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VOYAGE REPORT: P&O 

European Causeway, Pride of Rathlin & Superstar Express

By Gary Andrews

EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY

28 August 2000.

08.30 ex Larne.

11.45 ex Cairnryan.

Early 1999 saw the announcement that P&O were to build a new ro-pax ferry for the Larne – Cairnryan route. On 14 August 2000 the vessel built by Mitsubishi of Japan entered service.

At almost 21,000 GT the ro-pax ferry has truly brought the Larne – Cairnryan route into the present day dwarfing her fleet companions such as the EUROPEAN TRADER and EUROPEAN ENDEAVOUR.

With the Bank Holiday and a day off work I decided to sample a roundtrip on the new ferry on 28 August. Sailing times had been slightly altered due to the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS being required at Portsmouth and my 08.00 sailing was re-scheduled for 08.30 allowing for some extra sleep!

My first sight of the ship was from a distance and it immediately struck me how she towered over the port. Driving onto the huge unobstructed vehicle decks the impression of size is increased further – with a capacity for 107 x 13.5 metre freight units – the capacity is more than double that of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN which she replaced. For the record (albeit with a few very minor changes to exact sailing times) the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY operates on the schedule formerly operated by the PRIDE OF RATHLIN.

The ship berths bow-in at Larne’s MacKean Quay – this is a significant change for several reasons. Firstly it means that Larne – Cairnryan sailings now operate from this quay, having operated from the port’s Continental Quay since 1979. Larne – Fleetwood sailings, previously operated from the MacKean Quay are now operated from the Continental Quay. Appropriate changes to freight loading areas have been carried out. Secondly, it would appear that the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY is the first regular conventional vessel to operate on the Cairnryan route to berth bow-in at Larne. (The JETLINER fast craft also having done so).

Reaching the accommodation is either via a passenger lift taking you into the attractive reception area of the passenger accommodation or via several sets of stairs. Foot passengers are driven aboard by bus at Larne and board via a gangway at Cairnryan. The gangway entrance is at a level roughly parallel with half way up her lower vehicle deck meaning it is rather a climb – but probably no worse than many ferries.

The PRIDE OF RATHLIN was a firm favourite for me. An old friend that proved the only way to travel to Scotland. She offered good service, comfortable surroundings and style. The question therefore was – could the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY compare?

To be fair such a judgement is unfair on several counts – the PRIDE OF RATHLIN was built as a typical 1970s cross channel ferry "jumboised" in the mid 1980s to keep her viable. The EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY on the other hand is a cutting edge modern ro-pax ferry aimed at carrying large volumes of accompanied and unaccompanied freight along with a reasonable amount of tourist traffic. Therefore the overall experience is bound to be a little different.

Entering the passenger accommodation via the forward stairwell it is perhaps useful to begin the description of the passenger accommodation there.

Forward is an attractive "Poets" bar, the main feature of the passenger accommodation and clearly based along the lines of a P&O cruise ship bar. Good views ahead are offered – a feature ferry companies finally appear to have again realised is popular.

Following the main passageway which runs down the starboard side of the vessel - directly after the bar one reaches Fables Restaurant – this is open plan and split in two with some seating one side of the passageway, starboard and more seating and the servery on the other side.

(At the port side of the vessel is the ship’s galley, crew mess and driver’s restaurant/officer’s mess).

Next one reaches the reasonably well-stocked shop with a quiet lounge (nicely protected from the general noise onboard by doors) and a children's room on the starboard side. At the end of the passage way is the reception area which is reminiscent of a hotel reception area with an information/reception desk, along with several settees – the passenger lift brings passengers into this area. Also in this area are two (rather noisy) video arcades. Finally at the end of the passenger accommodation deck is a television/video lounge (starboard) and driver’s lounge (port). Throughout the ship digital television is offered such as the Cartoon Channel in the children’s room.

Large outside areas are offered on both sides of the main passenger deck with a further passenger area available on the upper deck. (This upper deck will feature cabins on the ‘Causeway’s Dublin – Liverpool nearing completion sister the EUROPEAN AMBASSADOR).

The interior designers visited the PRIDE OF RATHLIN when designing the accommodation of the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY and it shows – the quiet lounge of the new ferry is virtually identical to that of the ‘Rathlin and the video lounge is merely a modernised version of that found on the older vessel.

The ship also boasts excellent crew accommodation and even a recycling plant. The bridge is much as would be expected – large and modern being about all one can really say. Being fully enclosed it will take rather away from the legendary 2 a.m. arrivals at Cairnryan when the master of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN used to experience something akin to walking into a large freezer whilst berthing.

Under the command of Captain Blackwell Smyth (formerly of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN) a very smooth crossing was enjoyed to Cairnryan and I was disembarking within 2 hours of boarding. The ship is capable of 24 knots and has managed some very credible crossing times to date. Required to operate up to four roundtrips a day when the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was at Portsmouth – the vessel managed some very impressive times for example some were around 90 minutes berth to berth. However, in normal circumstances no doubt fuel economies and berth congestion will mean that at best a 105-minute crossing will be offered.

Returning on the vessel’s next sailing I had only time to briefly pop to a local garage to get a local newspaper. Sharply after me returning to the port and checking-in it was again time to board the vessel.

The return crossing was with Captain Brian Beckley – the delivery master for P&O Irish Sea’s new builds and soon due to return to Japan to join the EUROPEAN AMBASSADOR. Again a pleasant crossing was had to Larne.

In terms of writing a report such as this I perhaps travelled at the best possible time as the ship was heavily loaded with passenger traffic on both crossings (due to the absence of the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS). Any ship can look good lightly loaded but be a disaster when carrying a capacity load. In all honesty the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY is somewhere in the middle. I have witnessed worse but she does appear to struggle a little and it was certainly clear that some ordinary passengers were forced to invade the commercial drivers’ lounge to find a seat.

The "Fables" catering facility on the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY is sadly a poor replacement for the Compass self-service cafeteria on the PRIDE OF RATHLIN. There is a much reduced menu, the small servery area leads to large queues and the overall standard could be described as acceptable as opposed to the good standard offered on the ‘Rathlin. Deciding to eat about 45 minutes into the crossing I attempted to have fish and chips to be told there was none left. When asked about the "special" I received the mind-blowing astonishing reply that "fish and chips was the special"! I was also astonished by the lack of refreshments available – effectively tea, coffee or orange juice. If you want any other drink you need to get it from the bar.

With my options somewhat limited I opted for the all-day Breakfast which although not as hot as one would like was adequate and reasonably tasty.

I understand Granada is responsible for catering aboard the vessel (having previously been involved with the PRIDE OF RATHLIN). I fail to see why such a need was felt to change what worked very successfully before – ironically I would be tempted to argue catering aboard the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS (based upon similar lines) is actually superior to the conventional vessel. These things have a habit of sorting themselves out, if I wasn’t overly impressed you can be reasonably sure that other passengers may not be and will make their feelings known to crew and P&O forcing changes. My personal suggestion would be simply that the style of food offered on the ‘Rathlin is offered on the new vessel.

Leaving aside a few doubts overall the new ferry is an attractive vessel. Comfortable, smooth and with a committed crew. There are certainly flaws. However, I do not know of any new ferry that has been introduced without flaws – especially the first newbuild of a series. Time and operation will always correct these problems. To the vessel’s credit she has performed technically very well to date with no missed sailings – something quite unusual on a new ferry.

With a sister ship likely to be built for service from 2002 – the route and ship has enormous potential. (It is understood a final decision will be taken based on traffic levels and the operational success of the ‘Causeway) Even with the other freight only ferries gone and no fast ferry, capacity levels would potentially be increased – especially if each ship was run on a four-roundtrip schedule at peak periods. Against the backdrop of a new target market brought about by the operation of ro-pax sister ships the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY will no doubt become a very successful vessel.

PRIDE OF RATHLIN.

11 September 2000.

13.30 ex Larne.

17.30 ex Cairnryan.

For the most committed ferry enthusiast being there on the last day of a special ship or historic route is a very special thing. I was aboard the PRIDE OF AILSA for her last sailing for P&O and also had the dubious honour of being on the final Stranraer – Larne sailing of Stena in 1995. (I also hope to be on the first sailing of the re-opened route).

Ever since the JETLINER was introduced to the Larne – Cairnryan route in 1996 the future of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN was questionable. The poor reliability record of the JETLINER helped give the ‘Rathlin a stay of execution but from speculation began in late 1998 that P&O were looking at a newbuild for the Larne – Cairnryan route it became clear the ‘Rathlin had no future left. Once the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY was ordered in February 1999, the clock started ticking to her withdrawal.

With the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY due in service in August 2000 and the ‘Rathlin’s passenger certificate due to expire on 12 September 2000 it was fairly clear that any final sailing would be final.

With the P&O Irish Sea vessel refits ongoing and the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS to be required at Portsmouth P&O were to end up getting every last hour out of the ‘Rathlin. Initially it appeared the ‘Rathlin’s last sailing was to be the 19.30 ex Larne on 10 September, then her final roundtrip seemed to be the 11.30 ex Larne and 15.30 ex Cairnryan on 11 September. With my tickets booked this changed again. Her final sailing was the 21.30 ex Larne on 11 September. With the ship due to return lightship to Larne and anchor off Larne before sailing into port to de-store the following morning I was unable to join her for her final trip. Therefore I sampled her final Cairnryan – Larne commercial voyage – this meant travelling on the 13.30 ex Larne and 17.30 ex Cairnryan.

I arrived at the port around 11.30 to see the PRIDE OF RATHLIN sail in from weekend lay-up – not having sailed since the part of Saturday morning (9 September). Everything looked very much "business as usual".

Operating a schedule normally operated by the mainly freight EUROPEAN TRADER or EUROPEAN ENDEAVOUR I checked in and joined 2 other foot passengers (who had missed the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS sailing at 12.45) waiting to be bussed aboard.

With alterations taking place to the upper level of the double level berth at Cairnryan there was no freight aboard her upper vehicle deck when we were driven aboard by bus.

Walking through the accommodation it was obvious the end was near with gaps where leased equipment had once been located and a closed shop with stock in the process of being boxed to be sent ashore.

The vessel’s final P&O Captain was Morris Austin. Captain Austin had worked aboard the PRIDE OF RATHLIN for much of her time on the North Channel before joining the EUROPEAN SEAFARER around a year ago. With most of the ‘Rathlin’s officers now aboard the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY, Captain Austin was to return to his old ship for one final, special week – something he appeared to treat as something of an honour.

With a relatively light load of freight, a few cars and 20 passengers we left Larne on schedule. Our berth was promptly occupied by the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY, which had already entered the port. One was left wondering how well she would look at 27 years old.

At the end the ‘Rathlin looked like a tired old lady, rundown and having seen better days. However, even the need of a total re-paint and internal refurbishment let alone the recent appearance of a completely discredited report from European Motoring organisations (suddenly experts in ferries) couldn’t take away her charm. She felt, smelt and looked like a ferry should.

Her crew past and present, Larne – Cairnryan shore staff, and her many fans amongst ordinary passengers were sorry to see her operating her final sailings. Built as the FREE ENTERPRISE VII in 1973 she was jumboised with the additional of a second full vehicle deck in 1986 and renamed PRIDE OF WALMER in 1988. After mainly being used on the Dover – Zeebrugge route since being built (with some service on Dover – Calais) she replaced the IONIC FERRY at Larne in June 1992.

Together with sister the PRIDE OF AILSA the two vessels secured the future of the Cairnryan route increasing both tourist and freight traffic. The decision by P&O to enter the high-speed ferry age in 1996 with the introduction of the JETLINER saw the end of the PRIDE OF AILSA. However, it also saw a significant refurbishment for the PRIDE OF RATHLIN. Several lounges were totally refurbished using fittings taken from the removed passenger areas on the PRIDE OF FLANDERS and PRIDE OF SUFFOLK following the closure of the Felixstowe – Zeebrugge. Arguably, the ‘Rathlin’s 1996 refit left her looking the best she had done in many years. Sadly this was the last significant work carried out to the vessel and needless to say 4 years later she did look very rundown.

The ‘Rathlin proved herself invaluable to P&O anyhow. The JETLINER’s frequent technical problems saw the wise old lady called upon to look after stranded passengers. Even in her final days with P&O she helped P&O Ferries when with the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS required at Portsmouth to cover for the sick PORTSMOUTH EXPRESS she was carrying full passenger loads.

But with all that behind her it was her final day working for P&O. Her bar was closed and de-stocked, the Compass self-service cafeteria closed and as already mentioned her shop being de-stored. The handful passengers that were not freight drivers being permitted to use the freight drivers catering facilities.

Talking to her crew (most of whom were transferring to the EUROPEAN ENDEAVOUR) there was a clear end of term feel but much sadness. The PRIDE OF RATHLIN was the final of the eight "Free Enterprise" ships to be withdrawn – to some extent it was the end of an institution.

The ‘Rathlin had a reputation for being an excellent sea boat. Having travelled on her countless times during her 8 years at Larne even in poor conditions I never recall her being exceptionally uncomfortable. Her final day was no exception and despite her engines not being as powerful as they once were we were soon at Cairnryan awaiting the EUROPEAN NAVIGATOR to depart the berth on her 15.30 sailing (the Fleetwood based ‘Navigator operating on the route as the work taking place on the berth meant the EUROPEAN TRADER could not use her upper deck).

Berthed well within the advertised 2 hours 15 minutes I went ashore with Captain Austin to check-in for the return sailing whilst he returned the ships "animal control" gun (used to sedate an out of control animal – never used once on the ‘Rathlin). The box of the gun had a list of previous ships it had been aboard – featuring virtually every Larne – Cairnryan ship since the route opened in 1973. The box had a sticker on it mentioning the EUROPEAN EXPRESS prompting us to wonder whether this had once been a working title for a ferry for the route.

Following coffee kindly offered in the Cairnryan office it was time to step aboard the ship for my final crossing.

I took a walk around the entire vessel to get a final set of photographs of her accommodation. It struck me just how good the condition was of much of it – such as the Club Class lounge barely used for the past 2 and a half years.

I joined Morris Austin and several other of the ship’s officers in the officers’ mess/commercial drivers’ lounge before departure from Cairnryan. It may have been the last day the ship was sailing for P&O but the meal was still perfect. I selected plaice and to be honest it was the kind of meal you would get from that friend or family member that is an excellent cook – the sort of thing even the best restaurant usually fails to achieve. The fish was cooked in a wonderful sauce with prawns, the vegetables were perfectly cooked and the chips and mash potatoes great too.

I think the meal reminded me of just what it was that was so good about the ‘Rathlin. She was old-fashioned and not very "sexy" but essentially she was solid. If you wanted to sleep she was comfortable, if you wanted a decent hot meal you could get it. Ultimately she simply offered a good level of service.

Captain Austin left me to finish my dinner whilst he went up to the bridge to carry out pre-sailing checks. Proving that sense of occasion isn’t lost on everyone nowadays he made a minor speech during his pre-sailing announcement to passengers informing them that this was to be the ‘Rathlin’s final commercial sailing from Cairnryan. With it being unsociable hours when the vessel would be leaving Cairnryan for good – it was to be this sailing that the formalities would take place.

The SUPERSTAR EXPRESS sounded farewell on her whistle to her friend of a few months whilst in conjunction with a port tug master the ‘Rathlin’s whistle sounded "farewell". Leaving Cairnryan on schedule at 17.30 it was a most memorable departure.

Operating a secondary freight sailing, the load for the crossing was 3 cars, 2 mini-buses, 13 runners and 9 drop trailers – not a bad load considering only the lower vehicle deck was in use for the previously mentioned reason. There were 15 drivers and 11 passengers aboard – many of whom were actually contractors removing the various vending and slot machines from the vessel.

For the early part of the crossing there was moderate visibility, NNE 2/3 winds, a slight sea and a low swell. However, approximately half way across visibility became very poor and the skill of the crew and ability of the ‘Rathlin itself was seen in fact that the berth at Larne suddenly appeared "out of nowhere".

Having taken a walk around the accommodation during the crossing work was very much in evidence preparing the ship for its exit from service. There was a real sense that it was the end.

Once again we followed the EUROPEAN NAVIGATOR into the berth, arriving on schedule. The roundtrip had been a rather sad affair for me, like saying goodbye to an old friend. However, like her entire time on the route she had proved reliable and enjoyable.

After I had left the ship she was due to sail to Cairnryan again at 21.30 for a final time with a reasonable load of freight. With her passenger certificate expiring at midnight she was truly proving that she owed nothing to P&O and had offered Sterling service. (If you pardon the pun!).

After she unloaded at Cairnryan she sailed back to Larne light, awaiting a free berth in the morning when she totally de-stored. She sailed for lay-up at Harland & Wolff, Belfast around 10.30 a.m. on 12 September – almost certainly never to work for P&O again. With a reported sale price of just $1 million she remains in Belfast at the time of writing though Indonesian interests have visited her. With much money required to bring her up to SOLAS for a European operator and even the less developed shipping areas raising their standards it is hoped that she does not end up at a breakers’ yard.

The PRIDE OF RATHLIN ceasing operation for P&O is undoubtedly a very sad day for the ferry world but one has to accept progress. One only hopes that the ferries of the present and future can do as good a job as that of the past.

+++PRIDE OF RATHLIN POSTCARDS+++.

I have a large number of postcards of the PRIDE OF RATHLIN available to give away to my correspondents and shipping enthusiast friends. To receive one simply send me a stamped addressed envelope to the address given at the end of this news feature. I suggest you also e-mail me so I can reserve one for you. As an added bonus you may have your card stamped with the PRIDE OF RATHLIN’s ship’s stamp - let me know if you require this. Due to the time, hassle and expense I’m afraid ALL requests for a postcard MUST be accompanied by stamped addressed envelope.

SUPERSTAR EXPRESS

12.45 ex Larne – 21 July 2000.

14.30 ex Cairnryan – 23 July 2000.

P&O’s first foray into the current fast ferry business (ignoring their early 1980s cross-channel Jetfoil service) probably won’t be judged particularly well in maritime history and arguably was a great lost opportunity. From the JETLINER’s introduction to the Larne – Cairnryan route in 1996 and throughout the following 4 years the craft earned a reputation for being unreliable and uncomfortable in poor weather.

The Austal Ships 82 Catamaran SUPERSTAR EXPRESS replaced the JETLINER in April 2000. Used by P&O on the Portsmouth – Cherbourg route in 1998 and 1999 the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS had gained an excellent reputation for onboard service and reliability.

Having been pre-occupied with other things it was to take my brother’s wedding in Scotland to finally give me the opportunity to travel on the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS in July 2000.

It was with mixed feelings I booked on the craft. Following one particularly odious experience with a cancelled JETLINER trip in March (made considerably worse by P&O’s lack of customer care on this occasion – read "tough luck your sailings cancelled – even though you need to travel its your problem not ours") I did question whether I wished to sample the P&O high speed experience ever again. However, I equally wanted to sample a craft that I had heard much praise about.

Arriving at Larne Harbour around an hour before sailing time we were greeted by efficient staff and soon sitting in a boarding lane. The craft arrived from Cairnryan on schedule, with traffic disembarking soon after 12.00. Before long it was time for us to drive onboard and I have to admit to finding the U-turn vehicle deck arrangement quite a novelty – never having experienced it before. However, it seems to work pretty well on an efficiently run craft.

On entering the passenger accommodation I was struck by the contrast with the rather clichéd fast ferry seating of the JETLINER. The SUPERSTAR EXPRESS passenger accommodation is equal if not better to that I would expect from a modern conventional passenger vessel.

The main deck has "Fables Restaurant" forward. Although full meals do not appear to be on offer (not really necessary for a 60 minute crossing) the range of snacks is quite appetising (I understand everything is prepared aboard the craft) and although the tea and coffee is as overpriced as it is in any catering establishment, the actual food is very reasonably priced. Baguettes and so on are available for around £3.

Most of the seating aboard the craft is in comfortable "airline" type seating around tables. Aft of Fables area is a Poets bar on the port side (un-open during my crossings but appears to open when full passenger loads are aboard) and a paper shop on the starboard side with toilets opposite both facilities and a spacious seating area between the two. Aft of this is a gift shop with a further aircraft seating area and a children’s play area aft again.

There is also access to outside deck areas at both sides - the port side allowing one to really experience the speed being right above the water jets.

The upper level of the passenger accommodation is the main area that has changed since the craft was transferred from the English Channel to the North Channel. This area was once purely a Club Class lounge and featured a large bar. A smaller segregated Club Class area has been created aft on the starboard side of the craft featuring a small bar and servery and the usual things one would expect and it remains as good value as ever. There is also access to a Club Class exclusive outside deck area.

The main area of the upper accommodation deck is now simply the vessel’s main bar, also known as Poets Bar and is a very attractive and popular facility. One of the few criticisms I’d heard of the craft at Portsmouth was that the Club Class area was unreasonably large – this has now been addressed by her new management. Outside deck areas are often criticised on fast ferries however, both of the upper deck outside areas are very attractive (one being accessible from the bar area and one accessible from Club Class) and on the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS include some seating which on a wonderfully sunny and calm July day was too tempting for me to ignore!

The outward crossing was perfect and with a slightly early departure we were driving off the ship by the estimated arrival time of 13.45. With port improvement works now complete at Cairnryan the port was pretty much faultless from our point of view. It may have taken almost 27 years to get there but P&O now have a very good port at Cairnryan and a few niggles I had during my last visit have been rectified now the work has been completed.

The return crossing was similarly good with a crossing time that seemed under an hour. During the crossing I visited the bridge and chatted to Captain Stephen McCraith who seemed very proud of his vessel and had every right to be.

During both my crossings the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was kept spotlessly clean and very well run by a pleasant and efficient crew. Whilst I was travelling in what can only be described as 100% perfect conditions the craft performed very well and offered the stability of a conventional ferry.

If P&O are trying to prove that they can run a fast ferry service on the Larne – Cairnryan route following the at times dismal JETLINER operation, they are succeeding. Added to this, the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS has lost very few sailings since entering service. One would only hope that those disappointed in the past will come back to sample the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS as undoubtedly P&O are now offering the finest fast ferry product on the North Channel.

I personally found the craft faultless and unlike when the JETLINER was in service I would consider using the fast as opposed to conventional option when travelling on the Larne – Cairnryan route. As someone that is deeply cynical of fast ferries you can be sure that the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS must be good if I’m willing to recommend it!

POSTSCRIPT: The above report was put together shortly after the crossings in question. In a few weeks I will be travelling on the vessel again when I take a short break in Scotland.

 

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