Each October I usually have a short holiday which usually involves some sea travel: either a few days in the West Country and a sail from Plymouth with Brittany Ferries to Santander or a sail across the Irish Sea with one of the Irish Sea operators followed by a drive down to Cóbh and a few days in a hotel overlooking the harbour there.
However, October 2008 was scheduled to be different. It became apparent during the late spring of 2007 that Thomson Cruises would be offering a short “Taste of Ireland” cruise from Liverpool calling at Cóbh and Dublin on the THOMSON CELEBRATION – the former NOORDAM of Carnival Corporation subsidiary Holland America Line. This cruise just happened to coincide with my October holiday dates.
I, therefore, thought that the opportunity to cross the Irish Sea on something different than the usual local ships and also sail from Liverpool direct to Cóbh was something I could not miss. Therefore, during September 2007 I found myself in the newly opened Thomson Cruise Deals booking office in Liverpool.
As anyone who reads this web site will know, sailing by sea during the latter part of October can be a “moving experience” due to almost predictable periods of high wind.
Despite these “blows” the conventional ferries by which I usually travel at this time of year almost always operate with little or no disruption. Therefore, on making my reservation with Thomson I had no doubt that a large passenger ship of 33,933 grt would have little problem in dealing with what the Irish Sea could throw at it – considering that this ship was built for world cruising.
The months slipped by and 13 months later it was October 2008. The forecast didn’t look too good for the Thursday October 23rd and Saturday October 25th of the cruise but why worry?
“This is a 33,933grt ocean going cruise ship of traditional design”, I said to myself – “Not one of those sometimes fragile looking mega-ships everything should be okay.”
Well departure day – October 23 dawned and things were looking a bit rough.
I arrived down at the Langton Dock Cruise Terminal rather early. The last few passengers from the incoming THOMSON CELEBRATION cruise were still disembarking.
As I went to enter the terminal portacabin two ladies informed me that they had heard the next cruise to was cancelled.
“I hope not” I said, “I am booked on it!” – I just put there comments down to ill informed gossip.
Passenger boarding commenced during the early afternoon and I soon found my way up to my allocated cabin – 148 on deck 7. As it transpired my decision to get an outside cabin higher up the ship was to prove to be of some advantage as I would at least have a decent view and could see over the top of the transit shed to New Brighton. Some friends on board were not so lucky having the benefit of a view of the West Langton transit shed!
The THOMSON CELEBRATION is certainly a well presented ship, well maintained, though as with any ship which is 24 years old – has the odd little imperfection or faded corner. But to be fair – these are few and far between, overall she is obviously well looked after and a credit to her crew.
It must be said that the crew are also very obliging – the cabin steward introducing himself shortly after I arrived in the cabin. The other crew I came across throughout the next few days were very pleasant and helpful to a person without exception – that is unusual as one usually finds someone working on a ship who has managed to get out of bed with a sore head or an attitude problem. Well on THOMSON CELEBRATION I didn’t find any!
As I am not someone who enjoys live noisy entertainment I tend to seek out the quieter parts of ships and those parts which offer a good view.
Having done some research it was apparent that the best location was Horizon’s Bar on Eagle Deck – 9 situated above the bridge where I arranged to meet up with some friends.
Lifeboat drill came and went – but it was becoming apparent that the ship was not going to depart on time at 17:00 for Cóbh.
Around 17:30 the captain announced that due to adverse conditions we would not be sailing for Cóbh on Thursday evening and the ship would remain at Langton Dock overnight – that conditions would be reassessed in the morning and the ship would then probably sail to Dublin/
The Thursday evening forecast suggested that a sailing down to Cóbh head into the wind might be something of a moving experience for those unused to Irish Sea travel during a late October blow. So perhaps it was understandable that this call was cancelled.
No problem I thought to myself the trade off for missing Cóbh is a daylight sail along the North Wales coast and over to Dublin – the forecast for Friday isn’t bad! It would be a chance to recall those Liverpool – Dublin day trips in summer and autumn 1997 on the dear old LADY OF MANN.
After a rather good dinner in the Meridian Restaurant and a few drinks in the Horizons Bar I retired to my cabin around 22:30.
A few moments later the Friday edition of Thomson’s “Cruise News” was slid under the cabin door.
The headline read “Enjoy Your Day in Liverpool”. Strange I thought, we have been told the ship will sail to Dublin tomorrow. Should that not be “Enjoy Your Day at Sea”?
Oh well off to bed.
Friday morning dawned – the wind had moderated significantly and – the Norfolkline and P&O Irish Sea ferries were visible at the respective terminals. Won’t be long now I thought, we will soon be off.
Around 08:00 the captain came on the PA again whilst I was having breakfast in the Meridian Restaurant and he said that an announcement about a decision to sail would be made at 10:00 as he was checking forecasts for Saturday which indicated another weather front and period of windy weather.
The promised 10:00 announcement came around 10:30 to inform everyone that we were not going anywhere!
The captain stated that he didn’t want to end up in a position off Dublin with a developing gale and should the Dublin Port be closed as a consequence the ship would be forced to hold position in Dublin Bay.
This I found somewhat incredulous!
Could I not see the somewhat smaller P&O Irish Sea NORBANK running down in Gladstone Lock? Hadn’t DUBLIN VIKING put to sea?
These ships would all be in Dublin around 17:00 – well before the forecast bad weather had broken – so why were we not sailing! We could be in port before the bad weather arrived and here we were missing a clear weather window.
Rather puzzled, I pulled out my Pocket PC and posted the information that the THOMSON CELEBRATION was not sailing to the Irish Sea Ships Yahoo Group [Message 24440]
In this message I also had the temerity to state “tomorrow's forecast is bad but the wind would be behind on return”.
Shortly after posting this message the points I had raised were answered by the captain over the PA – it being suggested that some passengers had asked these questions.
Was this a coincidence? - They were the very points I had made!
We were informed that the handling characteristics of THOMSON CELEBRATION are different than the P&O & Norfolkline vessels. That there was concern that THOMSON CELEBRATION could be stuck in Dublin should the bad weather continue.
[Incidentally - on the subject of the ship’s performance in bad weather I received the following comments from a Liners List subscriber in Florida:
“This ship has a great record of performing well in foul weather. While this ship was HAL's mv NOORDAM, my wife and I did a transatlantic in November of 2000 during which we encounter thirty- to forty-foot seas for nearly five days.
The NOORDAM plowed her way from Lisbon to Fort Lauderdale. At times, our speed was reduced to fourteen knots due to headwinds. Nevertheless, when the weather cleared we moved along at close to twenty-two knots arriving on time in Florida. -]
Sounds to me like a good vessel able to take what ever the Irish Sea can throw at it!
The Captain also expressed concerned that although it was accepted the wind would be behind on the return sailing from Dublin if the ship was obliged to answer a distress call, THOMSON CELEBRATION would have to turn into the weather which might make things unpleasant.
Of course the word here is “IF” – emergencies can and do happen especially in bad weather but I have sailed across the Irish Sea in many a gale over the past 15 years and not been on a ship which has been called to an emergency yet! – So an outside chance perhaps?
Out of curiosity I made some enquiries with contacts and soon ascertained that both Irish Ferries JONATHAN SWIFT and Stena Line’s HSS STENA EXPLORER were also operating that Friday morning from Holyhead and the mid afternoon Isle of Man Steam Packet Company VIKING fast craft sailing was also running as scheduled from Douglas to Liverpool – all three being very weather sensitive craft with wave height operating limitations.
So why was the THOMSON CELEBRATION not moving?
Here was a clear weather window; besides the following day’s (Saturday’s) high winds were supposed to decrease by late afternoon. Surely by Saturday evening the at worst there might be some motion between Dublin and Skerries off Anglesey?
The Captain’s announcement that the ship was not sailing were followed by those of the cruise director, explaining the position of Thomson’s Head Office:
As the cancellation was due to weather and outside of the company’s control – they were not obliged to refund the fares but as a good will gesture 80% of the value of the fare of this cruise would be credited against a future Thomson Cruise.
Letters would also be sent out to passengers to present to their travel insurance operators confirming cancellation to enable a claim to be made as well as confirming an 80% credit of the value of this cruise towards a future Thomson cruise would be sent out. [However, in my case and in that of others I spoke to the nature of this cancellation meant that our insurance did not provide cover for weather cancellation!]
Now the Thomson offer appears generous BUT it was made quite clear during the Captain’s Questions and Answers session on Saturday October 25 that due to the lack of adequate terminal facilities Thomson would not be commencing any cruises from the Port of Liverpool for the foreseeable future! So one would be forced to trek to Newcastle or Harwich for a limited range of UK cruises next year. Not really satisfactory!
Passengers were informed by the cruise director that all the scheduled entertainment would continue as advertised and passengers were welcome to remain on board and enjoy the facilities.
Well that might appeal to those who enjoy visiting the likes of Butlin’s or Pontin’s but does everyone want that sort of thing?
Surely that is just a sideline on a cruise whose main aim should be to visit interesting places?
The Cruise Director announced the company would provide shuttle buses to Albert Dock each day. – Now given that many passengers originated on Merseyside a visit to the Albert Dock would not rank very highly. A lady in a cabin near mine actually lived in the Albert Dock apartments!
Now the provision of the shuttle bus was interesting. When the cruise was only cancelled officially at 10:30, I saw one of the coaches heading towards the ship at around 08:50 when I was on the upper deck – so someone knew something was going on.
Once back home I made some enquiries and have discovered that the Cóbh call was actually cancelled around mid day on Wednesday October 22 and Belfast substituted.
It was actually admitted at the Saturday Captain’s Questions & Answers session that Belfast was to have been a substitute.
My enquiries in Ireland revealed that the Belfast call had been cancelled at 12:00 on Thursday and that tugs at Liverpool to assist with departure from Langton at 17:00 had been stood down initially for 24 hours at around 11:30 the same day.
As with the previous evening’s newsletter already commented on above it was obviously known that the Thursday departure was going to be cancelled BEFORE passenger were embarked!
Passengers were told if they wanted to leave the ship they could. Press reports suggested that around 80 left on Friday. Perhaps some of those leaving earliest were amongst the angriest? I was nearly knocked over by a chap blustering out of one cabin! However, a steady trickle of passengers was noted leaving the ship from then on until late Saturday evening.
I decided to stay – at least I could make use of the accommodation and food – and as I said the ship itself is very nice. Besides I had some good company too!
On the Friday I used the shuttle bus and actually managed to get afloat for 30 minutes on a Yellow Duckmarine DUKW in Salthouse and Albert Docks!
Returning to THOMSON CELEBRATION after the excitement of the DUKW trip I was in time to watch the weather fickle IoMPSPCo VIKING sail past on the way to Prince’s Landing Stage on her late afternoon sailing from Douglas.
Saturday did turn out to be a bit of a rough day until mid afternoon – however conditions improved. It was interesting to note that despite the weather LIVERPOOL VIKING sailed in from Dublin almost on time followed by NORBAY – which because of the wind took assistance from a tug.
I also found out that by mid afternoon – ferries on the North Channel – the area most affected by the gales had started moving again.
Sunday morning dawned somewhat damp but with the wind further decreased. I disembarked at 07:45.
The driver of the car park bus – who had driven one of the shuttle buses made the reasonable comment: “Why didn’t they take you on a coach trip to Chester?” – A very good point!
Whilst it is accepted that a percentage of passengers were quite happy to sit around and just enjoy the facilities the failure to offer nothing more than the entertainment was a great disappointment – not everyone cruises for this.
As the bus driver said “Why not a decent coach trip”?
Why not a token refund for those not wishing to take the 80% Offer?
Those who decided to leave early, in my opinion, should have only paid for one or two night’s accommodation. Those who stayed to the end should have been provided with a decent coach excursion and a token account credit.
How much – it is hard to say – perhaps £100 per person?
[It should be born in mind that the Waverley Steam Navigation Company’s WAVERLEY and BALMORAL provide full refunds should it be decided that the ship will not sail due to adverse conditions. If a small company with quite limited resources can provide this a large organisation should have no problem given that their large vessels are much less likely to be disrupted]
What is certain the Thomson saved a significant amount of money through not burning fuel, or paying towage or pilot fees at Cóbh (or Belfast) and Dublin.
I’ll end this report by asking a few of questions:
- Why did those two ladies I encountered on Thursday morning tell me they had heard the next cruise was cancelled? Someone on board obviously knew and had told them!
- Why were passengers not told before checking in that there was no likelihood of the ship sailing on the Thursday – even though the alternative port of call – Belfast had already been cancelled TWO hours before the advertised embarkation time?
- Why did the “Cruise News” for Friday wish everyone a pleasant day in Liverpool when it had been suggested we might sail on the Friday morning when clearly there was no intention? The tugs having been stood down from their previous evening’s booking for 24 hours.
- Why did the shuttle bus arrive so far in advance – almost two hours of the official announcement that the cruise was cancelled?
- Why wasn't the clear weather window offered on the Friday taken advantage of?
- Was the weather a convenient excuse for operational convenience with the ship due to sail to dry dock at A&P Falmouth and many of the crew going home on leave?
- Would possibly a few hours delay on the return sailing from Dublin have caused problems with the dry dock / leave arrangements and was the weather a convenient excuse?
- Why has the promised letter confirming the reason for cancellation and offering the promised 80% of value discount not arrived? - This did arrive eventually on November 12, despite being dated November 03. [see below]
- Who knows?
I would certainly like to know more! – If anyone one out there in the maritime community is reading this and does know more I, and my travelling companions, would be most pleased to hear!
One thing is for certain – I doubt I will try to sail with Thomson again – a shame really as THOMSON CELEBRATION is a very nice ship! But what good is a ship that does not sail?
My October holiday was spoiled, if I had stuck to my usual October routine and had chosen to sail either to Santander or across the Irish Sea by scheduled sailing I would not have been disappointed. It appeared that quite a few passengers who remained on board were happy to treat the ship has a holiday camp, but frankly one wonders why they didn't go to Butlins, Pontins or Centre Parcs instead!
I have learned a valuable lesson and those who enjoy sailing on scheduled sailings and have not tried cruising yet - do bear my experience in mind!
THOMSON CELEBRATION did finally departed Langton Dock light ship late on Sunday morning her AIS displaying an 08:00 arrival at Falmouth where she arrived on time.