Pride of Bilbao
In 1993 the established Brittany Ferries monopoly of sailings to Spain was broken by P. & O. with the 1986 built Olympia (which had been chartered from a Viking Line partner, Rederi A. B. Slite). This formidable ship was hastily overhauled and renamed Pride of Bilbao prior to inaugurating twice weekly sailings from Portsmouth to her namesake on the Northern Coast of Spain. No refurbishment was deemed to be required for this role as her facilities had been maintained to a very high standard. Her arrival was marked by considerable media interest as she was easily the largest ever car ferry to serve a British port. She was also described as ‘the most luxurious’ at that time. Traffic in her first season exceeded all hopes and secured her immediate future.
Interestingly P. & O. did not take up the opportunity to buy Pride of Bilbao. Instead she was sold to Irish Continental Group who saw her potential as an investment. In her seventeen years of association with Portsmouth, Pride of Bilbao established a keen following from regular travellers. The loss of the Friday night 'go-slow' cruises to Cherbourg in 2005 was the first nail in her coffin though. P. & O. had been struggling to make their Portsmouth services pay, but Bilbao was given a reprieve. They opted for undercutting their competitor's fares and this ensured many sailings were full, but unfortunately the running costs continued to rise.
In early 2010 P. & O. Ferries announced that the charter of Pride of Bilbao was not going to be renewed and therefore the Portsmouth/Bilbao route would close at the end of the summer season. It had been rumoured for some time that the Company had been looking for a newer and more economical vessel to take over. However, there were other developments that may have contributed to P. & O.'s decision to pull out, particularly the proliferation of Brittany Ferries' Spanish services.
Pride of Bilbao will, no doubt, keep a place in many travellers hearts long after her withdrawal from service. She truly befitted the term 'cruise ferry' in her hey day, and although she was allowed to become a little jaded in her later years, she was a ship on which many a holiday started and ended in pleasant and comfortable surroundings.
M. S. Olympia
Builder: Oy Wärtsilä A. B. Åbo Finland.
Yard number: 1,290.
Dimensions (length, breadth, depth): 177.1 x 28.4 x 6.51 metres.
Tonnages (gross, net, dead weight): 37,799, 23,644, 3,420.
Engines: Four 12 cylinder Wärtsilä-Semt-Pielstick diesel.
Power: 31,500 kW.
Speed (knots): 22.
Passenger certificate: 2,500.
Car capacity: 580.
26.4.1986: Delivered to Rederi A. B. Slite, Slite.
29.4.1986: Viking Line Stockholm/Helsingfors.
4.1993: Chartered to P. & O. European Ferries (Portsmouth) Limited.
24.4.1993: Left Stockholm for overhaul at Southampton.
5.1993: Renamed Pride of Bilbao. Portsmouth/Bilbao/Cherbourg.
10.1993: Sold to Irish Continental Group, Dublin.
15.10.2002: P. & O. Ferries established.
30.9.2010: Charter allowed to expire. Portsmouth/Bilbao service closed.
Pride of Bilbao is seen resting at Cherbourg after the end of her one of her weekly overnight ‘Booze Cruises’ from Portsmouth. These were a feature of her timetable up until 2005 when P. & O. axed their Western Channel routes to France.
Here Pride of Bilbao gently vacates Portsmouth Harbour on a midsummer's night crossing to Spain in her final year of P. & O. service.