly too. After a couple of drinks, DAWN MERCHANT was well underway down Crosby Channel. It was time to head off to the cabin.

The cabins are aft on deck 8. Forward on deck 8 is the "Grandstand Lounge" which overlooks the bows. Reclining high back seating is provided here. Also on this level is a small cinema in which films are shown on daytime sailings.

On the outward trip the cabin was an outside one with a large window overlooking the starboard side. One does have to be aware there is an open deck outside, unlike on the BEN-MY-CHREE and passengers outside can look in!

The cabins are well appointed. Décor is light, contrasting markedly to the general décor elsewhere. There is a shower/toilet facility, area for hanging clothes, plus a wooden corner unit with a table lamp. A plug and two aerial sockets though no televisions are provided. No refreshment trays are provided either. Though a bottle opener is fixed to the corner unit! A red canvas/metal framed chair is provided. Each air-conditioned cabin is provided with a thermostat, which allows any temperature between 5C and 30C to be set.

The lack of refreshments in the cabins combined with the fact that the bar closes at 00.30 makes one aware that there are no refreshments available between 00.30 and 05.00 when the restaurant reopens. Perhaps a drink vending machine might be in order on each passenger deck?

Each cabin has two berths, a bed, which doubles as a bed at night and a settee during the day. Above is a fold down bunk. Reading lamps are provided for each berth.

I must have drowsed off somewhere near the Mersey Bar. When I awoke, it was light. The Island of Ireland's Eye was visible out of the window and soon DAWN MERCHANT was passing the Bailey. The PA advised passengers that breakfast was being served in the restaurant. Howth head was passed at 05.00 and DAWN MERCHANT was just of Ramp 7 at the Merchant Ferries terminal by 05.37. Final aligning of the bow doors and span before making fast took some time, not being accomplished until 05.52.

A usual selection of cereal, "fruit juice" and fried breakfast with toast was provided along with tea and coffee. However, whilst reasonably priced, the bacon was rather disappointing being rather overcooked and "plasticky". The fruit juice tasted like a cheap dilutable offering rather than proper fruit juice.

Berthing at ro/ro ramp 7 at the Merchant Ferries terminal appeared to take some time, however, DAWN MERCHANT made fast at 06.00 which was on time. Once down on the vehicle decks quite a few of the trucks were revving up and it was quite noisy. Being at the front of the vessel I was one of the first to drive off. However, somehow, I managed to get lost in the trailer park before I found the exit!

 

DUBLIN - LIVERPOOL

June 04/05, 1999

 

Originally I had decided to return home on the daytime sailing on Friday. However, the prospect of an early start and a washed out day on the Wednesday resulted in me changing the reservation to the evening sailing. I did this over the phone and was interested to find out that the cost of a cabin was only £20. Originally £20 per berth being advertised, I had expected a cabin for two to cost £40. It didn't, thus when boarding I decided to get a second cabin. I always find I sleep better on my own.

Arriving early at the Dublin terminal, there were already lengthy queues of vehicles awaiting to board ISLE OF INISHMORE, which was at berth 49.

Vehicle check-in takes place in the same location as for Sea Containers services alongside the Irish Ferries vehicle check-in. Handling of check in facilities for passengers and private vehicles being undertaken by Dublin Maritime Ltd, the same company which handles Sea Containers.

Handing my ticket to the lady on duty I advised her that the return details had been changed. These were confirmed on the computer, but instead of being handed computer printed boarding passes, these had to be laboriously hand written

Joining the boarding queue I found three other vehicles in front. A number of other vehicles subsequently arrived and it was obvious that there was going to be a much better passenger load on the return trip. No doubt helped by the fact that it is a bank holiday weekend in Ireland.

Vehicles for ISLE OF INISHMORE started boarding at around 20.45. It is amazing just how many cars the ISLE can swallow up. Its also fascinating to observe just how little time some passengers allow themselves for checking in a number of the ISLE's vehicles turning up at the last minute. It also transpired that one of the vehicles in the DAWN MERCHANT's queue should have been in the IRISH FERRIES queue. Fortunately, its driver realised his error with just minutes to spare.

Meanwhile, at the adjacent Stena Line berth, STENA CHALLENGER had moved astern into the river and headed off to Holyhead.

At around 21.30 Merchant Ferries foot passengers were called to the front of the passenger terminal where they boarded the boarding bus, which appeared to be full. The bus then returning to the passenger terminal to pick up another foot passenger and his bicycle. However, on the return trip to DAWN MERCHANT it stopped alongside a side gate to the vehicle marshalling area. The gate was opened and all the waiting cars followed the bus round to the Merchant Ferries terminal. The bus venturing on board first before withdrawing to allow the cars to board. The main vehicle deck was quite full with trucks, whoever, there was ample space left for the cars. Cars being on board shortly before 22.00. Again, no 90 minute prior to departure boarding.

Departure was prompt at 22.15 with the vessel swung around and about to head off down the fairway at 22.22. An announcement was made around this time, which I mis-heard concerning the restaurant.

Depositing my bag in the cabin I was making my way back down to deck 7 when an announcement was made that the "restaurant was now closed". This appeared rather sudden, and I realised what the previous message had been about. Fortunately several other people appeared to be in the same position and though the main course food displays had been cleared away the chef continued to serve up meals.

This time, with the food coming directly from the kitchen it was much hotter, and a very acceptable beef stew was enjoyed.

Back in the bar things were quite busy, however, given its size there was plenty of space. Things were also nice and quiet compared to the conditions, which appear to prevail in the bar of the SUPERSEACATs on the Liverpool - Dublin run!

Before returning to the cabin a white flash on the horizon from South Stack could be seen. It was interesting to note that the blinds on the large main windows in the "Jockey Club Bar" were left open unlike those on some other vessels.

Having changed my return sailing and having booked the cabins late, only inside cabins remained available. Inside cabins are generally identical to the outside cabins, except for the fact that slightly less space is available to hang clothes and where the window would be situated a picture is provided.

I fell asleep to be woken by very noticeable vibrations shortly after 04.30. By the time I was dressed the PA announced that breakfast was being served and that the ship had arrived in Liverpool. It was exactly 05.00 and DAWN MERCHANT was on her berth in Canada #3 Branch Dock.

There was no rush to unload everyone as I expected and passengers had adequate time to have their breakfasts. Disembarkation began just after 06.00.

Overall impressions of the Merchant Ferries service is very favourable. It is very different to that offered by Sea Containers, more relaxed and laid back - less airline more shipping line! The standard of accommodation is very high. Low passenger capacity, combined with spacious areas serves to provide a relaxed "hotel" feel to the whole journey.

Catering, does, I think, need to be improved. One gets the feeling it could be much better. Also more time needs to be given for passengers to settle in on a night sailing. "Bing/Bong - the restaurant is closing at 22.30" appears rather premature with passengers only on board for around 40 minutes. That time would be acceptable if boarding actually took place 90 minutes before departure as advertised. However, what I experienced was just a bit too quick!

Whilst there is no separate premium business class facility, the service does not require it. Low passengers numbers, spacious accommodation and the absence of the "away-day rowdies" which are attracted to fast-ferry services make for a pleasant travelling experience, very much reminiscent of 1997 when the LADY OF MANN inaugurated the Sea Containers Liverpool - Dublin service.

There were quite a few foot passengers on the return sailing. At present MERCHANT FERRIES do not provide baggage handling for these passengers. This is clearly stated in the timetable brochures, however, the provision of a baggage trailer, which could be pulled behind the passenger boarding bus might be a useful facility. Finally, some outside seating would be welcome. There is adequate space for this and hopefully some will be provided.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the voyages. I'll make certain I undertake some daytime trips during the summer holidays.

 

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