I had long wished to sample the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company’s ‘R.M.S. SCILLONIAN III’, and having heard that plans for her replacement are already highly developed, I decided to take up the opportunity during a recent trip to the West Country. Full schedule and pricing information can be found on their website, http://www.islesofscilly-travel.co.uk/main.htm , and having consulted this I decided to book a day-trip on Monday 17th September, sailing from Penzance at 09:15 and returning from Hugh Town, St Mary's at 16:30. This is the vessel’s standard weekday schedule, which sees occasional variations on Saturdays. There are no sailings on Sundays.
Our low-season foot-passenger day-trip tickets were priced at 32 pounds, which I certainly felt was high, almost prohibitive, especially considering that for the cost of two adults to Scilly, one can get a day-return for a car plus five on virtually any Channel route. I do realize there are many factors involved here, Scilly being a lifeline service, and Channel routes being subsidized by onboard sales etc etc, which mean these prices cannot realistically be compared – but the comparison is nonetheless most relevant when the ordinary holidaymaker is considering his options.
Driving into Penzance, the ‘Scillonian III’ was clearly visible at the quay, whilst the company’s freighter and winter vessel, the blue-hulled ‘Gry Maritha’ of 1981, could be seen anchored off the harbour. Passengers are required to be ready to board by 8:45, but the vessel can be boarded from about 8:00 onwards. Arriving at just after 8:00, we found convenient free car parking on the promenade just a few minutes walk from the end of the quay. Check in and boarding is a very casual affair. All tickets must be collected from the company’s Weighbridge office, located just opposite the quay, and passengers then proceed along the quay where a small prefabricated office is used to register passengers. This simply entails passengers obtaining a boarding card against their tickets, and the clerk noting passenger names. Passengers then simply walk up to and onto the ship. Any bulky luggage is placed into a small container, which is then loaded into the cargo hold.
The R.M.S. ‘Scillonian III’ is a fascinating and indeed unique vessel, being the sole ‘traditional’ cargo/passenger ferry remaining in service in UK waters. Equipped with her own crane forward, she was busy loading containers of freight into her forward hold as we approached, the cargo on this voyage included several pallets of milk, and a container load of mail. She looks extremely attractive in her traditional livery of an all white hull and superstructure, with a buff funnel, masts and derricks. No brand name was plastered along this ship’s hull, let alone a website address!! She instead sports the company’s blue houseflag on her funnel. The Royal Mail logo is also proudly displayed on each side underneath her bridge, to confirm her R.M.S. status.
The point of entry into the vessel depends on the tide, and given the low tide, the gangway led onto the Bridge deck, where most of her outside deck space is located. Boarding cards are collected here, and passengers cross her outer promenade to reach the internal accommodation, which on this deck simply consists of a lobby with three stairwells leading down to the Upper deck. Above the stairs, a large sign commemorates her entry into service in May 1977, and christening by the Prince of Wales, as well as her refurbishment during 1998/9 at Devonport. The whole sign was obviously added during this refurbishment, and I could not find any original plaques or signs. On the bulkheads in this lobby various memorabilia was on display, including crests from vessels she had gone to the assistance of.
The passenger accommodation consists of four main decks, the Lower Flats, the Main deck, the Upper deck and the Bridge deck. The current interior dates mainly from the major 1998/9 refit, and includes some very pleasant areas. There is also much wood in evidence. Many colourful and clear deckplans are displayed around the vessel to guide the passenger around. The Upper deck starts with the Lyonnesse Lounge Bar forward, which overlooks the forward cargo hold. This is the most attractive area of the ship, light and airy, it is fitted with sofa bank seating around the edges, with tables and armchairs in the centre. The sofa banks and armchairs are upholstered with soft plastic, and are in light yellow and blue. Many of the bulkheads are fitted with wooden paneling, and the bar area itself is in wood. A large map of the Scilly Isles was located on the forward bulkhead in the lounge, with information on the five main islands. A single stairwell behind this leads down to the Main deck. Aft, corridors lead back on either side, on the starboard side past the small Pursers office, to the main lobby. From here, three stairwells lead up to the Bridge deck, whilst two lead down to the Main deck, one on either side. A large mural, dated 1985, is found opposite the stairs leading up, which depicts many aspects of local Scilly life, including the SCILLONIAN III herself.
The corridors then lead aft into the Kittern Lounge. On the bulkheads along the corridors were many notice boards advertising local tours, accommodation and products. A semi-circular walkthrough shop is located centrally forward in the lounge, selling local souvenirs etc. The lounge itself is fitted with reclining seats, upholstered in burgundy on either side of the lounge, and in green in the centre. There was also some wood in this area. Doors aft lead out to a small external deck, from where twin stairwells lead up to the larger external deck area on the Bridge deck, which in turn had the two side promenades leading forward. The doors out to the decks are all wooden, and the many benches on the external decks are also all wooden – a very pleasant change to the plastic I have become used to! Interestingly, the doors into the Kittern Lounge have a very high sill, which several elderly passengers struggled to cross. I would assume this is to prevent water ingress on rougher sailings.
The next deck down, the Main deck, consists of the Lapwing Lounge forward, and the Peninnis Buffet aft. The Lapwing Lounge was fitted with reclining seats, in red on the sides, and in blue in the centre. The Lounge is U shaped due to a large central toilet and stairwell block. The Peninnis Buffet was fitted with fixed tables and seating, which had red padding. The Buffet servery was located aft to starboard, whilst aft to port was the small Nor-Nour childrens area. This however was not in use, and the clear glass panels that housed it had been covered in by paper. I do not know the reason for this. Throughout this deck, the bulkheads were covered with informative and colourful panels, depicting many local Scilly features, from shipwrecks and lighthouses to local birds and fauna, and aspects of the SCILLONIAN history and way of life. There were also panels on past Scilly boats, and the history of the company. All the panels were fascinating, and I thought this was an excellent feature. One particularly interesting panel showed the SCILLONIAN III and her predecessor, the SCILLONIAN of 1956, together in Hugh Town, St Mary's. Emphasizing her local connections, I have never seen displays to anywhere near this extent on any other vessel. In contrast to the Upper deck and Lower flats however, there was no wood on this deck.
SCILLONIAN III’s passenger accommodation is completed by the Armorel Rest Lounge, which is accessible only by a single stairwell, which follows on down from the starboard stairwell linking the Upper and Main decks. This windowless area contained reclining seats centrally, in plastic beige, with couchettes located around the edges. This was another unique feature that I have never seen before – although there was no privacy, and many of the berths were head to toe with each other, blankets and pillows were provided, and no charge was made. The pillowcases were changed after each crossing. There was again much wood in this area.
From an original deck plan I found on display, it is clear that much work and modernization was done during her major refit, and the majority of her fittings date from that refit. In her original configuration, a buffet and further bar was located on the Upper deck where the shop is now found, and her Main deck consisted only of seating. During the refit the walkthrough shop replaced this buffet, whilst a new galley and servery was installed aft on the Main deck to create the Peninnis Buffet. The now unused childrens' area was also installed. The original shop, which must have been a tiny counter service affair, was located just aft of the Lyonnesse Lounge off the port corridor, opposite the Pursers office. This area, and the bar in the Lyonnesse Lounge, was also remodeled during the refit. Although the bar and bulkheads are in wood, it is clear they are relatively recent, and it is great to see the use of wood has been continued. I believe the area formerly the shop is now simply a bar store. All the fittings on the Upper and Main deck were renewed in the refit, although the information panels on the Main deck clearly pre-date this, and were almost certainly fitted in the early stages of her career. The large map in the Lyonnesse Lounge however appears to have been installed in the refit. The only area apparently untouched is the Armorel Rest Lounge, which retains its original fittings and layout. The names for the lounges – all with local relevance - were also introduced following the refit – previously being referred to only as the Bar, or Lower Saloon for example. Signs directing passengers to the Lower Saloon etc still remain however.
The weather was quite blustery as ‘Scillonian III’ pulled away from the quay promptly at 09:15. Contrary to my expectations, given the high fare and that it was a Monday at the end of the season, she was heavily loaded, principally it turned out with day-trippers, and including at least two package coach tours. As we left Penzance, the ‘Gry Maritha’ was already underway enroute to take the ‘Scillonian III’s’ place on the quay. Another unusual, but most interesting feature of the crossing was a pre-recorded commentary which was played as she sailed past the Cornish coast, highlighting places and features of interest such as Mousehole. This re-commenced once we reached the Scillies.
The service onboard was friendly, the bar was opened as soon as boarding commenced, and the buffet began serving upon departure. The food available was limited, pasties and bacon rolls for example, but this was adequate for the crossing, with snacks and chocolate also available. Quality was acceptable, and all prices were reasonable – 85p for coffee, 1.85 for a bacon roll for example
As can probably be seen from my description above, I loved the SCILLONIAN III, with her unique features, and abundance, relatively at least, of wood, etc. Sadly, I did not think she was a good seaboat. I am not an expert in these matters, so perhaps I am wrong, but her motion was quite unpleasant in a sea that was not overly rough. [SCILLONIAN III is known to Scillonians as the "Great White Stomach Pump" - She as a very shallow draught to enable her to enter St.Mary's and consequently is a lively! - JHL] The weather was quite blustery, but not at all excessively so, yet a noticeable number of people were seasick.
Due to the low tide, SCILLONIAN III took the Southern route in between St Mary’s and St Agnes, and arrived off the quay at Hugh Town on schedule at just before 12 noon, by which time the weather had brightened up and the sun was tentatively peering out. She approached the quay with extreme caution, but with sand being stirred up in the water all around the ship, the tide was deemed too low, and she retreated to deeper water to await the incoming tide. She eventually berthed at about 12:40, and reports indicate her departure from Penzance was put back over the following days to avoid this problem. As we berthed, the Captain could be heard giving instructions to the mooring crews over the intercom – fascinating.
Many day-trippers were crossing to visit the gardens on Tresco, and it was announced that the tenders to this, and a few other outer islands, would come alongside the ‘Scillonian III’, so that they could board directly without disembarking onto the quay. St Mary's is a very picturesque port, and it was a great scene to watch as the colourful tenders with names like ‘Surprize’, ‘Guiding Star’ and ‘Spirit of St Agnes’ came alongside. These are only a few of quite a considerable inter-island and excursion fleet. As we disembarked onto the quay, the ‘Scillonian III’s’ crane was already in action unloading her cargo.
Although the delay in docking had somewhat dented the four hours we had scheduled ashore, there was ample time nonetheless for a tour of St Mary’s in a vintage 1948 Austin bus named ‘Katie’, a pleasant lunch and a wander around the main town. Boarding for our return sailing was again casual – passengers were advised on disembarking that they should be at the quay at least – wait for it – a whole 10 minutes before departure. Once again having simply shown our tickets in exchange for a boarding card, we walked onboard – this time onto the Upper deck, the rising tide lifting the vessel next to the quay. As we boarded, the outer-island tenders were busy disgorging their passenger loads that in turn queued to board the ‘Scillonian III’. She had been busy loading cargo during her layover, which this time included a van stored on her foredeck. Her passenger load was also again good – and not just with returning day-trippers, as there seemed to be some emotional farewells on the quayside – even to the extent that the raising of the gangway was delayed a few minutes! Certainly, the Captain had to request its removal over the intercom several times, with increasing frustration! As we departed, the company’s inter-island vessel ‘Lyonnesse Lady’ arrived at Hugh Town.
The ‘Scillonian III’ took the Northern route out of the islands, passing between St Mary's, Tresco and St Martins. The weather had continued to improve throughout the afternoon, and we sailed bathed in sunlight. We sat on a bench on the Bridge deck, and it was really pleasant, and surprisingly warm, indeed warm enough for us to stay there for most of the voyage. I found only one negative point, which was the presence of dogs onboard. Now obviously they need to be carried, but there was no requirement to keep them in a certain area, or, apparently, even to keep them under control. Possibly 10-15 dogs were onboard, and several were running loose around the ship, albeit predominantly on the outside decks. These were not small animals, but labradors for example, and as such, their boisterous bounding around did, in my opinion, pose at least a nuisance, if not a danger, to other passengers, particularly the elderly. Nobody from the crew appeared to do anything about this at all. Admittedly, many dogs were kept under excellent control by their owners, but some were not so responsible, and I felt the company should have had a policy to control this. Despite this, the return voyage was extremely enjoyable, and I was rather sad when Penzance came into view.
Overall, I would whole-heartedly recommend a trip on this ship. The vessel is traditional, probably unique, and certainly a true SCILLONIAN – in contrast to so many ferries today, she definitely has an identity! You know exactly where you are going when you sail on her. Rare features - the wooden benches, the local displays, the free couchettes - mark her out as something special, and I totally enjoyed my time onboard. At 24 years, she will surely be replaced in the next few years, and it will be interesting to see what the next stage of her career holds. Her predecessor certainly went on to notoriety, but I would guess the ‘Scillonian III’ will probably find employment in exotic waters, perhaps along the African coast, or around some Pacific or Caribbean islands – where vessels of her type are highly sought after.