One of the high spots of 1998 had been the opportunity to travel on the BEN-MY-CHREE's first visit to Dublin just before Christmas. It had been my intention to repeat the trip at Christmas 1999, but unfortunately a shorter than usual holiday from work and all the Millennium hullabaloo put me off a repeat trip last year.
This year, a decent length holiday gave me the motivation to repeat the trip. Finishing work on 21 December only gave me the choice of the BEN-MY-CHREE's post-Christmas trip as the pre-Christmas trip was also scheduled for 21 December.
When I undertook this trip in 1998 I completed the outward and return legs within 24 hours. However, this time I thought I would take things at a more leisurely pace and complete the final leg back to Heysham on the 29 December. When making this decision I had no idea that it was to prove be a wise one in the light of the prevailing weather conditions.
The weather is one of the elements which come together with other variables to make for the occasional really memorable trip. During 1999 my most memorable voyage was on the LADY OF MANN when she deputised for SUPERSEACAT THREE between Liverpool and Dublin on a September day which had seen even the mighty ISLE OF INISHMORE remain at her Dublin berth. On that day the LADY battled through mountainous seas across St George's Channel proving that despite her age she really was the ultimate wave piercing vessel. The trip left me feeling exhilarated for several weeks.
This Heysham to Dublin trip took place in completely contrasting conditions. The sea state never managed to get above a slight swell, however, the prevailing weather conditions still made for an exhilarating trip - the superb visibility combined with snow covered coasts and mountains made for a memorable seasonal sail.
02:15 HEYSHAM - DOUGLAS - Thursday December 28
The weather forecast on Wednesday evening was not particularly promising. Heavy snowfalls had already been reported in the north of Ireland and heavy snow was forecast for much of the rest of the British Isles during the coming night. Following an unnerving experience years ago whilst driving in snow and ice I have always tended to be very cautious when venturing out on snow covered roads. As 70 miles separates my home from Heysham Port, it was with some trepidation that I set off at around 22:30 on Wednesday to make my way north. Fortunately I made Heysham before the snow commenced, though on arrival it was apparent that temperatures were much lower than on Merseyside.
Arriving at Heysham shortly after midnight I noted that the cars in the terminal car park were covered with a thick layer of frost as was the car park itself. I decided that it would probably be warmer to remain in the car for some time with the engine running rather than venture into the terminal. I tend to be fairly tolerant of the cold, but that evening the prospect of having to wait perhaps an hour or more in the draughty terminal before boarding convinced me that it was the right thing to do. It was also interesting to note that the check in cabin for vehicles remained unstaffed - too cold or seasonal staff shortage? - Who knows?
I finally wandered into the terminal around 01:00. It was certainly chilly inside. I noted that the lady on the check-in had obviously abandoned the usual Sea Co uniform in favour of a thick woolly jumper. Though quite a lot of money has been invested in improving terminal facilities at Heysham in recent years, the suspended ceilings, panelling, and new glazing has still failed to rid the port of its early 1970s British Railways Sealink atmosphere.
Unlike my previous Heysham - Douglas - Dublin trip at Christmas 1998 when I had been the sole foot passenger on the BEN-MY-CHREE, there were quite a few passengers waiting. Fortunately there wasn't too long to wait and around 01:15 foot passengers were allowed to board. It was certainly nice to get on board the BEN which was much warmer.
I made my way up to the Blue Riband lounge and settled down as the sole occupant. It was interesting to note that the members' book had reappeared in the lounge. Several months ago I made a complaint to Sea Containers following my discovery that someone had made an entry in the book claiming to be me. At the time I was informed that the book would be brought round by the CSO for members to sign and who would check membership and photo i/d cards. This did appear to be the practice for the rest of the summer. Obviously old practices have been resumed! I am not particularly bothered providing someone does not try to impersonate me again!
At around 02:00 I it was now snowing quite heavily. As departure time approached I had considered going outside but decided not to! MERCHANT BRAVERY could be seen laid up for the Christmas holidays adjacent to the Heysham Power Station. It was apparent that no other passengers were going to appear in the lounge, so after a drink I took a pillow out of the cupboard and settled down on the couch after turning the lounge lights off.
The BEN-MY-CHREE departed at 02:25 - ten minutes behind schedule under the command of Captain Cowan with 170 passengers and 31 crew. I must have dropped off to sleep shortly afterwards and didn't waken until around 05:15.
Lifting the lounge blind slightly the lights of Douglas were clearly visible and the BEN-MY-CHREE was already gliding into Douglas Bay ready to make her final approach to the harbour. Though of course still dark the sky was very clear and it was possible to just make out the outline of Snaefell with a covering of snow.
The BEN-MY-CHREE moved into the harbour and ropes were on at 05:50. At the tanker berth was one of Kosan's familiar yellow/white gas tankers - this one being the LOTTA KOSAN.
The LADY OF MANN was berthed on the outside of the Victoria Pier whilst bow on to the Victoria Pier linkspan was SEACAT SCOTLAND which is currently completing refit work by Fort Street Services. She is due to resume services between Belfast and Troon in the new year thus releasing SEACAT ISLE OF MAN for her refit.
As the BEN-MY-CHREE berthed an announcement was made advising drivers proceeding out of Douglas of adverse driving conditions, particularly to the north. I have sometimes been critical of some announcements made on board ships especially those done from preset scripts which don't always take account of prevailing circumstances but this was a thoughtful example of customer care.
On disembarking it Douglas felt just as cold as Heysham. The glazed covered walkway linking the Edward Pier berth is notoriously hot in summer. This morning the summer heat appeared very remote, and walking its length was more like wandering through a butcher's cold store. Crossing the walkway a large number of vehicles could be seen assembled at the entrance to Victoria Pier, as check-in for the LADY OF MANN's Liverpool sailing had already commenced. Faced with the prospect of a long wait in the terminal for the BEN-MY-CHREE to board for Dublin, I thought that a brisk walk along the promenade might be worthwhile. I ventured as far as the first shelter near the Victoria Clock, by then I realised that the ground was like glass and I was in danger of ending up on the ground. I crossed over and wandered round to the new lift bridge across the harbour. I wandered onto the bridge and it was obvious the sidewalks were again getting icy.
As I turned round I noticed the shape of the tragic scallop dredger SOLWAY HARVESTER leaning against the quay wall just beyond the bridge, it now being almost a year since her crew were drowned when she foundered off the Manx coast. There has been talk in newspapers that she may possibly rebuilt and renamed. However, I think until her fate is finally decided perhaps she should be more discreetly berthed. In the summer she sat outside the Ramsey Shipyard until being towed to Douglas in the autumn
Back in the terminal I sat down. Passengers were still checking in for the LADY OF MANN's Liverpool sailing. Some people do tend to leave things to the last minute. Sea Containers clearly state in their timetable that the company reserves the right to clear ships for departure up to 15 minutes before departure and that passengers should have check in 30 minutes prior to departure. However, despite this warning I noted two late comers finally passed through security just a couple of minutes before the advertised departure time.
08:00 DOUGLAS - DUBLIN Thursday December 28
Once the LADY OF MANN's sailing had been closed, there was a brief interval before check-in for the BEN-MY-CHREE's Dublin sailing began. It was very apparent from an almost empty terminal that there were not going many passengers!
Boarding commenced before 07:30. I made my way back to the Blue Riband Lounge. By now dawn was breaking behind Douglas Lighthouse and it was rapidly becoming light. One of the stewards had been fixing the coffee machine and took an order for my breakfast. Of Sea Container's Irish Sea ships, the BEN-MY-CHREE probably serves the best food and today was no exception with a hearty breakfast served up.
Departure was 5 minutes behind schedule at 08:05 with Captain Albiston in command with 32 crew and just 46 passengers. Radio messages to the harbour indicated a return ETA of 18:15 at Douglas. As the BEN departed it became properly light.
I completed my breakfast as the BEN-MY-CHREE nosed out into Douglas Bay. A crewman ran down the jack flag and noted that a small box has been fitted to keep the flag in and avoid it being tied around the rail or being taken inside. However, the new box does not appear to have prevented the flag becoming rather grubby!
On leaving the harbour the BEN swung to starboard and began to follow the Manx coast southwards. I left the Blue Riband lounge and made my way down the passageway through the cabin area to the exit doors which lead to the open deck. The decks were quite icy and I spent sometime on the lowest level which is quite sheltered. Here I met up with Adrian Sweeney, editor of "Ships of Mann" magazine who was also doing the Dublin trip with his friend John Coates.
As the BEN sailed down the coast it was apparent that the Isle of Man had been divided in two by the weather. The northern, most mountainous part of the island had attracted most of the snow, to the south of Douglas there was virtually no snow to be seen, though a couple of fields above Port Erin appeared to have been singled out for a dusting.
A view to the south east. It was snowing in Liverpool!
The Calf of Man and Chicken Rock
Looking up the Manx coast one could see the snow capped mountains in the north.
Calf Sound which separates the Isle of Man from the Calf of Man was passed to starboard at around 08:56. Looking to the south east in the direction of Liverpool a very heavy precipitous cloud could be seen. A call home on the phone revealed that yes, it was snowing! At 09:05 Chicken Rock light was passed to starboard as the BEN-MY-CHREE maintained her south westerly course towards Dublin Bay.
Adrian went off to get some breakfast and I remained outside for some time. I took a quick wander up to the open top deck to gaze on the rows of empty seats. It was interesting to note that two extra sets of seats have been fitted one on the port side and one the starboard side, on the small carpeted areas. [Yes there are carpeted areas on the open top deck!] The carpet having been lifted to insert the seats and lay in a somewhat damp heap on each side. Presumably the seating is to deter passengers running around on the upper deck above the crew cabins?
The Ben carried a number of Ballast Trailers on this sailing. Two can be seen behind the funnel.
View down the port side somewhere off the Calf of Mann
The rather bleak upper deck. Only for enthusiasts given the prevailing low temperatures!
By now I had noticed that my digital camera was starting to suffer from the effects of the cold, its retractable lens suddenly started to refuse to emerge and various beeping sounds accompanied by the flashing of a red light suggested that it was about time that both the camera and myself went back inside to get warm again.
Wandering back into the lounge I settled in one of the arm chairs and gazed out across the sea. The sun was shining brilliantly, there was a great clarity too. To the west could be sea the snow covered Mountains of Mourne and the whole Irish coast could be traced southwards with binoculars. At around 09:49 a small fishing boat was overtaken to port and then I must have dropped off to sleep as 10:45 appeared to come round rather quickly. By now Lambay Island could be made out further to the south west clouds could be made out rising to the right of the Hill of Howth - the steam from the chimney's of Poolbeg Power Station, at Dublin. Further a field the distinctive shape of the Sugar Loaf, part of the Wicklow mountains could be identified.
At around 12:00 the BEN-MY-CHREE passed approximately 8 miles east of the Lambay Island. It was below the high cliffs on Lambay's eastern shore where the White Star Line ship TAYLEUR had been wrecked in adverse conditions on January 21, 1854 whilst on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne with the loss of 380 persons.
The snow covered Mountains of Mourne
The east coast of Lambay Island where the wreck of the White Star Line clipper Tayleur lies.
Entering Dublin Bay - Howth Head - The Baily Light.
At 12:30 the BEN rounded the Baily at Howth Head at 12:28, Irish Ferries JONATHAN SWIFT passed outbound to port on her sailing to Holyhead at 12:35. Ten minutes or so later a crewman appeared and ran up the jack flag. At 12:47 the BEN-MY-CHREE passed Poolbeg lighthouse on the Great South Wall. Quite a few people appeared to be taking the opportunity for a walk along the wall on this fine winter's afternoon. The BEN-MY-CHREE must have made a fine sight in the brilliant sunlight and quite a number were seen to stop and photograph her as she passed by.
Running up the Liffey Fairway we were passed by Dublin Port Pilot Boat 1 - TOLKA - outbound to a container ship anchored in the bay. As the BEN-MY-CHREE approached berth 49 Norse Merchant Ferries RIVER LUNE could be seen at the western Norse Merchant berth 52. Whilst COASTAL ISLE was working containers at berth 53.
Passing Poolbeg near high tide.
Pilot Boat #1 TOLKA heads outbound
RIVER LUNE at berth 52.
Further up river several other ships could be seen. Estonian Shipping Company's CELTIC SUN currently on charter to P&O for the Liverpool - Dublin service appeared to be on 35, whilst further up stream on the south wall could be seen the stone carrying vessels MARI and VILLE of the Finnish company SILLANPAA OY. These are currently engaged on work in conjunction with the Marina Development at Dún Laoghaire. Unfortunately a sister vessel TOPI remains capsized in Dún Laoghaire harbour following a mishap during an autumn storm.
The BEN-MY-CHREE turned and moved astern on to the berth. It was apparent that whilst the BEN-MY-CHREE had been lightly loaded on her outward sailing from Douglas her return trip would carry much greater numbers to judge from the number of vehicles which were in the marshalling area.
Ropes were finally on at 13:10, some 25 minutes behind schedule. With only 45 minutes allowed for the turn around on the published schedule there was obviously going to have to be a fast turn around. Passengers disembarking and embarking via the stern doors, the new gangway at berth 49 is not compatible with the BEN-MY-CHREE.
13:30 DUBLIN - DOUGLAS
Dublin Maritime, the Sea Container's agents in Dublin, turned the BEN-MY-CHREE around in the scheduled 45 minutes and ropes were let go at 13:55. The return load was 135 passengers, most of these travelling with vehicles.
BEN-MY-CHREE on berth 49
Departing from Dublin at 13:55.
When boarding the BEN at Douglas in the morning I had picked up a leaflet advertising seasonal Christmas Lunches and I decided to order one as she sailed down the Liffey. However, the seasonal refreshments had sold out on the outward voyage and I decided make do with a chili-con-carne - my favourite dish on the BEN-MY-CHREE. It is always well served and has plenty of heat and taste unlike the offerings on the fast craft. The cold weather had obviously made the boarding pax hungry and it was some time before my meal arrived up in the lounge accompanied by apologies from the steward. When the steward returning to collect the plates I received a complimentary Danish pastry by way of compensation for the delay and lack of Christmas lunch - a nice touch - thanks!.
Looking in the direction of Wales it appeared rather cloudy a mountain peak was just visible, peering forward at around 15:10 the very top of South Barrule on the Isle of Man could be seen poking above the horizon. A few moments later I went back outside and rejoined Adrian Sweeney up the top deck there until it had almost gone dark. BRAVE MERCHANT passed west bound heading for Dublin on the 11:00 Thursday sailing, normally operated by DAWN MERCHANT. However, I discovered the next day that DAWN is currently in Canada Dry Dock at Liverpool undergoing maintenance and BRAVE was operating the morning departures from Liverpool.
Slowly the profile of the Isle of Man became clearer as the BEN drew closer. Meanwhile the antics of some supposedly supervised children drew the attention of Adrian and myself. These three children proceeded under the watchful gaze of a man who one presumes was their father to leap around the upper deck using the tables and seating as some kind of assault course. It is precisely that sort of stupid behaviour that has driven many ferry companies to exercise probably more caution than is really necessary when dealing with the general public and it is the sensible majority of passengers who suffer when access is restricted or extra safety rails are fitted "just in case".
It is just not good enough that parent's should allow their children to behave in such a manner. If one of the children had fallen and injured themselves I dare say a scape-goat would soon be sought by the parent.
Returning inside before 17:30 it was nice to warm up once again. Chicken Rock Lighthouse was passed to port at 17:30 and Castletown passed by at around 18:02. The lights of Ronaldsway Airport could be clearly seen as could those of aircraft taking off. The red lights on the radio mast on Douglas Head indicated that the BEN-MY-CHREE was nearly at journey's end.
Rounding Douglas Head the BEN-MY-CHREE gave a short blast on her horn before running into the harbour. The LOTTA KOSAN remained at the fuel berth. Ropes were on at 18:54 some 34 minutes behind schedule.
A large number of vehicles were already gathered ready to board the BEN-MY-CHREE for the 19:45 sailing to Heysham. She didn't actually get away until after 20:00 because of the delayed arrival.
I bade my farewells to Adrian and John in Douglas, rather relieved that I wasn't going to have to drive back from Heysham on a freezing cold night with more snow predicted. No snow had fallen in Douglas but it was still very cold, I was glad to spend the night tucked up in bed at the Sefton whilst Adrian had the joys of clearing his car of snow back at Heysham - that pleasure still awaited me!
09:00 DOUGLAS TO HEYSHAM - Friday December 29
I left the hotel at around 07:45 and strolled down an almost deserted Strand Street, rather than walk along the exposed promenade and possibly encounter more ice. Most of the shops were closed, though there were signs of life at some with a few delivery trucks around. I wandered into the terminal shortly after 08:00. Check-in was already underway, boarding commencing soon afterwards.
Once back on board I noted that the LOTTA KOSAN had departed during the night and the tanker berth was empty.
BEN-MY-CHREE departed promptly at 09:00 again under the command of Captain Albiston with a good load of 260 passengers. ETA to Heysham was advised as being 12:30.
Departing from Douglas
Visibility was once again excellent. In Douglas harbour the top of the tower of a jack-up platform was clearly visible with that naked eye, even though the rest of the structure remained below the horizon.
The BEN-MY-CHREE eventually passed the jack-up platform accompanied by her guard ship and supply vessel at 10:15. Even before leaving the harbour at Douglas the outline of the snow covered Cumbrian mountains were clearly visible. With the winter sun shining brightly into the bay windows of the Blue Riband lounge it was a perfect crossing. The Cumbrian mountains and white fells beyond Lancaster adding to the picture post card scene.
The Lune buoy was passed at 11:31 and a smart run up the channel to Heysham followed. The Port of Heysham looked very seasonal as the BEN rounded the "woodwork" and I contemplated driving round to the harbour mouth, until I saw just how much snow there was lying on the access road.
At Heysham MERCHANT BRAVERY remained laid up by the Power Station. RIVER LUNE had obviously crossed back from Dublin and was berthed at the #3 link span, alongside MERCHANT BRILLIANT at #2 link span. On the North Quay the rig support vessel HIGHLAND PIONEER was berthed.
The BEN-MY-CHREE quickly came around and moved astern onto #1 linkspan. Ropes were on at 12:15 as scheduled. Disembarkation quickly followed, though one leaving the terminal it was obvious that quite a lot of snow had fallen. Wandering back into the car park I was faced with the prospect of clearing several inches of snow off my abominable snow KA! With no snow brush or gloves I decided to run the engine and put the heat full on. After half an hour or so it had the desired effect and then with a bit of help to removed the remaining snow from the roof, I was heading off back for the M6 and home.
This trip to Dublin had been a really memorable due to the prevailing meteorological conditions.
Next year enthusiasts will really be spoiled for choice, a round trip to Dublin via Douglas will be possible on the LADY OF MANN on the Friday before Christmas whilst a round trip from Heysham will be possible just after Christmas on the BEN-MY-CHREE. I see from my work holiday dates I will be off on both days next year ......! Roll on Christmas 2001!