During 2006 I managed to fit in three trips on Brittany Ferries superb flagship - PONT-AVEN. Unfortunately family events resulted in the need to reschedule a trip planned for Easter until the autumn. However, by May, the prospect of having to wait until October for a possible first and only trip this year led to me making a booking for a PONT-AVEN trip in July.
Even when I made the reservation in May things were looking busy as no outside cabins were available on my first choice of dates, and given the bad weather that effected the SW Midlands on the weekend of July 21/23 fate was probably on my side when I decided to travel on the sailing scheduled for July 29-31. On this sailing outside cabins were still available. I dislike inside cabins and find it difficult to sleep in what is essentially a cupboard - you wouldn't do it at home would you - so why do it at sea?
the Sunday departure is the better option if travelling directly from Merseyside being late afternoon rather than mid-day on the Wednesdays. Wednesdays are fine if I am staying down west country - but as this was an out and back from Liverpool the later Sunday departure was to be preferred.
On this occasion I had persuaded "Ships of Mann" editor Adrian Sweeney to come along and sample something different from his usual Isle of Man Steam Packet and Caledonian MacBrayne wanderings.
By the time I had picked up my travelling companion we were off down the Motorway at 07:00, being Sunday things were quiet and in no time at all we had pulled up on Plymouth Hoe around 11:40.
It was a little too early to see the PONT-AVEN on the horizon inbound from Roscoff, however, out in the sound FORT GEORGE could be seen at anchor inside the breakwater, meanwhile outside the breakwater a Trafalgar Class submarine could be seen circling.
With some time to kill we drove round to Devil's Point just beyond Millbay Docks - there is a kiosk there which sells pasties and where one can overlook any comings and goings. The submarine continued its manoeuvres and then eventually from a SSE direction could be seen the upper half of the PONT-AVEN's superstructure coming up over the horizon.
As she came closer we drove back round to the Hoe, this offers an excellent vantage point for the comings and goings of ships bound for Millbay or the Naval base, as they swing around Drake's Island.
PONT-AVEN rounded the breakwater at 13:05 and was "greeted" by an outgoing flotilla of yachts. She picked her way through the yachts, coming to a halt off Millbay ready to go astern onto berth #2.
At this point I drove around to the Terminal, where the vehicle check in lines were already well filled - not only with cars, camper vans and caravans, but also at least two coaches. On parking it was pleasing to note that the ABP have maintained the reasonable level of fees which applied last year £3.70 for 34 hours - compare this to some of the fees chargeable at other ports and I think you will agree that this is reasonable figure today.
On checking in and entering the first floor departure lounge things did appear rather quiet - unusual perhaps for this time of year. After a while sat out on the balcony Adrian and I returned inside to find things were filling up. It was very much a case of us having arrived earlier than most. It actually transpired that the outward sailing was full according to the crew.
Boarding commenced around 14:30, as is usual Brittany Ferries practice passengers are batched to go down to security which avoids the "scrum" one sometimes encounters elsewhere. Given the large numbers of passengers travelling it is always interesting to note that BF manage to perform the necessary tasks with fewer staff than is seen on the Irish Sea. That does not mean, however, that it is not thoroughly done.
Sometimes at Plymouth a search is done on a sample basis, this time it was 100% check - not surprising considering that only a couple of weeks earlier an operative from ETA had been apprehended by police in Santander with the news stories reporting that he had had a number of possible targets including the Sea Terminal. Obviously being very careful the lady on the x-ray machine asked me to account for the several electrical items in my bags something which had not happened before.
Once on board I made my way to my cabin 6105 on deck 6. Adrian was bound for deck 8, though we had booked within minutes of one another we ended up in quite separate parts of the ship. The practice with Brittany Ferries is for passengers to proceed directly to the cabin which is unlocked and where one's key cards are waiting. This avoids the queuing at reception which is the norm on the Irish Sea. However, 6105 was firmly locked, a visit to reception resulted in me being given a key card, however, this failed to function but on the second attempt I was in.
Though on all my previous PONT-AVEN trips I have always had a deck 6 cabin, they have always been on the starboard side. This time I had a port side cabin, on opening the door I realised that this cabin was much bigger and "L" shaped. There was a fixed single bed on the left hand side and a settee of the Pullman berth variety. There was also telephone which the other deck 6 cabins do not possess
The shower toilet which made up the other part of the cabin was also much larger than usual - it then became apparent that this was a cabin for disabled passengers as there were two alarm pulls - one by the toilet and one by the shower as well as a shower seat.
Opening the drawn curtain across the massive porthole which are standard on the PONT-AVEN revealed the bulk of the lifeboat, though this obscured part of the view - it was still possible to see under the keel.
After dropping bags off in the cabin it was time to make one's way to the restaurant queue, though no announcement had been made the queue was starting to form already! One of the barmen suggested reservations would open at 15:00, however, in the event reservations opened early just after 14:45. By now another crewman had set up a display of wine opposite the restaurant desk offering a small complimentary glass of wine - a nice touch!
It was noticed that two members of the crew were busy trying to repair the "airlock" style automatic doors which lead on to the open deck from the Fastnet Bar. On all my trips this automatic door always appears to be troublesome with either the inner or outer doors sticking. They did succeed in rectifying the problem for a while but by the time we had reached Plymouth the outer door was sticking again.
On the subject of doors it was interesting to note that all the other external doors on deck 6 and 9 have had their automatic sensors removed since my last trip. Not a bad idea as in the past walking around the open decks, particularly on deck 6 invariably opens all the doors as one goes past, which on windy days results in a gale blowing into the accommodation areas! Doors are now opened by very large red buttons. However, your web master had become so used to the automatic doors from previous trips that on two occasions I nearly walked into them forgetting about the need to press the button!
In previous years minicruise tickets included a credit of £5.50 towards breakfast, now an additional credit of £9.99 is included towards dinner! As usual I booked for an 18:15 sitting which usually guarantees a window seat. By the time I left the queue it stretched far back into the "Gallery" area beyond the Fastnet Bar. I still wish Brittany Ferries would devise a table reservations system which one could use when booking the travel ticket - would save this queuing!
After booking dinner it was time to go outside - it was quite clear by now that this was a full sailing as large numbers of passengers were outside enjoying the sudden improvement in the weather!
The PONT-AVEN probably has the most expansive open deck areas available on any ship serving the British Isles, with virtually all open deck space being available to passengers. However, it was noted that the area around the glass atrium roofs was now closed off. Presumably this is to stop passengers using them as angled recliners - despite the presence of notices they are easily climbed on.
Departure was a couple of minutes behind schedule at 16:02 with Captain Savidou in command, PONT-AVEN announcing her emergence from Millbay known with a strident blast on her whistle. Sliding out into Plymouth Sound the first vessel of note was the SALMAID the salvage and mooring vessel at anchor. Nearby was the twin unit tractor tug FORCEFUL. At the moorings just off the Fort was RFA FORT GEORGE.
At 16:15 PONT-AVEN passed the breakwater lighthouse and accelerated away - the Trafalgar class submarine was still performing manoeuvres on the seaward side of the light house. Not the easiest of things to identify a fellow passenger identified her as HMS TRENCHANT.
PONT-AVEN off Rame Head by around 16:22 and accelerating southwards. At 17:00 a large orange / red hulled car carrier could be seen heading in a north westerly direction but too far away to identify. However, on passing Avonmouth Docks on the M5 on our return journey on Tuesday a very similar vessel could be seen - possibly one and the same.
Eddystone Rocks was passed at 16:40 - as it was around high water the dangerous reef itself was not visible the Douglas lighthouse and the stump of the earlier Smeaton Lighthouse appearing to rise directly out of the water.
At 17:45 the large 2006 constructed German bulker REGENA H could be seen heading up channel in a NE direction.
At 18:15 it was time for the dinner sitting. It is well worth going for the first dinner sitting as one is almost guaranteed a window seat providing one asks for it, this can be useful for remaining at least partially aware of the passing maritime scene - though it has to be said the food in La Flora restaurant on board the PONT-AVEN is a great distraction!
During dinner a number of other vessels were spotted including an MSC container ship and the Greek bulk carrier SA FORTIUS (2001). After a lengthy dinner finally departing a now full restaurant at 20:15 it was time for another turn on deck. The sun was sinking into the sea to the west, to the east the lighthouses of Île d'Ouessant could be seen. The sun sank below the western horizon just after 21:00 BST.
At around 21:13 the almost full moon began to rise in the east and was fully visible by around 21:16 reflecting the remaining rays of the sun.
Returning inside around 22:00 it was time for some liquid refreshment in the Fastnet bar. The last sitting of diners, they were running a stand-by system after the 20:30 reservations did not finally clear the restaurant until around 23:00. By then the catering crew were starting to prepare for breakfast.
Off to bed at around 23:30. I was up quite handy at around 06:45 BST and after a quick wander around joined Adrian in La Flora for breakfast which opened at 07:30. Up to now Adrian had been quite impressed with the PONT-AVEN experience, but he was now able to award a black mark finding the tea served being rather weak!
After an unhurried breakfast set us up for the rest of the day - it was up to its usual high standards - surpassing anything I have had in any hotel. After breakfast it was time to go out on deck for the last couple of hours.
The forecast had suggested that the Santander area would have a rather cloudy day on Monday July 30 and the forecast looked to be right - however, it had grown noticeably warmer. After a slight shower a small rainbow appeared close to the starboard side of the ship. Many of the passengers were now out on deck by 10:00 and the swimming pool had opened.
At anchor off Santander the small cargo ships MONIKA MÜLLER was at anchor close to the Cabot Mayor lighthouse.
At 10:57 the PONT-AVEN passed the lighthouse crowned Isla De Mouro and entered the harbour area. We were soon met by the "practicos" (pilots!) on board PV MOURO I.
As we headed towards the Sea Terminal we passed Los Reginas' REGINA ONCE heading out on a bay cruise and over took BAHIA DE SANTANDER returning to their terminal at Palacete del Embarcadero.
Berthed near to historic Fowler of Leeds "Stone Crane" ,which appears to have been repainted since my last visit, was the excursion schooner CANTABRIA INFINITA.
As we swung two cargo vessels could be seen double berthed which appeared to have a distinctly detained and laid-up air about them. The larger ship MEUGANG I, (13586grt, 1981) of the Congo based Africa Shipping Company was alongside the quay whilst berthed outside was the NORDLAND (1937grt, 1971) of the Baltic Shipping and Trading Company of Belize with management based in Russia.
Nearby were the usual port tugs and the patrol vessel SPS MAROLA.
Ropes were on at 11:25 BST - five minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time of 11:30BST. As is usual practice very clear information as to departure times and check in closure times were given several times prior to arrival. No one could ever claim a lack of information resulted in them missing the return sailing! During the morning cruise passengers had their cabins tagged to remind crew that there is no need to service the cabin.
Just before we disembarked the Netherlands cargo vessel TUNA (2004) departed with a sheeted cargo sitting on her hatch covers
We were soon ashore and around then the cloud started to break up. Adrian and I had decided to walk along the waterfront past the former Puerto Chico Dock once home to fishing boats but now occupied by a marina close to the art-deco styled Royal Yacht Club. We went as far as the Gamazo Dry Dock which is now home to the preserved dredger DRAGO LORETO. unfortunately though visible from the road, access for photography did not appear possible.
Nearby is the Merchant Navy College outside of which is a steam reciprocating engine. There is no induction as to its origin, though a local guide book suggests it was recovered from a ship in the bay.
Retracing our steps back via Pareda Gardens and the Cathedral we returned to the Sea Terminal.
Boarding commenced around 14:00 BST with departure prompt at 15:00 BST.
Prior to departure a restaurant reservation was made and another complimentary glass of wine served to those queuing. The rest
On the outward trip we did not appear to take a pilot - or at least one was not dropped as we left the harbour area. Passing the Isla de Mouro at 15:18 the sailing ship CANTABRIA INFINATA could be seen to the west on her afternoon pleasure cruise.
Until shortly before dinner at 18:15 the rest of afternoon was spent relaxing at the stern over a few drinks. Dinner was again excellent. After dinner it was time for a visit to the shop - possibly one of the best on board shops your web master has come across both in terms of choice, quality and value for money.
After dinner it was time for a wander around outside to observe the sunset. As the sun set, Adrian spotted a whale alongside the ship, I turned just in time to see another blast from its spout. Your web master retired somewhat earlier than planned as over indulgence at dinner had led to a bad bout of indigestion! Perhaps the large amount of excellent fare in La Flora should come with a warning against consuming too much!
Fortunately the effects of the restaurant wore off and I awoke on Tuesday July 31 to the sound of the cabin window being hosed down as the deck crew set about their thorough daily cleaning rounds. A quick turn on deck gave the opportunity to photograph CMA CGA AZTECA heading west bound.
At around 07:30 it was time to head off to La Flora for the last time on this trip - for a more modest breakfast - considering the previous evening's discomfort!
After breakfast there was quite a lot to see. A number of frigates could be seen under going Sea Training. The only one close enough to identify was the Duke Class HMS KENT [F78].
Within no time Rame Head was off the port bow around 09:20, the PONT-AVEN passed twin unit tractor tug ADEPT on the starboard side shortly before rounding the breakwater just after 09:30. As we ran into Plymouth Sound it was time to return to the cabin for one last time to gather things together before heading outside for berthing.
Arrival was slightly early at 09:55. Keeping away from the crowds milling around the exit as the gangway was position we waited on the port side, this enabled to observe the arrival and departure of the RMA tender PADSTOW at Millbay which appeared to be dropping off a crewman before heading back out again.
Within a few minutes we had disembarked and back at the car. This was the first time on arrival back at Millbay I have seen the customs in action having a rummage through some passengers' cases, usually they have been conspicous by the absence.
Once again another highly satisfactory PONT-AVEN trip had come to an end - however - I only have to wait until October for my next voyage on this superb vessel!
Adrian was also impressed with his PONT-AVEN experience commenting on the pleasant on board atmosphere and with the exception of his pot of tea at breakfast was very impressed. But then like me perhaps he should have had a coffee with his breakfast!