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by John Shepherd

Foot passengers boarded the Lady of Mann at just after eight a.m., and the ship sailed at 08.29 with about 100 passengers. After being welcomed on board by Captain Alan Albiston, the usual safety announcements were made. We were abeam the Rock Light at 08.41 which looks pristine in its new coat of white paint. The Lady was pushing a strong flood tide (high water was at 11.40, 9.8 metres).

The inward-bound Mersey Viking from Belfast was passed at 08.50, making only about 5 knots, waiting for her lock at Langton, presumably. This time wasting situation will be eliminated from next Spring when the new Twelve Quays river terminal becomes operational.

The Lady of Mann was abeam C.12 buoy off Hightown at 09.00. The buoy was covered with about 50-60 cormorants, so densely packed that they appeared as a black solid mass. There was a similar situation at the Formby Light Float, and on all the other boat beacons out to Q.2. I have never noticed this phenomenon before, despite having sailed in and out of Liverpool on almost one thousand occasions over the last 50 years. Has there been a ‘population explosion’ of cormorants, or is there something migratory about their numbers at this time of the year?

The Formby Light Float was abeam at 09.15 and Q.2 at 09.19. The weather was northerly, force 4, with a slight sea and moderate swell, lumpy at times in the vicinity of the Bar.

It was one of those magical days when the Isle of Man hove into sight almost as soon as we had passed the Bar. The silhouette of South Barrule and the northern hills was clear on the horizon from about 09.45.

It’s five years since I last sailed on the Lady of Mann and I had forgotten just how spacious her boat deck is. And it’s great to have the wooden deck cladding - she looks like a proper ship. There is also masses of deck space on the car ramps which fortunately are still available for passenger access, and which make the Lady such an ideal ship for the summer special sailings from Llandudno and Fleetwood.

A reminder of the past is the original ‘IOMSPCo’ etchings on the windows of the passengers’ and officers’ cabins on the boat deck. The passenger cabins themselves are spartan in the extreme : a broom cupboard or cubby-hole would best describe them. The eight passenger cabins on the old steam turbines seemed luxurious in the extreme compared to these.

On now to the internal passenger accommodation which was refitted in the Spring of 2001 by Cammell Laird as one of their final jobs before the spectacular Costa Classica fiasco which led to the closure of the yard. At first glance the accommodation looks just great. The Cafe Express at the forward end, the main seating area amidships and the after cafeteria appear bright and modern. The fact is that the seating is horrendously spartan and uncomfortable. There is just no arm-room or leg-room at all : the average theatre or cinema offers far wider seats and arm-rests. It looks great but just try and get comfortable for a four-hour crossing. Judging by the contortions of some of the passengers this morning, it just can’t be done. A ‘capucino’ coffee from the Cafe Express seemed like a good idea, but I was told "we’ve no full cream milk, and what we’ve got won’t froth!", so the cappuccino was out. A selection of morning papers was advertised and you could have anything, just as long as you were a Mirror or a Daily Mail reader.

The Officer of the Watch spoke to the passengers at 11.15 : the Lady was making 20 knots and would be alongside at 12.20. In the event she was off Douglas Head at 12.13, and having swung off the harbour entrance, moved astern on to No.4 Victoria Pier at 12.19, just 3 hours and 50 minutes after leaving Liverpool. It was a very creditable passage which would have been even more impressive had it not been for the strong flood tide in the Mersey which ‘knocked her back’ a good ten minutes.

After disembarking the foot passengers were herded into a single line and asked to produce the completed yellow cards to the effect that they had not recently visited a U.K. foot and mouth infected farm, and were not carrying any raw meat.

At this point I was sniffed.

It may have been that I had a few ‘Shapes’ dog biscuits in my anorak pocket (for when I walk my friend’s dog ‘Smudge’), or it may be that I had just eaten a Steam Packet ‘Ploughman’s’ sandwich, but the sniffer dog on duty at Douglas took an inordinate interest in me, before passing on to some other poor unsuspecting arrival. In all the hundreds of ports I have visited over the years, I have never been ‘sniffed’ before. Was the dog looking for drugs, raw red meat, or just checking I had changed my underpants? Cars and their occupants did not have these checks, and I would have thought cars would have been far more likely to conceal drugs, uncooked meat, or even dirty underpants!

The Lady’s early arrival at Douglas gave me an hour to look around the town before checking in 30 minutes before the 13.45 sailing time. It’s five years since I last walked along the promenade. Since then the Villiers Hotel has gone, to be replaced by the truly appalling new ‘Royal Bank of Scotland’ building. Some of the old familiar names on the boarding houses along the Loch Promenade are still there - the ‘Cunard’ and the ‘Ellan Vannin’ amongst them. The Fort Street area looked like a blitzed bomb site - what has happened to Walpole Avenue? - it’s just ‘disappeared’. The ‘new’ Fort Anne on Douglas Head looks just great, but the Camera Obscura has been demolished (although I understand it’s ‘in storage’).

And so it was back to the Sea Terminal, passed Imperial Buildings (a.k.a. Impervious Palace). The building seems to have lost its identity as the lettering ‘Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’ has been removed from its frontage, but it was flying the Steam Packet houseflag.

Having checked in and passed through the metal detector I was back on board the Lady of Mann at 13.20. On board one time-honoured Steam Packet tradition continues : the sale of Manx kippers to passengers at £1.69 per pair. Whilst the new security arrangements at Douglas Harbour are making life almost intolerable for people who have worked on the piers all their lives, the kipper man gets through! At least they’ve got one priority right.

The Lady of Mann sailed at 13.45, dead on time, with about 250 passengers for Liverpool. She is sailing with a passenger certificate for 450 this winter. There was no way I intended to spend the next four hours in the cramped ordinary accommodation, so I opted to upgrade to First Class for £6. At the forward end of the shelter deck a small ‘first-class’ lounge has been created seating about fifty; also a ‘Blue Riband’ lounge, strictly for members only.

The upgrade was worth every penny with extremely comfortable, spacious seating. The lounge is, perhaps, a bit claustrophobic with no natural light (the steel shutters were closed over the forward facing windows). However the steward service was excellent with complimentary tea or coffee and biscuits. In fact, three cups of really good coffee later, the upgrade had almost paid for itself. It was quiet, apart from a mother who was entertaining her daughter with readings from ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ all the way from Douglas Head to Liverpool Bar! I had heard this all before last Boxing Day when Stephen Fry read the entire novel to Radio 4 listeners!

It was good to be back on the Lady of Mann. Even in her twenty-sixth year she is recording fast passages which would have done credit to the steam turbines. I can put up with the Sea Containers blue hull, and I think her white foremast suits her. My only real hate is the funnel. As it is, it looks ridiculous - if only the black top could be continued down to its original level.

It was great to see the original Isle of Man Steam Packet houseflag flying from the mainmast. Uncle Jim (Sherwood) has tried to enforce a new flag but fortunately his efforts have been resisted.

The Lady of Mann passed the Rock Light at 17.35 and was off the stage at 17.45. Captain Albiston then swung her in her own length and she was berthed at 17.50. The foot passengers were ashore by 17.55. It was the bottom of low water on a spring tide which resulted in a very steep haul up the passenger bridge from the stage to Princes Parade. For the elderly and infirm this is an accident waiting to happen. The walk around the rear of the Portakabin passenger terminal for arriving passengers is nothing short of disgraceful, especially in darkness, given the uneven nature of the surface. It’s a potential minefield for accidents. As a terminal handling maybe 500,000 passengers a year between Liverpool and Douglas and Liverpool and Dublin, Liverpool must offer the worst facilities to be found anywhere in the world. The Isle of Man Steam Packet seem very reluctant to do anything to improve the situation.

My day excursion to Douglas on board the Lady of Mann had been a great day out which I hope to repeat very soon, hopefully in gale force 8 conditions!

John Shepherd

17th November, 2001



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