Ferry enthusiasts and I suppose all travellers have favourite vessels. For me the Saint Class vessels of Sealink and the jumboised FE ships will always be very special ships. There are personal reasons for this, living in Larne Ive spent many hours onboard the vessels just for the enjoyment of being aboard.
With the two remaining Stena Saint class ships now based in Belfast and the PRIDE OF AILSA carrying sheep and pilgrims across the Red Sea, the PRIDE OF RATHLIN is the only of my favourite vessels remaining in Larne.
For various reasons Ive not had as much time as Id like for ferry excursions (as you know any trip is quite time consuming when youre already very busy). However, with speculation reaching fever pitch regarding the future of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN I decided I needed another trip. By the time this reaches you the future of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN has now been announced with her due for withdrawal upon the June 2000 entry into service of her newly built replacement.
With the HSS having damaged herself at the port of Stranraer on Tuesday P&O had been dealing with such an amount of freight that sailings were running significantly late. I understand that at one stage lorries were being stacked on an approach road in the same way as takes place when there are problems at Dover.
I contacted P&O the night before I was due to travel and was told my 0800 sailing would be about 3 hours late and I should check in around 9 am. Checking the next morning before leaving home, the situation was the same. The vessel arrived in Larne at 0930 (this was her delayed 0400 sailing that should have arrived at 0615) and following boarding at 1010 we departed Larne at 1045. To be fair to P&O despite the delays they offered superb information to customers and very efficiently dealt with boarding. Anyone who had bothered to check the time of their sailing before leaving home would not have been significantly inconvenienced.
Boarding the PRIDE OF RATHLIN and taking a walk around the vessel I am reminded of all that I like about the ship. To be straight about it, the PRIDE OF RATHLIN is not a "cruise ferry"; it does not offer every conceivable facility. However, what the vessel actually is, is very simple, a "solid vessel with solid facilities".
There havent been many significant changes to the vessel layout since she was built in 1973. Some of her seating is the original seating (the 1970s "plastic" covered foam seating having simply been covered many times over the years) and there is nothing "big and clever".
BUT there is a straight forward bar and self-service restaurant (indeed the self-service restaurant is exactly that, restaurant food self-served not fast cold tasteless rubbish like one gets so often). The video lounge had new seating fitted in 1996. At the same refit a new lounge with reclining seats was created in the former tea bar area and the quiet lounge was given reclining seats to die for, you really can stretch out. Notably these improvements used some of the best seating from the PRIDE OF FLANDERS and PRIDE OF SUFFOLK, removed when the vessels became freight-only. Also importantly her crew is highly competent, courteous and polite; you do not get the "T-shirt" and "baseball cap" image found on some fast ferries.
When I look some other ferries of the same generation as the PRIDE OF RATHLIN I am dismayed at the silly things some operators have done. I always feel that on smaller ferries operators are better to stick to simple but high quality facilities.
On the disappointing side, the luxurious Club Class Lounge is now generally closed as the PRIDE OF RATHLIN generally sails in a ro-pax mode and the area isnt really needed. I think thats a pity but I guess thats economic reality.
Whilst I felt the PRIDE OF RATHLIN is beginning to show her age and there wasn't any evidence of refurbishment at her recent refit (obviously concentrating on the mechanical/structural aspects) there is no getting away from the fact that she has a style unmatched by so many vessels. Although, given the confirmation a few days later that she would be replaced its hardly a surprise that she isnt receiving lavish overhauls.
I joined Captain Eddie Irvine on the bridge leaving Larne and he informed me we had a full load of freight along with a significant passenger load. Conditions were fairly good but the stabilisers were used for passenger comfort.
I later had lunch with Captain Irvine and some of the other officers in the Commercial Drivers restaurant. Whilst I wasnt that hungry and only had soup followed by a chocolate cake dessert the food was as excellent as ever. From what I saw of the fish, it also seemed tempting. It has to be said the food in the cafeteria is just as good and taking a stroll past the servery I can say the food looked really appetising.
Following lunch I returned to the bridge to see the HSS STENA VOYAGER making her way to Belfast having undergone temporary repairs at the berth in Stranraer. She appeared to be taking a fairly Northerly course and to be travelling at around 12 knots, obviously her master didnt wish to put too much stress on the damaged vessel.
We soon passed the EUROPEAN TRADER, again carrying a full load of freight from Cairnryan to Larne and under the control of the affable Captain Peter Barlow Morris, another of the true professionals in command of the Cairnryan ships.
Nearing Cairnryan we passed the STENA CALEDONIA which had probably left Stranraer late on her 11.15 sailing. She did not appear to be carrying much freight, possibly because sailings had only re-started with her 07.00 sailing from Belfast and many drivers and tourists may have still believed the service to still be suspended.
We arrived in Cairnryan at approximately 12.45, exactly two hours after leaving Larne (leaving one wondering if the planned new vessel will actually beat her estimated crossing time of 105 minutes).
Disembarkation via the gangway from the upper vehicle deck was prompt and I was soon checking in for the return sailing, originally scheduled to depart at 1130. It was 1255 and I was told boarding would commence at 1300 so I definitely had no time to pop up the road to the garage to get the local newspapers to see if there were any pictures of the damage to ship or berth at Stranraer.
After boarding shortly after 1300 the PRIDE OF RATHLIN departed at 1345, just one hour after arriving and would have departed sooner had it not been for the need to load stores. The return trip again had good loads of passengers and freight and once again a very pleasant trip was had. We arrived in Larne at 1600 the exact crossing time. I thanked Eddie Irvine and his crew for their marvellous hospitality that would make the management of any firm proud and made my way off the ship.
I also noted the excellent job done by the crew in getting the ferry cleaned in the short turnaround times. I have travelled on other vessels in normal conditions were tables are not cleaned and litter is to be found under seats or beside windows.
The future of this fine vessel has been under discussion ever since the JETLINER was introduced in June 1996. Now we finally know her fate we can all feel sad that she is going to be leaving our shores but proud of her role on the Cairnryan service. The PRIDE OF AILSA and PRIDE OF RATHLIN were arguably the saviours of the Cairnryan route the service once viewed as not serious competition to Stranraer is now a very serious threat. With the introduction of a new vessel other ferry operators had better watch out or they will no longer be deemed serious competition!
With strong, if unglamorous facilities the PRIDE OF RATHLIN remains a very impressive vessel. With the most comfortable seating available on any route to Scotland and a style and ambience to match P&O's "cruise" image she remains more than adequate for the service, even in 1999. But I suggest you make an effort to travel on the vessel within the next 16 17 months or you will miss your chance to sample one of the final ferries of this type still in operation.