Birkenhead - Dublin
October 22, 2005
My first trip with the then Merchant Ferries to Dublin was in spring 1999, shortly after the company opened a new Liverpool to Dublin ropax service. This service operated out of Canada #3 Branch Dock and employed the new Spanish built ships DAWN MERCHANT and BRAVE MERCHANT.
From the start the Merchant Ferries service became my preferred means of travelling across the Irish Sea when going on holiday. From 1999 through to 2002 I under took quite a few sailings both day and night.
Of these sailings, all but one was to be made onboard DAWN MERCHANT. Only one voyage was made on board BRAVE MERCHANT.
Unfortunately my sailings with Norse Merchant, as they had become following merger, with Norse Irish Ferries came to an end in 2002.
That year, the company's then proprietors Cenargo found themselves in serious financial trouble.
DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT were dispatched to the English Channel to sail on the newly opened NORFOLK LINE service between Dover and Dunkerque. The ro/ro freighters NORSE MERSEY and LINDAROSA were taken on charter for the Dublin route and the passenger service ended.
This happened around the time that NORSE MERCHANT transferred from the somewhat in adequate dockside terminals at Brocklebank and Canada #3 Branch Docks to the new purpose built on river terminal at Twelve Quays, Birkenhead.
Though Norse Merchant eventually reintroduced the passenger service to Dublin, being a one passenger ship service timings didn't quite fit in with my travelling patterns, so a variety of crossings made with my car in 2003 and 2004 were made using Steam Packet, P&O and Irish Ferries services.
In July 2005 the new LAGAN VIKING was delivered from builders in Italy to take up service on the Birkenhead – Belfast service. This displaced LIVERPOOL VIKING which was then able to switch to the Dublin route and enable a two ship passenger service to be reintroduced.
Therefore, with a holiday in Ireland booked for late October, I had no hesitation in returning to Norse Merchant Ferries for my travel and the very attractive fare of £69 including refreshments each way for a day time sailing was an added incentive!
Several days after making the reservation it became apparent that DAWN MERCHANT would be returning to the Mersey – so all being well I thought here was the opportunity to perhaps travel on both ships for one last time. Following refit work on the original “Vikings” and the delivery of the new MERSEY VIKING both DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT are due to pass to new owners. The original “Vikings” would then be deployed on the Birkenhead – Dublin service.
On Saturday October 22, I found myself driving into the Birkenhead Twelve Quays for the first time, just over three years after the terminal had opened.
Compared to the facilities offered at Canada #3 Twelve Quays is a significant improvement, and gets away from the traditional “portacabin” culture of Merseyside’s Irish Sea terminals which has prevailed since the short-lived B&I Terminal at Waterloo Dock closed in the early 1980s
Though I arrived at Twelve Quays quite early around 07:40 there were a number of other vehicles already queuing up.
The check-in gate opened around 08:00 and the queue moved forward, though as I came closer to the kiosk a second check in opened.
Norse Merchant does not issue tickets for phone bookings. I had my booking reference jotted down, but an observant check in clerk must have spotted my registration number and welcomed me by name before I had chance to quote the number. That created a very favourable impression.
During the Summer Norse Merchant announced that in the interests of security they had decided to introduce a photographic ID policy. This check was carried out at Birkenhead before boarding cards were issued.
Along with the cards passengers are handed a laser printed letter welcoming them to NMF and giving details of the crossing.
This is obviously compiled on a day to day basis giving details of weather conditions, cinema film etc.
The "signatory" is the passenger manager Diane Poole, a name once synonymous with Sea Containers services on the North Channel out of Belfast.
However, given the weather forecast, one really had to wonder if sea conditions would be "moderate to rough"?
The letter advised that early arrivals would board at 08:30, with later arrivals boarding at 09:30.
After leaving the check in booth, one passes into the security check area. Here, the vehicles are subject to a search. The car in front had its boot searched. I had my engine compartment checked and an under body mirror run around the car.
Whilst the checking was done a number of questions were asked in a conversationalist way. The security check was thorough, performed in a professional and friendly without being officious.
Cars were then drawn up in to two groups of queues, one for Belfast and the other for Dublin.
The advised boarding time of 08:30 for early arrivals came and went, as did the advised boarding time of 09:30 for late arrivals.
During this time the first cars for the Belfast sailing had been led on board LIVERPOOL VIKING by the foot pax boarding bus.
Around 09:50 a member of staff arrived to tell everyone to start their engines and a few minutes later the cars had started to snake out of the compound towards the river wall.
By 10:10 I had driven on board BRAVE MERCHANT. The old arrangement of marshalling passenger cars at the forward end near the stairs and lift has continued.
By the time private vehicles were loaded drop trailers, a few trucks and trade cars had already been loaded and were being secured by crew.
The captain advised passengers that it would be a smooth crossing, at least he, unlike the producers of the letter had bothered to check the forecast!
Just prior to departure SUPERSEACAT TWO could be seen inbound on her 08:00 sailing from Douglas.
By around 10:35 the rope men were making their way along the catwalks to the dolphins. Singling up commenced at 10:39.
By now I had made my way back in to the Jockey Club Bar which offers a fine view over the bow. A few moments later a steward came round to inform passengers that "brunch" was now being served in the Winning Post Restaurant.
Norse Merchant advertise an inclusive lunch, though I think to one or two passengers not used to truck drivers dining requirements it was somewhat early.
There was a choice of breakfast or a three course lunch.
Breakfast was the usual fry up, the lunch was either fish and chips with vegetables or beef curry and rice.
I opted for the beef curry, which was rather tasty and had a good flavour. I followed with a fresh fruit salad for dessert.
Returning to the Jockey Club Bar, BRAVE MERCHANT had past the Rock and was in Crosby Channel. Inbound was the car carrier GRAND PACE. Looking astern could be seen a flotilla of Adsteam tugs heading down stream to rendezvous with the car carrier.
At this time P&O’s NORBAY could be seen to have departed from Gladstone Lock and was swinging in the river. Further up stream LIVERPOOL VIKING could be seen swinging off the Twelve Quay south ready to follow us out bound for Belfast
Formby light float was passed at 11:34, Q1 at 11:38 and the Liverpool Bar Lightfloat at 11:50.
The weather deteriorated briefly to a period of heavy rain which appeared to be coming in from the North, whilst to the south, over Wirral and North Wales the sun could be seen to be shining.
No vessels were noted at the Bar anchorage and the Douglas Gas Platform was passed at 12:15.
BRAVE MERCHANT appears to have changed very little since my one and only trip on her a few years ago. Her external superstructure paintwork appears to be very well maintained as does her internal fittings. Unlike another Irish Sea ship of similar age on which I travel regularly BRAVE MERCHANT doesn’t appear to have suffered from lots of pieces falling off and not being replaced! The only major missing feature is the sculpture of the race horse “Dancing Brave” which once stood at the entrance to the Jockey Club Bar.
There has been an interesting addition to the ship’s facilities. Shortly after the introduction of DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT they were fitted with four pairs of garden style seats on the aft open decks. Two pairs on deck 7 and two pairs on deck 8.
The port side pair of seats on deck 8 has acquired a modern “bus stop” style structure over them made of Perspex and metal. This is the “smokers den” – the ship is now operates a complete no smoking policy inside. In the past the “Jockey Club Bar” was divided into smoking and non smoking sections.
The next vessel to be seen was an east bound freighter or tanker off the Welsh coast between Lynas and Great Orme's head.
Looking towards the Welsh coast near Lynas the distinctive silhouette of the University of Wales Research Vessel PRINCE MADOG could be seen to the east of Lynas.
At 13:31 NORBANK passed east bound for Liverpool off Lynas
DAWN MERCHANT passed east bound beneath the silhouette of Parys Mountain crowned by its mine headgear.
At 13:58 and unidentified east bound Bulker could be seen. To the Isle of Man and Calf of Mann could just be discerned. Also visible some distance to the north was one of the Royal Navy’s River Class patrol vessels. However, it was not possible to make a positive identification
The Lighthouse crowned Skerries were passed at 14:10 and it was just possible to make out the outline of ULYSSES at Holyhead.
No other vessels were observed until 15:12 when MERCHANT BRAVERY could be seen heading eastbound for Heysham.
At 15:30 passengers were summoned back to the Winning Post Restaurant for afternoon tea. The afternoon tea comprises a scone, donut and tea, coffee or fruit juice. As with lunch the afternoon tea is inclusive with the fare.
At 16:21 Irish Ferries JONATHAN SWIFT overtook on the port side, whilst the small tanker GAS PIONEER passed southbound at 16:21 across the stern.
Heading out of Dublin Bay HSS STENA EXPLORER could be seen on her afternoon sailing from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead.
Astern, coming over the horizon could just be made out STENA ADVENTURER.
The small container ship EMMA headed south down the Irish Cost.
Shield Navigation’s ro/lo freighter RR SHIELD [ex LEILI] was overtaken off the Baily at 16:45. She is currently on charter to Norse Merchant for services on the Heysham – Dublin route.
As we ran past the Hill of Howth a threatening sky with somewhat peculiar lighting had developed over Sutton, with the sun shining to the south over Dún Laoghaire.
BRAVE MERCHANT was off her berth at 17:12 and was secured by 17:20. Though car drivers were called to their vehicles fairly soon after berthing it was to be some time before enough drop trailers had been liberated to enable cars to drive off shortly before 18:00.
Therefore, Norse Merchant’s advertised arrival time of 18:00 for the 10:00 sailing is accurate in the sense that one does not disembark until around 18:00 even though arrival can in practice be much earlier.
Dublin - Birkenhead
October 28, 2005
My return journey was booked for Friday October 28. Now I had been hoping for the return trip to be on DAWN MERCHANT, however, I had observed the previous evening that DAWN and BRAVE must have switched sailings as it was DAWN MERCHANT which was at the Norse Merchant Ferries terminal at Dublin on Thursday evening’s sailing to Birkenhead.
I arrived at Dublin Terminal around 07:45. Things were very busy. The early crossing and mid day crossings of the JONATHAN SWIFT had been cancelled due to adverse conditions and obviously some of the traffic from the JONATHAN SWIFT’s early sailing had been held for the ULYSSES.
The Norse Merchant check in booth was already opened and two cars had already checked in for the 10:00 sailing. Interestingly, unlike at Birkenhead, there was no checking of photographic IDs, though there was a notice in the check in booth stating that photographic ID was required. Unlike Birkenhead, there was not security check
The weather had caused JONATHAN SWIFT to have “an Olympic Flame day” and she was resting on berth 51a whilst ULYSSES was on berth 49.
STENA ADVENTURER was away at 08:15.
It was observed that foot pax loading of the ULYSSES must have commenced sometime before vehicle loading as a number of passengers appeared to be gathering on the promenade deck.
ULYSSES vehicle loading commenced just after 08:15.
Loading of vehicles for BRAVE MERCHANT began before 08:50, when the marshalling compound side gate was opened and cars moved across the passenger terminal approach road into the Norse Merchant Terminal compound and assembled behind the security van.
The security guard collected our boarding cards and a few minutes later escorted everyone on board. There were only around 9 private vehicles.
On boarding it was apparent that almost the entire load comprised drop trailers, some of the flatbeds being stacked in pairs.
The total passenger count was around 25, which is easily absorbed by the spacious passenger accommodation designed to accommodate 250.
It should be noted that the passenger accommodation on DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT is significantly bigger that that on a 74m Incat vessel yet the maximum passenger loading is only around half of one of these smaller high density accommodation vessels.
I wandered outside for a while and noted that approaching the Poolbeg oil berth was the tanker SICILIA aided by Dublin Port tugs CLUAIN TARBH and DALGINNIS.
Passing Poolbeg lighthouse MERCHANT BRAVERY could be seen in bound from Heysham. ULYSSES was away on time on her 09:05 sailing to Holyhead.
Meanwhile NORBAY passed outbound on her morning sailing to Liverpool.
MERCHANT BRAVERY swung and came astern onto berth 53 on the opposite side of the basin being secured around 09:50.
The rope men then turned their attention to BRAVE MERCHANT’s departure and she was away around 10:10, ten minutes behind the advertised time. The captain advised that it was windy and may be a rough once out at sea, however, he announced that arrival at Birkenhead was likely to be ahead of schedule.
As BRAVE MERCHANT ran down the Liffey fairway Dublin Pilot Boat #1 - PV TOLKA passed outbound to rendezvous with the inbound ARKLOW VIKING.
BRAVE MERCHANT slipped past Poolbeg Lighthouse at 10:20. Opposite Poolbeg is the North Bull Lighthouse. This was covered in scaffolding and appeared to be undergoing some extensive refurbishment.
The despite the warning that it might be rough out at sea, BRAVE MERCHANT made steady progress with little motion apparent.
ARKLOW VIKING passed in bound in Dublin Bay having been met by PV TOLKA.
Once again “Brunch” was served in the “Winning Post Restaurant” this time the choice was a chicken dish (can’t recall its exact name), fish and chips or a fried breakfast. I opted for the chicken followed by fruit salad. It was very good. In the early days the then Merchant Ferries always appeared to have a problem serving food hot, rather luke warm. However, this problem appears to have been overcome.
On returning to the “Jockey Club Bar” at 11:11 the tanker STELLA POLLUX was noted heading westbound.
DAWN MERCHANT passed west bound 1t 13:40.
Little other shipping was observed and BRAVE MERCHANT past through some patches of heavy rain. The Douglas gas rig was passed at 15:16. From the north west a James Fisher Tanker could be seen approaching – this turned out to be SEVERN FISHER which was bound for the former Cammell Laird wet basin.
A number of ships were noted at the Bar anchorage, however, passengers were summoned to the restaurant for afternoon tea which, as on the outward journey, comprised a doughnut, scone and tea / coffee / juice.
The Liverpool Bar was passed at 15:40 with Q1 buoy being passed at 15:47. BRAVE MERCHANT was secure at Twelve Quays, Birkenhead at 16:45.
This time car passengers were not called down for a few minutes after arrival until many of the drop trailers had been removed. I didn’t note the actual time that I drove ashore, but it was shortly after 17:00.
Over three years have elapsed since my last voyage with Norse Merchant Ferries. During this time the company has weathered the financial storm which signalled the end of its parent company. The Dublin route has suffered from being “freight only” for part of this time before returning to a one ship passenger service. Now the Dublin route is back up to a full ro-pax service. It is unfortunate that the operation of the two “race horses” together on the route for which they were built will only be short lived as they are due to be replaced this winter when the new MERSEY VIKING is delivered. However, it was good to sample the route again on one of the original vessels.
Overall Norse Merchant offers a very pleasant travelling experience. The ships are comfortable and spacious. Even though the “race horses” are due to be replaced I am sure an equally good service will be provided when the original “Vikings” are redeployed.
With the return to a full service on the Norse Merchant Birkenhead – Dublin route this summer it is not difficult to understand how the additional competitive pressure placed on the Irish Sea Express fast craft service led to the closure of that operation during early October. On the Birkenhead – Dublin route – it is obvious that freight pays the main running costs, the passenger service is an “extra” therefore Norse Merchant can offer very attractive vehicle fares on day time sailings against which a car and light commercial vehicle service can never compete with. The spacious and comfortable passenger accommodation along with the reliability of service in all weather conditions offered by Norse Merchant's conventional vessels more than makes up for the longer crossing times between Merseyside and Dublin.
The Norse Merchant service is highly recommended for direct journeys between Ireland and England, it may be a little slower than a fast craft, but it is a better way to cross. If you have not tried this route is is highly recommended.