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Voyage Report: Sea Containers


by John H. Luxton

Fleetwood - Douglas Day Excursion

10th August 1999

Regular sailings from Fleetwood have had a rather chequered history. Apart from a period of time during WWII when it became the mainline passenger route due to the short crossing, for much of this century sailings have been operated on a summer only. For much of the 1960s there was no service at all and again during the 1980s services were eventually suspended, until revived, by British Transport Docks Board, later Associated British Ports plc through the charter of an IoMSPCo side loader and marketed under the "Fun Boat" banner.

After a few years the service returned to full IoMSPCo operation and even saw operations by SEACAT ISLE OF MAN during the vessel's experimental period on Manx routes. Though the inability to side load cars off the berth restricted SeaCat sailings to passengers only.

Shortly after the Sea Containers take over in 1996, Fleetwood saw a flurry of activity that autumn as it became the base for experimental regular sailings to both Dublin and Douglas.

Whilst the Dublin sailings were very successful and were transferred to Liverpool the following year [Part of the problems of running regular timed services from Fleetwood are tidal conditions at the estuary of the River Wyre], the Douglas sailings were less successful. Despite offering day trips at bargain prices with the opportunity to take a car and two passengers for just £50 return, poor weather and probably insufficient interest on the part of the public let to poor support. By the end of the experimental period the day return fare for a car and two passengers had fallen to £20!

Poor loadings continued during the once weekly summer sailings from Fleetwood in 1997 which eventually led to the quiet closure of the Fleetwood route at the end of the 1997 summer season.

However, during the 1997 a decision had been made to commemorate the opening of the Llandudno to Douglas service by operating a one off day excursion from Llandudno to Douglas shortly before the TT festival began.

This proved to be a resounding success and a complete sell out. The sailing was repeated in 1998 with addition of a sailing the following day from Fleetwood, on the by now officially closed route. This again proved to be popular. However, with the Lady of Mann chartered by Acor Line for the rest of the summer no further specials were possible.

During 1999 things had changed, with the LADY OF MANN required to provide extra sailings on the Liverpool to Douglas and Douglas to Heysham routes during the peak summer period she would be available to operate additional day excursions from both Llandudno and Fleetwood. Though arranged with very little publicity these have proved to be exceedingly popular.

Several weeks ago I decided to try the special sailing from Fleetwood on 10th August. Having experienced an almost empty ship when sailing on the Fleetwood - Douglas route in autumn 1996 it still came as some surprise to find out a few days earlier that there were over 700 booked already!

I decided to arrive early, as I had already been informed that the terminal car park at Fleetwood had been given over by the local council to P&O to expand their facilities. However, it was pleasing to note that a rump of the old car park remained, and early arrival shortly after 08.40 secured a space.

Walking over to the terminal where quite a few people were already gathered, I made my way down the long corridor to the check in. This had been altered considerably since my last visit in 1996. Instead of the usual ticket window and larger open counter had been provided. Somewhat strange considering the route was officially abandoned in 1997. With no Fleetwood - Douglas boarding cards, Heysham - Douglas cards were issued.

A brief note about the Fleetwood terminal is appropriate for readers unfamiliar with the port. The terminal itself dates from the end of the 1960s, constructed on the site of the former Fleetwood railway station, closed as part of the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s.

Originally constructed for the Norwest Hovercraft Company who had planned to introduce a fast ferry using the air cushioned vehicle - not a true hovercraft - DENNY ENTERPRISE on sailings from Fleetwood to Douglas. Of course, given the nature of such proposals, the craft was soon discovered to be unsuitable for services to Douglas and alternative proposals were put in place to offer cross - bay routes to Morecambe and Barrow-in-Furness. These didn't materialise and the company was forced to offer short pleasure cruises. The Douglas service was opened by the chartered and somewhat strange looking ro/ro car ferry STELLA MARINA in 1969. The lack of a linkspan at either Fleetwood or Douglas meaning services were passenger only.

The Norwest service to Douglas proved quiet successful. However, after just one season of operation, the Norwest Hovercraft Company were forced to find another ship for the 1970 season, the STELLA  MARINA not being available. Consequently it acquired the former David MacBrayne Scottish Island ferry LOCHIEL which was despatched to Cammell Laird for refit, in the mean time the company chartered the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company's QUEEN OF THE ISLES.

Renamed NORWEST LAIRD, the old LOCHIEL turned out to be completely unsuitable with various problems and mis-haps befalling the vessel and the company went into liquidation.

In August 1972 the Isle of Man Steam Packet company reopened the Fleetwood route on a seasonal basis having abandoned it 11 years earlier.

Today only a fraction of the Fleetwood terminal building is occupied by the company. The remainder being given over to a pub and cafe known as "The Old Railway Station". Erroneously what looks like a picture of a GWR locomotive and train adorns the outside wall. [Fleetwood was LMS not GWR!]. Perhaps the pub should be called "The Old Sea Terminal" and the loco and train replaced by a picture of the a classic turbine?

Returning to 10th August 1999 the volume of passengers were soon apparent as the queue from gates leading onto the berth stretched back up to the terminal approach road and round to the sea front shops. At the adjacent P&O ro/ro berth EUROPEAN PIONEER loaded vehicles for the 10.00 sailing to Larne.

Shortly after 09.00 the LADY OF MANN came into sight, turned and came onto the berth. As is usual at Fleetwood, passengers boarded via the LADY's vehicle gangway. The skipper, Captain Bridson, unusually being one of the boarding card collectors!

Its width, made for rapid loading despite the numbers. Once on board it was plain to see that the queue into the terminal was still quite long.

With the Blue Peter the Lady's long name pennant   flying from the foremast she looked a great sight. A few cars were carried on her outward trip from Fleetwood, unfortunately, now excursion fares for cars were advertised for day trippers which was a shame. A modest supplement of say £40 to £50 could have earned more money. I did enquire about this but was told only the £149 standard car + 2 5 day return was available [Come on Sea Containers? - What about allowing it next time?! - I would have certainly taken my car and I am sure others would too for a family of four it would probably have been more economical then paying for bus, train or tram fares on the island.]

At 09.55 she gave a long blast on her whistle which was answered by EUROPEAN PIONEER. Just on 10.00 a small car shot arrived whilst a lady passenger hurried along to the ship. Her late arrival made us 3 minutes late.

The rope men let go and the Lady was away. They then moved along the river wall to the P&O berth to attend to EUROPEAN PIONEER which impatiently awaited out departure.  With several more blasts on her whistle the Lady steamed past the small Knot End Ferry and Lifeboat Docks and down the Wyre Channel whilst people on the promenade and beach stood and watched.

We must have made a fine sight passing the promenade with hundreds of passengers out on deck. Would so many have stopped and stared if it had been a SeaCat?

By 10.13 the former Wyre Light had been passed and the Lady swung to port into the Lune Channel. SEACAT DANMARK passed close by on her in bound morning sailing from Belfast to Fleetwood at 10.40. I had hoped to get some good shots of the BEN-MY-CHREE at sea but unfortunately when she came into view at around 11.00 she was a couple of miles away to the south.

An uneventful journey to Douglas followed. We were off the harbour at 13.00 and by 13.13 had manoeuvred to seaward berth of the Victoria Pier. As the LADY OF MANN was made fast three coaches of Tours Isle Of Man offering excursions to various destinations drew up along side.

I had decided instead to take a bus trip down to Calf Sound, overlooking the Calf of Man. By bus it is a rather circuitous journey but from the front of the double decker excellent views were to be had. Beyond Castletown the familiar shape of one of the Norse Irish Ferries vessels was in view on its Liverpool to Belfast sailing.

Running down to the Calf Sound through the Manx Heritage Village of Cregneash with its pretty crofters' cottages the Mountains of Mourne could be seen to the west, more often than not these are cloaked in mist. Immediately in front was the island known as the Calf of Mann - which is managed as a nature reserve.

At Calf sound there is a quaint little Café which celebrates its centenary this year. Sitting outside with a pot of tea and some cream scones [Petty local officialdom has stopped the sale of the delicious and very reasonably priced crab sandwiches which used to be sold here.]  and admiring the view was really pleasant. The NIF vessel could be seen disappearing to the west whilst SEACAT ISLE OF MAN passed to the east heading for Dublin. The numerous seals basking on the rocks didn't appear to care!

All to soon the last bus of the day arrived for a 16.10 departure. There then followed another circuitous journey which resulted in arrival at Douglas Bus Station at around 17.45.

Wandering back into the Sea Terminal it was apparent that boarding was about to commence and did so a few minutes later. Allowing passengers to board early was an excellent idea as it allowed people to get a meal in the LADY OF MANN's Promenade Café before settling down for the rest of the trip.

The on board catering crew appear to have excelled themselves with some excellent and very generously endowed home made steak and potato pies. Having finished my meal at around 18.30 I went out on to the stern ramps.

Departure was prompt at 19.00 with 852 passengers on board. Being on the outside of the pier the Lady was up to full speed within seconds. In was obvious she was going to do a really fast run.

The Isle of Man remained visible for almost the entire journey, the sun setting brilliantly behind it, outlining mountains. For much of the journey I located myself on one of the mooring bollards. At 21.07 MERCHANT BRILLIANT passed by as we came closer to the Wyre Channel Cenargo's RIVER LUNE could be seen in the twilight ahead of us making for Heysham whilst Seatruck's MOONDANCE was heading outbound for Warrenpoint. At around this point the Lady made several blasts on her whistle, possibly to alert a small yacht almost sandwiched between the larger ships, a few minutes later we were in the Wyre Channel.

At the P&O berth EUROPEAN PIONEER could be seen, she was taking bunkers from a road tanker. Quite a few people had turned out to see the LADY OF MANN arrive, she swung promptly and ropes were on at 21.50. Crossing time 2 hours and 50 minutes. Disembarkation was equally speedy. Whilst disembarking I heard some one say that they had heard a rumour that there just might be one more Fleetwood sailing in September? - Wishful thinking?  Or perhaps we might see more "specials" involving the Lady next season?

It was an excellent day out. On disembarking everyone appeared happy, many taking the trouble to thank the crew at the gangways. Although the ship was quite full everything had been pleasant. Fortunately the rowdy element that sometime turn up for busy excursion sailings were absent.

Thanks Sea Co it was a super day and well organised. But next year - Can day trip fares for cars be made available please? You had the potential to earn several thousand more pounds if this had been permitted. Running the Lady with empty vehicle decks does not make sense though it is unavoidable on the Llandudno sailings.


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