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Taking A French Ferry Trip Down Memory Lane Also Recalls Busier Dun Laoghaire Harbour Times

4th November 2017
Amidships close-up of the distinctive yellow-hulled Côte d'Albâtre berthed in Newhaven, UK. The 2006 built ferry is the leadship of a pair of sisters still in Transmanche Ferries livery but operated by DFDS (France) on behalf of several public bodies. Past ferries on the English Channel route albeit under Sealink/SNCF had been deployed as backup ships on Irish Sea routes among them Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead. The novelty factor of different ferries operating out of the Irish port is long gone and in particular declined during the Stena HSS fastcraft era which itself ceased operating in 2014. Amidships close-up of the distinctive yellow-hulled Côte d'Albâtre berthed in Newhaven, UK. The 2006 built ferry is the leadship of a pair of sisters still in Transmanche Ferries livery but operated by DFDS (France) on behalf of several public bodies. Past ferries on the English Channel route albeit under Sealink/SNCF had been deployed as backup ships on Irish Sea routes among them Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead. The novelty factor of different ferries operating out of the Irish port is long gone and in particular declined during the Stena HSS fastcraft era which itself ceased operating in 2014. Credit: Transmanche Ferries/DFDS (France) facebook

#TheFrenchConnection - As previously reported, Brittany Ferries seasonal service for 2017 closes this weekend, however Afloat looks at another French service albeit on the English Channel that historically also has ferry use related links with Ireland, writes Jehan Ashmore.

Beforehand of such connections, the Cork-Roscoff route will resume in April 2018, a year that notably will mark the Breton operator's 40th season on the Ireland-France connection and in which again is to be served by Pont-Aven. On completion of today's final crossing, traffic figures for this season are planned to be published.

Also after Pont-Aven arrival in Brittany tomorrow, the 40,000grt cruiseferry is then scheduled to take annual maintenance in the latter part of this month followed by relief duties on one of the operators France-UK routes, Portsmouth-St. Malo. The route regular, Bretagne, also served as a former cruiseferry on the Irish route is to undergo winter dry-docking maintenance.

It is on the English Channel route that former Irish ferry, B&I Line's Connacht that first began a career in 1979 on the Cork-Swansea route, would almost a decade later serve Brittany Ferries following a sale to the cash-starved Irish state-run ferry company. The Verolme Cork Dockyard built ferry was renamed Duchesse Anne, however reappeared in Irish waters off the then former VCD shipyard at Rushbrooke, having operated Cork-Roscoff and a short-lived Cork -St. Malo service. The veteran vessel these days plies the Adriatic between Italy and Croatia for operator Jadrolinija.

T is for Travel and Transmanche

Further east of St.Malo in the neighbouring province of Normandy is where a single route operation is marketed as Transmanche Ferries, trading name of previous operator but now run by DFDS (France) on behalf of Conseil Général de la Seine-Maritime. The operation is contracted out as a public service obligation route served by the custom built 18,000grt sisters, Côte d'Albâtre and Seven Sisters. The pair ply the most geographically direct route that retraces the old classic London-Paris link between the UK and French capitals.

Despite the geography, the route has struggled in terms of traffic, given the relative proximity of the short-sea premier Dover-Calais route served by two major operators, P&O and ironically by the Danish shipping giant DFDS. In addition to alternative rail services with EuroTunnel. Figures for Transmanche over the first six months of 2017 showed a 6.3 drop in passengers to 201,144, while freight further declined by 6.9 equating to 851,000 tonnes.

In July, a night-time trip was taken with Transmanche on board Côte d'Albâtre. This was to recall childhood memories on the Newhaven-Dieppe then under Sealink /SNCF operations that involved taking crossings twice on French-flagged Valencay during successive summers of 1981 and 1982. It was in that first year, that it is also recalled the former North Channel Larne-Stranrear ferry, Caledonian Princess, a turbine steam powered ship dating to 1961, which was laid-up on the Ouse. The river with a fishing fleet, flows out of the English east Sussex ferryport (see: Irish firm / windfarm story from this year).

Ships of Sealink Support Dun Laoghaire Services

Retaining to the geographical connections, the most direct route between the UK and Irish capitals is Holyhead-Dublin, and also to Dun Laoghaire until Stena Line ceased crossings in 2014. One of the precedessing operators, Sealink/British Rail was likewise of the B+I, state run by the UK goverment and this involved running a considerably larger route network and fleet given also English Channel and North Sea services.

As referred above, Pont-Aven is to relieve Bretagne this winter and in times past, pooling of ships for repositioning was commonplace for Sealink and its partners, among them the SNCF, French state railway as alluded was a partner on the Dieppe-Newhaven route. A sister of their Valencay, the elder Villandry was in 1983 laid-up in Calais but was deployed on the Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire route as the St. Columba (custom built in 1977 for the route) had been plagued by engine trouble.

The St. Columba with just one engine struggled to maintain crossing times alongside seasonal support from St. David, this led to back-up at the height of the summer season with Villandry chartered in to assist on the Irish Sea. Efforts to restore St.Columba back into service during that busy August, proved short-lived, as the engine broke down after only a day back in service. The incident even drew the attention of the national media headlines, as widespread distruption ensued forced Villandry to return until St.Columba's issues finally resolved three days later.

Afloat will have more on the St. David which unwittingly became embroiled in an industrial dispute during an incident with rival B+I Line that took place more than a quarter century ago. 

Also recalled was the presence of Villandry in Dublin Bay while rounding the South Burford bouy during the vessels brief stint on the Ireland-Wales which was made more apparent given the dispatch of a French flagged ferry. Other ferries had too been deployed down the years on routine deployment but they were UK flagged ferry counterparts based elsewhere on Sealink's English Channel services. This included those serving the Channel Islands and in which appeared fleetingly in the 1980's BBC TV detective drama 'Bergerac'. 

The use and frequency of such ship pooling continued with Sealink's successor, Sealink British Ferries (SBF). Not forgetting, that for just two years a Dun Laoghaire-Liverpool service ran and in which a thoroughly enjoyable round trip was made in 1989 to and from Merseyside. The longer sea route never really took off with former Channel Islands stalwart, Earl William carrying out final sailings in early 1990. This route asides to Holyhead was the last among others that linked Dun Laoghaire, and so joins a list of services that almost three decades later are becoming less of the collective public memory.

End of an Era: Ferries Replaced by Stena HSS fast-craft 

The scale and novelty factor of such ferries using Dun Laoghaire Harbour was however gradually declining by the time Stena Line took over SBF in the early 1990's. What really put an end to this practise of ferry pooling resources be it deployed to boost capacity, cover dry-dockings and engine failures, was Stena's introduction in 1996 of the pioneering High-speed Sea-Service (HSS) fast ferry craft, HSS Stena Explorer.

During its heyday, the HSS Stena Explorer during peak-season ran five Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead round trips on the near 60 nautical mile route and taking just 99 minutes. This compared to St.Columba's more leisurely 3 hours 30 minutes passage time.

The nearest the Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead route experienced in any form of change to normality during the HSS near two decades service was when much the smaller 'Lynx' fastferry craft were re-introduced. They covered annual dry dockings of the HSS craft and operated exlusively during certain shoulder seasons as part of efforts to stave off high running cost of the craft when laid-up.

Much that that HSS had its positives, as an avid ferry enthusiast, the end of the conventional ferry era made the ferry scene far quiter but should be returned as a working port. Such custom had provided to pay the bills that assisted in the maintenance costs of the harbour's popular public amenity, the piers!

Future of Harbour: Plans Await And Are Proposed  

It is now more than three years since that final historical HSS Stena Explorer sailing took place in September 2014. The prospect of Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company (DLHC) restoring the link to Wales, through an open E-tendering process to seek a new operator on a seasonal-only basis however appear to be realistically diminishing. This coupled with the recent news by DLHC to redevelop the ferry terminal into a Harbour Innovation Campus.

A major unresolved issue also surrounds Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company's proposed development to construct a dedicated cruise-berth jetty as currently much larger deep drafted ships have to anchor offshore. The plans for the single cruise-berth project proved highly controversial. The environmental lobby compaign group, Save Our Seafront (SOS) in April won its legal case against the decision to grant planning permission by An Bórd Pleanála. 

In response to the court decison, DLHC issued a statement on its cruise berth plans by maintaining its 'Cruise berth facility is on track' as An Board Pleanála seek further information from the state company. The full ramification of this decision were then being fully analysed but the DLHC statement in full is available to consult through this link. 




Jehan Ashmore

About The Author

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!

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