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As Flagship Returned Sole Irish Sea Fast-Ferry Headed for DryDock

19th January 2016

#Overhauls – Ulysses, flagship of Irish Ferries returned to Dublin-Holyhead service yesterday while their high speed craft (HSC) Jonathan Swift went for annual overhaul at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead on Merseyside, writes Jehan Ashmore.

On foot of Ulysses repositioning voyage from A&P Falmouth, Cornwall back to Dublin (see, report on P&O HGV crossings) this saw the 800 passenger/200 car capacity 'Swift' make a departure bound for the shipyard and marine engineering facility.  

Following P&O Ferries recent announcement to confirm the Larne-Troon ‘seasonal route’ would not reopen in 2016, this further compounds Irish Ferries position as the sole operator of a year-round fast-ferry craft on Irish Sea 'cross channels' routes between Ireland and the UK.

Despite P&O's axeing of the Northern Ireland-Scotland connection, the company continues operating the year-round Larne-Cairnryan link provided by two ropax sisters in competition with route rivals, Stena Line. Likewise this operator on the North Channel runs a service between Belfast and Cairnryan and served by a pair of ‘Superfast’ sisters.

It is more than a year ago when Stena withdrew the Highspeed Sea-Service (HSS) craft Stena Explorer on the Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead route in September 2014. This led to Stena consolidate existing services on the Dublin-Holyhead route and by introducing Stena Superfast X in March 2015 alongside Stena Adventurer.

Competing on the central corridor, Irish Ferries Jonathan Swift built by Austal in Australia is an Auto-Express 86m catamaran christened by Ceclia Larkin in 1999. The craft is to remain for overhaul work at the Birkenhead facility until 28th January. This leaves the Dublin–Holyhead route in the hands of route regulars, Ulysses and ropax Epsilon during this slack time of the year.

Since providing capacity over the festive season and refit cover, Isle of Inishmore is to depart Dublin Port tonight and also bound for a Birkenhead overhaul. On completion she is return to normal Rosslare-Pembroke duties currently covered by Oscar Wilde. 

Also berthed at Cammell Laird's wet basin is the only other Irish Sea fast-ferry, the 820 passenger /200 car Manannan, albeit this craft operates the ‘seasonal-only’ UK-Manx link, Liverpool-Douglas for the Isle of Man Steam Packet. The InCat built 96m catamaran from Tasmania dating to 1998, also runs on other Steam Packet routes during busy spells and on summer months.

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Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore is a marine correspondent, researcher and photographer, specialising in Irish ports, shipping and the ferry sector serving the UK and directly to mainland Europe. Jehan also occasionally writes a column, 'Maritime' Dalkey for the (Dalkey Community Council Newsletter) in addition to contributing to UK marine periodicals. 

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Ferry & Car Ferry News The ferry industry on the Irish Sea, is just like any other sector of the shipping industry, in that it is made up of a myriad of ship operators, owners, managers, charterers all contributing to providing a network of routes carried out by a variety of ships designed for different albeit similar purposes.

All this ferry activity involves conventional ferry tonnage, 'ro-pax', where the vessel's primary design is to carry more freight capacity rather than passengers. This is in some cases though, is in complete variance to the fast ferry craft where they carry many more passengers and charging a premium.

In reporting the ferry scene, we examine the constantly changing trends of this sector, as rival ferry operators are competing in an intensive environment, battling out for market share following the fallout of the economic crisis. All this has consequences some immediately felt, while at times, the effects can be drawn out over time, leading to the expense of others, through reduced competition or takeover or even face complete removal from the marketplace, as witnessed in recent years.

Arising from these challenging times, there are of course winners and losers, as exemplified in the trend to run high-speed ferry craft only during the peak-season summer months and on shorter distance routes. In addition, where fastcraft had once dominated the ferry scene, during the heady days from the mid-90's onwards, they have been replaced by recent newcomers in the form of the 'fast ferry' and with increased levels of luxury, yet seeming to form as a cost-effective alternative.

Irish Sea Ferry Routes

Irrespective of the type of vessel deployed on Irish Sea routes (between 2-9 hours), it is the ferry companies that keep the wheels of industry moving as freight vehicles literally (roll-on and roll-off) ships coupled with motoring tourists and the humble 'foot' passenger transported 363 days a year.

As such the exclusive freight-only operators provide important trading routes between Ireland and the UK, where the freight haulage customer is 'king' to generating year-round revenue to the ferry operator. However, custom built tonnage entering service in recent years has exceeded the level of capacity of the Irish Sea in certain quarters of the freight market.

A prime example of the necessity for trade in which we consumers often expect daily, though arguably question how it reached our shores, is the delivery of just in time perishable products to fill our supermarket shelves.

A visual manifestation of this is the arrival every morning and evening into our main ports, where a combination of ferries, ro-pax vessels and fast-craft all descend at the same time. In essence this a marine version to our road-based rush hour traffic going in and out along the commuter belts.

Across the Celtic Sea, the ferry scene coverage is also about those overnight direct ferry routes from Ireland connecting the north-western French ports in Brittany and Normandy.

Due to the seasonality of these routes to Europe, the ferry scene may be in the majority running between February to November, however by no means does this lessen operator competition.

Noting there have been plans over the years to run a direct Irish –Iberian ferry service, which would open up existing and develop new freight markets. Should a direct service open, it would bring new opportunities also for holidaymakers, where Spain is the most visited country in the EU visited by Irish holidaymakers ... heading for the sun!