A significant event in the 177 year history of the Isle of Man Steam Packet took place on March 03, 2007. The first ever scheduled passenger sailing between Douglas and Birkenhead.
Since the BEN-MY-CHREE first made her debut almost 9 years ago, she has never operated a passenger sailing from Merseyside. Her only visits being for her biennial refits and occasional repairs.
When she was originally delivered it had been the intention to run her on the winter weekend service between Liverpool and Douglas, however, it transpired that her stern ramp was too heavy for the pontoon link-span at Liverpool landing stage.
Therefore, the Liverpool winter service continued to be operated by the much loved LADY OF MANN.
Generally things operated quite well on the Douglas to Liverpool route until 2005 with fast craft operating through spring to mid autumn and the LADY OF MANN providing the late autumn and winter service.
Unfortunately, the Steam Packet decided to dispose of the reliable LADY OF MANN in 2005 the very year they celebrated their 175th Anniversary.
Many questioned the decision to dispose of a reliable all weather ship without replacement and leaving the Liverpool service entirely to fast craft operation through the winter months.
During the winter of 2005 / 2006 the weather had been reasonably kind but SUPERSEACAT TWO did experience a number of cancellations pre Christmas. Post Christmas SEA EXPRESS I which had taken over to free SSC2 for refit had a fairly reliable period of operation with the weather being quite kind and only two sailings being missed.
The winter of 2006 / 2007 was to be a different story. SUPERSEACAT TWO had retired to the Cammell Laird ship yard at Birkenhead in early autumn 2006. During the summer the Fincantieri built vessel had experienced gearbox problems which had necessitated one of her gearboxes being returned to Germany for repair during the middle of the summer holiday period. This resulted in the ship operating at reduced speeds with knock on disruption to the published schedules.
As soon as the Manx Grand Prix was over SEA EXPRESS I was returned to service. Whilst weather wise the winter of 2005 / 06 had not been too bad in terms of high winds and rough seas, winter 2006 / 07 turned out to be a different matter.
During November none of the Douglas - Liverpool Saturday day trip sailings operated. In fact the weather was so bad during the winter even the BEN-MY-CHREE didn't venture out of the sanctuary of Douglas harbour on several occasions.
The Steam Packet may have studied weather patterns and anticipated conditions which would permit winter fast craft operations, but for inconvenienced passengers the Liverpool fast craft service was becoming something of a joke.
It was to be the weather which was to lead to the sudden demise of the 2006/7 winter service, not the stormy conditions which had prevailed for much of the winter, but calm, foggy weather. On the morning of Saturday February 03, 2007 SEA EXPRESS I had an unfortunate encounter with the bulk carrier ALASKA RAINBOW off Alfred Lock in exceedingly poor visibility.
Whilst ALASKA RAINBOW escaped with barely a scratch the much smaller 74m Incat was not so fortunate. Her starboard bridge wing was seriously damaged and her starboard hull received a 6 metre gash towards the stern.
Fortunately the prompt action of local tugs and the well rehearsed emergency procedures on the SEA EXPRESS I ensured that the crippled vessel was brought alongside Prince's Landing Stage and the passengers quickly disembarked without injury.
With SUPERSEACAT TWO still in the Cammell Laird, awaiting the return of her gearbox it was obvious that the Liverpool service would have to be suspended. Passengers having to travel to and from Heysham and use the BEN-MY-CHREE.
Many thought that the Liverpool service would remain suspended until SUPERSEACAT TWO returned to service at the end of March
The announcement around February 24, that the Steam Packet was going to operate the BEN-MY-CHREE to Twelve Quays, Birkenhead came as something of a welcome surprise.
Since the opening of the Twelve Quays Terminal many observer of the maritime scene wondered if it would provide a suitable terminal for services to the Isle of Man, as slots appeared to be available around the time Isle of Man sailings would arrive and depart.
The announcement that the BEN-MY-CHREE was to operate her day time sailing from Douglas to Liverpool rather than Heysham on the first three Saturdays and Sundays during March was certainly welcome and well received on Merseyside by regular travelers.
Your web master and several Irish Sea Shipping correspondents decided that the historic first sailing to and from Birkenhead on March 03 was worth travelling on.
After perusing the online booking system your web master booked a day return to the Isle of Man on Saturday, starting with the 14:00 from Birkenhead and returning to the Heysham. Another day trip was booked to the Isle of Man on Sunday from Heysham departing at 02:15 to Douglas returning to Birkenhead.
Therefore, your web master can claim to have been the first person ever to buy a ticket for a day excursion from Birkenhead to Heysham by sea. The fare incidentally for this marathon trip was just £53 for around 280 miles of sea travel - quite a bargain!
Photographs of the BEN-MY-CHREE at Twelve Quays on March 03 [CLICK HERE] and March 04 [CLICK HERE]
BIRKENHEAD - DOUGLAS
The very long trip began at Seacombe near the Mersey Ferry terminal, a number of ship photographers gathering in perfect conditions to photograph the arrival of the BEN-MY-CHREE on her first ever scheduled sailing to Merseyside.
BEN-MY-CHREE passed Seacombe at around 11:57 and looked on schedule. After wandering to the other side of the Mersey Ferry terminal the BEN could be seen going gingerly on to the south berth at Twelve Quays.
After photographs it was time to head off for Twelve Quays. Though I have travelled through the terminal with a vehicle a number of times bound for Dublin, this was to be the first time as a foot passenger.
What is quite pleasing is that, unlike Liverpool, the terminal does have a car park, not very big it must be admitted, but there was space available and it was free!
Inside the check in desk was staffed by personnel from the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's Liverpool Terminal, who had print outs of booked passengers and who issued the old style self completing boarding cards.
Passengers were soon called through to the departure lounge, were bags were examined by security staff. By now cars were disembarking from the BEN-MY-CHREE. Foot passengers were held until the vehicle decks were cleared before being brought ashore on coaches which is usual practice at Twelve Quays. Given the number of foot passengers high capacity vehicles from P.G. Coaches had been hired rather than use the smaller Norfolk Line boarding buses.
Luggage had already been brought ashore by the BEN-MY-CHREE 's luggage van. Once the passengers had disembarked from the busses and luggage reclaimed those with larger bags were able to check their luggage in.
A coach positioned itself in front of the terminal and the foot passengers boarded. Within minutes we were whisked down to he Twelve Quays landing stage and deposited at the bottom of the aft stairwell on deck 3 by around 13:30.
I made my way up to the Blue Riband lounge. Through the panoramic window a number of known followers of the maritime scene could be seen on the river wall between Twelve Quays and Woodside ferry terminal.
Ropes were let go at Twelve Quays around 14:12 - twelve minutes behind schedule. The BEN-MY-CHREE performed a sharp turn and headed down stream quickly carried by the ebb tide.
The Rock was passed around 14:23. By the river wall at Gladstone were Svitzer tugs THORNGARTH and SVITZER STANLOW awaiting the arrival of the bulker NEPHELI which was passed north of the Rock.
There was no further traffic in the channel apart from The Pilot Vessel PV PUFFIN making her way out to the bay to take off the BEN-MY-CHREE's pilot.
PV PUFFIN dropped in behind the BEN-MY-CHREE as the ship neared the end of Queen's Channel. As we passed Q1 PV PUFFIN came along the starboard side and keeping pace with the BEN-MY-CHREE the pilot disembarked at around 15:02.
Approaching from the west could be seen the P&O sailing inbound from Dublin, a short while later.
The OSI was passed at 15:42 whilst the LAGAN VIKING could be seen inbound heading from the north west at 15:45
A quiet run to Douglas followed. The weather was excellent, though the ship passed through a short squall around 15 miles off Douglas but this soon cleared to leave a fine golden sunset dipping below Douglas head.
Arrival on the berth was right on time at 18:15
DOUGLAS - HEYSHAM
The second leg of the trip was uneventful with a quiet run to Heysham in good conditions. This evening there was to be an eclipse of the moon - though for some reason your web master was un ware of the event and missed it!
The BEN-MY-CHREE departing from Douglas on schedule at 20:00 and arrived at 23:20.
As the BEN swung in Heysham harbour the recently installed and well illuminated new #1 berth link span looking quite impressive.
Unlike its predecessor which dated back to British Railways days the new span is a floating structure and provides two lanes for traffic rather than one.
After disembarking I checked in again and took a seat in the waiting room. Though the Heysham terminal building was last revamped in 1998 some areas in particular the toilets which are typical 1970s British Railways heritage loos need attention! Hopefully this will be undertaken as part of Peel Ports programme of improvements at the port.
HEYSHAM - DOUGLAS
It was rather pleasing to note that foot passengers were allowed to board at 01:15, this was considerably earlier than when I last passed through Heysham for the early morning sailing in December.
I made my way back up the Blue Riband Lounge and made myself comfortable. - Time passed appeared to pass very quickly. I made a note of what time the BEN-MY-CHREE moved off - 02:07 slightly ahead of schedule and that was the last thing I remember until I awoke sometime after 05:00. By then I could see through a gap in the curtains Douglas lighthouse and the red lights on the radio mast on Douglas Head.
The BEN-MY-CHREE was alongside at 05:40.
With little to do for a couple of hours I took a brisk walk along the deserted Promenade venturing round almost as far as the Hilton Hotel, before returning to the Sea Terminal. By now a colourful red dawn had heralded the arrival of dawn - the old saying goes "Red sky in the morning, sailor's warning" and this was later to prove itself accurate!
DOUGLAS - BIRKENHEAD
I had not been back at the terminal long before boarding commenced for the fourth and final leg of the trip. It was noted that Birkenhead had become "BIRKNHEAD" on the boarding card. This was yet another variation on the spelling of the Wirral town - the original notice advising of the BEN-MY-CHREE sailings to Twelve Quays had also been spelt incorrectly!
Departure from Douglas was ahead of schedule at 07:53. By now a strong south easterly wind was building, but despite this the BEN was quite stable. Unfortunately as the morning progressed the rain swept in.
The BEN-MY-CHREE passed the OSI at 10:22 and the Bar around 11:10.
On Sunday's sailing a pilot was not boarded by pilot vessel, therefore one must assume that one of the Steam Packet masters with a Liverpool Pilot exemption was present on board.
A pilot vessel, however, was to be seen picking up a pilot from the outbound tanker VINGATANK at 11:25. VINGATANK was followed by the China Shipping Line's container vessel CSCL FOS heading outbound from Seaforth. China Shipping Line's vessels are a rather pleasing green colour and stand out well, given that so many ships these days have blue hulls.
Following on behind VINGATANK was the unladened container ship GRACECHURCH STAR. By now the wind and the rain forced a retreat back to the Blue Riband Lounge. The camera was in danger of getting rather wet and I didn't want to end up with it coming to a sad end through rain water penetration! However, I just arrived back in my seat to observe MERSEY VIKING heading out bound.
A head of the BEN-MY-CHREE could be seen the tanker SICHEM COPENHAGEN bound for the Manchester Ship Canal. The BEN-MY-CHREE passing her near New Brighton.
[Photos of the BEN's ARRIVAL - [CLICK HERE] and viewed from the Liverpool shore [CLICK HERE]
Fortunately the rain eased off as the BEN-MY-CHREE approached Twelve Quays and it was possible to go outside and watch the berthing.
Ropes were on the Twelve Quays south berth at 12:15 - right on time!
Mersey Ferry ROYAL DAFFODIL crossed astern heading towards Seacombe Landing stage on her 12:00 sailing from Liverpool. As the BEN-MY-CHREE came alongside at Twelve Quays ROYAL DAFFODIL passed by as did the tanker SICHEM COPENHAGEN.
There was a slight delay before foot passengers were disembarked, but once the cars had been discharged two coaches made their way up onto deck 5 to retrieve the foot passengers.
All in all it was a very enjoyable trip.
The BEN-MY-CHREE performed with panache on the Birkenhead route and it is to be hoped that some useful lessons have been learnt and the Steam Packet's flagship becomes a regular winter weekend caller on Merseyside in subsequent winters. Out of adversity has come triumph - well done Steam Packet - now please ensure we keep a conventional ship on the Douglas to Liverpool route next winter. - What about operating the Saturday evening sailing to and from Birkenhead as well.
By the way - some might think the thought of spending almost 22 hours wandering around the Irish Sea something of a challenge. It really wasn't and it was surprising just how quickly time passed by. At the time of writing there remains one more weekend in which one can take a return trip from Birkenhead to Heysham - on March 17 / 18 why not try it!