It’s not that often we get the opportunity as an adult to do something that we always wanted to do as a child is it? In my case, it was to sail from Llandudno to the Isle of Manon a Steam Packet boat.
I remember watching the big black and white ships with their red funnels coming and going during childhood holidays in Llandudno. I may even have tugged hopefully at a parents sleeve and asked if I could go on one, but sadly the answer was always no, not today. Then when the regular service was withdrawn I had to resign myself to another of life’s disappointments.
In the intervening years I have sailed to the
Isle of Manon many occasions, travelling from Liverpoolor Heysham on both fast craft and conventional vessels. But always at the back of my mind was the thought of opportunities missed. So you can imagine my delight when it was announced that the Lady of Mann would run a series of day excursions – including Llandudno - between the end of her TT service and prior to her summer charter to the Azores.
I had hoped to go in 2001 but the outbreak of Foot and Mouth resulted in the cancellation of all the day excursions. Too busy in 2002, I finally got to make the trip in 2003 - and what an enjoyable day it was too. So much so that I booked again for 2004 as soon as the Lady’s sailing programme was announced. Now, with rumours rife that the Lady of Mann (and Seacat Isle of Man) may both be replaced with one large fast craft in 2005, perhaps this would really be one of the last times that a Steam Packet ship would sail from Llandudno.
Wednesday 16th June dawned bright and warm, with blue skies already breaking through the thin cloud. I made my way to the pier in good time to see the Lady’s distinctive outline appear on the horizon soon after 8.00amI had thought it appropriate to wear my IoMSPCo sweatshirt for the trip, but soon had cause to regret this as on reaching the end of the pier I was bombarded with questions by waiting travellers, clearly presuming that I was a Steam Packet employee… Fortunately the real check-in staff arrived shortly afterwards so I was spared any more enquiries.
Among those waiting to board was Llandudno’s very own Town Crier, a fellow traveller I recognised from twelve months earlier. He was confidently telling everyone that the Steam Packet would be celebrating it’s 275th anniversary in 2005 until it was pointed out that – although it is the oldest continuously operating passenger ship company in the world - it isn’t quite that old!
The Lady was alongside the pier and secure by 8.50, and a good number of passengers disembarked having sailed from the island at . Many had cases and other baggage and were clearly looking forward to a couple of days in North Wales. We boarded via the mid level car deck doors and made our way up the ramps. As people began to queue for breakfast at the restaurant, I headed straight up to the boat deck to get a good view of the loading and departure. A long line of people stretching back along the pier indicated that it was going to be a well frequented trip.
Sea conditions were calmer than the previous year, when there had been a continual battle with ropes and whistles to maintain the Lady in the correct position for the narrow ramp access to the berthing head on the pier. It was noticeable though that her engines were kept running in order to help maintain position. As the last of the passengers were safely on board, the ropes were let go at , five minutes earlier than scheduled, and the Lady began to go astern out into the bay with Captain Steven Spencer in command.
Turning in the shadow of the Great Orme, it’s peak still shrouded in mist, the Lady headed out to sea and Llandudno quickly slipped away in the distance. There had been recent reports that access was being restricted to the Lady’s car ramps for ‘safety reasons’ but fortunately this proved not to be the case, and one of the most popular areas of the ship for both sailing enthusiasts and sun worshippers was soon very well populated. One of the jack-up car ramps was occupying the top-most part, perhaps already anticipating the Lady’s summer in the Azores.
There were many familiar faces from the trip twelve months previously, so clearly I wasn’t the only one who had enjoyed that day. The Town Crier had taken up residence on the ramps and was now dispensing a rather more accurate version of the Steam Packet Company history for anyone who was prepared to listen!
Passing a small coastal patrol vessel off the port side we were soon an hour into the crossing. Some time later, as the Isle of Manjust started to come into view, a P&O ro-pax vessel (which looked like the NORBANK or NORBAY) was visible on the starboard side. As the familiar Manx coastline became more clearly visible, bathed in the summer sunshine, a somewhat faster moving white speck on the horizon marked the first sighting of Seacat Isle of Man on her morning sailing from Liverpool.
A couple standing nearby were heard to remark that ‘we will be in Douglas before the Seacat today’ but clearly they underestimated the speed at which the Incat slices through the waves and it was soon passing across our bows and reducing speed as it passed Conister Rock. Meanwhile a helicopter hovering overhead seemed to be taking a keen interest in the Lady’s approach. Looking across DouglasBayit was noticeable that the newly refurbished Villa Marina makes a fine sight when viewed from the sea (and later proved equally delightful from ashore!)
The harbour was a hive of activity as the Lady of Mann was skilfully manoeuvred backwards onto the seaward side of Victoria Pier. Seacat Isle of Man was at the linkspan, already discharging cars from her bow ramp, while the tall ships Iris and Prince William were tied up at Battery Pier, en-route for the Mersey River Festival at the weekend. In front of them were the Laxey Towing Company vessels Wendy Ann and Karina, whilst just departing was the MV Pharos – a 1993 built lighthouse tender vessel of the Northern Lighthouse Board which is equipped with a helicopter pad at the stern and a large crane for lifting buoys.
As passengers disembarked from the Lady of Mann, a colourful array of flags were being hoisted up over her stern, and she made a fine sight as her still fresh paintwork gleamed in the sunshine. Walking around the bay and looking back across, it occurred to me that – if the rumours really are true – then this could be one of the last occasions that Seacat Isle of Man and Lady of Mann would be seen together in Douglas.
With no further trips that day, the Seacat eased back from the linkspan and one of her rescue boats was lowered into the water with a couple of crew members aboard. After a quick spin around the harbour it was back alongside the Seacat, working it’s way slowly along the port side of the fastcraft. Meanwhile another vessel making busy around the harbour was the Royal Navy’s P2000 class fast training vessel P163 ‘Express’ – attached to the University Royal Naval Units (URNU’s).
After a very pleasant afternoon in and around Douglas, all too soon it was time to return to the Sea Terminal for the Lady’s departure back to Llandudno. Walking back along the promenade the tall outline of Steam Packet Company’s flagship Ben-My-Chree could be seen inbound from Heysham – it looked likely that her arrival would be perfectly timed for good photo opportunity before the Lady sailed. And so it proved as the ‘Big Ben’, well loaded with freight, entered the harbour and began her swing to approach the King Edward linkspan. It is very apparent what a well judged manoeuvre this really is, especially with so many other vessels in and around the harbour.
Pictures taken, we were urged back on board the Lady as departure time drew near. We were underway just after and the Islandwas soon left behind in the wake of the Lady’s propellers.
I reluctantly ventured inside for a while to have a bite to eat, as always somewhat amazed by the number of people who prefer to remain seated inside with their books and music, seemingly oblivious to events outside! My hunger satisfied, it was back out onto the ramps and peering over the starboard rail, away from the warmth and shelter of the exhaust grilles, it was evident that the wind had picked up a little as the Manx flag on the stern stood out straight and the salt spray peppered my glasses and camera lens!
As the sun began to drop behind the Welsh hills, the curve of LlandudnoBaywas fast approaching and our journey was almost at an end. The Lady was secure on the Pier at 9.05 and the queue to disembark stretched around the car ramps. As those returning to the Isle of Manboarded, there was plenty of time to get a good position on the pier to photograph the Lady as she got underway again.
As her lights disappeared into the gathering dusk, I reflected on what a thoroughly enjoyable trip it had been on a justifiably much loved ship. And I wondered whether perhaps a small child watching from the shore, longing to one day make the trip from Llandudno to the Isle of Man, would ever again have the opportunity to fulfil their wish?
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