LAGAN and MERSEY VIKING first made their appearance on the Birkenhead to Belfast service of the then NorseMerchant Ferries during 2005. Built in Italy by CN Visentini for the Italian company Levantina Transport. The ships were, on completion, chartered to the then NorseMerchant Ferries. Prior to the delivery of MERSEY VIKING NorseMerchant Ferries were acquired by the Maersk subsidiary Norfolkline. MERSEY VIKING being delivered towards the end of 2005.
The ships have often been referred to as "Super Vikings", to some extent being "jumboised" versions of DUBLIN VIKING and LIVERPOOL VIKING but their design goes well beyond the earlier ships both in terms of layout and design, though of course there are family similarities.
Despite their presence on Merseyside for some considerably time I had by spring 2008 failed to have taken a journey on one. My previous sailing on the Belfast - Birkenhead route had been in summer 2007 when one of the original "Vikings" deputised for LAGAN VIKING which was receiving some attention in Harland and Wolff.
With my spring holiday to Ireland began with a two night stop at Avoca in County Wicklow, I thought I might begin with a sail to Belfast, rather than Dublin. This would allow me to include an excursion to Carlingford Lough to enable me to photograph the departure of the new CLIPPER POINT, which had so far eluded my camera, outbound for Heysham.
I therefore booked a return with Norfolk Line outward via Belfast, returning via Dublin. One advantage of the Birkenhead to Belfast route is that, being longer, one gets a little more time in bed. Sometimes the early breakfast call on the Dublin route can be just a little too early!
I arrived at the Birkenhead Twelve Quays Terminal quite early and found that check in had already opened around before 20:00. Vehicles for Belfast being lined up on the left hand side of the marshalling area with those for Belfast on the right.
Passenger boarding of MERSEY VIKING began shortly after cars for LIVERPOOL VIKING Dublin sailing had commenced with the usual Norfolkline routine of vehicles following the passenger boarding bus down onto the landing stage. There was a short delay whilst the foot passengers were taken onto the main vehicle deck before private cars were called forward.
An interesting feature of MERSEY and LAGAN VIKINGS is the location of the car deck around the funnel it appears to be in a much better location than the lower car deck on the original Vikings. The access ramp to the MERSEY and LAGAN VIKING car deck can be clearly seen when viewing the port side of the ship.
However, until one boards one is not quite aware of just how steep it is. To think that it has to reach such altitude in little more than half the ship's length revealed, once on board that it is very steep! Signs warn drivers to keep there distance!
Once up on the top deck cars are parked in rows beside the funnel. A member of crew cheerily greeted passengers and directed them to the passenger accommodation
Access to the passenger accommodation is via a doorway in the funnel, down a very utilitarian stair case. If you think the stairs on the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's BEN-MY-CHREE are basic well try this one!
Once down the stairs one enters the bright reception area where one queues for cabin keys. The keys were distributed quite speedily efficiently by a cheerful purser and his assistant.
Foot passenger access this area is via an escalator from the main vehicle deck. The cinema is also adjacent to the reception desk.
I had heard reports from some correspondents that the interior of the MERSEY and LAGAN VIKING were somewhat clinical.
Yes there are lots of polished tiles around. But the ship's interior is nice and bright and the looked immaculate and well cared for.
I was allocated a cabin on the main deck 5 - M510 an inside cabin. Personally I am not keen on inside cabins and I often wish Norfolkline would make outside cabins book able in advance - they could charge an additional fee!
The cabin was quite spacious and unlike the original Vikings, though the bunks are of very similar design the upper bunks are still foldable - they have not been fixed in the lower position. This makes the cabin appear so much bigger.
If someone knows why the upper bunks on DUBLIN and LIVERPOOL VIKING have been fixed - please let me know!
The cabins still appear very new, though have linoleum rather than the carpet found on the original Vikings. Unlike the original ships they retain their continental plugs - therefore - it is important to carry one with you if you wish to use a computer or charge camera or other batteries. However, they appear to sell them in the on board shop.
After putting my bags in the cabin I wandered forwards into the first bar area. This was quite attractive with side tables (starboard side) along the windows which offer a reasonable view across the shelter deck to the sides. The view is much better than from the bar areas of DUBLIN and LIVERPOOL VIKINGS.
Further forward past the central stair case which leads to the deck 6 cabins, is the forward bar area and just beyond that the restaurant.
It was clearly going to be a busy sailing as both bars were open and as the restaurant opened the crew began counting passengers in and allocating tables. I was allocated a table near one of the forward windows.
On joining the queue for self service dinner - I found there was a reasonable selection of food. I opted for egg mayonnaise starters, followed by roast beef and followed by trifle. It was all pretty good. The Yorkshire pudding was one of the best I have had recently! Considering dinner is included in the fare it represents good value as one could typically pay £15 for a three course meal with other Irish Sea operators.
After dinner I took a seat in the after bar overlooking the Liver Buildings. This bar closed around 22:15. Around 22:20 I wandered outside. LIVERPOOL VIKING, on Twelve Quays South berth still hand not departed on her 22:00 sailing and was running late. However, by 22:25 she began to move.
Despite the late departure or LIVERPOOL VIKING, MERSEY VIKING was away on time at 22:30.
Outside deck space on the super Vikings is quite large more so that might appear from first glance when viewing the ships from the exterior.
Whilst MERSEY and LAGAN VIKINGS lack the forward open deck of the DUBLIN and LIVERPOOL VIKINGs the outside deck, in particular the sheltered parts are wide, and there are a number of park bench type seats in this area which would be nice on a day time sailing.
Though MERSEY VIKING is bigger than LIVERPOOL or DUBLIN VIKING the ship's shop appears much smaller. Located aft not far from the reception, it does not appear that well stocked, nor have the space to display much stock. in many ways it appears something of an afterthought which just occupies and alcove.
An announcement was made that ETA in Belfast would be on schedule at 06:30.
After a drink I retreated to my cabin and fell asleep. I did awake briefly around 02:00 but was quickly asleep again. Though I don't particularly like inside cabins, the bunks on both the original Vikings and the newer vessels are very comfortable perhaps due to the fact that full thickness mattresses are used, rather than the thinner ones found on quite a few other ships.
Anyway I slept well.
The next thing I knew was that a booming voice on the PA was informing passengers it was 05:00, the ship was ahead of schedule and would arrive at Belfast at 06:15, (original ETA had been 06:30)! Breakfast was being served and would passengers clear cabins by 05:45. It was quite a start to the day - perhaps the purser had previous career in the Navy and was used to rousing slumbering sailors!
I was one of the first into breakfast. Unfortunately I didn't think it was as good as the evening meal. The scrambled egg was too wet and just about acceptable. It compared rather poorly to that served on PONT-AVEN. The Bacon was rather sad too.
Norfolk Line still serve that cheap orange juice which is heavily diluted and much like coloured water. Perhaps one shouldn't complain too much as it is inclusive - but I think the breakfast quality could be improved. It certainly was not as good as the breakfast served on DUBLIN VIKING on my return sailing to Birkenhead a few days later which was better.
After breakfast I went for a wander round after clearing the cabin there was the opportunity to photograph the new Stena Terminal as we passed by and ships at the VT3 container terminal. On the port side can be seen the somewhat slimmed down Harland and Wolff Shipyard, much of the site is now being redeveloped as the "Titanic Quarter".
MERSEY VIKING swung round and was on the berth at exactly 06:15. Passengers being called to their cars. On returning it was apparent that despite it being a calm crossing the cars were caked in sea salt!
I have had my car on the weather deck on a number of vessels such as NORBANK, LADY OF MANN, BEN-MY-CHREE etc but never had I encountered quite so much salt caking except in very rough conditions. A car wash was going to be necessary later that day!
Quite a wait followed until some of the trucks the trucks on the lower deck had been cleared and the ramp lowered. I didn't note the time which I drove off but would guess it was around 06:45.
This begs the question why there is so much of a necessity to car drivers out of their cabins, there should be some differentiation between cars and freight drivers.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip on MERSEY VIKING and must get round to making a day time voyage on her or sister LAGAN VIKING in the not too distant future.
It is a very well presented ship internally which belies the vessels less than attractive exterior design. In my view all that is needed are a few tweaks with the breakfast catering! I also found the crew, who from accents, appeared to be from the Merseyside or Belfast areas helpful and pleasant.
If you want to travel from Merseyside to Belfast or vice versa - forget the plane - take your car and go by sea with Norfolkline - much better way to travel - but you might need to visit the car wash afterwards!