I had been looking forward to undertaking this trip for sometime, my father, who also came along and myself, having never been to Belfast before.
I arrived at Heysham around 11.00, the terminal was rather quiet, just a few people in the waiting room and a few cars in the vehicle waiting lanes.
SEACAT DANMARK arrived shortly after 11.30 and backed on to the linkspan. At around this time the security staff had opened the departure gate and some passengers walked through. At this stage there had been no boarding announcement and as SCD was still moving astern it became obvious when the passengers in front headed off in the direction of the linkspan that some alternative boarding arrangement was to take place, not surprising really when one looks at the state of the timber edging to the number 1 berth at Heysham! At present it wouldn't be possible to run a gangway from the quay side to the stern passenger entrance of SEACAT DANMARK!
Walking towards the landward end of the linkspan it became apparent that a few changes had taken place. Another smaller vehicle marshalling area had been created near the top of the span. This is obviously to allow more vehicles to be assembled and then brought forward separating Belfast bound traffic from that bound for Douglas as early arriving vehicles for the Ben's sailings would start gathering before SCD departs.
Parked in one of the vehicle lanes was a large coach, onto which passengers were directed. This won't get on board SCD I thought to myself. By now SCD was discharging cars, they were followed up the linkspan by the foot passengers. Car loading them commenced and finally when two of SCD's crew arrived the coach moved off turned onto the linkspan and stopped at the bottom, passengers then walking up the SeaCat "adaptor" ramp located at the bottom of the linkspan and then across the vessels ramp onto the vehicle deck.
Total distance from boarding coach to disembarkation as the "seagull flies" about 80 feet a couple of hundred feet longer when driving down the span! This does appear to be a strange arrangement as disembarking passengers walk off which appears reasonable.
However, thinking about it, I guess boarding is carried out in this at to speed up loading as passengers can check in their luggage and then wait on the coach which moves down to the bottom of the ramp just before departure time.
Another interesting feature I noted was that unlike on the Isle of Man routes and Liverpool Dublin luggage was carried aboard by a lorry rather than the "Thomas and the Troublesome Trucks" baggage train. One of these lorries displayed traces of a previous Stena Line ownership.
Once the foot passengers were on board departure followed quite swiftly at 12.16, one minute behind schedule. However, we didn't travel very far. The captain announced that we would have to put back into berth #3 to allow the BEN-MY-CHREE to enter. The BEN duly arrived and swung before backing onto berth #1 presenting excellent photo opportunities. Somehow, it appeared fitting that the small SeaCat should have to give way to the pride of Sea Containers Irish Sea fleet.
SCD moved off at 12.37, with the Heysham Pilot boat coming alongside at 12.48. As speed increased the Lune Buoy was passed at 13.03. Belfast Freight Ferries MERLE passed by bound for Heysham at 13.44 whilst SCD overtook MERCHANT BRILLIANT bound for Belfast at 14.08.
Weather had been particularly fine up to that point, however, approaching the Isle of Man it became more cloudy. The summit of Snaefell poked through the mist. South West of Ramsey, EUROPEAN PIONEER, heading for Fleetwood on its sailing from Larne passed by at 14.18.
Passing close to the Point of Ayre on the north west tip of The Isle of Man the captain announced that this was the halfway point of the journey. Shortly afterwards it clouded over still further and rained briefly, before the weather cleared once more and the fine afternoon continued around 15.00
MERCHANT BRAVERY had passed by heading for Heysham at 14.49, little more was seen until the entrance to Belfast Lough came into view. A head of SEACAT DANMARK could be seen HSS STENA VOYAGER on her sailing from Stranraer. Heading out from Belfast could be seen what is thought be STENA CALEDONIA but I was not able to positively identify it.
Running up Belfast Lough it was apparent that SCD was steadily gaining on HSS STENA VOYAGER which is forced to decelerate on entering the Lough due to the fact it generate a significant wash.
By the time SEACAT SCOTLAND passed outbound the gape between the HSS and SCD had closed considerably. At this point I was standing on the outside deck and some thoughtful Belfast citizen who, spotting my badges, must have guessed I was a shipping enthusiast came over. He too great pride in pointing out the Harland and Wolff cranes as the place where the TITANIC was built.
Belfast Freight Ferries SPHEROID was discharging at its berth. Other vessels noted berthed on the north side of the River Lagan further up stream were two bulk carriers, one of which appeared VERY rusty and appeared to confirm many of the rumours surrounding such vessels! Somehow I failed to note these vessels names. Being unfamiliar with the area there was just too much to look at and take in!
Approaching Harland's a large floating Crane the CLYDE could be seen in Dry Dock, whilst berthed nearby was a small coaster INGEBOURG. Whilst on the north side was another small vessel the JULIA ISABEL.
By now the HSS and SCD captains had exchanged radio messages and the HSS swung to port in front of SCD which passed to stern. The HSS then commenced to run up river stern first heading for the Stena Line Terminal behind SEACAT DANMARK.
Arrival at Belfast terminal at Donegal Quay was at 16.33 18 minutes behind schedule.
Being a long established SeaCat operating base the Belfast Terminal has proper foot passenger boarding arrangements with a moveable, covered gangway.
Before passengers disembarked the new crew came aboard and then within a few minutes I was checking in for the return journey. Unfortunately a lack of time prevented even just having a quick look around outside the terminal, though from what I can see, Belfast looks interesting enough even from just a Maritime point of view to have a more detailed look around later this year.
Re boarding SEACAT DANMARK departure was effected 4 minutes ahead of schedule at 17.11. Passing the Stena terminal, it was noted that the HSS had departed.
Norse Irish Ferries MERSEY VIKING passed inbound from Liverpool at 17.25, however, as we accelerated down the Lough it was apparent that we were gaining on HSS STENA VOYAGER between 17.36 and 17.40 the two ships ran side by side before the HSS opened up to full speed and began drawing ahead.
A few minutes later what is believed to be STENA GALLOWAY could be seen heading in bound from Stranraer.
Cory Towing's ROWANGARTH passed north westwards at 17.58 whilst MERCHANT BRILLIANT, already overtaken earlier in the afternoon was seen heading towards BELFAST. Passing south of the Mull of Kintyre which was clearly visible at 18.24
SEACAT DANMARK passed Point of Ayre at 19.08. Once again the mountains of Man appeared to poke through a light mist which lay over the lower land.
There was little of note to be seen until the Heysham pilot was picked up at 20.51 for the run up to the channel to the port. Waiting off Heysham was MERCHANT BRAVERY. Just prior to entering Sea Truck Ferries RIVERDANCE passed outbound for Warrenpoint. Berthed in Heysham harbour was Belfast Freight Ferries RIVER LUNE.
Ropes were on at 21.11, however, careful manoeuvring appeared to be necessary to align SCD's stern ramp with the adaptor ramp on the linkspan which resulted in SCD being made fast at 21.19 four minutes behind schedule. Vehicles were discharged first with passengers walking up the ramp. However, another coach was waiting for the next departure!
All in all I found the new service very interesting. However, loadings did appear rather light. I missed the transmissions with the pax loadings but I would guess they probably didn't reach 100 either way, with perhaps around 20 vehicles.
On board the crew appeared as pleasant and attentive as ever, my father and I being plied with drinks, a generous supply of biscuits and also crisps and peanuts in the Blue Riband lounge. Looking at the menu there were certainly some interesting items. I decided to try the smoked salmon fillet for a late lunch which was quite tasty. However, generally I think many of the refreshment prices appear slightly higher than those on the routes out of Liverpool.
The bridge crew of SCD must be rather shy. All but three of the bridge observation windows [starboard side] remained closed. There again, whilst its nice from a passenger's point of view to see forward, perhaps its not that much fun being peered at as though you were a goldfish in a bowl!
Both shops on board the vessel remained open. As the Belfast route is not a Duty Free route it was interesting to note that a small selection of spirits and perfume was available for sale along with a variety of other souvenirs including SeaCat models. However, quite a few items for sale still appeared to carry the older, and in my opinion better, SeaCat logo with the more slender slanting text.
Looking at SCD I think soon someone should consider improvements to the interior. Quite a lot of the panels need replacing, rather than just painting over. As they were originally bore a fine fabric coating, the painting over always tends to look rough. Perhaps its time soon for some serious work. The toilets too are starting to look rather "tired" and do not present in as good a fashion as those aboard the SuperSeaCats, BEN-MY-CHREE, or even the LADY OF MANN. Some dazzlingly bright orange pain on the panels does not help.
I certainly hope that the reopened Heysham Belfast route is a success, it is certainly much more accessible than the routes out of Stranraer, however, one wonders what effect the ensuing fare wars this summer between airline operators EasyJet and British Regional Airlines trading as British Airways Express may have on carryings? Further more even more capacity on routes from the north west will appear next year when Merchant Ferries commence Liverpool Belfast sailings.
Finally perhaps something more should be done to boost carryings on the Heysham Belfast run during quiet periods. Though there is no duty free, perhaps "Irish Flyer" cheap day returns should be made available for passengers? The crossing is quite an interesting one from a scenic point of view and makes a good day out from Heysham. From, Belfast on certain days day trips to nearby Morecambe should prove popular.