Spirit of Free Enterprise / Pride of Kent (I) /
P. & O. S. L. Kent / P. O. Kent,
Herald of Free Enterprise &
Pride of Free Enterprise / Pride of Bruges /
P. & O. S. L. Picardy / Oleander

Sisters pass off the French coast: Herald of Free Enterprise could be easily identified by dint of her black wheelhouse window frames that created the illusion of a rather menacing-looking thin black strip. The roof was painted white, as opposed to the standard Townsend green. The sheer power of these vessels can be appreciated in this view.
Photo: Francois Dupiech Collection.

Townsend Thoresen's revolutionary 'Spirit Class' of 1980 took its name from the lead vessel of the series, Spirit of Free Enterprise. She was launched at her Bremerhaven builder's yard in July 1979 and within just six months took up service on the Dover/Calais crossing. Her arrival upped the stakes in the bid for supremacy on the Dover Straits. Townsend's naval architect, James Ayers, was responsible for the strikingly modern, angled looks of the 'Spirit Class'. They introduced innovations in the design of Cross-Channel passenger ferries; pioneering the use of sliding bow doors, twin lorry height vehicle decks, and ‘free flow’ open plan accommodation. Their lifeboats were stowed in recesses underneath the passenger decks to aid faster evacuation. Their engines were extremely powerful, generating a cruising speed of twenty-four knots. This impressive aspect of their operating capabilities enabled them to complete record breaking crossings from pier to pier in little over fifty minutes. Townsend Thoresen's 'Blue Riband' service went forth and trounced the competition from Sealink.

Spirit of Free Enterprise was followed into service by the virtually identical Herald of Free Enterprise - a name that will always be remembered for the worst of reasons. She was to have nearly seven relatively uneventful years on the Dover/Calais route, performing relief duties on the longer crossing to Zeebrugge in the winter months. It was a seemingly routine departure from the Belgian port on the afternoon of 6th March 1987 which was to end in terrible disaster. The vessel left the harbour with her bow doors remaining open. This was later reported to be common practice; such was the commercial pressure to turn ferries around in the shortest possible time. Normally a deck attendant would have secured the doors by the time Herald of Free Enterprise headed out into the Channel, but on this occasion the crew member responsible was asleep. The critical point was when the ship picked up speed, causing waves to cascade over her bow fender. The water flooded into the wide expanse of the vehicle deck causing the vessel to become unstable. With a sudden change in direction, the vessel lurched as she turned, and whereas she would have been able to right herself under normal conditions, with tonnes of water sloshing about in the vehicle deck she was easily capsized within a single minute. Another major contributory factor that assisted the foundering of Herald of Free Enterprise was the fact that she was taken out to sea without releasing excess ballast. Once the main vehicle deck was loaded, in order for the single tier linkspan at Zeebrugge to be raised high enough to meet the upper deck, the vessel had to be 'tipped' forwards by pumping water into tanks at the bow end. Whilst a rather rudimentary solution for the lack of twin-tier berths, it would never have been an issue had the bow doors and inner watertight doors been firmly closed on departure.

Daybreak the following morning revealed the horrific sight of Herald of Free Enterprise lying on her starboard side off the Belgian coast. One hundred and ninety three souls perished on board in freezing cold and dark conditions. It was the most appalling maritime disaster to occur on the English Channel and one that was to have huge ramifications for the future of the ferry industry. Townsend Thoresen stood accused of gross negligence in its operational practices. Herald of Free Enterprise was to remain lying on her side for another month, whilst her fleetmates continued to pass her to and fro on a daily basis. This unedifying spectacle was, no doubt, a massive embarrassment for the Company. The almost immediate reaction was a modification of fleet livery; the now infamous 'T. T.' emblem being replaced by the flag of the new parent company, P. & O. Group. Herald of Free Enterprise had been earmarked for full-time operation on Dover/Zeebrugge once the new Pride of Dover had entered service. However, she had suffered internal damage that was beyond economic repair. She was eventually taken on an epic tow half way around the world to Taiwan where she was broken up for scrap.

The Townsend Thoresen brand was buried in October 1987 and in its place came P. & O. European Ferries. All vessels bearing references to 'Free Enterprise' were renamed. The last of the 'Spirit Class' trio, Pride of Free Enterprise, became Pride of Bruges and belatedly took the place of her tragic sister on Dover/Zeebrugge in December of that year. After the cessation of passenger services on the route at the end of 1991 she returned to the shortest Channel crossing, now the smallest vessel in the local fleet. Meanwhile Pride of Kent (formerly Spirit of Free Enterprise) was sent to an Italian shipbuilder to be lengthened to 'superferry' proportions. This project was not without its difficulties and it is believed that, in order to get her back into service by the summer of 1992, work continued on board her whilst passengers were being carried. She had become a somewhat heavy-laden looking ship, with stability tanks added to her hull and additional accommodation created on top of her existing superstructure.

After P. & O. merged its short sea operations with Stena Line in 1998 there followed further adjustments to vessel names. Pride of Kent became P. & O. S. L. Kent whilst Pride of Bruges lost her now unsuitable Belgian moniker in favour of P. & O. S. L. Picardy. The somewhat awkward amalgam of P. & O. and Stena flag emblems appeared on their funnels, along with a red pinstripe on top of their blue hulls. After the deployment of P. & O. S. L. Aquitaine in 2000, the 'Picardy' was retired from the fleet and sent to lay-up for sale at Dunkerque. It was not until over a year later that she was purchased by TransEuropa Ferries. After a prolonged refit she emerged as Oleander and took up the Ramsgate/Oostende crossing in July 2002. A few months later P. & O. bought out their partner's stake in their joint company and embarked on a fleet development programme that was to seal the fate of P. & O. S. L. Kent. Her name was altered to the clumsy title of P. O. Kent, such was the eagerness to eradicate any hint of Stena Line's previous involvement in her operation. She staggered on, now very much a shadow of her former self, until June 2003 when she was succeeded by the new Pride of Kent (II). She was quickly disposed of to a Greek shipping line, G. A. Ferries, and now trades as Anthi Marina. After some unattractive modifications were made to her bow and stern ends, she was reportedly nicknamed 'The Monster', a fall from grace indeed for a one-time flagship.

Oleander is left as the only 'Spirit Class' ship still sailing in British waters. She is maintained to a beautiful standard by TransEuropa Ferries, looking particularly attractive in their livery of buff funnels, white hull and red 'boot topping'. Her innovations of three decades ago remain very much useful in Cross-Channel ferry industry of today. In many ways the 'Spirit Class' set a standard in 1980 that was not substantially improved upon until the arrival of Norfolkline's 'D' Class twenty five years later.

M. S. Spirit of Free Enterprise, Herald of Free Enterprise & Pride of Free Enterprise
Builder: Schichau-Unterweser A. G., Bremerhaven, Germany.
Yard number: 2,279, 2,280, 2,281.
Dimensions (length, breadth, depth): 131.96 x 22.17 x 5.53 metres. (Pride of Kent after lengthening: 163.39 x 26.18 x 5.75 metres).
Tonnages (gross, net, dead weight): 7,951, 2,492. After lengthening: 20,446, 6,113, 3,614.
Engines: Three Sulzer diesel.
Power: 17,650 kW.
Speed (knots): 24.
Passenger certificate: 1,300 (Pride of Kent after lengthening: 1,825).
Car capacity: 350 (Pride of Kent after lengthening: 461).

21.7.1979: Spirit of Free Enterprise launched.
11.1.1980: Delivered to Townsend Car Ferries Limited, Dover.
14.1.1980: Maiden voyage: Dover/Calais.
20.11.1987: Renamed Pride of Kent.
21.10.1987: Registered for P. & O. European Ferries (Dover) Limited.
18.3.1991: Sold to Howill Shipping, London. Bareboat chartered back to P. & O.
30.11.1991 Left Dover for Sicily via Gibraltar.
7.12.1991: Arrived at Fincantieri Shipbuilders, Palermo, for lengthening.
17.6.1992: Returned to service.
12.1998: Renamed P. & O. S. L. Kent.
15.10.2002: P. & O. Ferries established. Renamed P. O. Kent.
7.6.2003: Laid up at Dunkerque. Sold to G. A. Ferries, Piraeus, Greece. Renamed Anthi Marina.

12.12.1979: Herald of Free Enterprise launched.
5.1980: Delivered to Townsend Car Ferries Limited, Dover.
29.5.1980: Dover/Calais.
10.7.1980: Crossed between Dover/Calais in a record breaking 52 minutes and 53 seconds.
6.3.1987: Departed Zeebrugge at 19:00 with 573 passengers on board. Approximately 30 minutes after setting sail, suffered catastrophic capsizing, resting on shallow a sea bed, two thirds submerged.
7.4.1987: Dutch salvage contractor, Smit-Tak, began work to raise the wreck.
24.4.1987: Towed to Zeebrugge.
14.5.1987: Removed to Vlissingen, Holland.
30.9.1987: Sold to Compania Naviera S. A. Kingstown, Saint Vincent. Renamed Flushing Range.
5.10.1987: Towed in the company of Gaelic Ferry en route to ship breakers in Taiwan.
27.12.1987: Tow lost at position 34.46°S, 24.39°E off Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
2.1.1988: Tow resumed.
22.3.1988: Finally arrived in Taiwan for scrapping.

31.5.1980: Pride of Free Enterprise launched.
31.10.1980: Delivered to Townsend Car Ferries Limited, Dover.
23.11.1980: Dover/Calais.
11.12.1987: Renamed Pride of Bruges. Dover/Zeebrugge.
21.10.1987: Registered for P. & O. European Ferries (Dover) Limited.
18.3.1991: Sold to Howill Shipping Limited, London. Bareboat chartered back to P. & O.
1992: Dover/Calais.
12.1998: Renamed P. & O. S. L. Picardy.
17.1.2000: Dover/Zeebrugge.
3.2.2000: Laid up at Dunkerque.
3.4.2001: Sold to Trans-Europa Shipping, Limassol, Cyprus. Renamed Oleander.
8.7.2002: Ramsgate/Oostende.

An aerial view of Spirit of Free Enterprise crossing the Channel, with one of her Sealink rivals, St. Anselm in the background. The 'Spirit Class' out-performed the 'Saint Class' in virtually every facet of their operation - particularly in terms of speed.
Photo: Francois Dupiech Collection.

Here Herald of Free Enterprise enters Calais Harbour with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly visible in the background.
Photo: Francois Dupiech Collection.

In happy times Herald of Free Enterprise is seen in the Channel sporting the 1984 Townsend Thoresen livery that included the now infamous white 'T. T.' insignia.
Photo: © Brian Fisher.

This video clip from the "Seconds From Disaster" television series shows an animated simulation of the capsizing of Herald of Free Enterprise. There is also footage of tests conducted on her identical sister, Pride of Free Enterprise, in order to establish the cause of the disaster.
Video: © National Geographic Channel.

Within weeks of the loss of Herald of Free Enterprise, her surviving fleetmates had their 'T. T.' funnel markings removed in favour of the P. & O. Group's flag emblem. Here her sister, Spirit of Free Enterprise, is seen alongside Free Enterprise VII at Dover during the summer of 1987.
Photo: © Francois Dupiech.

A sunny June afternoon in 1993 and Pride of Bruges enters Calais Harbour.

A direct comparison can be made with the lengthened Pride of Kent, sporting an air conditioning plant on top of her new mid-section.

A hazy Summer's days in 2000 with the Dover-registered P. & O. S. L. Kent performing a customary stern-first departure from Calais.

The integrated P. & O. and Stena Line house flags can be seen in detail in the view of P. & O. S. L. Kent taken in May 2001.

In her fourth incarnation on the Channel, Oleander (formerly Pride of Free Enterprise, Pride of Bruges and P. & O. S. L. Picardy) looks splendid in the cruising white colours of TransEuropa Ferries in this view at Oostende in September 2009.