Heysham to Douglas 3 June 2007
Douglas to Belfast 4 June 2007
Larne to Douglas 4 June 2007
Returning to the Island from a couple of days away, we had amended our booking to get us on Stena Caledonia, and made a point of not turning up at Heysham Port until after the Ben my Chree should have closed up, so that we could not be diverted onto "the wrong ship"!! When we arrived, at about 02.00, loading of Stena Caledonia on number 2 berth was already well under way, with nearly all of the motorcycles already on board, and we were only held back while the final freight (newspapers) went onto Ben, which was on her customary number 1 berth.
We were the last car in the queue to be put on board SC, at about 02.10, though a few straggler cars and bikes ended up behind us on the main car deck, while the main load of bikes had gone above. Most of the retail outlets were already doing good business, with the remainder opening soon after we sailed, and the top deck bar and lounge were both open.
As we entered the passenger accommodation, we found a quality Stena crew trying as best they could to deal with numerous enquiries from newly boarded passengers. Our own enquiry was on the basis that we had been told of e-mail exchanges between SP and Stena about facilities for BR members, however this was something the ship knew nothing of (though the night manager handled us with extreme courtesy). He had a lot of other passenger problems. First Class bookings from other ships had simply been transferred over to SC, and he could only tell people to seek a refund in Douglas for the facilities which they had booked but which his ship did not provide. We witnessed about 20 such passengers in the short time we were at the Information desk. The real classic was a passenger who had a dog cabin booking, and was justifiably put out a) that there were no cabins, b) that there was no special facility for the dog, although she was directed to a lounge area where she could stay with the dog, and c) that she had paid a lot of money up front for this facility. We wonder what had caused the transfer of that particular booking off the Ben, as no other ship could have provided this facility.
Scheduling became a general grouse throughout the ship by the time we dragged ourselves into Douglas number 5 berth at 09.00 (on Ben's departure). Captain Paul Williams had explained in his welcome comments that there was a queue of ships for linkspan space in Douglas, and advised us that we would not be in Douglas before 9am. This took the passengers who were awake at that time by complete surprise, as all of the tickets had been printed (only recently) with an estimated time of arrival of 07.00. We had known well in advance that we would be waiting for Ben my Chree’s 08.45 departure before we could enter the harbour, and wondered why the tickets were incorrect. A lot of the passengers had slept through the announcement, and were waking up around 7am, only to find that the Island was still not yet in sight. The Information desk was again inundated with enquiries. On our return home, we checked AIS history and noted the circles which we made 20/25 miles off Douglas to kill time!! 5 hours 36 from Heysham is certainly a record for us in dead calm weather!
On board, on the catering side, SC had supplemented her core crew with some HSS people to cater for their judgment of expected demand, and the Steam Packet had also put on board a handful of their own people.
With a ship laid out with so many sub lounges and with Steam Packet catering crew on board, we saw the possibilities for setting up temporary First Class and BR facilities on SC sailings. This would have saved a lot of hassle for the information desk, and would have avoided large numbers of passengers having to turn up and queue at the Company’s offices for refunds, having had further time to practice airing their grouses.
The lounge accommodation was adequate for everyone (about 450 pax), although finding seats was made much more difficult by the number of bodies all over the floor, and the number of seats occupied by rucksacks and bikers' helmets. The kiddies play area was particularly popular, because the mats were great for sleeping on! Even benches on the outside deck were being slept on, as it was a dry, mild night.
Embarkation in Heysham, and Discharge in Douglas, was over one of the old “Lady of Mann” car ramps for both vehicles and passengers. This was attached by means of a crane on the back of the ship and connected to a couple of heavy duty hooks welded to the back of the vessel. We had wondered how the link would be established, as the ship relies on moveable on-shore ramps rather than her own, unlike the other vessels operating Douglas services. We wonder whether the fittings were attached while she was in dry-dock immediately before the charter, and note that the arrangement would make her compatible with the pontoon at Liverpool Landing Stage!
We joined Stena Caledonia again (this time without our car) on Monday 4 June, for her 11.30 sailing to Belfast. Access to the ship in Douglas was again only available over the car ramp on number 5 berth, and we were allowed aboard before the last of the vehicles. There were not so many passengers on board, so the upstairs bar and lounge were closed (although there was still access to the lounge from the outside deck – handy as a short cut to get to the other side of the deck). The motorists lounge was also closed, however there was ample room for everyone to spread out. The shop shut for a while during the crossing, but re-opened for long enough prior to our arrival for anyone to catch up with forgotten purchases.
We were very well looked after during the crossing, and it was a pleasure to be on a real ship doing this crossing in daylight hours. Captain Murray Patterson took the ship southabout from Douglas, with views of the Isle of Man coast until after we had rounded Chicken Rock (well outside the lighthouse). We then had Belfast Lough to look forward to, and views over the work on the outer edge of Belfast Harbour for the new HSS berth, with the view over H&W on the other side, where HSS Stena Discovery is laid up. We made it into the Stena Belfast berth ahead of the Stranraer HSS, so had no delays, and were only about 10 minutes later than the originally booked ETA of 16.30 (the additional time being caused by tidal conditions around the Island). After we got off the ship, via the gangway, we heard an apology being broadcast for people waiting for the HSS, for its 10 minute delay, which we must have caused by slowing it down in the channel.
From the terminal, we headed off on foot for the nearest railway station, Yorkgate, and got there just in time for a train to Carrickfergus, which connected well into another train to Larne. We had arranged to meet up with enthusiast friends in Larne, so not only were we treated to the photographic opportunities of ships coming and going from the Harbour, but we also had plenty of time for a chat over a Guinness before we had to check in for the P&O Express. The time we had been given in advance was 23.15, however at the port, it was down for a 23.00 departure. By the time all of the bikes had been boarded and lashed though, it was 23.15 before we managed to get away.
Check-in for the Express was straightforward, with our names being checked off on a printed list by a Steam Packet member of staff from Belfast, as well as computer boarding cards being issued by P&O. There was again plenty of space on board for the number of people offering, so we were able to make our choice of comfortable seats for the night crossing. The layout of this ship gives a strange change of levels at each end. The rear lounge has a small toilet on each side, which caused queues at one point, until people found the larger facilities towards the front, but it also caused confusion – one burly and very masculine looking biker disappeared into the Ladies at one point, having failed to find his way round to the other side of the ship!
The shop on board shut within about half an hour of sailing time, and did not reopen, however, it was noted that a couple of people were let in by crew to make their purchases later on.
This was a very straightforward crossing, and Captain Plant took the Express southabout to arrive at Douglas berth no. 5 at 02.10. Foot passengers were held back until the cars, and many of the motorbikes had been discharged, but it was not long before we were able to go down over the car ramp – the remaining bikes were being discharged well over to one side to allow for this.
This has been the extent of our “special” TT sailings for 2007, and both Stena and P & O provided good service to their Steam Packet charterers. We are now looking forward to TT 2008, to see what ships are chartered for the next big festival.
Jenny & John Williamson