Sea Containers Fastcraft operations on the routes out of Liverpool should have recommenced at the end of February. Unfortunately due to a major engine failure on SuperSeaCat Three the service did not recommence as scheduled.
To provide cover for the service the 81m InCat DIAMANT was sent up from the English Channel. The recent closure of the Dover - Ostend route making her available. It had been suggested that she might take up service on a new route in the Mediterranean later in the year. However, DIAMANT arrived on Merseyside to take up service on both Dublin and Liverpool routes without having undergone her annual refit.
DIAMANT arrived on Merseyside almost two weeks ago looking rather grubby and tired at least on the exterior. Up to March 14 she had failed to operate Liverpool - Dublin sailings, admittedly, last weekend bad weather had been partly to blame, though Liverpool - Douglas sailings had operated.
Observers, however, were reporting to Irish Sea Shipping that she was having great difficulty in maintaining anything near the scheduled Liverpool - Douglas schedules with crossing times noted in excess of three hours.
With the busy St. Patrick's Day holiday weekend approaching one wondered if the company would actually attempt a crossing to Dublin, rather than send passengers around to Holyhead for onward conveyance by Irish Ferries or Stena who may, themselves, also be quite busy.
March 15 dawned fine and bright a superb early spring day.
However, big question was - would Diamant sail? The Manx Radio web cam revealed that she had sailed on time from Douglas at 07:00.
A call to the Liverpool terminal revealed that she would be sailing, however, sailings would finally be subject to a delay of around 30 minutes.
I arrived at the terminal early to ensure a parking space. The 07:00 sailing finally arriving at 10:30 - one hour late. It was obvious that DIAMANT was operating at a speed just a little higher than that offered by the ever-reliable LADY OF MANN - which was now slumbering at her lay-up berth at Alexandra Dock after a winter of reliable service.
After photographing the DIAMANT's arrival I went into the terminal building. This has recently been extensively modified by the addition of the former Norse Merchant Ferries terminal building, which used to be at Canada Branch #3 Dock and does provide significantly more space.
The improved terminal features fully equipped security-screening area. Above the door a notice informs passengers that once passengers have entered there is no exiting the departure lounge.
As the day's events unfolded perhaps the notice should be changed to read "Abandon hope all ye who enter here!"
The departure lounge was quite full, I had delayed entering the terminal. As DIAMANT was already on the stage, I decided not to ask for the Blue Riband Club privilege of going down to the Blue Riband Lounge on Pontus as I didn’t expect it to be too long before boarding would commence.
Whilst the terminal modifications have made the waiting larger, increase in space here is not quite so apparent.
Someone with artistic talent had decorated the windows with Leprechauns in various poses for St. Patrick's Day a nice touch.
Boarding, however, did not occur as soon as expected. It was around 11:30 before passengers were allowed to go down to the ship, not before at least one passenger had opened one of the fire exits and activated an alarm.
By now loading of the large number of vehicles had also just commenced.
Unlike her sister RAPIDE, which was modified to fit the passenger loading gangways at Prince's Landing Stage, DIAMANT had to load via the stern ramps.
It was interesting to note that the starboard ramp has been modified with aluminium uprights welded in place on which ropes are secured to channel passengers towards the starboard steps. With these uprights in place vehicles cannot use the starboard ramp.
I finally took my seat in the 1st Class Lounge [there is no Blue Riband Club Lounge] around 11:40. It was interesting to note that the window seats were reserved for BR club members. An excellent view over the stern is possible from the 1st Class Lounge. The lack of a full length rear balcony means that outside passengers cannot obstruct the view.
Though DIAMANT does not have a full width open deck at the stern, as does RAPIDE, passengers in the 1st Class lounge have access to a central balcony which offers almost 180-degree view from the stern.
DIAMANT also boasts open side decks on two levels aft, which are well sheltered and offer a fair amount of space. Some Irish Sea shipping enthusiasts have expressed concern that the open deck space on this ship appears limited. I am pleased to report that the available space is deceptive. Even with over 500 passengers on board on a fine day with many outside, the available space did not feel crowded.
Monitoring communications, as DIAMANT loaded, revealed some anxiety about ensuring sufficient fresh water was loaded. It may be noted that last year RAPIDE, DIAMANT's sister was forced to put into Douglas whilst on a Belfast - Heysham sailing due to insufficient water.
As well as ensuring sufficient water was loaded, a fork lift truck delivered four barrels of Castrol oil.
The luggage trolleys were on board at 12:00.
When about half of the vehicles had been loading it had been discovered that a wheelchair user required level access to the passenger lounge. However, this was no longer possible as the vehicles already loaded at blocked off access to the upper level. There then appeared some delay whilst suitable crewmembers were found for a lifting job!
Departure from Liverpool was at 12:14, 1 hour 45 minutes behind schedule. There were 531 passengers and 107 vehicles on board. The advised 30-minute delay had increased considerably.
Captain Taha advising passengers that DIAMANT was operating on reduced speed and that arrival in Dublin would be around 17:30.
Norse Merchant Ferries MERSEY VIKING followed out DIAMANT on her morning sailing to Belfast, which had just departed from Birkenhead.
The Rock was passed at 12:30. There was a gentle increase in speed. Non of the usual smoke associated with a rapid acceleration, but then as the Captain had previously advised she would not be running at reduced speed.
Now our reduced speed was very apparent, once past the Rock the distance between DIAMANT and MERSEY VIKING should have begun to increase significantly. This didn't happen! MERSEY VIKING remaining almost a consistent distance behind until she reached Q1 and set a north-westerly course.
Whilst in the channel Whittaker's small tanker WHITKIRK passed inbound.
DIAMANT passed Q1 at 13:05, 51 minutes out from Liverpool, LADY OF MANN timings!
At 13:17 a small bulk freighter was noted at the Bar anchorage.
The Captain advised over the PA that our speed was being maintained at 23 knots and that Dublin ETA would now be 18:00. DIAMANT was running around 1.5 knots faster than the potential cruising speed of the LADY OF MANN.
After spending some time outside with I Ian Collard who was also travelling, I wandered back into the 1st Lounge for something to eat. The menu offered was not extensive looking as though it had been somewhat hastily prepared on a computer, though I must admit the chilli jacket potato was well produced and tasty.
A wander around the rest of the vessel followed. Those who like the spacious internal arrangement of RAPIDE will be impressed by the larger and better fitted interior of DIAMANT. There is a large central stairs leading into the upper bar area with food counter below. The shop is forward with the ships office occupying forward port side. As is common with many Incats the Toilets / Galley occupy the central area with small amusement arcades each side.
Though fine, visibility was not particularly good during the crossing due to haze and the Welsh coast remained elusively cloaked. Nothing of significance was seen until the ULYSSES appeared to the south east on her afternoon sailing from Holyhead. As we approached Dublin the tracks of ULYSSES and DIAMANT converged for the final approach. ULYSSES appeared to be gaining quickly and shortly after passing KISH at 17:15 ULYSSES slotted in about 500 yards behind DIAMANT.
Ship enthusiasts could not have wanted more, with a rare opportunity to photograph ULYSSES approaching and berthing at Dublin from the sea! What is more it was possible to photograph the JONATHAN SWIFT operating her 17:30 sailing from Dublin to Holyhead passing her large fleetmate.
Container ship EURO PHOENIX passed outbound at 17:38. A head could be seen LINDAROSA heading for the Norse Merchant terminal.
DIAMANT passed Poolbeg at 17:45.
DIAMANT swung promptly and started to head astern onto ro/ro ramp #9 at berth 51a. Since DIAMANT's arrival on the Irish Sea the vessel had not run a trial trip to Dublin, therefore this was to be DIAMANT's berthing trial.
It had probably been presumed that the similarity between DIAMANT and RAPIDE would mean that a Dublin berthing trial was not required, but when RAPIDE last operated out of Dublin in 2001 she used berth 49, not 51a. This first sailing was the berthing trial!
It looked as though at 18:01 DIAMANT had arrived. However, this wasn't the case. Despite two lines being secure and the vessel just a couple of feet off the span she suddenly surged forward the first line parted with considerable force, fortunately the shore crew was not too close or else serious injury or worse could have ensued. As DIAMANT continued to move forward the second line parted with a crack before her forward momentum was arrested and she was brought back.
DIAMANT was finally secure at 18:21. Six hours and seven minutes after departing Liverpool. By now only a few minutes ahead of the LADY OF MANN's Liverpool - Dublin crossing time.
The cabin crew appeared a little confused as to which side foot passengers were to be discharged. Initially crew had queued passengers on the port side, but as this side was being used to discharge vehicles, and the buses to convey passengers to the passenger terminal were on the starboard side, it was obvious that passengers would have to go down the Starboard stairs. Eventually someone realised this and an announcement was made and the queue changed direction.
By now some passengers were grumbling a fair bit, combination of extended journey, indecision as regards disembarking and the need to board buses appeared to be cause grumbling amongst the queuing masses!
The assembled buses, two double deckers, including a vintage Isle of Man Transport Atlantean, plus two minibuses took passengers around to the terminal. However, instead of taking passengers into the arrival compound they were dropped at the front doors. Therefore, passengers missed the Gardaí immigration checkpoint and were forced to gain entrance to the baggage reclaim area via the arrival area exit doors.
Checking in for the return trip I went up to the departure lounge were surprisingly few, passengers were waiting for the delayed Liverpool sailing. There were not that many vehicles in the marshalling area either considering it was a holiday weekend in Ireland and the much larger numbers travelling out from Liverpool.
By now rumours were circulating amongst passengers that the return sailing to Liverpool had been cancelled.
Foot passengers were told to go down to the concourse to await for details of a coach transfer to Dún Laoghaire for the evening sailing of the HSS STENA EXPLORER to Holyhead.
However, by now it was apparent that there would be insufficient time to get everyone round to Dún Laoghaire. Then, despite the proximity of the ULYSSES, just a few steps away from the waiting foot passengers, and just a straightforward drive from the main marshalling area for vehicle drivers, the astonishing decision was made to divert both foot and car passengers to the STENA FORWARDER.
This decision appears to have been on the fact that the STENA FORWARDER is faster than the ULYSSES and she was scheduled to depart at 20:45, twenty minutes before ULYSSES.
Unfortunately STENA FORWARDER does not carry foot passengers in regular service as Stena's Dublin terminal is not equipped to handle them. It was apparent that something interesting was going to happen! It did!
In the meantime one of the Dublin Maritime staff who provide the ground handling facilities at Dublin came around the departure lounge to check if passengers had Sea Containers tickets. Those who had internet print outs, had booking references, or travel agents documents had to go back down stairs again to get a printed Sea Containers Ticket. Then back up stairs again.
By now Irish Ferries were checking in passengers for the ULYSSES 21:05 sailing.
One of the Dublin Port passenger buses then drove the grumbling DIAMANT passengers around to the Stena Terminal where the Sea Co car passengers were already lining up at the vehicle booths.
Of course there it would be untruthful to say all passengers were grumbling. There were two passengers, Ian Collard and myself who were enjoying the "Sea Confusion" and thought that the day's tickets had represented excellent value for money.
We had been able to travel on two ships, which neither of us had travelled on before a prolonged first sail on DIAMANT now our first trip on STENA FORWARDER! A good value day out!
Of course the remaining 100 or so people did not share our smiles and pleasure. Many, who had been kept waiting at Dublin since the early afternoon, DIAMANT had been scheduled to depart for Liverpool at 16:30 wanted to know why they couldn't have been sent off to Holyhead on the 17:30 JONATHAN SWIFT sailing.
The bus arrived at the Stena check-in booths. Passengers were then told they would have to get off the bus and walk past the booths to get Stena boarding cards.
Presenting our tickets the Stena clerk entered our references and took our names. [Why couldn't the reference numbers have been taken off the Internet print outs or travel agent's booking notes?] We were then given a boarding card, which was immediately taken by the Dublin Maritime representative and told to get back on the bus.
The wait in the open at the vehicle booths amounted to around 20 minutes. It wasn't particularly cold, but for parents with small children it wasn't pleasant. Back on the bus we were then driven to the STENA FORWARDER and ushered quickly on board. However, the handling of the foot passengers had delayed things and STENA FORWARDER was no longer in a position to depart from berth 51 on schedule.
As Ian and I photographed DIAMANT from FORWARDER's extensive open deck space ULYSSES had already commenced closing up for her 21:05 departure.
ULYSSES was away on schedule. STENA FORWARDER let go at 21:10 - twenty-five minutes late, no doubt entirely due to accommodating DIAMANT's passengers. FORWARDER's own passengers looked already to have been well on board.
As FORWARDER cleared Poolbeg and DIAMANT could be heard calling up Dublin Port Radio requesting clearance for departure. DIAMANT departed Dublin around 21:45 sailing light to Liverpool.
I must admit I was pleased to be having my one and only chance to sail on STENA FORWARDER, the ship is due to leave the Irish Sea soon when her charter ends. She is an interesting vessel and in these days of reduced open deck space her expansive open decks are welcome. But her fittings appear rather utility, rather plain, when compared to the fine interior of the ULYSSES. On the Dublin - Holyhead route there is simply no contest at present between ULYSSES and STENA in terms of quality of passenger accommodation.
STENA FORWARDER arrived at Holyhead at 00:20 thirty-five minutes late. The ULYSSES was already on her berth and discharging.
It was sometime after all vehicles had discharged from STENA FORWARDER that SEA CONTAINERS passengers were asked to disembark.
Quite understandably the Stena staff didn't want much to do with us and said that we should see the Sea Co representative when we reached the terminal. One of the FORWARDER's crew had been telling the Sea Co passengers that DIAMANT had holed herself.
We were back in the terminal building by around 01:00. There was no Sea Co representative to be seen. Not as though we had been expecting one. Some even doubted if the promised coaches would be there.
However, in the forecourt two well turned out members of the Express Motors fleet were waiting. By the time passengers had retrieved their luggage and it was on board the two coaches did not depart until 01:18. Arrival back at the Liverpool Sea Terminal was around 03:10. By now passengers were some seven hours late, angry and tired. Such a late arrival home, meant that those without cars had missed public transport and faced a long wait in the open before being able to get home. As I drove away from the Liverpool Terminal Car Park a couple could be seen banging on the locked doors of the Liverpool Terminal Office. The man then was seen wandering round the side of the building obviously going to see if there was any sign of life.
Well it was certainly a day out to remember. As ship enthusiasts Ian Collard and myself had a good, value for money day out and letters of complaint from us will not be arriving at Imperial Buildings.
However, I can't say that for our travelling companions. Some of who appeared to be putting together a collective letter of complaint and understandable their attitude is too.
Admittedly Sea Containers had discharged their duty in bringing passengers back to their point of departure [Unlike some budget airlines I know of!] but many questions need to be answered.
Why were inaccurate assessments of delay being made on Saturday for the Dublin sailing?
Why wasn't the LADY OF MANN used on the Liverpool - Dublin sailing? She could have been away at 10:30 on schedule and would have been in Dublin by 17:00 and could have been accommodated on the new berth 49a which she fits. Her return sailing could have been away from Dublin by 18:30 and passengers back in Liverpool by 01:00.
DIAMANT could have operated the Liverpool - Douglas evening sailing and not forced the Liverpool - Douglas passengers to be bussed up to the BEN-MY-CHREE at Heysham.
Given the fact that DIAMANT did operate was it that passengers could not have been returned to Liverpool on the vessel? It would have saved all the difficulties of putting them on the STENA FORWARDER and the coach transfers? A slow crossing on DIAMANT would have been preferable to what was endured by already tired and frustrated passengers who just wanted to get from A to B.
If there were safety concerns regarding DIAMANT why were not passengers put on the ULYSSES?
The ship was alongside at Dublin. Passengers would have had to take a few short steps to the vessel from where they were waiting without having to go out into the open. The passenger accommodation on ULYSSES is significantly better than that available on FORWARDER.
The fact that FORWARDER is faster and had been scheduled to depart 20 minutes ahead of ULYSSES was lost by the time taken to accommodate the DIAMANT's foot-passengers on a vehicle passenger only ship.
Why couldn't passengers just offer Stena their Sea CO booking references if they didn't have Sea Co printed tickets? They already had Sea Co boarding cards thus their reservations were already checked as valid.
Why couldn't a list be printed out of all booked passengers and handed to Stena for them to complete the bookings formalities without the need to queue in the open?
The biggest question though is why wasn't the group of passengers escorted back by at least one crew member of the DIAMANT?
Admittedly it would not have been a fun job given the wrath being shown by some, but the part of that wrath was coming as a result of the apparent lack of customer care.
It was left to the coach drivers to check as to whether people had been left behind.
If a member of crew could not have accompanied the party a representative could at least have been on hand to receive the coaches back at the Sea Terminal.
Whilst Ian and myself only had short journeys home, other passengers had missed onward connections by public transport and faced being marooned at the Pier Head for several hours before transport services started up again.
Sorry Sea Containers, this is just not good enough. Treat passengers like this and they don't come back, worse still they tell their friends and friend's tell friends. Like the tale of "The one that got away" such tales get better with every telling.
Though in recent years the Sea Containers has had a positive effect on increasing opportunities for travel by ship on the Irish Sea some recent events, including Saturday's fiasco is rapidly diminishing the company's status in the eyes of the travelling public.
One almost wonders if a self-fulfilling prophecy is being created, which will enable the closure of more routes. Already this year Heysham - Belfast and Dover - Ostend have closed.
The above comments are written with a heavy heart and are aimed at senior management, not the staff and agents on the ground who give their best in trying and difficult circumstances. Their morale must be at rock bottom.
As a small shareholder my interest in Sea Containers operations extends beyond that of merely being a passenger, and whilst I may be entertained by occasional bouts of "Sea Confusion" the paying public on who the existence of the company depends are not interested. All they see is indecision, inconvenience, and a lack of apparent care and concern.
One can blame the global economic downturn for recent decline in Sea Containers share value. However, as a shareholder concern must be expressed at what I witnessed yesterday. Such events as Saturday's are only likely to chase passengers to competing services, which is not good for the company.
Is this anyway to run a shipping line?
Please do something about it now before it is too late!