From the mid- nineties Dublin was a regular destination for me, for either short breaks or for day excursions. Sailing to the Irish capital for the day was easily accomplished after the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company under the control of Sea Containers introduced their Liverpool to Dublin service in 1997 utilising the Lady of Mann for a six hour sail there and a six hour sail back. Wonderful for the enthusiast but perhaps not so good for the ordinary passenger who wanted to get there as soon as possible. In fact Sea Containers had dipped their toes in the water in 1996 when they provided late season sailings from Fleetwood to Dublin, again using the Lady of Mann, trying their best to cash in on the duty free market. As the Liverpool service developed over the years the fast craft Seacat Isle of Man, Superseacat Two, Superseacat Three, Rapide, and Diamant were all utilised on this service until duty free shopping ended and the route ceased after the 2001 season. Looking back now, it feels like a golden age of sailing opportunities.
Other routes to Ireland were also sampled during this period. P&O’s service from Liverpool to Dublin was tried on a couple of occasions for longer stay trips to Ireland and sailings from Holyhead were also utilised. In 1996 the HSS service was tried on the Stena Explorer, a ship that still sails on the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire service but which I have never really liked. The conventional ships that Stena has on the Holyhead service are much better. The services of Irish Ferries were also sampled from Holyhead to Dublin and their fine ships Isle of Inishmore and then Ulysses were and still are a pleasure to sail on. And of course there is the Irish Ferries fast craft Jonathan Swift built in 1999 to counter the Stena Explorer.
However, during the early part of the first decade of this century, sailings to Dublin began to get less and less. As stated earlier the Steam Packet had ended their service from the Mersey to Dublin and although day trips were still possible from Holyhead it was more often than not disregarded because of inconvenient timings of sailings making very early starts compulsory from Merseyside, the long drive to Holyhead, there and back, began to be thought of as a chore and the Dublin day excursion was gradually consigned to history as far as this writer was concerned.
However in June 2011 circumstances offered the opportunity to sample a Holyhead to Dublin day trip for the first time since 2006. Unlike in earlier times, it would have to be a straight there and back affair, no time at all in the Irish capital, a day out just for the sake of the sailings. So it was with considerable curiosity that I approached the terminal at Holyhead on a fine Wednesday morning in June. The plan was simple; take the 12.00 sailing to Dublin on the Jonathan Swift and return on her at 14.30. Unfortunately the circumstances which made it possible to do this day trip also dictated that I could not be too late back so returning on the Ulysses later in the day, which would have been ideal, was not possible.
I parked the car at the large park and ride car park about half a mile from the terminal. My first impression was how less busy it was from the last time I was there and my second impression was one of annoyance as I paid the £8 to park my car for the few hours it would be there. The bus which rattled its way to the terminal had only two other passengers on it apart from me. On entering the terminal building itself at first glance it looked much the same as I remembered five years ago but gradually I began to spot a few changes. For example the Tourist Information Centre had gone and then I noticed a large Pumpkin Coffee House situated where, I am sure, the gent’s toilets used to be. The gentlemen’s conveniences have been “downsized” and moved further along. I had plenty of time, so I enjoyed a café latte at the Pumpkin Coffee House and observed the comings and goings of other travellers as they wandered in and out but I had difficulty banishing from my imagination whether the very comfortable chair I was sitting on was on the site of a former wash basin, urinal or WC!
The check in process a little later went smoothly and by the look of it, it was going to be quite a busy sailing. A huge queue of potential passengers had developed behind me, many of them either backpackers who all appeared to have the contents of a small bungalow on their backs or cyclists who not only had the bungalow in the bag but also had their bikes nearly completely enveloped by other bags of all shapes and sizes. The extra weight these machines were carrying must make pedalling them, especially uphill, a task only comfortably accomplished by individuals who possess legs of similar power to a Tour De France rider.
The dreaded foot passenger bus is of course an ordeal that has to be endured. It is a matter of policy, it would appear, to cram as many people on them as possible and to make it the most arduous short journey of your life. I managed to get a seat as I was near the front of the check in queue but of course even getting a seat can be fraught with danger as well, as a backpacker’s bag can easily get its buckle hooked in your ear, a hard case often malevolently cracks your knee as its owner struggles up the centre isle of the bus or its wheels run over your feet. Still, these small tribulations are sent to try us and the ordeal is usually of short duration once the bus has started to move, unless of course as on this occasion it gets stuck behind a large lorry which has got into the wrong lane of the marshalling area near the link-span and holds up your progress for a further five minutes or so. And the bus gradually gets warmer, and warmer and warmer…
For this sailing the Jonathan Swift was at the Salt Island Berth as the two large link-spans were occupied by the Stena Adventurer and the Ulysses. I am sure the last time I did this sort of sailing the bus drove on to the car deck of the vessel but on this occasion it stopped on the link-span and passengers walked on board. I made my way up to the open decks of the ship as I wanted to be outside for the departure. It was a lovely sunny day and good photographs were to be had of the Ulysses and Stena Adventurer, which was unloading, as we departed the harbour. Departure was in fact early, at 11.52 and once we were clear of the breakwater it was noted that the ship was touching 38 knots and we were off the South Stack at 12.06 by which time the speed had settled down to 35 knots or so. The outside decks of the Jonathan Swift are of reasonable size for a fast craft and parts of them are quite sheltered as well, though of course certain areas of them can be very windy and reasonable care needs to be taken. However they are a refreshing asset of the ship and a large number of passengers utilised them throughout the passage, enjoying the fresh sea air and the views of the sea, the bubbling wake of the ship as she powers through the water, watching the receding coast of Cambria or anticipating the approaching shoreline of Hibernia. All of which is splendid stuff but at 12.15 I decided it was time for lunch and so I retreated into the interior of the ship.
The interior accommodation of the Jonathan Swift is very much as I remembered it from five years ago. Basically the main inside passenger deck is open plan with many chairs, some which swivel and some that don’t, grouped around tables. The seats which are filled first are those along the side of the vessel giving good views through the large side windows which got Irish Ferries into trouble a few years ago when Stena Line accused the Irish company of copying their design from the HSS vessels. I think I am right in thinking the courts eventually ruled in favour of Stena Line. The shop is at the aft end of the ship and towards amidships are two staircases which lead to the upper deck. The bar of the vessel is just before the shop, semi screened off from the rest of the ship by half a bulkhead, on which a large communal television entertains the masses constantly. I was tut tutting rather self importantly to myself at the sight of dozens of people not being able to reject the dreaded box even when they are at sea when I noticed that the programme they were watching was one of the Whacky Races cartoons from years ago, with such wonderful characters as Dick Dastardly and Muttley, Penelope Pitstop, the Ant Hill Mob and the rest of the panoply of cartoon legends! In the interests of research I watched several minutes of it myself. Wonderful choice of programme! The on board entertainment officers of Irish Ferries are obviously people of impeccable taste. On the return sailing the television was showing Tom and Jerry cartoons so their sophistication was not a flash in the pan.
The design of this accommodation gives the impression of the ship being busy, open and a little noisy although the fixtures and fittings all seem in good condition and they give the impression of being of good quality and well looked after.
The catering facilities of the ship are at the forward end of the main passenger deck and consist of Boylan’s Brasseri which serves hot meals of the sausage, beans and chips variety, plus all types of drinks, sandwiches, cakes biscuits etc and next to it is the Café Lafayette which serves everything Boylan’s does except for the hot meals! Perhaps they need to think about that at the next refit…
I think I prefer the type of internal layout adopted by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company for their fast craft Manannan. She does not have one large open area on the main passenger deck but smaller and more intimate lounges with different types of seating, some round tables, some of the aircraft type. She also has two small cinemas which the Jonathan Swift does not. One thing the two ships do have in common however is that the upper passenger deck is reserved for those passengers who wish to pay extra for a better level of service. The Jonathan Swift’s club class is situated on the upper deck, reached by the central staircases. It costs sixteen Euros per crossing for this and you get a nice comfortable seat, some with outside views at the side of the ship, complimentary newspapers and some complimentary snacks and drinks. Is it worth it? On this occasion I did not bother (I did when this facility first came out) as I wanted to be outside a lot and wanted to experience the main body of the ship but I would not dismiss the idea of upgrading on a future occasion. However sixteen Euros seems a little expensive for a crossing of under two hours.
The shop on the Jonathan Swift is large and spacious, larger than that on the Manannan, but unfortunately much of it is full of tat. There are masses of the usual Irish souvenir junk such as silly green hats and leprechauns by the score as well as the compulsory Guinness branded products. However there are also shelf-loads of “fine fragrances” and other cosmetics which many shops on ships these days seem full of. There is, as is expected, a good selection of fine Irish Whiskies as well as other alcoholic delights to tempt the palate. There is also a small selection of clothing and a very small selection of books and magazines of the “celebrity” type. Sadly there are no Company branded products at all which might tempt the enthusiast to part with some of his money, no postcards or books or magazines which people actually interested in the ships might be tempted to purchase. The shops on the Isle of Man Steam Packet ships do have a small selection of that sort of thing and their shops are better for it but I suppose Irish Ferries only want to stock what they regard as mass market sellers… but how many people actually buy a cuddly Irish leprechaun or a silly pointy green leprechaun hat? Don’t tell me…more than I could possibly imagine?
Anyway, it was while I was eating my lunch that a text message came through on my phone. It turned out to be an information text from my service provider telling me that the signal I was receiving was now from the MCP, the Maritime Communications Partner. This sounded horrendously expensive so I turned the phone off for a while!
Going back up on deck about 13.10 it was very noticeable that the fine sunny weather was still prevalent in the direction of Wales but over Dublin the sky was black and the aspect was grey, misty and depressing. Dismissing the mischievous thought that this might be a meteorological comment on the present condition of the Irish economy, I realised it might be very wet indeed in Dublin. As it turned out the rather vengeful looking mass of cloud passed over and we were spared the heavy downpours I feared initially. At 13.20 we were off the Kish Light and two minutes later the Stena Explorer was observed coming out of Dun Laoghaire. We were off the Bailey at 13.27, the coastal tanker Cumbria Fisher was noted anchored off, and we were passing the Poolbeg Light at 13.36. It was at this point that a member of the deck crew came outside to raise the flags. It was sad, I feel, that the Irish Tricolour was raised at the mainmast as the courtesy flag as the ensign unfurled at the stern was that of Cyprus. Seems unfortunate that an Irish ship, owned by an Irish company, sailing into Ireland has to raise its own ensign as the courtesy flag – doesn’t seem right.
As we headed towards our berth at the terminal the Anglia Seaways and the Stena Nordica were berthed nearby. It was at this point that you get chased inside by a member of the cabin crew – just when you are trying to take photographs of the ships in the port. I think they do it because it is a very tight turnaround time and they want all passengers to disembark swiftly but really there is no need to. You are left waiting inside the ship at least ten minutes before disembarkation begins so to me it is a pointless exercise.
After passing through the passport check after disembarkation I walked through to the Irish Ferries check in desk for the sailing back. Not much of Dublin to be seen this time! Passing through Dublin’s exemplary light touch security checks, I made my way up to the upper level of the terminal to await re-embarkation on to the Jonathan Swift. The terminal has not changed much over the years. It is pleasant enough but does not have a great deal of character. It may perhaps best be described as functional and efficient which is probably what is required – it is fit for purpose, as the fashionable expression goes.
The Jonathan Swift left her berth on my return sailing to Holyhead six minutes early at 14.24. We were passing Poolbeg Light seven minutes later and we were off the Bailey, doing 36 knots at 14.41. Once again I spent much, though not all, of the sail on the outside decks and at 15.22 the Stena Adventurer crossed on our starboard side on her way to Dublin, followed eight minutes later by the Ulysses. At the same time, on the port side, P&O’s Norbay, out of Liverpool, could be seen in the distance, also on her way to Dublin.
By 16.03 we were off the South Stack and were rounding the breakwater at Holyhead at 16.09. The weather was still warm and bright, but the only vessel in Holyhead was the Stena Explorer, now finished for the day after her one round trip to Dun Laoghaire. At 16.16 we were berthed at Holyhead, this time on Irish Ferries’ larger link-span berth and soon afterwards we foot passengers were being herded on to that bus once again.
Although on this occasion I had had no time in Dublin, I thoroughly enjoyed my two sailings on the Jonathan Swift. Although I have to admit preferring the Manannan, as fast craft go the Jonathan Swift is a pleasant enough ship of her type to sail on. Irish Ferries run what appears to be an extremely efficient operation with her, the crew are friendly and polite, the ship clean and well run. I just wish I had bought a cuddly Irish leprechaun now. Maybe next time…