Only a few months I wrote the obituary of the Liverpool - Dublin fast craft service on Irish Sea Shipping – The Online Shipping Magazine following the announcement in late November 2004 that the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company were abandoning the route and it would not resume as usual at the end of February.
Alarm bells over the future of the Liverpool - Dublin route had been ringing since the beginning of November when the Steam Packet's 2006 Isle of Man brochure appeared as this did not even mention the Liverpool - Dublin service.
At the time of the route's closure the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company blamed airline competition and low passenger numbers.
However, quite a few believed that was their excuse for ditching a route that they had little interest in maintaining. It wasn't part of their core route network, just a legacy of the Sea Containers years.
Following the announcement that Liverpool - Dublin would close various rumours did the rounds or the waterfront concerning potential operators, even rumour suggested that Montagu Private Equity would operate it directly.
New Year 2005 came and went and some observers of the Irish Sea Ferry scene reckoned that the Liverpool - Dublin high speed service would develop into a saga similar to that of the Campbeltown - Ballycastle route. I must admit I was one of those who began to share the scepticism as time passed by.
However, by February there was a signs of activity. It became known that a new company based on the Wirral - Irish Sea Express had been formed. Recruitment advertisements began to appear and it was apparent that Liverpool - Dublin high speed service would be back later in 2005 operated by SEACAT ISLE OF MAN which would be renamed SEA EXPRESS 1.
Much work went on to pull the new service together in a relatively short space of time, however, by April 26 it was possible for SEA EXPRESS 1 to undertake a trial run to Dublin in advance of the service commencing the following day.
I decided to take my first trip with the world's youngest shipping company on May Day Bank Holiday Monday - May 2.
When I arrived down at Prince's Landing Stage early at 07:00. There was a road tanker present refilling the Cat Fuel barge.
At Liverpool terminal handling appears is undertaken by Isle of Man Steam Packet Company staff.
Obviously the Steam Packet have done well out of this arrangement as they can charge for terminal facilities and receive charter fees for SEA EXPRESS 1.
SEA EXPRESS 1 was berthed stern to the link span. Whilst this may have been the usual way of berthing in recent years when the vessel was in Steam Packet service, it is the intention to berth bow on to the Liverpool Link Span.
This is because it is much better to berth stern on to the Dublin Berth 49 Link span possibly due to the fact raised bow visor may come into close proximity to the upper level of the twin deck link span at this location.
Engineers had been installing a new passenger loading platform on Prince's Stage to enable passengers to board whilst the vessel is bow on to the span. Some of the components of the now unused south berth landing platform have been scavenged to construct the new platform. However, at the time of my trip the new platform was not yet in service.
Few cars appeared to have presented for the 08:15 sailing, those that had, were already on board by the time an Irish Sea Express crewmember and an Isle of Man Steam Packet Company employee led passengers down to the vessel.
For those long used to the Sea Containers uniforms still used by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. the Irish Sea Express uniforms are rather different, though probably more functional Female crew wear trousers, and hats rather reminiscent of those worn by women police officers Male crew wear dark suits.
Stepping on board SEA EXPRESS 1 it is apparent quite a few changes have been made to the internal layout.
The ship's bar - now branded "Ma Boyles Bar" has been smartened up with table and chair seating around the windows. The bar counter itself has also been improved, though the food display units remain for sandwiches.
However, the main food servery has been installed at the rear of the main cabin area, occupying the area taken in recent years by the bay type seating. A small part of this area on the starboard side is given over to a still empty gaming room. Cubical would probably be a better description, however, the intention is to fit a casino table in this space.
The shop, at the forward end of the main cabin, has been revamped and is a great improvement, it is brighter and with a much better layout. It no longer serves a dual role as a food outlet.
On the port side of the vessel a small enquiry office has been installed near the Ladies Toilets.
Whilst most of the passenger accommodation remains as it was in Isle of Man Steam Packet Company days the former First Class and Blue Riband Lounge areas have been completely revamped and merged into one area known as the Club Class Lounge.
This area located in the starboard side lower deck now has a proper, solid bulkhead separating it from the standard class seating in the forward part of this deck.
With a frosted glass screen fitted along the length of the lounge and the solid bulkhead it now feels less of a part of the rest of the ship as was the case when the SEA EXPRESS 1 was in Steam Packet service. One wonders why the Steam Packet did not make such an improvement?
The Club Class Lounge is bright with light paint, and carpet. Some wall decorations include brassware, prints etc which look as though they originated from Nauticalia! This area is certainly a vast improvement over what went before.
Club Lounge seating is in brown leatherette arranged 3x3 around tables. It certainly provides a much better environment than that offered in the first class area during Steam Packet Days.
However, whilst the Club Lounge may be a vast improvement over Steam Packet First Class, the Club Class Lounge, in my opinion, does not offer facilities as good as those available to Isle of Man Steam Packet Blue Riband Club members when they travelled on this vessel in Steam Packet service..
The Blue Riband lounge seats were only 2x2 and reclining as well as being slightly broader, thus affording considerably more space. The rear of the Club class lounge has been fitted with a servery area. Upgrades to the lounge are priced at £15 for a single journey this includes two complimentary soft drinks and biscuits.
Whilst this fee is comparative to what was on offer to passengers travelling First Class on the route when operated by the Isle of Man Steam Packet using SUPERSEACAT TWO, it is certainly is not quite so good for Blue Riband Club Members, who now have to pay for the privilege of an upgrade.
Of course that isn't Irish Sea Express's fault, but as a Blue Riband Club member one feels that the Steam Packet's withdrawal from the route has added to the cost of the journey if one wants to travel in a quieter area! For those not familiar with the Steam Packet's Blue Riband Club, it should be pointed out that members are entitled to two free alcoholic drinks, unlimited soft drinks and biscuits. Well least the Steam Packet didn't increase the membership fees this year.
Personally, I think Irish Sea Express should provide the option for a Blue Riband Club style operation with a fixed membership fee, this would appeal to regular travellers and once the fee has been paid, generate brand loyalty.
Though the ship has only one lounge perhaps there could still be the option of selling a membership package? Currently the Steam Packet charge £180 [single membership] or £280 joint membership] for travel on four routes. Perhaps £120 per year would be reasonable for fee on ISE?
Well enough of the ship – now on with the voyage.
LIVERPOOL - DUBLIN
Departure from Liverpool was a few minutes early at 08:08 with 113 passengers.
There was little activity on the River Mersey. Holyhead Towing Company's split hopper barge AFON CADNANT was against George's Landing Stage. She has been loading silt for dumping down at Tower Buoy. This silt is being extracted from behind the Landing Stage in the vicinity of the missing Princes Landing Stage section.
LIVERPOOL VIKING and BRAVE MERCHANT lay on Twelve Quays south and north respectively. One of the Mersey Ferries waited the start of the day's service at Seacombe Landing Stage.
C21 was passed at 08:23 and SEA EXPRESS 1 accelerated to full speed. Only one vessel was passed in the channel a small outbound fishing boat.
However, as SEA EXPRESS 1 approached Q1` SUPERSEACAT TWO could be seen inbound from Douglas.
SEA EXPRESS 1 passed Q2 and cleared the channel at around 08:40 whilst the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's SUPERSEACAT TWO made an impressive sight speeding into Queen's Channel.
There were three ships at The Liverpool Bat anchorage. All tankers.
For the outward journey I spent much of the time sat on the rear bench seat on the open deck, given the weather it was quite pleasant. There wasn't much to see ship wise, though there appeared to be a tanker in the anchorage off Amlwch.
SEA EXPRESS 1 passed Skerries at 10:05 when the first officer gave the mid-voyage update.
Once clear of the coast beyond Anglesey there was some increased motion in the vessel as we crossed the exposed waters of St. Georges Channel. However, the captain had advised passengers that this would be likely. Compared some previously lively trips on the vessel in her Steam Packet days the motion was rather tame.
Little was seen until 10:57 when we passed astern of a beam trawler which was heading south.
At 11:31 HSS STENA EXPLORER could be seen heading eastbound for Holyhead. A minute or so later SEA EXPRESS 1 was abeam of the Kish.
Speed was reduced at around 11:33. MERSEY MAMMOTH was heading outbound presumably back to Liverpool. Meanwhile, sailing astern was the Dublin Port tug CLUAIN TARBH.
Passing Poolbeg light SEA EXPRESS 1 ran up the slowly up the Fairway to the berth. Looking aft a layer of cloud appeared perched on top of the Hill of Howth. As we approached berth 49 Irish Ferries Jonathan Swift came off the berth.
On the South Wall COASTAL ISLE and BG IRELAND were on the MTL container berth, whilst MAERSK WESTLAND was at DFT berth. There were two Fisher Tankers on the oil berths, and the funnel of car carrier visible in Alexandra Basin.
LINDAROSA and LEMBITU were at the Norse Merchant terminal.
Ropes were on at 12:14. A Statoil road tanker was manoeuvring on the link span as we berthed ready to deliver bunkers. SEA EXPRESS 1 has to take bunkers at Dublin.
DUBLIN - LIVERPOOL
Handling at Dublin is undertaken by Dublin Maritime staff who were wearing Steam Packet uniforms.
Boarding of vehicles commenced first with foot passengers boarding later.
Boarding for Liverpool sailings at Dublin traditionally takes place though gate two from the terminal departure lounge, however, it was only at the last minute I realised that the door was defective and passengers being called to gate 1 and thus I ended up at the back of the queue!
On the return trip I booked a seat in the Club Class Lounge, as I guessed that being the end of the bank holiday it would be quite busy and I also wanted to see how it compared to the Steam Packet Blue Riband Club Experience.
By the time I made it to the Club Class Lounge it was already well filled and I had to make do with an inside seat.
Service was prompt and attentive with biscuits and tea / coffee served shortly after I sat down. This was served in distinctive crockery bearing the Irish Sea Express logo.
Departure from Dublin was a couple of minutes early at 13:58. There was a good loading of 279 passengers and over 60 cars.
As we departed passengers were advised that there might be some motion of the ship during the first half of the passage, given the prevailing winds.
SEA EXPRESS 1 passed Poolbeg at 14:09.
Cabin staff then started to take orders for meals. There is quite a varied selection of meals available, with prices comparable with other services.
I ordered an old Steam Packet favourite of the half roast chicken, along with a pint of Guinness. The meal was bought along on a distinctive square plate bearing the ISE logo.
A few moments later the attendant returned apologising for the fact that they had run out of Guinness so I had to settle for something else.
During the crossing of St.George's Channel, was smoother, but very heavy rain was encountered which rattled on the windows.
The weather started to clear after the Skerries was passed at 16:01 at a speed of around 33knots.
Around this time I decided to check out the shop. As mentioned above it has changed somewhat from Steam Packet days. Displays are more attractive, and there appears to be an attempt to sell better quality goods.
I missed the passing time for the Bar and Q1, however, Formby light float was passed at 17:28. Speed was reduced at 17:42.
SEA EXPRESS 1 sailed up river to Prince’s Stage, still occupied by SUPERSEACAT TWO, however, at a couple of minutes to 18:00 SSC2 slipped her moorings and was away a couple of minutes later SEA EXPRESS 1 was on the stage with ropes on at 18:02.
It is good to see the Liverpool – Dublin high speed link restored and it is to be hoped that Irish Sea Express can develop the route to its full potential.