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North Channel Wanderings

 © Richard Seville 2002

Over January 26th and 27th, Gary Andrews and I arranged a weekend of North Channel hopping, sampling four very different vessels. Having arrived from Belfast at Larne Harbour Station, it was only a few paces to the P&O desk, where we checked in for our first sailing – the 11:30 to Cairnryan. The empty former Sealink check-in desks dominate the terminal in Larne, providing a reminder of the loss of the Stranraer link in 1995. Our crossing was to be operated by the European Endeavour, one of the two original Townsend Thoresen European class freighters still surviving in the P&O fleet. Originally there were four – the European Gateway, Clearway, Trader and Enterprise. The European Gateway capsized off Felixstowe in 1982 having been struck by Sealink’s Speedlink Vanguard, but was raised and is now in the Adriatic as Agoudimos Line’s Penelope A. The European Trader was sold last year to Taygran Shipping, but following their collapse is now enroute to join the El Salem fleet in Egypt. The European Clearway is now the European Pathfinder, having been briefly named the Panther under Pandoro management, while the European Enterprise became the Endeavour in 1988 following the Herald disaster. The two remaining twins currently serve at Larne for P&O Irish Sea, although with the imminent arrival of the new European Highlander, their days are almost certainly numbered.

Although primarily a freight only ships, in the winter absence of fast craft support at Larne, the sisters have been taking limited private passenger and car traffic. Both the Pathfinder and the Endeavour were berthed at Larne, each operating only on alternate weekends. Foot passengers are transferred onboard via mini-bus, and then walk from the upper car deck to the accommodation via the external decks. The European Endeavour’s passenger accommodation is concentrated on Deck 5. The galley and crew messes are located aft, a walkway then leads forward into her main passenger saloon. This all-purpose open-plan area acts a restaurant, bar and lounge. Aft to starboard is the small Peninsular Bar; while next to this is a self-contained self-service servery. This is a recessed U shaped walk-through area, accessed by twin doors, which can be closed off from the main saloon once serving is finished. Forward in the lounge is the Purser’s Office cum shop. This sold a limited range, including the ubiquitous postcards and pens and a selection of wines. In the lounge area itself, to starboard there is comfortable lounge seating, while amidships there are tables and chairs, all upholstered in deep blues and purples. Prints of historic P&O vessels adorn the bulkheads, with small yet detailed plaques beside them explaining the history of each vessel. Historic P&O posters also feature around the ship – a theme prevalent in the late 1980s/early 1990s following P&O's takeover of Townsend Thoresen. Indeed, while her accommodation was very smart, with little sign of wear and tear, it was clearly little changed from that era – for instance, although she was a P&O Irish Sea ship, the board above her Purser’s office still read P&O European Ferries, and in her starboard stairwell to the car deck, there was still a large European Ferries advert, offering routes such as the ‘Clipper Line’ passenger service between Felixtowe and Zeebrugge, which ended in 1995. Entertainment is provided in the form of TV screens dotted around the lounge, and gaming machines in some of the corridors. The lounge is not spread the full width of the vessel, to starboard there are crew cabins, and hence only windows to port.

Passageways lead forward on either side into the passenger cabin accommodation. To port, 4 cabins have been striped out to create a small quiet lounge, which is fitted out with small circular tables, sofa bank seating and armchairs upholstered in red. This was done to increase her passenger space around 2000, in view of her use as a back up passenger vessel. When carrying a full passenger complement however, even with this additional lounge, things can still become rather cramped, and in these instances, often some of the forward cabins are opened up and offered to families. Externally, there is a narrow open deck promenade aft, overlooking the trailer deck, and side promenades lead forward until the cabin area. Deck 6 is composed entirely of crew accommodation and Deck 7 is the bridge deck. There are small exterior areas on both these decks. On Deck 7 I was interested to note that the wide bridge wings are separated from the main open deck area here with high wire barriers, added as a security measure due to the local situation.

Lunch was being served as we boarded, so we immediately proceeded to the self-service where a very impressive selection of hot meals were available. The service was very friendly, the prices were highly reasonable and the quality was excellent. Throughout the crossing, passengers are also able to help themselves to unlimited free tea and coffee, and dispensing machines are located in both the lounge areas. As we ate, loading completed, and the Endeavour moved off her berth, passing her sister as she headed out into the North Channel. Over the tannoy her master, Paddy Blackwell Smyth, announced that we were to be sailing in a South-westerly gale, with stabilizers out, but throughout the crossing the Endeavour was very stable, and took the seas very well, arriving to schedule at Cairnryan. Although carrying passengers, she was not heavily loaded, transporting perhaps 40 passengers. In these conditions her accommodation was perfectly comfortable, and I very much enjoyed the crossing.

Upon arrival, we were again bussed from the car decks to the new passenger terminal, from where we caught a taxi and spent the day in Stranraer. Walking around the harbour, the remains of the SeaCat Scotland berth provided a sad sight, particularly in the gray weather that was prevailing. Although the terminal is long gone, parts of the linkspan and foot-passenger walkway remain, along with a solitary check-in booth. The Hoverspeed brand name is still in evidence, in its early 1990s format, while the walkway is still emblazoned with the final SeaCat Stranraer logo.

We arrived back at Cairnryan in plenty of time for the 19:45 return sailing to Larne, to be operated by the European Causeway. The new terminal, completed in 2000, is airy and spacious, with departures facilities consisting of a reception/check in security and large boarding lounge. The latter was open plan, equipped with a small newsagents kiosk and a Fables Café, using the same branding as is used onboard the main Irish Sea passenger vessels. Around 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, foot passengers were called onto a bus, and driven onto the positively cavernous vehicle decks of the European Causeway. Loading for the sailing was light, offering an excellent chance to see around the ship.

Delivered in June 2000, the Causeway is the lead vessel in a trio built by Mitsubishi. Internally her passenger facilities are concentrated on Deck. These start aft with a Video Lounge to starboard, fitted with comfortable reclining seats in blue, and a dedicated commercial drivers lounge to port – also a most pleasant area, with large bay sofa seating and individual armchairs. Each of these lounges lead forward into twin passageways, which both lead into the large open reception area. The reception deck itself is found forward, facing aft. The area is tastefully fitted out with wooden flooring and rows of armchairs lining the bulkheads and many plants, while prints of sailing vessels add interest. Access to the external side promenades is via doors on either side level with the reception desk, while two small gaming areas also lead off.

To port, the freight drivers’ restaurant is accessible, frosted doors leading into a spacious area containing table and chairs, and a servery forward. Large video screens provide entertainment. To starboard of the reception desk, a long passageway stretches forward. This leads past the small walk-around shop to port, and the entrance to the Quiet Lounge to starboard. The Quiet Lounge is an exceptionally well fitted out saloon, containing deep reclining seats in dark blue and with a capacity for around 36 people. Immediately forward of this to starboard is a large group of toilet facilities, and then the passageway emerges into the Fables Self-Service area. This is effectively divided into two sections by the passageway, which continues forward to the Poets Bar. The Fables servery is found aft in the portside section, it is a small semi-circular walk-around area. Forward of this, and in the entire starboard section, there are tables and chairs, with sofa bank seating around the edges. The area is decorated in light browns and deep reds, with plenty of wood visible. A real quality touch is added by the presence of colourful prints on all the bulkheads. Each is individual, and depicts a particular fable, with a short description of that fable written below.

Immediately forward of Fables is the Poets Bar, which occupies the full width of the ship and offers panoramic views forward. The bar itself is found aft to starboard, while the lounge consists of large semi-circular sofa bays, with individual armchairs. The sofa bays are strategically positioned so that they divide the lounge area into small sections. Upholstered in deep burgundy, red and brown, the bar is again yet another very pleasing area, with photos of poets adorning the bulkheads. Overall, I was very impressed – I thought the accommodation was well laid out and fitted to a very high standard, with much wood in evidence, and many small touches. However, these comments should be tempered by the fact she was carrying a very light load – reports I have heard indicated then when she is anywhere near her 410 passenger capacity, she is very cramped and accordingly unpleasant.

As we headed out from Loch Ryan, under the command of Captain Mark Robinson, we ate in Fables. We were pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the selection on offer, and again the service from the crew was most friendly. The Causeway, in contrast to the Endeavour, employs are large percentage of foreign crew, in her instance Spanish. Although the weather had not abated since the morning, the Causeway offered a most steady passage, crossing to her scheduled time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.

After a night in Belfast, Gary and I met up again for the 12:20 HSS crossing to Stranraer from Belfast. As we approached the terminal, we passed the two forlorn looking craft built for the now defunct LoughLink service. Brand new, but never used, it will be interesting to see where the Antrim Runner and the Down Runner eventually end up. Alongside the terminal, the Stena Caledonia was berthed; while in the distance on the other side of the Lagan, the Stena Voyager could be seen in dry-dock. That meant of course that we would be travelling on the Stena Explorer, the first of the HSSs. Soon she came into view, and unloading complete, foot passengers were invited to board via a walkway onto her aft open deck, from where we entered her accommodation via the large reception lobby. An interesting point about the terminal itself was that all the seats were upholstered with material bearing the Sealink British Ferries logo – the terminal having been built in 1995, just before the Sealink brand name was dropped. Clearly upholstering the seats in this way was another example of Stena forward planning. On the sailing passenger numbers were again only modest, and, with loading complete, the Explorer left the berth nearly 10 minutes early, with Captain Terry Griffiths at her helm.

I had first travelled on the Explorer in 1997, and a number of changes were immediately apparent. The most noticeable was the closure of the large shopping area, located aft in front of her reception lobby. This was simply blacked out. Work was clearly going on, but there was no indication of what would appear in this premium space. Its replacement was located in a small area aft of the reception deck itself, where originally there had been an interactive gaming area. Later in her career this was changed to act as the Tax Free clothing and gift shop, but now is the sole shopping facility. It contained general newsagent stock, a small duty-paid selection and a variety of Irish orientated gifts (i.e. Guinness memorabilia and green goblins!). The area was poorly fitted out with missing ceiling panels for instance, and may only have been a temporary measure. Perhaps the main shopping area was simply being refitted, although permanent downsizing would be understandable post duty-free. Further work was ongoing in the passageways leading forward from the reception lobby where, to port, a new children’s cinema under the name ‘Film Shuttlecraft’ was being installed.

The parallel walkways lead forward into the main central area, with various seating areas either side of the raised central platform that contains Stinger’s Bar aft and two catering outlets forward. The famous video wall once located next to Stingers on the aft bulkhead had been removed, while the fast food franchise had changed from MacDonald’s to Burger King. This was running alongside Rudi’s Diner, serving more traditional self-service fare. On the lower levels, there was a small Tom and Jerry themed children’s area forward to port, whilst aft to starboard there was a O’Brien’s sandwich bar, which had replaced the previous Stena in house CopaCabana brand coffee bar.

Moving forward into the Explorer’s forward section, Spike’s Sports Bar was still found to port, now including the casino, but the Globetrotter Lounge to starboard had become the new Club Lounge. Centrally, the Globetrotter restaurant still remained on the raised platform now incorporating the space formerly used as the Club Lounge. A Truckers freight driver’s area occupies a small area of the raised platform to port. The panoramic viewing platform forward was unchanged, as were the tiny twin outdoor deck areas aft. During our crossing, only that to starboard was open to the public.

Overall, I thought the Stena Explorer had weathered her 6 years in service well – apart from the areas where work was going on, she appeared well maintained and was showing little wear and tear. I believe she is now in refit herself, having been replaced at Belfast by the Voyager, so perhaps on her return these works will have been completed.

The winds had calmed since the night before, but the weather was still miserable, and the Explorer departed the Lagan in a heavy downpour. This, together with a thick mist, rendered the forward panoramic window useless. The Explorer crossed within her scheduled time, offering a smooth and comfortable passage. We bought a reasonably priced sandwich from O’Brien’s and spent the 105 minutes looking around and relaxing. Although the HSS is clearly not profitable, nor popular with many in the enthusiast fraternity, the advantages of the concept were clear. The array of catering facilities was impressive – a formal restaurant, a sandwich bar, a traditional self-service and a fast food outlet. The three bars, and various children’s areas are clearly popular with the travelling public, and for obvious reasons. Her bright colourful interior contains several large, detailed murals, and the overall atmosphere complements her impressive profile. Interestingly, Stena Line are intensely marketing the craft with as a space age craft, a theme that is mirrored onboard with features like the new ‘Film Shuttlecraft’. Whilst I would prefer a conventional vessel, I could not fail to be impressed by the features of the HSS. At the end of the day, she did offer a quick and smooth passage, with plenty of diversions. Sadly, as everyone knows, the economic reality means that their lifespan is likely to be short.

Disembarkation at Stranraer was from the car decks, from where a walkway led into the terminal. Although Stena have operated the HSS to Stranraer since 1996, the promised purpose built berth has never materialized, and today, the facilities are very poor. There is a main terminal at the entrance to the port complex, but the actual berth is a considerable distance away, and the actual arrivals and check in facilities are located next to the berth. The walkway from the HSS appeared very temporary, and was sheltered only by tarpaulin sheets, many of which were ripped and offered little shelter from the elements. The terminal at the berth itself was a number of portakabins, and the arrivals area in particular was very run down internally, with a noticeable graffiti problem.

We were to return on the Stena Galloway at 15:45, and as such had 45 minutes to look around the port. Due to the pouring rain we stayed next to the berth, and sought shelter in Stranraer station. This presented a very depressing sight indeed, indicative of the decline of Stranraer as a port in recent years. When Sealink was privatized in 1984, the station was completely refurbished, fitted with a covered walkway from the platform, and opened by James Sherwood himself no less. Since then, however, there has clearly been little if any investment. Although several tracks still run in, only one platform remains in use, and a locked gate bars the bridge linking them. All around there is evidence of a station and port long past its heyday.  The plaque put up to commemorate James Sherwood’s visit on 2nd October 1984 is still there – rather battered, but still there. Signs still direct ‘Sealink’ passengers, and advertise the ‘SeaCat’ transfer bus – names of course all long gone. Even sadder perhaps is the huge advert above the platform for Sealink. Reading ‘Sealink Stena Line – Up to 8 sailings daily – Determined to give you a better service’, it is now filthy, covered in soot and barely legible. Nonetheless, it is still just possible to see the outline of the words British Ferries, which had been replaced by Stena Line after the takeover. Since then, however, no one has bothered to update it. The slogan beneath is a telling sign of its age – I believe it probably dates from the 1984 station refurbishment, as ‘Determined to give you a better service’ was the in vogue Sealink logo at that time. As the 1980s progressed it was to be replaced by ‘We’re fleets ahead’. The walkways that formerly led to the ships are mainly boarded up, but a peek inside revealed a desolate sight of a former Sealink desk, still bearing the logo Sealink Larne Stranraer. The remaining walkway down from the platform was leaking, rusty and sprouting weeds. All in all, it was a depressing visit.

Checking in for the Stena Galloway’s sailing, we walked into the departures lounge, which although is still only a portakabin, was none the less still in much better condition than the arrivals area. With two other foot passengers we were transferred to the vessel via mini-bus onto her upper vehicle deck. Since the introduction of the HSS the Galloway and her sister have operated only for freight and as back up to the HSS, and Stena do their utmost to ensure all passenger traffic is carried on the premier craft. As usual therefore, passenger-wise, the Stena Galloway was virtually empty.

Perhaps it is this under use that is the reason for the superb condition of the Stena Galloway. Certainly, Stena have kept her virtually immaculate internally, and is an excellent purchase for ITMC, for whom it is believed she will trade to Tangier. But their gain is certainly Stranraer’s loss, as with her departure they are loosing their last true local ferry, designed and built specifically for the service to Larne. In her 22 years of service, she has only seen relief duty elsewhere twice. Delivered in 1980 as the Galloway Princess, she was also the final ship to bear a traditional Princess name, so her departure is truly the end of an era.

Internally, her accommodation is very different to it was when she was first delivered, having been completely rebuilt by Sea Containers over 1987 and 1988. However, since then, it has been very little changed. Her main bar is found forward on her boat deck, still in the configuration that was introduced in 1987. Today it is upholstered in red, with a variety of sofa bank and free-standing seating. Immediately aft is her forward lobby, from which on her starboard side access is gained to her large open plan Globetrotter Restaurant, very little changed from when it was rebuilt into Sea Containers’ The Pantry. Originally there had been a separate formal restaurant to port, with a lounge and small buffet servery to starboard, but in 1988 these were combined to create a free-flow self-service. Aft of this is the aft lobby, where the reception desk is located. Next to this is an office, but this was originally the counter-service shop. Today, a larger walk-around shop leads off the aft lobby to starboard, whilst to port there is a video lounge, featuring fixed seats in green and light purple. A large padded children’s area is found leading off the video lounge, aft of the shop. This area was totally rebuilt by Sea Containers, but was also thoroughly refurbished by Stena in 1993. There is also a small Truckers commercial drivers lounge that is accessed from the aft lobby to port. Aft to port on the deck below, A Deck, there is also now a small dormitory style driver’s rest area. While in full passenger service, this had been the Business Class lounge.

The passenger accommodation on her Navigation Deck is also accessible via the aft lobby. There are two Motorists Lounges, the larger one is forward, equipped with a snack bar servery. Both lounges feature sofa bay seating upholstered in Stena Line red, while the forward lounge also contains a number of reclining seats. These lounges were built onto the then Galloway Princess in 1984 in place of a wide open seating area, originally serving as Quiet Lounges, before Sea Containers introduced the concept of the Motorist Lounges. As with the rest of the facilities, these areas were very well maintained. Externally, the Galloway boasts a walk around promenade on her Boat Deck, with further more limited external space on the Navigation Deck. Although the promenades to extend forward here, they are not accessible to passengers.

The Stena Galloway departed to time under the command of Captain Robert White, and reached Belfast on schedule despite increasingly blustery conditions. Due to the low passenger numbers, facilities onboard were limited – the forward bar opened for precisely two minutes! A film was shown in the video lounge, and the shop remained open throughout the voyage. It was clear the Galloway was being prepared for retirement – the shop stock was very depleted. There appeared to be a quiet resignation among the crew, many of whom would lose their jobs with the ship’s departure. Nonetheless, the service was excellent – and the food served in the Globetrotter was hot and tasty. As we approached the berth we learnt the Galloway would not sailed again that night – severe gales were forecast, and fearing she would not be able to berth at Stranraer, she was to be kept safely alongside at Belfast. As we stepped off the Stena Galloway, I was very glad we had been able to make a final crossing on the last Stranraer Princess.

 

 

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