With the imminent surrender of one of the last great names in British shipping to middle eastern interests I decided that I would have to feature a trip with The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company as soon as possible.
Whilst the name P&O will live on under the new ownership of Dubai Ports World or as the P&O Princess brand of the Carnival Corporation this once great British institution will soon cease to exist as an independent company.
The company's origins date back to 1822 and the formation of a partnership between Brodie McGhie Wilcox and Arthur Anderson an event which even predates the foundation of the celebrated Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.
The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company itself was established in the 1830s and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1840.
P&O has undergone many changes in recent years and today the business is centred on Port and Logistic operations though it maintains a now slimmed down network of services operating within the British Isles and PRIDE OF BILBAO still sails to the Iberian Peninsular to which the "Peninsular" in the company's name refers.
My trip to Dublin in February came around quite by accident. I had originally considered making my voyage with P&O on the North Sea. Intending to visit Rotterdam travelling via Hull on board either the PRIDE OF HULL or PRIDE OF ROTTERDAM.
Perhaps it was my natural resistance to heading east - I think in my whole life I have only crossed the Pennines a couple of dozen times - that mitigated against this trip. But whatever happened I certainly procrastinated for too long.
When I tried to book on line early on the Sunday morning of the week I intended to travel I found all that week's sailing's full, though there had been space the previous day.
Plans rapidly changed and I decided to book a trip with P&O Irish Sea to Dublin which did have space available. A day time return for car and two including meals and fuel surcharge was just £111. Excellent value, so with accommodation for three nights arranged in Dublin I booked the trip.
P&O have always had a good reputation for offering value for money on the Irish Sea, and though the company's operations are not as extensive as they once were value for money is something the company offers.
By comparison after making the booking with P&O I checked out the fares being offered by Irish Ferries for the same dates of travel on board the Ulysses. The booking computer came back with a fare of over £200 for a short notice booking, on a journey in mileage terms of half the length and excluding food!
"The Low Fares Ferry Company" runs Irish Ferries' slogan. Considering the recent changes in crewing to cut costs one would expect something cheaper even though the booking was at fairly short notice considering the time of year.
10:00 LIVERPOOL - DUBLIN
FEBRUARY 21, 2006
My reservation with P&O was made on Sunday February 19 and within 48 hours my father and myself drew up outside the gate of the Gladstone Dock passenger terminal around 08:00.
Anyone who has not sailed with P&O from Liverpool would be in for something of a surprise. The passenger check in could be described as a largish shed with a large lean-to through which vehicles drive. This is located at the side of the former Gladstone Graving Dock. Now Gladstone #3 Branch Dock.
Staff let cars in one at a time perform a security check and fetch tickets. A very friendly and informal feel pervades one. It is obvious that this is not a high volume passenger service. If you want something special and don't want to be part of the herd this is the way to travel!
Mine was the second car to arrive. By the time boarding commenced there were around 10 private vehicles.
Boarding commenced just after 09:00 with private vehicles being directed to the already well filled weather deck populated almost exclusively by freight drops.
Cars were conveniently assembled by the access stairs alongside the funnel.
Access to the passenger accommodation is via a short two flight staircase beside the funnel then across a bridge to the accommodation block.
Once at the top of the steps one walks over a bridge between the funnel structure to the open deck outside the main accommodation block. Entering the accommodation by either port or starboard vestibule doors one enters reception. Here there is a shop / reception desk.
A single straight staircase leading forwards up to the cabin area above immediately in front of the shop / reception. On NORBANK a large picture of Koningin Beatrix, (Her majesty, not the Stena Line ship!) graces the rear bulkhead. The ship is registered in Rotterdam and like her sister NORBAY once operated on the North Sea. On boarding the original "North Sea Ferries" lettering can still be seen welded to the hull.
Glass doors either side of the staircase which still bear North Sea Ferries logos etched on to the glass lead into the main passenger accommodation which comprises two side lounges port and starboard and a central bar. A toilet area is provided just before these doors. Starboard side for men, port side for women.
This total passenger area is comparable in size to the main passenger saloon on the BEN-MY-CHREE not surprising given similarities of design which has emanated from the van der Geissen ship yard. However, on the NORBANK and NORBAY this space is dedicated to a maximum of just 114 passengers.
The side lounges are separated by a partially glazed partition from the dining area. This, like the passenger lounges, is separated into port and starboard areas. Mainly comprising table and 4 chairs style facilities though with two larger central tables - ideal for groups.
The food servery being in the centre forward area which by comparison on the BEN-MY-CHREE would be occupied by the shop area. Behind this and leading forward are the kitchen and crew areas.
The food servery is on the forward side whilst drinks, crockery and a display fridge area is provided on the central block, the other side of the central bar.
Both NORBANK and NORBAY have a fair amount of outside deck space on two levels. With several fixed bench seats on each level. If I recall from my previous trip on NORBAY In 2003 she then only had plastic loose outside seating of s similar type to that used on the Waverley - though I may be mistaken.
Whilst there are adequate views aft, views to the side are partially restricted by the lifeboats and lifesaving equipment on both levels of the open passenger deck, though not quite to the same level as used to be the case with their smaller van der Geissen cousin BEN-MY-CHREE before her rebuild in 2004.
There is no view forward from either NORBANK or NORBAY either from within or outside the accommodation area. This can, for a ship enthusiast be rather frustrating especially when wanting to take photographs!
Serving of late breakfast commenced at 09:55. Yes its included in the fare! A good selection of the usual bacon, egg, sausages, mushrooms, beans tomatoes, toast and egg being available from the hot buffet.
After a quick breakfast it was back outside to be greeted by a short shower.
On the Gladstone #2 north berth was the bulker FEDERAL MATANE. On the #3 coal berth the bulker BONITA had been discharging her cargo.
Ropes were off at 10:12 and NORBANK moved the short distance to Gladstone Lock which was entered at 10.26.
Running down to River level took around 20 minutes.
At 10:46 ropes were off and NORBANK departed from Gladstone swinging sharply into an empty river.
Proceeding outbound via Crosby Channel there was little to see it being low water. RR SHIELD currently operating for Norfolk Lines could be seen in Queens Channel having already rounded the Formby bend.
The suction dredger MERSEY VENTURE was on her way out to the spoil ground having been working the Formby Shoal.
NORBANK passed the Formby Light Float at 11.33 and Q1 at 11.40.
In bound and about to pick up the pilot was ARKLOW STAR just south of the Liverpool Bar Light. Also approaching from the west was ATLANTIC COMPASS inbound for Gladstone. NORBANK passed north of the Bar Light keeping well clear of the inbound ships at 11:50 and set course across Liverpool Bay.
Douglas Gas rig was passed at 12.15. At around the same time the onboard bar closed and remained closed for the duration of the sailing. By comparison on the return sailing the NORBAY's Bar remained open from shortly after departing Dublin until the ship had almost reached the Douglas Gas rig. Why the disparity in length of bar opening times is a mystery. However, tea / coffee / hot chocolate and fruit juice can be had from a dispenser (free!) in the dining area for the duration of the sailing.
The Skerries Lighthouse in Holyhead Bay could be seen at 14:10 and five minutes later we overtook the unladen bulker ILONA which appeared to be setting a course south down St. George's Channel. She had been in Liverpool for a few days. Clearly sailing empty her bow appeared easily moved by the swell.
NORBANK was about ten miles north of Holyhead. Through the binoculars the STENA ADVENTURE could be seen moving off from Holyhead Harbour on her afternoon departure.
When NORBANK was roughly parallel with Holyhead Mountain and RAF Nimrod, passed close overhead. Unfortunately I did not see it coming - it would have made a brilliant photo.
Off South Stack NORBANK finally caught up with RR SHIELD which was operating the Liverpool - Dublin route whilst DUBLIN VIKING was covering for LAGAN VIKING on the Belfast service
Looking aft both STENA ADVENTURER and ULYSSES were now both out and heading west for Dublin. The Nimrod approached NORBANK again from SE but banked away from then appeared to do runs towards the other ships before having one last run at the NORBANK from the NE. Presumably she was on a training mission and using the passing ships as dummy targets?
Around 15:30 a warship could be seen around 6 miles away heading up St. George's Channel from the south this changed course and headed east. I can't be 100% certain but it looked like a River Class patrol vessel.
Passengers were called for high-tea at 16:30.
An excellent selection of food was provided by the hot buffet. Mushroom soup, chicken drumsticks, pork strips, fish, curry, good selection of potatoes mixed veg, salad, plus yoghurts to finish. Okay it may not have been of the same class as served on Brittany Ferries, superb PONT-AVEN, but by Irish Sea standards it was very good. As with the breakfast it was included in the fare. If one had paid for the meal components with most other Irish Sea operators you would have been looking at around £12 to £15 per person including drinks. Plus of course you wouldn't have the opportunity to go back for second helpings - more than enough is produced by the kitchen's to satisfy the demands of the passengers!
By now Kish light had been passed at 16:35 and NORBANK was in Dublin Bay. Rather threatening clouds against the low evening sun provided for some dramatic lighting as Poolbeg was passed at 17:00. It was noted that work was still underway on the opposite, green North Bull light. As we approached the North Bank lighthouse halfway up the fairway NORBANK slowed further to pass the ARKLOW SWAN kept close in to the northern side of the channel followed by one of the Dublin Port pilot vessels.
SAGA MOON was at the Norse Merchant or as one should get into the habit of saying the Norfolk Line terminal.
One advantage of sailing with P&O is that the company's terminal is close to the East Link Bridge and is the most inland of the terminals at Dublin Port. Therefore one has to pass all of the Dublin Port berths offering excellent photo opportunities.
Other ships noted included the container ships EUCON PROGRESS and MAERSK WESTLAND at the DFT Terminal.
The Swedish tanker OKTAVIUS was at #3 oil berth.
At the Marine Terminals South Wall berth was Coastal Container line COASTAL WAVE being loaded for her evening sailing back to Liverpool.
The large German owned car carrier ORIENTAL HIGHWAY was berthed in Alexandra Basin East.
At Alexandra Basin berth 32 was JONATHAN SWIFT, obviously berthed for the evening now that she no longer operates an evening round trip to Holyhead.
Also in the basin besides the Odlum's Silo was the coaster OPHIR whilst at ro/ro ramp #4 was the ro/ro Finnish cargo ship GARDEN operated by Engship also wearing the logo of car carrying company UECC.
NORBANK slowed, swung into the entrance of Alexandra Basin before coming astern back out onto the Liffey and on to ro/ro ramp #4. Ropes were on, on schedule at 17:30.
At this time passengers were allowed back to their vehicles. It took around 25 minutes for sufficient freight drops and a couple of accompanied trucks to be cleared, one large articulated truck which had been parked on the ramp had to have three attempts at reversing off before the cars could be moved. By 18:00 I was driving out of the terminal over the East Link Bridge. The P&O Terminal is the most convenient terminal for the city centre. Why it this convenient site was never developed as the main Dublin Passenger terminal is a mystery!
10:00 DUBLIN - LIVERPOOL
FEBRUARY 24, 2006
I arrived at the Dublin P&O Terminal at 08:00.
The Dublin Terminal is certainly better laid out than that at Liverpool. But then again it was designed as a terminal whilst that at Liverpool is really a modified former dry dock in a very congested location. [One wonders why, at Liverpool, an opportunity wasn't taken to move the P&O Terminal to one of the former NorseMerchant dock terminals at Canada #3 or Brocklebank Docks when the Twelve Quays terminal opened].
There was a cheery welcome from the lady at the check in box. Moving into the compact car marshalling beside the main terminal building a portakabin structure which I think once served as the temporary Sea Containers terminal on the South Wall a few years back, area a similarly cheery greeting came from the chap undertaking the security check formalities.
Around 08:40 boarding coupons were collected and cars drawn forward to await embarkation. I think there were about 15 cars and vans. Just before 09:00 cars were boarded and stowed on the weather deck of NORBAY.
On entering the accommodation the starboard side passenger accommodation door from the reception area was locked. This appeared to be done as many of the passengers did not follow the instructions to check in with the purser! This instruction being repeated on notices on the doors leading into the passenger accommodation so why people fail to act on it must be something of a mystery! A number of passengers just walked past the reception area and shop despite the purser calling them back and pointing out the ship would not sail unless all pax had checked in.
It was interesting to note that the shop on NORBAY appeared much better stocked than that on NORBANK.
Loading of freight continued once the cars were on board. As on the outward journey two accompanied trucks were parked on the ramp before it was hoisted. Further drops were then placed on the lower deck. Loading appeared to be completed by 09:30 as the gate to the ro ro ramp was closed. In Alexandra Basin the small freighter ROGER appeared to be discharging new diesel multiple unit cars for Iarnrod Éireann from its hold.
NORBAY called up port radio and advised that the ship was ready to depart with 49 passengers and 36 crew.
Dublin Port Radio advised of wind blowing 29 knots gusting to 36 knots.
The captain welcomed everyone on board and advised that weather conditions were deteriorating. Around the time a squall passed over the heavy rain suggesting time for a breakfast, so no photos of ships in port were photographed on the way out!
I had actually already had a breakfast before leaving the Tara Towers Hotel where I had been staying, but when one gets meals included in the fare it made sense to ensure one had had one's moneys worth!!
I was outside again by the time Poolbeg Power Station was reached, but missed the opportunity to photograph the car carrier and several other ships in port.
As noted above forward views are restricted on NORBANK and NORBAY. However, the layout of the open deck does provide for sheltered corners and the seat on the starboard side offered a good location to observe the departure being sheltered from wind and rain.
Poolbeg Lighthouse was passed at 09:58.
On rounding the Baily the full force of the weather was felt, but it was interesting to note just how capable the NORBAY was in quite choppy conditions. She is certainly a good sea vessel and though the seas were quite choppy for the first half of the voyage she was remarkably stable.
At 10:23 NORBAY passed the Kish. It was quite interesting to note that sat in this sheltered corner watching the spray pass by two wheeled buckets used for deck cleaning which had been left in another corner had decided to make a break for freedom and wander around the deck, dalek style, occasionally bumping into one another until their wanderings were ended by a passing crewman!
At 11:00 two ships where visible to. To the south what looked like a survey vessel with an A frame (certainly not the PRINCE MADOG) as the vessel observed had prominent exhausts could be seen heading in a NE direction appeared and making very heavy weather. Also visible was an east bound container ship some distance to the south.
By 12:06 the Anglesey coast was visible. Around 12:45 SAGA MOON could be seen heading from HEYSHAM bound for Dublin. Visible astern to the NW was RR ARROW heading eastbound for Heysham.
Around three miles astern following NORBAY's track could be seen Norfolk Line's LIVERPOOL VIKING. Shortly after 13.00 NORBAY was off the Skerries and course was changed to head across Liverpool Bay.
Heading westbound in the a small container ship was visible, followed by a tanker, bringing up the rear was DUBLIN VIKING heading for Dublin, now released from her recent cover duties on the Birkenhead - Belfast service.
At 13:38 another container ship was passed east bound.
Around 14:45 the NORBAY's Bar Closed.
NORBAY overtook two vessels ACL's ATLANTIC COMPANION and the Dutch cargo ship EDAMGERACHT both bound for Seaforth Dock and slotted in, in front of the EDAMGERACHT
The Douglas Gas platform was passed at 15:00. The container ship CAST PROSPERITY anchored at the Liverpool Bar Anchorage. A little further east was an unidentified LPG tanker. The Liverpool Bar Lightfloat was passed at 15:20 and Q1, marking the beginning of Queen's Channel at 15:30.
Shortly after passing round Crosby bend passengers were called to high-tea. Various options were offered, including chicken, fish, "Cornish" pasties, Gammon, beef, etc plus a full range of veg including some excellent mushy peas! I opted for the chicken. But once everyone had been served I went back deciding to try the "Cornish" pasties. Being something of a fan of proper Cornish pasties I was curious to try the P&O interpretation. - I cut into it - the immediate presence of carrots suggested that it certainly wasn't Cornish Pasty but some other kind of pasty. Wasn't bad, but the chef shouldn't have told people they were Cornish Pasties! However, this was my only grumble on the whole trip! - Well I had to find something to complain about just to prove I wasn't painting too glossy a picture as all other aspects of the experience where highly satisfactory.
Unlike on the NORBANK there was no soup offered. However, there was a much more comprehensive offering of sweets including jelly and fruit, banana mousse, some cakes etc. On NORBANK sweet course was just yoghurts.
NORBAY was off Gladstone Lock by 16:15 and secured in the lock at 16:26. The ascent to dock level took around 25 minutes. As NORBAY rose tugs ADSTEAM WATERLOO and COLLINGWOOD passed through the Alexandra Dock swing bridge en-route to Seaforth to assist the departure of the bulker SEA POWER from the Seaforth Dock scrap berth.
Some impatient passengers had by now started to try the gate to get access to the vehicle decks. Surely they could see that the ship had not yet berthed?
As the gates came back NORBAY made her way slowly across to Gladstone #3 passing the FEDERAL MATANE which was still in port. As we swung into Gladstone Branch #3 the SEA POWER was just moving through the cut between Gladstone and Seaforth Docks.
In the main Gladstone Dock the Danish vegetable oil tanker ORAKOTA was berthed. Meanwhile in Gladstone #2 south was the tanker STOLT FULMAR.
Ropes were on at 17:10 and passengers were called to their vehicles.
All in all, it was a very satisfactory trip and I would suggest that if you have not tried the P&O service between Liverpool and Dublin you do so soon. The service represents excellent value for money, the vessels are comfortable, the food good and there are now crows. The low passenger capacity sees to that. If you wish to travel with P&O it is suggested that you book your trip soon as news reports suggest Dubai Ports World will have completed the acquisition by March. By the time I next cross to Ireland in the spring the old P&O company will have gone.
What the future holds for P&O services from the UK under the company's new owner remains to be seen as does the future of such excellent value for money fares.
Oh yes, and by the way I did make the point of travelling out on the port side and returning on the starboard side. Not only is that the more interesting coastal side on a trip from Liverpool to Dublin and back, but given the prevailing wind direction and wind chill it was the only side of the ship which was tenable for any period of time outside!