Since the reorganisation of the P &O’s services to Dublin it has been possible to take a rather unusual sail from Mostyn to Liverpool. This situation comes about because of the weekend service that the EUROPEAN AMBASSADOR has started from Dublin to Cherbourg. This means that the NORBAY or NORBANK have to take over the weekend Mostyn sailings and then on a Monday reposition back to Liverpool. Hence the possibility of an unusual sailing the potential of which has been spotted by an enterprising coach company and happily agreed to by P&O.
Last November of course P&O moved from Liverpool to Mostyn, many people saying privately because they were fed up with the Mersey Docks Company not providing an on river linkspan for them. So the European Envoy and the new EUROPEAN AMBASSADOR went off in a strop to Mostyn and that seemed to be that.
But, it wasn’t. Even before they had gone to Mostyn the Company announced that the Liverpool service would continue as well and that the NORBAY and NORBANK would be transferred from the North Sea. This piece of news was a surprise to us all as well as completely ruining the atmosphere at the Norse Merchant celebration to mark P&O’s departure.
August 5th dawned bright and sunny and I was at the Landing Stage, Liverpool before 08.00 and caught an early ferry to Birkenhead. Our group was being picked up at the Pump House by the coach that was to take us to Mostyn. Our group was in fact made up of members of the Merseyside Branch of the World Ship Society and the outing had been organised by the hard working officers and committee of the Society. The whole day was to run like clockwork, due in no small measure to the excellent organising that had been done.
The coach journey to Mostyn was smooth enough, leaving at 09.00 and we were approaching the port of Mostyn by about 10.00, passing on the way the sad form of the ex Heysham to Belfast steamer the DUKE OF LANCASTER, seemingly forever entombed out of the estuary just east of the port itself. What has happened to that fine looking ship should be a criminal offence! It is almost as bad as what has happened to the ex Dover and Caledonian Princess in the North East – turned into bars and discos and entertainment hotspots with tubes and cables and various other appendages sticking out of them, painted in gaudy colours advertising Bacardi Breezers. It is the shipping equivalent of animal vivisection! However, I digress……
We were on board the NORBAY just after 10.05, the coach driving on the ship and travelling back to Liverpool with us. We were joined soon afterwards by a second coach, organised by the same Company who had arranged the trip. The coach was directed up the internal ramp to the upper deck and I thought immediately – this is rather like the Ben-My-Chree – and so it was!
The NORBAY was built in 1994 by Van der Giessen- de Noord at Rotterdam, is of 17464 gross tons, 166.4 metres in length and has a service speed of 22 knots. Her passenger capacity is 114. She is a typical product of that shipyard and could be said to be a stretched version of the Ben-My-Chree although her passenger accommodation is not up to the same standard as the Manx vessel. Her main business is freight, and it shows, but that is not to say that the passenger areas are poor. Far from it, but with a small capacity the accommodation could be said to be functional and understated rather than over the top.
The main passenger deck is deck 4 and the accommodation is entered at this level after a walk up the steps near the funnel and along a walkway from the car deck. As you go through the doors the shop and information desk are encountered first and in the same area are a couple of telephones. The colour scheme here is… grey! Further through is the main lounge and café area plus the bar- all together as is usual with this sort of vessel. It is all fairly open plan, with lots of round tables, green upholstered chairs and bench seats and the carpet is green also. There are large picture windows along each side affording good views out to sea. The café area, called the Fables café and bar as is customary with P&O Irish Sea, has larger tables and there are a few games machines dotted about as well.
As is usual on P&O vessels of this type tea and coffee and soft beverages are free in the café area. Outside space is adequate for the number of passengers. It is to the rear of the inside passenger accommodation, on two levels, decks 4 and 5, and some outside seating is provided in the form of white plastic bench seating and garden type chairs as on the Balmoral. The main complaint about the outside space is the lack of forward views and on deck 5 the ship’s boats obscure the view to the side, unless you climb up the steps to the boat and look over the top. You are not really supposed to do that of course and on the Ben-My-Chree the equivalent steps have a barrier and the obligatory "CREW ONLY" sign but not on the NORBAY, so many people enjoyed the view from the steps and nobody seemed to mind.
Ropes were off at 10.55 and almost as soon as the vessel leaves the linkspan she makes a very tight turn to port. A slow but pleasant passage was then taken down the channel, most passengers enjoying the fine sunshine and pleasant breezes. Good views were to be had of the coastline and as we rounded the Point firstly Prestatyn and then Rhyl slipped by on the port side. We were off Rhyl at noon and then we turned north and then north east to make our way to the Bar lightship. In the distance Llandudno and the Great Orme could be seen and even further it was possible to make out the coast of Anglesey on the sun bathed horizon.
It was at this time that lunch was called and the queue formed in the café area. The lunch was of the carvery type and of course it was necessary to queue to be served. With over 100 passengers on board the length of the line at first resembled a Moscow bread queue soon after a delivery, but great credit must be paid to the catering crew who served the meal to the waiting throng with speed and efficiency. On offer were boiled and roast potatoes, green beans, carrots, three or four varieties of meats for the main course while there was a soup for starters and either rhubarb crumble or a chocolate cake for the sweet. All the food was well cooked and hot and although described as "reasonable, fundamental fare" by a couple of travelling companions of mine from the Isle of Man, it was nevertheless very acceptable. The excellent service was much in evidence when one of the passengers in the queue declared himself a vegetarian. Before you could say "nut cutlet" the catering staff prepared a meal for him with which he was entirely satisfied.
Wandering out on deck after this excellent repast, there was a sharp turn to starboard at 12.40 and we were abeam of the Douglas gas rig on the starboard side. I hadn’t been as close to this rig since the days of dear Vernon Kinley on the Lady of Mann on the Liverpool to Dublin service back in 1997. Vernon always liked to go close in to things and give passengers extra value for money. We were at the Bar by 13.26 which we passed on the port side. There was only one small coastal tanker anchored at the Bar, which was slightly disappointing, as was the bar on board which had closed.
Throughout the sailing so far the outside deck areas available to passengers had been on decks 4 and 5 which is the usual arrangement. However at 14.00 the Captain, Kelvin Reilly, announced that the outside deck on deck 6, behind the bridge would now be open for the run up the Mersey. This enabled good forward views to be had and also allowed us all to gawp in at what was happening on the bridge itself. I have to admit if I was an officer on the bridge I wouldn’t like that and I often feel sorry for the officers on SEACAT ISLE OF MAN and SUPERSEACAT THREE because of this "gawp factor". However I have to admit it did not seem to bother Captain Reilly and his officers at all. By 14.20 we had reached the Rock and at 14.35 we were locking in the Gladstone lock system. The European Seafarer was noted in the second berth in Gladstone but on the whole the river and docks were fairly quiet. We were out of the lock by 15.00, the coaster Weserberg taking our place in the lock on her way out. Backing in through the dock system fairly quickly the NORBAY was on her usual berth in the former Gladstone graving dock at 15.20.
There was however a final pleasant surprise from Captain Reilly and his officers. Once we were secured at the berth the World Ship Society members were invited on to the bridge itself for a visit, a gesture much appreciated by the members. During the half hour visit the Captain was most courteous in explaining the various radar systems, compasses etc. and in answering questions from the members. In return, Donald MacArthur the Chairman of the Liverpool branch of the World Ship Society presented the ship with a plaque to mark the visit.
All in all a most enjoyable day at sea on a most unusual mini cruise. Whether it will be possible to do next year depends on whether P&O keep the same procedure for positioning the ship from Mostyn to Liverpool. I hope they do. In the mean time, sincere thanks to everybody concerned in the organisation of this years sail from Mostyn!