Friday May 26, 2006
22:00 Liverpool - Dublin
My first voyage between Liverpool and Dublin with the then Merchant Ferries took place in May 1999, shortly after the company commenced operations between on the route using the new Astilleros Espanoles built DAWN MERCHANT and BRAVE MERCHANT. These ships often being referred to as the "Race Horses" given that they were named after "Dawn Run" and "Dancing Brave" there was a racing theme on board - with the "Winning Post Restaurant" and the "Jockey Club Bar" and appropriate themed decor.
From 1999, though I tended to use the Sea Containers / Isle of Man Steam Packet SUPERSEACAT TWO and THREE for day trips and occasional weekend crossings to Dublin, for longer stays in Ireland I used Merchant Ferries almost exclusively.
For one reason or another most of my trips be they day or night crossings tended to be on board DAWN MERCHANT. I really enjoyed making these trips - the DAWN and her sister BRAVE were spacious and well laid out. Besides on day crossings the bar, being at the front over looking the bow, made for splendid panoramic views of sea and coast.
During this time, Cenargo, the then owners of Merchant Ferries bought out the operations of Norse Irish Ferries - operators of the Liverpool - Belfast service to create Norse Merchant Ferries.
My pattern of sailings with what had become Norse Merchant came to an end in 2002. Cenargo where getting into a financial crisis and, DAWN MERCHANT was sent off to the channel, and eventually the Liverpool, later Birkenhead - Dublin service switched to freight only for a period of time forcing me to find alternative means of crossing the Irish Sea.
Cenargo eventually ran on to the rocks, but fortunately the successful Norse Merchant Ferries operation survived and by the latter half of 2005 a normal schedule had resumed on the Birkenhead - Dublin route. For a brief period of time in autumn 2005 the "race horses" once again operated the route.
It was during the second half of 2005 a long running rumour was confirmed in that the Norse Merchant had been acquired by the A.P. Møller - Maersk Group and would be merged into the company's existing Norfolk Line operation.
In October 2005 I was able to revert to the former Norse Merchant operation and take a day time crossings from Birkenhead to Dublin and return on BRAVE MERCHANT.
Apart from the fact that the former Norse Merchant ships now sailed from Twelve Quays - rather than out of Canada #3 Dock it was just like old times and I was pleased to be back on board ships I had enjoyed travelling on in the past.
However, DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT departed from the Irish Sea and with the arrival of the new Visentini built LAGAN VIKING [II] and MERSEY VIKING [II] the original 1997 built Vikings by now named DUBLIN VIKING and LIVERPOOL VIKING had been switched to the Birkenhead - Dublin route.
The original Vikings have been a familiar sight on the Mersey since their arrival in 1997, however, as I don't tend to travel to Belfast I had not yet travelled I had not yet had the pleasure of travelling on one and looked forward to the experience.
Some people I have talked who had travelled on these vessels were quite positive pointing the value of a forward facing open deck - a rare feature in ship design these days.
Thus, having not really heard any previous negative comments I was looking forward to the trip as I arrived at Twelve Quays around 19:00 on May 26. I was in the second car there, but the vehicle lines soon began to fill, and taxis began to arrive at the adjacent terminal building with foot passengers.
Check-in opened around 19:30. After boarding cards were issued an information sheet was handed out giving details of that particular sailing, weather conditions, arrival times etc. This incidentally only appears to be issued at Birkenhead and not Dublin for some reason.
As it was the start of the half-term week in the UK it was obviously going to be a busy sailing and cars were squeezed up tight in the marshalling lanes. Mirror "dangles" being given out with letters D or B to indicate to staff which routes vehicles were travelling on.
Shortly after 20:00 boarding commenced with cars following the traditional practice of following the foot passenger boarding bus. This led the cars down onto the landing stage. The bus heading off to the upper deck to drop off the "footies" whilst cars were led onto the main deck. However, a once on the main deck cars were diverted to a large trap door which led down to a lower deck with very low head room, there was something slightly reminiscent of the LADY OF MANN here. This lower car deck - deck 2, which really appears to have been designed for trade cars means that LIVERPOOL VIKING and DUBLIN VIKING can stow standard low airdraught cars away from the main vehicle decks, unlike DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT - this considerably increasing the amount of space available for freight.
However, using the trade car decks for passenger cars has its disadvantages from a passenger's point of view as will be explained later.
After ascending the lift to deck 5, the main passenger deck, I collected my cabin key from reception. This adjoins a shop area which has a reasonable range of goods.
After picking up my key I was directed to the main very wide and very steep central staircase, possibly one of the steepest I have encountered on a passenger vessel which led up to the deck 6 - the cabin deck
I was allocated cabin B51. Passing a couple of other cabins with "Norfolk Line or Norse Merchant" labels on them carrying "do not disturb" messages I presumed that these were being used as additional crew accommodation
Cabin B51 turned out to be forward facing - port side.
Out of the window I could just see the large tanker NAVION HISPANIC moving off Tranmere, so I didn't linger, going out onto one of the smaller upper port side open deck spaces. However, passing through the door vestibule I was greeted by rather unpleasant smell - sort of disinfectant mixed with the odor of a previously rough voyage!
After photographing the Navion tanker, I returned to the cabin for a good look and to be honest found it somewhat disappointing. Over the years I have travelled in quite a few cabins - probably the worst being the vibration prone upper cabins on the former Isle of Man Steam Packet's KING ORRY - where sleep was nigh on impossible!
The cabins on LIVERPOOL VIKING are all four berth. However, what struck me as odd was the fact that the upper berths, though clearly designed to be folded away had been fixed in place with blocks of wood and labels fitted stating that the bunk was permanently fixed! Why?!
If the cabin is only occupied by one or two people the fixed upper berth gives an unnecessary congested feel. on DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT had two berth cabins. The upper berth could be folded away for single occupancy and the lower berth converted into a seat for day use.
LIVERPOOL VIKING does not have convertible lower berths either and unless one intends to sleep during the day, the cabins do not lend themselves to day-time use.
As well as making the cabins feel somewhat claustrophobic, the permanently fixed upper berth means entering the lower berth is not as straight forward as it could be. This is due to the pronounced lip at the bed head, obviously useful in preventing pax rolling out in rough seas, it means one having to perform contortions not normally necessary for getting into bed - and I imagine for anyone with back trouble it might not be a pleasant experience!
The shower / toilet unit in the corner being fairly typical of those found on most vessels. After stowing my bags I went to have a look around. Descending the stairs to deck 5 I went into the "Liverpool Bar" - this faces the port side of the vessel and sadly does not offer the same pleasant views that could be had from DAWN MERCHANT and BRAVE MERCHANT and also considerably fewer seats. The majority of passenger's attention being drawn to the "one eyed flat screen monster" perched in the corner. At least on DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT the TV was tucked away in the corner of the Bar with its down dedicated seating area.
There are bench seats - reminiscent of a tube train around three sides of this bar area supplemented by tables and chairs. There is also a smaller area, again with tube train seats around the side and more tables and chairs. Aft of the bar area was a casino table - but on both crossings this appeared to be doing little in the way of business.
The restaurant opened for dinner at around 20:30. It was certainly well staffed with attentive crew ready to whip away a tray in the blink of an eye. Given the large number of staff who appeared to be present one wonders why they don't do waiter service!
The restaurant is divided into two areas the main area for private passengers and a side "Road Kings" area for freight drivers. On the busy outward trip there appeared to be some segregation going on of freight and private passengers, on the return trip which had a lighter passenger load, people appeared to sit where they wanted. As both freight drivers and private passengers now get inclusive meals - one must ask if it is necessary to segregate passengers?
Food was quite good, not PONT-AVEN standards but comparable to other Irish Sea offerings and considering it is included in the fare - one can't really complain! After starting with soup I opted for the pork with veg and potatoes. These meal components were served to passengers, however, adding the gravy was a help yourself affair.
It was interesting to note that the gravy was placed in a container immediately adjacent to two others one containing rhubarb crumble and the other custard. This would suggest a high risk of cross contamination should a passenger have a careless slip of the hand or the ship roll the thought of gravy and rhubarb crumble, or gravy and custard - ugggghhh - makes one shudder at the thought!
There was a good range of desserts too with ice cream, cheese and biscuits, jelly etc. available.
After dinner I went outside to explore - whilst the Vikings do have the forward facing outside deck, the total area of outside space is considerably less than on DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT. The outside areas also looked rather grubby compared to many other ships, worn and uncared for is probably the best description with quite a lot of noticeable rush blushing!
Yes, these vessels work hard - but so do others and when I travelled on BRAVE MERCHANT last October I found her much better presented as I did P&O's NORBAY and NORBANK in February. I remained outside for a while as the light faded on the river ARKLOW SURF passed by inbound whilst ROYAL DAFFODIL sailed past on an evening cruise.
After dinner I returned to the quite well filled bar for a while but could not escpae the one eyed monster blearing in the corner with the majority of pax in a transfixed stare. What did people do on ships before TV was installed?
After getting a pint of the black stuff I escaped to one of the few seats in the reception area. But that is right next to the children's play pen full of screeching kids. Why? Nearby but around the corner is an amusement arcade. Surely this would make a better location for the play pen and allow some quiet seating to be placed in this area?
One thing that strikes you about LIVERPOOL VIKING is the apparent lack of seating. Given that the ship has a nominal passenger capacity of 340 compared to DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT's 250 pax capacity one must ask where do passengers sit on day crossings?
There was adequate comfortable seating on DAWN and BRAVE with excellent views both in the bar and in the upper deck seating area - this was completely missing on LIVERPOOL VIKING. To be honest I don't think I would like to do a day time crossing on MERSEY or LIVERPOOL VIKING.
Whilst they don't offer forward facing views the P&O twins NORBAY and NORBANK do have much better passenger seating areas and at least good views through the side windows.
Departure was prompt at 22:00 and we slipped away some time before LAGAN VIKING which was still loading for Belfast. Gulf Offshore's SEFTON SUPPORTER was in the river waiting for a lock
I retired to the cabin around the time we reached the Bar as the ship appeared to be making good progress it was obvious we would have an on time in Dublin and the opportunity for sleep would be limited.
I managed to get off to sleep very quickly despite by observations about the fixed bunks I must comment that the lower bunks were very comfortable. However, I didn't feel as though I had been asleep long when there was a rapping on the doors - looking at my watch it was just 03:50. What a God forsaken hour!
In previous overnight sailings with Norse Merchant Ferries when the ships sailed from Canada Dock I recall Dublin wake-up calls being early but not as early as this - but then the crossing took longer as passage through the Liverpool Locks and Dock system could take between 45 minutes and one hour.
I probably eat my earliest breakfast ever at around 04:15. Afterwards I went outside and stood at the front. Poolbeg was passed at 04:50 and almost immediately passengers were being asked to vacate cabins. So had to rush back to the upper deck and get my bags as crew were already turning the bedding out of vacated cabins.
Passengers then gathered around the bar area. We were off the berth at around 05:05. At this time I thought I would check out the main toilets. They were not particularly well presented compared to other ships on which I have travelled. I noted that one of the toilet seats was broken and as with my cabin toilet the outer cover to the vacuum flush button was missing. Small things I know - but a sign things were not being cared for.
LIVERPOOL VIKING swung promptly and ropes were on at 05:13 two minutes early. Freight drivers were called. I went outside again and photographed CELTC STAR, NORBANK and STENA ADVENTURER who had followed us in.
Car drivers were called down to deck two once the deck three freight had cleared, though the upper deck freight was still unloading down the ramp as cars came off.
Car passengers were off by around 05:45. Almost two hours after being awoke!
Really one must ask is such an early call required given that the ship was not due to depart Dublin until 10:00? Would it not be beyond the realms of possibility to actually allocate cabins in different areas to freight drivers and private passengers? Calling the freight drivers first and allowing private passengers with cars on deck 2 and foot passengers a later wake up call would be an idea.
Why I suggest this is that too much time is then wasted waiting around after initially being rushed down to breakfast! With cars and trucks being mixed together on the main vehicle deck on DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT a simultaneous freight and private passenger call made some sense, but given the amount of time taken to clear deck three and then lift the car deck hatch a staggered call would make sense.
22:00 Dublin - Liverpool
When sailing from Dublin it always makes sense to get to Dublin Port in good time as the traffic in and around Dublin can be quite congested even in the evening. I was therefore at the port shortly after 19:00. LIVERPOOL VIKING was on the Norfolk Line berth and ULYSSES ahead on berth 49.
Boarding began rather later than at Birkenhead around 20:30 car passengers following the security van rather than the boarding bus around to the ship as the handful of foot pax travelling had been squeezed into the security van. Whilst there were quite a lot of cars travelling most were of the higher sided variety so once on board only three cars were directed down to deck two. After ascending the lift, I picked up my cabin key and realised I had left one of my bags in the car. I went back down the lift to find the watertight door closed and locked.
Returning to reception I asked about getting back to the car. I was told it was a good job I had realised that I didn't have all my bags with me at this point because once the ship sails deck two is completely off limits whilst at sea being a watertight zone. The night security officer was summoned and after a lot of running around trying to get the correct key to open the door control panel cover (it took him around 15 minutes and two visits to the bridge) I was able to retrieve my other bag.
All this running around was done very cheerfully - but I wonder if passenger access to the car deck had been allowed for a little longer this problem wouldn't have arisen! People can be a bit absent minded and I am no exception. It was not as if I had requested access half an hour after reaching the passenger accommodation, but at most a couple of minutes - on most ships a return to the car deck within this time scale is perfectly possible.
For the return journey I was allocated an inside cabin. I must admit I am not a fan of inside cabins usually finding it difficult to sleep for some reason and where there is an option prefer to have a window.
The inside cabin B40 was very similar to B51 on the outward journey again with the fixed upper bunks but no window. However, a rather unwelcoming mess was found on the toilet / shower room floor - see photo. It looked as though someone in mucky footwear had been in there on a wet floor and left foot prints, a sure sign that cleaning wasn't quite up to scratch! In all the cabin voyages on various ships I have done over the years I have never encountered this before.
Dinner was served around 21:00 and a good selection was on offer again - this time I opted for some turkey for teh main course. I noted that the gravy was still in very close proximity to the dessert!
After dinner I went outside. LIVERPOOL VIKING departed at 22:10, with Poolbeg light being passed at 22:24. As we sailed out of Dublin the remaining glow of from the sun which had sunk below the western horizon sillouted the port and its surroundings.
With most of the seats taken in the reception area I sat for a while in the side lounge by the bar and reflected on my LIVERPOOL VIKING experience which had been something of a disappointment.
I retired to my cabin around 23:30 and was again woken at 03:50 - I will credit LIVERPOOL VIKING with the fact that this was the first time I have managed unbroken sleep in an inside cabin the lower berths are very comfortable! Arriving down in the restaurant around 15 minutes later the the Seaforth Radar Tower was in sight and we only had a few miles to run up to Twelve Quays.
After the rush to get people down to breakfast the usual waiting around followed, during this period I noted two of the loose seats in the reception area were missing. However, their lashings and the metal deck mounted securing ring remained - one wonders why this obvious trip hazard was not removed especially given that it was near the entrance to the children's play area.
There was a bit of a delay whilst the freight was discharged - but even allowing for that I had disembarked and was home before 06:00.
In summing up - my opinion is that from a passenger point of view LIVERPOOL VIKING is a significantly inferior ship to her predecessors - DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT.
There is a lack of passenger seating suitable for a day time crossing. The cabins are cramped, and do not offer a "day mode" - essential if there is little in the way of day time seating on deck 5.
The bar area is smaller and would be better located in the area now occupied by the restaurant - at least there would be better views. There also appears to be a lot of wasted or inappropriately used space - amusement arcade and children's play area, the almost unused casino as well. The Cinema also takes up a lot of space - how many people bother watching a movie on a night crossing? The starting time after dinner would leave very little time for sleep before the early call!
Some remodelling of the interiors of these ships could work wonders - but really from this passenger's point of view it would be better if DAWN and BRAVE MERCHANT could return from the Meditteranean.
Whilst LIVERPOOL VIKING is a disappointment - the crew are very pleasant and obliging - I was greatful for the amount of effort put into allowing me to retrieve my bag from the car - I am sure given a better ship the crew could provide an excellent service - but in my oppinion and by comparison with P&O with whom I travelled a few months ago, Norfolk Line is currently offering a service which at present could only be described at mediocre.
As things stand I have one further round trip reservation for the end of July - I am not sure if it is on LIVERPOOL VIKING or DUBLIN VIKING or both at this stage, but after that trip that I am not certain if I will return considering there is the P&O alternative just across the river.
Norfolk Line does offer very good value for money - with significantly cheaper fares than I recall paying for a similar crossing with Norse Merchant back back in 2002. This is especially true if one picks up one of the promotional fares as I had done.
However, the overall quality of the travel experience is governed by the available ships and that provided by Vikings can only be considered a shadow of that provided by DAWN MERCHANT and BRAVE MERCHANT a few years ago.