Back in the summer of 1998 the arrival in Douglas of the BEN-MY-CHREE caused quite a shock to the Manx travelling public. Her modern ro/pax design was not exactly popular with passengers accustomed to the accommodation offered aboard the passenger orientated KING ORRY. A ship which had begun life as ALA's train ferry ST. ELOI and had latterly had served as Sealink's CHANNEL ENTENTE.
In 1998 the BEN-MY-CHREE fans could probably have met in a telephone box, with plenty of room to spare! However, one or two people including the writer of this voyage report thought that the BEN had merit even if you had to be a Blue Riband Club member to appreciate it in those early days!
Given all the grumbles and bad press seven years ago, along with suggested radical plans to redesign the ship which were published in a Tynwald report, who would have thought that when the KING ORRY sailed away to Moby Lines to become MOBY LOVE II that the BEN-MY-CHREE would ever operate a well loaded pleasure cruise?
Fortunately times change, and so do people's attitudes.
To some extent the change in opinion has probably been assisted by an on-going programme of improvements to the passenger accommodation on the BEN-MY-CHREE. This culminated early in 2004 with the creation of two completely new extensions.
Seven years on from her delivery, the BEN-MY-CHREE is now a popular Isle of Man Steam Packet ship. Perhaps not quite as popular as the dear old LADY OF MANN, but not far behind and certainly in a different league to the increasingly decrepit Italian speed boat currently chartered from Sea Containers.
On the evening of July 23, 2005 I found myself assembling with many other Steam Packet enthusiasts and members of the public intent on an evening out with a difference at the Douglas Sea Terminal.
Though I arrived at the terminal early, numbers steadily continued to grow until the departure lounge became much busier than is usual for the Saturday evening BEN-MY-CHREE departure.
Around 18:20, as is usual when large numbers of passengers congregate, someone started the rush to the departure gate and people who could have comfortably remained seated for another quarter of an hour or so ended up standing until the tape was removed and embarkation could commence.
It was obvious that the BEN-MY-CHREE would not get away on her first "Round The Island" cruise on schedule due to the late loading. The short turn round time from her arrival from Heysham and the need to prepare the ship was probably the reason for this.
On boarding, passengers where issued with a coloured ticket to for admission to the buffet. This well organised method having been used on Lady of Mann Round The Island cruises in recent years means that passengers are not left queuing for lengthy periods.
However everyone was on board before 19:00 including a number of dignitaries including The President of Tynwald the Hon. Noel Cringle and The Lieutenant Governor - Air Marshal Ian Macfadyen. The total passenger count was understood to have been 412.
Just prior to departure Captain Roger Moore welcomed passengers and dignitaries on board and explained that the ship would head "south about" on her first circumnavigation of the Isle of Man. At points during the cruise the well known maritime historian and journalist Dick Clague highlighted items of historical interest.
Ropes were off at 19:03 and the BEN-MY-CHREE set off on her first circumnavigation, clearing the harbour mouth at 19:06. As is almost customary, she went "south about". It is understood that one or two "north about" cruises have been operated by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company over the years, but the tendency is to go "south about".
The BBC Weather forecast suggested several days earlier that there might be some concern for the weather on Saturday evening, however, the weather was fine. The evening could not have been better, with clear blue skies and good visibility.
Sailing down the coast the BEN-MY-CHREE was off Derbyhaven by 19:29 and rounding Langness Lighthouse by 19:35. It is understood that the keepers' cottages are to become home to BBC motoring correspondent Jeremy Clarkson.
Approaching Port St. Mary, it was clear that the BEN-MY-CHREE was going to run right into the bay. This recalled the night back in July 1998 when the late Captain Vernon Kinley brought the BEN-MY-CHREE into the bay off his home town on her delivery voyage.
The BEN-MY-CHREE sounded a long blast on her whistle in tribute around 19:54 and then headed out again, past the spectacular cliff line of the Chasms and Spanish Head.
As she crossed the south eastern entrance to Calf Sound at 20:04 a maroon was fired from the shore in salute.
The Ben passed round the south end of the Calf between Chicken Rock Lighthouse and Caigher Point around 20:13 below the two abandoned and the one functional Calf of Man Lighthouses.
She then assumed a north easterly course across the north west entrance to Calf Sound passing at 20:18 as she headed to Port Erin.
At around this time "pink" ticket holders were summoned below, rather unfortunately I had a pink ticket and missed much of the incursion into Port Erin Bay. Considering it was low water it was interesting to note just how far in the BEN-MY-CHREE proceeded. Fortunately Alex McCormac managed to secure shots of this interesting visit.
Presumably, with probably all the ship enthusiasts on the Isle of Man on board the BEN-MY-CHREE, one wonders if any photographs of the ship in Port Erin Bay will surface! She must have made an impressive sight from the shore.
After our visit to Port Erin the BEN rounded Bradda Head and continued northwards along the west coast.
At this time I had retreated to the Blue Riband Lounge to eat the buffet collected from the main lounge area on deck 7. The food buffet provided, as with the one on the Manxman Steamship Company Charter of the LADY OF MANN several weeks earlier, was excellent with a wide variety of goodies.
In addition to the food all passengers were provided with a glass of punch. In the Blue Riband Lounge a large jug of this interesting concoction had been provided though only about 50% was consumed. One wonders what it comprised of as unfortunately it was probably the only thing about this splendid evening which did not go down well with many of the passengers going from the comments I overheard!
With the sun sinking towards the western horizon somewhere just beyond the indistinguishable east coast of Ireland, the light was adopting a golden glow as it illuminated the cliffs between Port Erin and Peel including the cluster of little cottages at Niarbyl made famous by such films as The "Brylcreme Boys" and "Waking Ned". These are currently undergoing restoration my Manx National Heritage.
Off Peel the sinking sun illuminated the sandstone walls of the Peel Castle which dominates SAINT PATRICK's Isle. Meanwhile the Peel Lifeboat could be seen towing a small boat into harbour in the golden light this scene superbly captured by Alex McCormac (left). The sun finally disappeared behind the Irish coast around 21:28, a few minutes after the BEN had passed off Kirk Michael.
The BEN-MY-CHREE rounded the Point of Ayre around 22:03 the firing of a coastguard maroon as she passed the twin lighthouses market the ship's turn to the south for the final leg back to Douglas. Cars parked near the lighthouses flashed their headlights in greeting, though one wonders if the person attempting to photograph the Ben in the failing light with using a flashgun had much success!
At this point I decided to venture back into the Blue Riband Lounge for the final run down the coast. The passengers in the lounge agreed that it was time to switch off the lights to ensure we didn't get a visitation from above seeking to close the blinds for "Navigational Safety Reasons"!
Ramsey was passed at 22:17, and Maughold Lighthouse at 22:28. The clear evening had ensured that some light remained in the sky, for the mountains to appear as bold silhouettes in the back ground.
On this final leg of the cruise back to Douglas, chairman of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, Juan Kelly addressed the passengers over the PA system
The lights of Laxey slid by at 22:46 and Groudle Holiday Cottages could just be discerned about 13 minutes later.
A quick run across Douglas Bay and the BEN-MY-CHREE was off her Edward Pier berth at the scheduled arrival time of 23:15 with "ropes on" at 23:20, just five minutes behind schedule.
On disembarking the ship, all passengers were presented with an attractive certificate commemorating the BEN-MY-CHREE's first circumnavigation of the Isle of Man.
To sum up, it was a most wonderful evening blessed with superb weather, everyone appeared to have a fantastic time on board.
With the LADY OF MANN's future now very uncertain, and the likelihood of her final "Round the Island" having already taken place, it is clear that the BEN-MY-CHREE is a fine ship on to use for future RTI cruises.
If anything, the cruise on July 23 has confirmed that the once unloved BEN-MY-CHREE has become recognised as a worthy successor to those classic steam and motor ships which have gone before.
I think all those who took part in the trip would like to thank the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company for such a well organised and memorable trip to mark their 175th Anniversary.
Here's to the next 175 Years.
Can we have another BEN-MY-CHREE Circumnavigation Next July .. ?!
NOTE ON PHOTOGRAPHS
These appear in sequential order left to right along the top and then down the side of the Voyage report.
I have avoided captions as most people will be able to identify the locations from text if they do not already know them.