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P&O's 180th Anniversary: Irish Connections Included Mini Christmas Cruise

23rd December 2017

#P&[email protected] – Before another year sails by, it should be highlighted P&O's 180th anniversary took place during this year, with celebrations marking the world famous shipping company that was founded in 1837, writes Jehan Ashmore.

Operating 20 ferries and employing almost 4,000, P&O Ferries is a household name in the UK with services connecting Ireland and Europe. In total they operate 8 routes across the Irish Sea, English Channel and the North Sea carrying more than 10 million passengers, 1.6 million cars and 2.2 million freight units.

The Irish operations involve Cairnryan-Larne and Liverpool-Dublin, from where the Irish capital can be traced historically to P&O’s foundation, which is briefly outlined below.

As this is the festive season, Afloat reflects on a previous Christmas, back in 2004, when notably a historic once-off first visit to Dublin Port of P&O Ferries chartered-in 37,583 gross tonnes cruiseferry, Pride of Bilbao took place. This unique visit was due to a three-day mini Christmas Cruise, though too detailed to be included in the ferry factsheet (pdf) accessed through the link above. 

The Christmas Cruise to Ireland took place prior to the festive day, enabling ‘cruise-goers’ of the 2,552 passenger/600 vehicle ship, to shop in Dublin. Pride of Bilbao had sailed from Portsmouth albeit based upon a sub-charter from P&O to a UK travel excursions company.

The Pride of Bilbao's then shipowners, Irish Continental Group (ICG) whose headquarters are sited close to the Dublin ferryport is where Pride of Bilbao docked for this only call. Otherwise the impressive giant cruiseferry which ICG had bare-boat chartered to P&O since 1994, operated P&O Ferries Portsmouth-Bilbao route until the UK-Spain service closed in 2010, however rivals Brittany Ferries took over.

For 10 years of P&O's 16 year charter of Pride of Bilbao, the cruiseferry also undertook in between Spanish sailings, Portsmouth-Cherbourg crossings at weekends. An opportunity was taken to make such a crossing from France in 1997. This was a proud moment to be on board given the Bahamas flagged ferry was then the largest in the P&O fleet. 

During the Pride of Bilbao’s career, the ferry never directly served ICG’s division Irish Ferries, so the visit to Dublin further added to the unique occasion. The arrival of the former Scandinavian serving Viking Line giant launched in 1986 as Olympia, was clearly recalled as the ‘Bilbao’ entered Dublin Bay. 

It was in the Swedish capital of Stockholm where Olympia originally connected to Finland’s capital, Helsinki. An elder sister Mariella remains in service with calls via Mariehamn, Åland Islands.

In 2010, the cruiseferry returned to Baltic Sea routes but as a cruiseship following ICG selling the ship to St. Peter Line for €37.7m Renamed Princess Anastasia, the ship began a new career operating between St. Petersburg-Helsinki-Stockholm and Tallinn, Estonia. Last year SPL sealed a joint-venture with Italian operator, Moby Lines, to form Moby Line SPL, which saw fleetmate ship, Princess Maria transfer to the Meditterranean this year out of Nice where Afloat previously reported on a Corsica serving ferry, Moby Zazà.

As for the Pride of Bilbao’s Bay of Biscay-Iberian connection this is also apt not just because of the ship’s name, but what P&O stands for the: ‘The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’ which is alluded below and as for the Orient connection is explained through the P&O Heritage website. Noting, Afloat’s coverage of further historical links between P&O and the B+I Line.

In the 1830’s steam power was still in its infancy but it was the founders of P&O that was the key to revolutionising commerce and communication by sea. It was down to the Irish to lead the way in such a revolutionary innovation, as Dublin shipowners, Charles Wye Williams and Captain Richard Bourne, had already successfully run paddle-steamers in the 1820s. The venture in operating such ships was a costly business but both Captains realised the future lay ahead through larger steamships serving on longer voyages that included operating the subsidised ‘mail’ services.

As the P&O Heritage history timeline website (note montage incl. Pride of Bilbao) adds, by 1834 Bourne had chartered a steamer to the London ship brokers and agents, Willcox and Anderson, who were running speculative services to Spain and Portugal. Like Bourne, Brodie McGhie Willcox and Arthur Anderson had ambitious plans to operate regular steamers to rival the Government’s existing ‘mail packet’ service to the Peninsula. But, unlike Bourne, Willcox and Anderson had neither their own steamers nor any experience of mail contracts. Joining forces was an obvious solution.

Three years later, on 22nd August 1837, Bourne secured a Government contract for the Peninsular mails to be managed by Willcox and Anderson under the aptly named ‘Peninsular Steam Navigation Company’. Traditionally regarded as the Company’s foundation date, the first mail contract marks the start of our P&O story.

For much more on the subsequent 180 years! of this world famous shipping company which in 2006 was sold off into two divisions, ferry and cruise click this link.

In addition to those researching the numerous P&O ships, not just paddle-steamers, ferries, ocean liners, cruiseships but also containerships and more, type the name of ship and or shipping division here to bring a link directly to your required vessel.

Published in Ferry
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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