During summer 1994 I travelled to the Isle of Man for the very first time only days after the introduction of SEACAT ISLE OF MAN (SNAEFELL). Not only was this my first voyage on to the Isle of Man, but also my very first voyage on an Incat vessel.
Previous forays onto the Irish Sea had been on the preserved ships BALMORAL and WAVERLEY and also the short-lived DENNY ENTERPRISE.
Yes she was probably the second high speed craft to operate on the Irish Sea if one counts the short-lived British United Airways Hovercoach (operating from Moreton to Rhyl) as the first,
It was back in 1969 that I had (dubious?) pleasure of experiencing the sidewall hovercraft DENNY ENTERPRISE operated by the Norwest Hovercraft Company. It should be noted that a sidewall hovercraft is not amphibious and cannot leave the water; therefore, it is more ship than hovercraft.
I was approaching 10 years of age when my father took me for a trip out into Morecambe Bay from Fleetwood on the vessel which had built by the legendry Scottish shipbuilder Denny of Dumbarton. The Norwest Hovercraft Company had proposed to operate DENNY ENTERPRISE between Fleetwood and Douglas – but the hovercraft ended up being employed on pleasure cruises when found to be completely unsuitable for long distance services in open water.
Norwest Hovercraft Company did commence a service to Douglas, but it employed conventional passenger vessels STELLA MARINA chartered for the 1969 season and their own NORWEST LAIRD (ex LOCHIEL) which following a costly rebuild operated unsatisfactorily in 1970 before the company collapsed into insolvency.
I remember the DENNY ENTERPRISE quite well. The passenger area was light and airy with plenty of windows, but of course one couldn’t go outside. However, once underway there appeared to be a lot of spray which obscured the view of the Fleetwood waterfront and “Wyre Light” to which the vessel sailed before returning to Fleetwood. I also recall the noise and vibration too. I wasn’t impressed at all!
It was to be 25 years before I next set foot on any kind of fast craft. This time it was on the then newly introduced SEACAT ISLE OF MAN in summer 1994.It was a very enjoyable experience – not only did it make the Isle of Man accessible – somewhere I had always intended to visit but had never got around to – but it provided convenient days out at sea.
Unlike the Norwest hovercraft a quarter of a century earlier SEACAT ISLE OF MAN suffered from relatively little vibration, one could get outside and it provided an ideal photographic platform for capturing images of other ships.
Within a few days of my first trip on SEACAT ISLE OF MAN I decided to take myself off to Holyhead and take a trip on the then recently introduced SEA LYNX II (later STENA LYNX II) which was operating to Dun Laoghaire.
SEA LYNX II was also a product of the Tasmanian Incat yard. Unlike SEACAT ISLE OF MAN which was already around three years old and represented the 74m design SEA LYNX II was new and of the larger 78m design which featured a significantly better interior with an upper deck and additional open deck space.
Though I found SEACAT ISLE OF MAN impressive and I supported it as my local convenient trip to sea I must say I did prefer the more imaginatively laid out interior and open decks of SEA LYNX II / STENA LYNX II.
Time went by and I was able to sail the Irish Sea in other Incat vessels: the STENA SEALYNX, RAPIDE, DIAMANT and SEACAT DANMARK.
I travelled on other high speed craft as they appeared including the HSS STENA EXPLORER, JONATHAN SWIFT, SUPERSEACAT TWO (VIKING) and SUPERSEACAT THREE.
If anyone looks back at voyage reports and other comments I have made on Irish Sea Shipping they will know I am no fan of the HSS. Boxy, impersonal, restricted external viewing opportunities and about imaginative design wise as a fast food outlet of which she had several!
Irish Ferries JONATHAN SWIFT though retaining the boxy “SWATH” design found on a larger scale in the HSS was certainly an improvement on the HSS but in my eyes was not aesthetically pleasing.
Sea Containers Fincantieri SUPERSEACAT TWO and THREE looked good externally – but the main passenger accommodation was about as well thought out as a bingo hall with the majority of seats all facing forward in high density rows.
Perhaps the interior design of the SUPERSEACATS was a ploy by Sea Containers to get people to consider joining their then BLUE RIBAND CLUB with its own private lounge and comfortable seating?
Well it certainly worked with me and I soon signed up! For me sea travel is having a good view and a comfortable seat only in the Blue Riband Lounge could one be assured of this, plus a door offering quick exit to the outside deck for photography if necessary.
The open deck on the SUPERSEACATS was disappointing SSC2 / VIKING was relatively unsheltered and could become uncomfortable in certain conditions, besides the exhausts on SSC2 often tended to resonate and vibrate very annoyingly at speeds around 20 to 30 knots. SUPERSEACAT THREE had a much more sheltered open deck but for some reason much of it was fenced off for no apparent reason which meant one had to battle through rows of smokers on busy sailings to get to the rail to take photographs
With the sale of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company first to Motagu and later Macquarie SUPERSEACAT TWO remained in the fleet eventually becoming VIKING in 2008. Whilst she looked good in the traditionally inspired livery adopted in 2008 she was still a disappointing vessel on which to travel.
Therefore, the announcement in spring 2008 that the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company had acquired INCAT 050 was welcomed. INCAT 050 had recently returned from a US Military charter and had been bound for Express Ferries. However, this fell through and she was snapped up by the Steam Packet.
When the news was announced it was greeted by scepticism in many areas especially when some people realized she was almost as old as SUPERSEACAT TWO having been completed in 1998!
However, it wasn’t a case of just buying the ship and putting her into service. She was sailed back to the UK and rebuilt at Portsmouth by Burgess Marine. The rebuild included provision of extensive new passenger areas which could accommodate 800 passengers.
Over the winter many followed the work with interest and there was some disappointment that completion of work was around three weeks after that first intended. But as they say the good things in life are sometimes worth waiting for ……
She finally entered service on the morning sailing from Douglas to Liverpool on May 22 and on returning to Douglas that day was officially renamed by the wife of the President of Tynwald.
Though I could have travelled on May 23 I decided to avoid the bank holiday weekend and booked my first trip for the 11:15 sailing from Liverpool on Thursday May 28.
I arrived down at the Pier Head fairly promptly – before MANANNAN had arrived. This was not only my first trip on MANANNAN but my first opportunity as a foot passenger to try the completed terminal facilities at the Pier Head.
After watching MANANNAN berth ay Prince's Landing Stage I wandered down the bridge to the new terminal.
The new Liverpool terminal facilities appear to work quite well. But one wonders what effect the more restricted marshalling space now available may have at busy times considering the high vehicle capacity of the MANANNAN.
Perhaps the powers that be should have allowed some of the revamped Pier Head area to be used as additional marshalling space. The vast expanse of uninspiring paving just cries out to be put to good use for a few hours each day!
The last time foot passenger check-in and waiting facilities were provided on the Landing Stage was back in 1994 – the new facilities are much improved from those days – the waiting area is well laid out and provides good views of the river for waiting passengers.
Unfortunately though, members of the Manannan Executive Club are not provided with a members’ waiting room as they were in the land based terminal. But space on the stage appears to be at a premium,
However, priority boarding is still offered to MEC members though I can’t say I am entirely impressed with the way that is organized.
One also appears to get a priority boarding if you bring a pram or pushchair!
Whilst prams and pushchairs are carried free, Manannan Executive Club members pay a significant fee each year and perhaps should be allowed to board before the prams / buggies / pushchairs!
Therefore, wouldn’t it be appropriate to allow MEC members to board first? – All it needs are some new boarding cards a few minutes work with a computer and laminator!
I didn’t make a note of the exact time of boarding – but it was around 10:35 and took place via the passenger loading platform which has undergone further modification to make it compatible with MANANNAN. Once on board one proceeds up the portside aft external staircase and enters the passenger area towards the middle of the vessel. Though there are doors which lead into the Blue Point Bar these do not appear to be used.
Boarding a new ship can take one a while to orientate oneself – but on coming on board it was apparent that MANANNAN was rather different from any other Irish Sea fast craft. The initial impression was that the interior was much more like a conventional passenger ship.
I felt that there was something of the last KING ORRY about her. The large open spaces one associates with fast craft were noticeably lacking. There were partitions, passageways, small seating areas overall there was a cosy feeling which gives the impression that those who want a quiet corner should, on all but the busiest sailings, be able to find one.
Extensive windows running right around the vessel provide serve to enhance the bright airy feeling, rather different from the dull central interior of SNAEFELL.
Commencing on the main deck at the stern there is the Blue Point Café Bar. The bar faces in wards and personally I find it rather reminiscent of the Lido Bar on Fred Olsen’s BLACK PRINCE.
Doors on each side of the bar counter lead out onto the very sheltered aft open deck which offers excellent views in an arc of around 170 degrees across the stern of the vessel. Part of the deck is restricted in size by a crew only staircase which descends from the upper open deck.
Returning to the Blue Point Café Bar and moving forward there are family side seating areas with toilet facilities on port (red seating area) and starboard (green seating area) as well as separate inboard cinema lounges equipped with large flat screen monitors.
These side lounges themselves appear somewhat reminiscent of those offered on the KING ORRY.
Moving forward there is a seating area to the port side of the shop. The shop ityself appears smaller than that provided on the VIKING. The starboard side seating area also boasts a recessed children’s play area.
The Café Coast foot outlet is located towards the forward end of the ship just aft of the forward lounge seating. There is further passenger seating to each side of the food outlets.
The forward lounge allows a view forward though one really has to be standing to appreciate it. Also visible is the upper level of the car deck and several cars were seen with their fronts pointing towards the lounge. This ramped vehicle area provides easy, level, disabled access from the vehicle deck to the main deck.
The rear bulkhead of the forward lounge carries publicity photographs promoting not the Isle of Man but Tasmania – the home of Incat. A plaque explains their significance for those unaware of the MANANNAN’s origins.
The upper deck is reached by two staird – a wide aft facing staircase passes upwards from near the Café Coast into the Manannan Executive Club Lounge. There is also a nearby lift on the starboard side.
A second, narrow staircase – which reminds one of the aft vehicle deck stairs of the LADY OF MANN, leads up into the Niarbyl Reserved Seating Area on the starboard side. On the port side is the Manannan Premium Lounge (First Class).
There is a door from each of those lounges leading forward into the Manannan Executive Club lounge. Entering here one is confronted by the wrap around forward facing windows which offer an excellent forward view, which combined with the side windows provides a viewing angle of what I would expect to be over 200 degrees. There are no blinds fitted to these windows unlike those fitted to the forward windows of the BEN-MY-CHREE.
Seating is mainly high back black and read leather faced seats four facing forwards the remainder at table groupings – these are adjustable.
At the sides by the entrance doors are two “L” shaped sofas – but these are labelled for “crew emergency use”. Similar notices were to be found on by selected seats on the main deck.
The upper open deck is accessed by doors from the Niarbyl Reserved Seat Lounge and the Manannan Premium Lounge.
This is a well sheltered area which provides a view aft.
Whilst MANANNAN is impressive, this upper open deck disappoints. Whilst there is a good view to the stern above the aft accommodation access to the sides is to some extent restricted as on both port and starboard side are located air conditioning pods.
One wonders why, the aircon pods could not have been placed in a railed off area in the centre to allow passengers access to the sides? Some other later generation Incats do have centrally mounted pods.
Above the upper passenger deck is the rather small centralized “wheel house”. One cannot really call it a bridge it is more reminiscent of that provided on an HSS or even an SR-N4 hovercraft.
The lack of a proper bridge means there are no “bridge wings” berthing is aided by on board CCTV Cameras.
Departure from Liverpool was around 5 minutes behind schedule at 11:20. The Rock was passed at 11:39, Q1 at 12:03 and the Liverpool Bar Lightfloat at 12:08. On the way down the channel MANANNAN passed LAGAN VIKING outbound for Belfast.
Little shipping was observed enroute except for CLIPPER RANGER.
On approach to Douglas the Captain announced that MANANNAN would be heading a little further east as she swung into the bay due to the presence of a school of basking sharks. The fins of these creatures could be seen off the port side.
Around this time SNAEFELL passed outbound heading for Dublin on her 13:45 sailing.
MANANNAN arrived at Victoria Pier Douglas at 13:58, the outer berth being occupied by Royal Navy Mine Hunter HMS RAMSEY. On the south side of Edward Pier could be seen the recently arrived LORD NELSON.
The return 17:15 sailing departed from Douglas at 17:07 a few minutes early with 290 passengers and 37 crew.
A pleasant, uneventful voyage back to Liverpool followed. The sunny weather made the upper open deck a rather pleasant place to be.
MANANNAN was passed the Bar at 18:51.
The panoramic view from the Manannan Executive Club lounge of the sail up the Mersey approach channels was breath taking.
I have seen this view from the forward end of a number of ships over the years – but the wide unrestricted view from MANANNAN was simply superb!
We were alongside Prince’s Landing Stage at 19:40. Securing the vessel tool a few minutes and was achieved around 19:50.
Disembarkation took place via the starboard exit door and down the stairs leading to the vehicle deck. Passengers then proceeded through the vehicle deck across the ramp and exited via the link span.
The new baggage reclaim is located at the bottom of the original passenger footbridge. To assist passengers carrying hevy luggage, particularly at low tide as it was on this day, a conveyor belt has been installed on the sea ward side of the bridge. Perhaps not an ideal situation as at low tide the bridge is very steep. It is to be regretted that Peel Ports never attempted to reduce the gradient of the bridge though at least on reaching the top one is free to proceed in any direction rather than being channelled through the black gates and the baggage reclaim. Something which was rather annoying for those passengers wishing for a quick get away and only carrying hand baggage.
My first encounter with MANANNAN was a pleasant experience. She is a breath of fresh air and as I reported to the Irish Sea Ships Yahoo Group I will stand by my comment that the Isle of Man Steam Packet have pulled a “pedigree rabbit” out of the hat!
In terms of MANANNAN’s interior layout, as commented on above, I found similarities with a few conventional ships on which I have travelled. She feels like a conventional ship and offers a conventional ship interior inside a fast craft.
Obviously MANANNAN will have a few operational limitations – but her layout takes the interior design of Irish Sea fast craft to a new level.
On a personal level I look forward to many future sailings over the coming years.
Irish Sea fast ferries have certainly come a long way since the DENNY ENTERPRISE!
John H Luxton
June 10, 2009