12:30 Plymouth - Santander August 23, 2006.
My previous sailings on the Brittany Ferries flagship PONT-AVEN had taken place at Easter 2005 and Easter 2006 when traffic was fairly busy, but it certainly wasn't the summer holiday peak. Therefore, I was eager to see how the operation fared when dealing with large numbers of passenger during the busiest time of the year.
I arrived at Plymouth Millbay Terminal around 10:00 in good time to ensure a parking space near the terminal building. Weather had been somewhat threatening, but the rain held off. I waited in the car for a while before going up to the check in desk which is situated on the first floor. There was already quite a long queue, but the thee check in staff worked quickly and efficiently and it was only a short wait before passports had been checked and boarding cards collected.
There was a good mix of excursionists (less luggage) and people with larger cases obviously choosing the nicer way to their holidays rather than the aluminum budgies.
I guess if you live in Devon and Cornwall and want to travel to Spain, to quote an Irish Sea shipping company it would be "Plane Crazy" to fly. To be honest I wonder why "Brittany Ferries" did not think of this slogan before Irish Ferries!
When I reached the check in the lady said "You've done the mini cruise before." as she had been explaining how things worked to the couple in front. Obviously someone has a good memory considering I have only travelled twice before.
The departure lounge was well filled, but it was only a short wait before the pleasant security lady opened the door and asked people to head off down to security and immigration control.
Unlike on previous trips when sampling was in progress, everyone was being checked at Millbay this time given the heightened levels of security. However, it was done quite efficiently and in a friendly manner.
Foot passengers appeared to be on board before many cars had started to board, I think the person behind set the metal detector off and caused a bottle neck as no other passengers appeared behind me until I was well on board!
This time my allocated cabin, was at the forward end of deck 6 - 6115. This being quite close to the bow, and in the area which had suffered water infiltration when the PONT-AVEN encountered the freak wave during the spring. The cabin window actually looking out onto the shelter deck area.
After dropping my bags off in the cabin I went for a wander around. Up on to deck 9 it was possible to see the lifeboats and tenders from Peter Deilmann's DEUTSCHLAND being used to bring passengers ashore. The passengers were being landed via a gangway onto the old #1 linkspan. The PONT-AVEN uses the wider #2 span which adjoins the passenger terminal. German and Union Jack flags adorning the #1 span to welcome the DEUTSCHLAND's passengers. DEUTSCHLAND was anchored off the western side of the main channel.
At 12:15 I made my way down to the desk outside Le Flora Restaurant to book a table for dinner. There was already a queue of around 20 people, by the time I picked up my sitting ticket, the queue stretched back well beyond the bar into the "Gallery" lounge area.
Departure time was scheduled for 12:30. The sky looking inland towards the moors looking rather threatening. IT was obvious we were not going to get away at 12:30 for at that moment HMS OCEAN sailed past outbound in then care of Two RMA tugs CAREFUL and FAITHFUL.
The PONT-AVEN waited a little longer. At around 12:40 with a very long and powerful blast she announced her intended departure and as soon as the whistle echo faded away she started to gently glide off #2 berth out into the Sound.
Now it was a case of would it or would it not rain before the DEUTSCHLAND was reached and would it hold off until the PONT-AVEN was able to accelerate past HMS OCEAN?
Well God was obviously favouring the photographer - just. There were a few drops of rain, but only a few! Slowly the PONT-AVEN picked her way out and past DEUTSCHLAND. Anchored nearby was a small coaster.
I have photographed DEUTSCHLAND quite a few times at Cóbh, that was usually from the quay side and from a low level she looks quite a sizeable vessel. However, in reality she is much smaller than PONT-AVEN and it was possible this time to look down on her from the vantage point of deck 10.
The PONT-AVEN snaked around the channel and around 12:56 rounded the breakwater light house. After a short while the captain pulled down the handles and the PONT-AVEN accelerated away. Rapidly closing the gap with HMS OCEAN who started to head in a south south easterly direction.
It was interesting to see OCEAN depart. Originally she had been one of the ships mustered for Navy Days, though was later deleted from the listing -possibly due to the recent TB outbreak on board?
The Cornish coast was rapidly falling away behind as I made my way into La Flora restaurant for the superb buffet lunch only £12.50!
Eddystone Lighthouse was passed at 13:30.
After lunch I grabbed a deck chair and sat out a the stern on deck 7 outside the restaurant.
At 15:10 two small yachts, both towing dinghies passed north bound together.
There were three well equipped French chaps with binoculars, two spotting scopes and an SLR camera with a long telephoto lens. The scopes and SLR mounted on tripods. When one sees spotting scopes one tends to think "twitchers". However, as we came into the vicinity of the Ushant and a number of ships became visible, it was clear they were ship enthusiasts!
Heading southbound could be seen a bulker and a Maersk Liveried freighter, we also overtook a Brixham registered trawler heading southbound.
After some time outside, I wandered through to the Fastnet Bar for a drink. To the SW a ship could be seen approaching. Not thinking much of it as it was someway off I carried on drinking and typing away on the pocket PC did not pay much attention for a while as to what was going on outside.
Then a few minutes later at 16:45 I looked up and realised just inside that the ship was nothing other than Carnival Corporation's QUEEN ELIZABETH 2. Fortunately I had spotted her just in time and shot outside like a rocket. She was heading in NE direction back to Southampton at the end of a Mediterranean cruise.
The French enthusiasts being busy looking over the port side aft at the traffic - didn't spot the QE2 until a bit too late and had to make do with a retreating view as she head in a NE direction towards Southampton.
There wasn't much more to see, the varying layers of cloud made for interesting lighting effects with the sun breaking through. I went off to dinner at 18:30 and had managed to get a window seat. Window seats on the PONT-AVEN tend to be allocated to early diners which is quite handy. There is never any pressure for you to leave the restaurant and therefore its quite a pleasant place to sit!
I opted for the Buffet Menu - supported by a main course of chicken and lemon kebab. This comprises an hors d'oeuvres buffet starter, which as I have indicated in previous voyage reports offers a wonderful selection of items. Then comes the main course, followed by a cheese selection, which I had to forego having still eaten too much at Lunchtime
Then comes the sweet buffet again with a mouthwatering selection. Dinner is finished with tea or coffee served with a mini cornetto and sugar swizzle stick.
Price for all this is £18:50 per head. Think about this superb value for money offering when you pay from £7 to £10 for a single, self service course on an Irish Sea sailing!
Whilst I have never bothered to try the self-service option in La Belle Angele Cafeteria - value for money appears the norm there too with cod and chips noted on sale for £5.65 again - much cheaper than prices offered on the Irish Sea.
Another feature is the wide range of fine wines to enjoy with your meals - again at reasonable prices, unless one wants an up-market selection/
The restaurant is well run, the waiters and waitresses really do take care of their customers in a friendly and professional manner these are presided over by the uniformed catering officer
Dinner is a pleasantly relaxing affair on the PONT-AVEN no rush and plenty of time to work though drinks and excellent value for money. On both evenings I spent two hours in the restaurant and time just flew. By the time I came out near 20:30 it was full.
After dinner it was time for a spot of exercise around the decks before retiring. I wandered round the shelter deck area at the forward end of deck 6 where the panoramic windows had been until the ship's encounter with the freak wave earlier this year. It is quite clear that these windows will never be reinstalled from the heavy duty plating that has been inserted. A shame really as the bench sea just looks out now on to a blank bulkhead. It is a pity that some smaller windows could not have been installed protected in adverse weather by dead-lights.
I noticed that with cabin 6115 located near the bow of the ship it was incredibly quiet. The aft cabins do tend to pick up vibration from the props in certain seas conditions. The only occasional muffled noise was from the toilet vacuum system in the cabin.
I went off to sleep after 23:00 and slept like a log until 04:00. Off to sleep again I awoke at 06:00 (07:00) CEST and set off for a wander around. It was just stating to get light and dawn was breaking to the east. A couple of miles behind could be see the bulk of a large car carrier which we had obviously passed.
The crew were also stirring with decks being hosed down. So it was back inside and up to La Flora Restaurant for breakfast. This again is a great dining experience. A credit of £5.50 is included in the ticket one just pays a small supplement for the restaurant which is well worth it!
By the time breakfast was concluded we were off the Isla De Mauro crowed by its lighthouse was passed around 08:25 (CEST) and an apparently nameless pilot launch came alongside.
Just outside the harbour two small freighters rode at anchor. As the PONT-AVEN ran up towards the Estación Maritima the sky was noted to be darkening and as the ship swung onto the berth it started raining heavily at the wrong moment! This was unfortunate as there was a Spanish Navy patrol vessel SPS MAROLA on the quay south of the terminal.
PONT-AVEN was off the berth at 08:52 CEST and secure by 08:56 four minutes ahead of schedule. Passengers were soon going ashore. Fortunately the rain had gone off by then. As I walked along from the terminal, the car carrier came into view assisted by two Santander port tugs it turned out to the OLYMPIAN HIGHWAY.
For a while the weather appeared to be clearing up until very heavy clouds could be seen moving in from the west, so I wandered back to the terminal. To say it was busy would be an understatement and the vehicles lanes were now almost full. It was obvious the return sailing was going to be very busy!
As I waited in the terminal a chatty gentleman came along and sat on the adjacent seat. He was an recently retired Italian seaman who had spent some time living in Cornwall. He was travelling to back Cornwall to visit his bank in St. Austell, as he had just bought a retirement home near Santander. He hadn't been on the PONT-AVEN before and wasn't sure how near the Plymouth Terminal was to the station. We chatted for a while and it transpired he had visited Liverpool a few times in the 1980s.
13:00 Santander - Plymouth - August 24, 2006.
Boarding commenced about 11:45 (CEST) and despite the large number of foot passengers everyone quickly passed through security and back on board. I wandered up to the swimming pool bar for a while, then realising the restaurant booking desk would be opening soon I headed off back down to deck 7. However, it appeared that despite it being just after 12:00 many others had decided to queue for tickets early and I found myself well back into the Gallery area.
The size of the queue is testament in itself to the quality of the restaurant dining experience on board the PONT-AVEN. Fortunately the stewardess taking the bookings had come on duty early and the queue was moving. Unfortunately it was moving slowly, very slowly and as a result departure time passed and I was still stuck in the queue. As I approached the desk it was clear why the queue was moving slowly, everyone appeared to want late tables and were ending up having detailed family discussions over alternative arrangements when being told all the late sittings were now taken. Why a change in dinner times causes some people such great problems is beyond me! The stewardess explained the situation to the couple in front who were grumbling that they had been waiting three hours at Santander and now had to queue for dinner and couldn't have a late table. The stewardess apologized for the lack of late table and pointed out that the ship was full. She said they could turn up after 20:30 and wait and see if a table was available, they eventually decided to dine early!
By the time I had my ticket for the 18:30 sailing the PONT-AVEN was already 20 minutes into the voyage and passing the La Magdalena Peninsula crowned by the former royal summer palace. By now the weather had cleared up and the sun worshippers were out in force.
The group of ship enthusiasts with all their gear had now been forced to move from the densely populated after deck and relocated to the starboard side of deck 10, where, apart from the hours of darkness they must have remained until they arrived back in Plymouth.
After we had cleared Santander, I wandered back inside for lunch. I decided on the light lunch option, still being somewhat full up from breakfast a nicely presented cod and potato pie served in an iron bowl along with a coffee and roll and butter was to be had in the restaurant for just £8.50.
Given the sun worshippers on the upper deck and at the stern, I spent the next few hours sitting on the starboard side bench seat just outside the shelter area of deck 6. Apart from a few ships to be seen on the eastern horizon things were quiet. Given the large number of people on board, it was interesting sitting in this location for a few hours just how few people passed by, plenty of fresh air - but little opportunity for sunbathing probably being the reason. But it serves to highlight just how the PONT-AVEN serves many tastes. Despite the ship being full it was not difficult to find a quiet space away from the crowds.
Another leisurely dinner was enjoyed that evening and after that I spent sometime sat in the Gallery Lounge which links the atrium with the Fastnet Bar and La Flora Restaurant.
After a few drinks I went off to the cabin and had a sound night's sleep.
I awoke around 06:30 and went for a walk around the decks, again the crew were busy cleaning the decks, the French enthusasts already back at their vantage point! There wasn't much shipping to see though there were a few fishing boats around and the Devon coast could be seen to starboard and the Cornish Coast to port.
Just after 07:00 it was time to head off for the restaurant for breakfast. On my way I wandered through the busy La Belle Angele self-service restaurant which was doing a roaring trade, it was busy, but a bit quieter in La Flora. After breakfast I gathered my bags together ready to vacate the cabin. One thing about Brittany Ferries I have discovered is that unlike on the Irish Sea, there never appears that almost indecent haste to chase people out of their cabins prior to arrival. Given that the PONT-AVEN has many more cabins to be serviced and has comparible turn around times to to that of Irish Sea ships one still wonders why Irish Sea passengers travelling on much smaller ships have to endure the "mad rush" at the end of overnight crossings! For example, no one on the PONT-AVEN takes their bags down to breakfast and piles them up outside the restaurant something which appears common practice on overnight sailings to Ireland out of Liverpool!
Eddystone light was passed to starboard at 08:14. Far away, crossing Bigbury Bay could be seen the masts of a large tall ship - the SV TENACIOUS which was making her way to Devonport for Navy Days 2006.
At 08:30 the somewhat distinctive but also rather ugly shape of PONT L'ABBÉ could be seen emerging from Plymouth on her morning sailing to Roscoff. This is the former DFDS DANA ANGLIA which is currently on charter to Brittany Ferries.
The PONT-AVEN was back on the berth at 09:15 a quarter of an hour ahead of schedule. As we berthed a preparations were being made to enable her to take on bunkers as a quayside truck from Henty Oil prepared to lift the substantial bunkering hose on board. Bunkers at Plymouth are taken from tanks, these being replenished by visiting coastal tankers.
Once again another superb trip was over. There is no mistake time flies on the PONT-AVEN - by the time one has wined, dined, shopped and taken in the sea air one no sooner appears to be boarding at Plymouth than one is disembarking again. The trip is made even more pleasant by the crew who are friendly, efficient and try hard to please and make the whole trip a pleasurable experience even when the vessel is full.
It is also pleasing to note that the ship and its crew still maintain high standards and take an obvious pride in the job. The only slight niggle this trip was that the on-board mobile phone system wasn't working, which was a little disappointing - but its lack of availability probably saved some money from not being able to send frivolous texts and phone calls!
If there could be one improvement to be made to the Brittany Ferries travel experience would be to facilitate on-line restaurant reservations at the time of booking. Some other long-sea passenger operators appear to offer this facility. This would avoid having to queue for a restaurant ticket at the start of the voyage which can be a little frustrating at a time when one would prefer to be outside!
All being well I hope to be back on board again in October when perhaps there is a greater chance of some interesting weather!