Côte d'Albâtre

Newhaven to Dieppe, Sunday 16th July 2006.

Transmanche Ferries began operations over five years ago in order to revive the conventional ferry link between Newhaven and Dieppe. It made an inauspicious debut with the battered-looking Italian flagged Sardinia Vera.

In March this year the French state owned company took delivery of its first purpose-built vessel, to be joined by an identical sistership in October. This investment is the first of its kind for the route since British Rail’s Senlac in 1973.

Côte d’Albâtre was designed to carry the maximum amount of vehicles possible within dimensions that would allow her to turn within the confines of the River Ouse at Newhaven. At just over 140 metres in length she carries substantially more freight than Sardinia Vera and provides a much needed improvement in passenger facilities.

The funding for this new ship and her twin sister was secured by arranging a long term hire-purchase from her Spanish builders. It was calculated that this would actually work out less expensive than continuing to pay the annual charter fee for Sardinia Vera!

I decided to take the opportunity to sample what the new ferry had to offer and attempted to book with Transmanche over the telephone. I was told by travel agents that customers had to deal direct with the company. It was in this instance I encountered my first difficulty. Getting an answer on their free number was quite an accomplishment after several attempts at different times of the day. I found that they could not accept debit card payments so I was advised to pay cash at the port.

I was sternly advised to present myself for travel an hour before departure so I duly turned up at the rather shabby Newhaven foot passenger terminal at 12:30 for departure at 13:30. To my exasperation travellers without tickets were still arriving and paying for passage only a short while before embarkation. The gangway at Newhaven is derelict so pedestrians board via the linkspan once vehicles have been loaded.

Whilst this inadequacy in embarkation facilities is doubtless the cause of poor time-keeping on this service, with sailings often leaving late, it provides those on foot with an interesting view of the ship, although those dragging heavy luggage along with them would probably not welcome this.

The vessel was clearly not carrying a full load of vehicles and having climbed the steps up to the upper lorry deck level, I discovered this space was totally empty. A further two flights of stairs brought one self into the cosy foyer area where the information desk is located. The public areas of the ship are confined to the stern end over two decks. Cabin accommodation takes up the forward end and sadly deprives all but a privileged few with a view over the bow.

The immediate impression of Côte d’Albâtre is that she is a very smartly fitted out vessel, with polished wooden flooring throughout, tasteful décor and furnishings. The most pleasant feature is the crescent shaped twin tier bar lounge at the stern that provides passengers with excellent panoramic views. Access to the mezzanine area is via terraced levels that enable those furthest from the windows to see out to sea too.

A very modest shop outlet nestles underneath the bar. It was clear to see from the limited range of items for sale and the notice declaring ‘sorry, we do not sell newspapers’ that Transmanche are not particularly interested in generating revenue from on board spending. Now that duty-free concessions are but a distant memory and French taxation on tobacco has come closer in line to that in the United Kingdom, obviously ferry companies have far less to gain in providing supermarkets at sea.

The range of eateries was limited to a perfectly adequate counter-service cafeteria which proved to be in demand, whilst the attractively presented waiter service restaurant was roped off, out of bounds and closed for business, despite it being lunchtime on a July weekend sailing!

The ferry is certified to carry just six hundred passengers, and quite frankly it would feel uncomfortably crowded if it was carrying anything approaching this quantity. Fortunately for me she was lightly loaded. But this only serves to demonstrate that Transmanche have not hunted the tourist trade in their five years of operation. It is her capacious lorry decks the company must be really anxious to fill and the signs on this crossing were not encouraging, as mentioned earlier.

Outside, the vessel has ample deck space on three levels. Annoyingly, the some sections were sealed off, as is becoming increasingly common on modern ferries. However, the space that was open to the public was still substantial. Plenty of shelter from the wind could be found too against glass partitions. The most annoying omission was the lack of any seating whatsoever, something the new Seafrance vessels are also guilty of. This was a real disappointment for those who didn’t relish squatting on the bare deck to enjoy the fresh air.

Departure was around 14:00 and the fascinating manoeuvre off the berth was begun. She pushed astern away from the linkspan, with the mooring ropes at the bow having been dropped. She then gently nudged her stern belting against the rusty and rudimentary looking fender on the quayside. Having used bow thrust on the starboard side to tentatively turn herself 180 degrees she began to proceed towards the harbour entrance and out to sea.

I noticed some dubious developments that had occurred on the dockside, such as the emergence of a scrap metal depot. Beyond this was a dilapidated sign wishing passengers ‘Bon Voyage!’ from the now defunct Hoverspeed. The long serving wooden lighthouse on the eastern pier had been removed and replaced with a metal pole.

The coastguard station on the western side of the harbour entrance was derelict and the area around it fenced off from public access (much to the annoyance of those wanting a good vantage point to photograph shipping activity!). Another sign of the abandonment that seems to ensue at Newhaven is the closure of the impressively long mole on the western side due to an inherent lack of maintenance.

Once clear of the harbour limits, she picked up speed, although not to her full potential. Her entry into service was expected to herald shorter crossing times due to her higher than average service speed. However, the exorbitant cost of fuel has put paid to running her at full power for the foreseeable future.

The attractive chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head slipped by to the port side and the vessel then steered south easterly into the Channel.

Around three hours later and the similar chalky coastline in the vicinity of Dieppe came into view. On approach to the port a surprise came in the form of the orange coloured Dieppe Pilot (or Pilote if you prefer) boat sweeping alongside. A rope ladder was dropped from a hatchway in the starboard hull and the pilot climbed aboard in order to steer the vessel safely into harbour. This is a spectacle rarely seen on modern Cross-Channel services and perhaps indicates that the size of the new ferry was the cause for concern.

The vessel docked stern first at the linkspan installed in the outer harbour ferry terminal constructed back in 1994 for Stena Line (this usurped the old terminal facility in the attractive inner harbour where passengers stepped ashore within a short distance of pavement cafés).

At this stage the rather sophisticated internal ramps were lowered in turn. Once resting on the berth it was possible to see how individual access to the main and upper vehicle decks was provided.

Having not travelled to Dieppe since 1997 I was expecting to disembark via the gangway connecting to the passenger terminal alongside. However, that was not to be. As it transpired, this building, completed at considerable expense over a decade earlier, was mothballed. The Côte d’Albâtre and her sister have been specially designed to facilitate pedestrian loading via a third ramp at the stern served by an internal escalator to the passenger accommodation, hence no need for the gangway.

Having filed on to the linkspan (which is effectively a floating pontoon that rises and falls with the tide, rather than one of the sophisticated installations at Dover that require hydraulics to adjust to the tidal movements) I followed the procession of around forty or so foot passengers to be conveyed in the time honoured cattle wagon style to what used to be the motorists’ terminal building. This now handles pedestrian traffic too.

There was little time to explore Dieppe, and having been landed as far away from the town centre as possible it was a case of simply checking back in for the return crossing. And here I encountered a similarly ridiculous situation to the one I found at Newhaven. There was just one member of staff on duty at the counter. And as before at the other end, those waiting to simply check–in for departure were queuing together with those seeking to buy a ticket. And what a tortuous process it proved! Each transaction took an incredible amount of time to complete. There were many pained expressions from passengers looking on as each booking was tediously processed.

To my surprise, having finally obtained a boarding pass, I did not encounter any official to take this from me or check my passport before getting back on the bus waiting to ferry us back to the ship.

Back on board the ferry’s departure seemed prompt and she left around 20:00 local time. A repeat performance of the pilot boat routine was witnessed after she vacated the harbour.

Frustrated by the lack of any seating provided on the open deck I decided to procure one of the round ‘tub’ shaped upholstered chairs from inside to sit on and watch the French coast slip away in the fresh air. To my surprise I was not reprimanded by a crew member for doing this, so I enjoyed the late evening sun as the vessel headed back to England.

The scheduled arrival was at 23:00 local time, but this was not to be! As darkness fell the ferry seemed to reduce speed and developed noisy vibrations. I enquired to a crew member what the source of the problem was but he could not explain in English so I was assisted by a friendly bi-lingual French passenger who translated. Apparently the tide was too low to arrive at Newhaven on time and the vessel had to go slow. The vibrations were a consequence of being propelled at lower than the optimum speed. It sounded a rather far-fetched theory to me, but there little else to do than pass the time chatting to my fellow traveller above the dreadful noise that permeated inside.

The lights of the Sussex coast came into view around midnight and the Côte d'Albâtre finally tied up at Newhaven half an hour later. However, the inconvenience caused by the abandonment of the passenger gangway on the quayside came to light whilst pedestrians waited what seemed an intolerable length of time for lorries to be disembarked. Only then could the ascent to the vehicle deck be permitted for foot passengers to get off the vessel.

It was after 01:00 when I finally got free of the port and I had to be up at 06:30 for work later that morning!

The Conseil General de Seine Maritime, Dieppe who own Transmanche Ferries (and also the Port of Newhaven) still have some way to go to develop the route into a thriving operation again. The new tonnage is an excellent milestone in the resurrection of the ferry service, but serious improvements to the facilities at Newhaven are urgently needed. There is talk that the port is up for sale again, but interested parties seem to be motivated by building more luxury quayside flats than facilitating an efficient Cross-Channel service. The current infrastructure is little short of shambolic. There is also the preposterous situation of a recently built passenger terminal at Dieppe being disused.

The current system for handling enquiries and bookings is woefully inadequate. And there is almost a negligible effort in the United Kingdom to market the service. It makes one wander whether the tourist traffic is regarded as a nuisance rather than a ‘cash cow’ for the company. Certainly the current carryings fall far short of those achieved by Stena over a decade ago. It has been rumoured that they are only really seeking the freight traffic. However, Transmanche must be aware of how unprofessional their shore-based arrangements appear to customers. The French staff who sold me my ticket in Newhaven were quick to say so themselves! Little wonder the company has invited tenders from other operators to take over the running of the service!

Overall, if you can put up with the hopeless inefficiency associated with buying your ticket and getting on and off the ship, you can expect to be quite impressed with Côte d'Albâtre. The nice thing about her is she isn’t designed with the ‘motorway services at sea’ theme in mind. Whereas P. & O. in particular deploys what they call ‘global branding’ across all their vessels (think ‘International Food Court’ and all the other marketing gimmicks that have made their ferries so bland and lacking in individual character), Transmanche have created a ship with a personality of her own. There is far less emphasis on extracting every last penny out of passengers on board; an explicable mixture of ‘no thrills’ yet understated elegance too. Well worth a try if you yearn for an experience more akin to the ferry crossings of yesteryear.

The Freight Sales Manager at Transmanche Ferries took the trouble to give this detailed response to the above voyage report:

Good morning

Many thanks for your email Apologies for the delayed reply. I have been in Dieppe for a few days and preferred to wait until I was back home and able to study your website before replying to you.

I have read your report of your voyage on Cote d'Albatre. In general I would describe everything that you have said as being reasonable. It is fair to conclude that the onboard sales of items such as newspapers is indicative of an absence of desire to generate additional revenue. The reality of the situation is that the company has been hampered in its growth by the weight of French Bureaucratic legislation, which limits the commercial activities of Publicly owned operations.

The company is currently up for sale to any one of five commercial ferry operators. A decision regarding which one is expected before the end of the year. In the interim, the company is positioning itself with growing strength in the cross-channel market. The Seven Sisters will arrive at Dieppe on 23rd October and will enter service on 2nd November, departing from Dieppe at 12.30.

May I correct one or two observations which you have made. We are very much positioning ourselves in both the passenger and freight markets. Our freight carryings continue to increase month by month, whilst passenger crossings during this year have improved in the region of 50% over the previous year. The crossing which you took at 13.30 on Sunday is not really a measure of our freight service, as very few freight lorries move at that time on a Sunday lunchtime, equally the return from Dieppe at 20.00 on Sunday is restricted by dint of French lorry ban, which prohibits vehicle movement prior to 22.00.

We are aware of the difficulty in customers contacting our call-centre. I have to say that this is largely due to the incredible increase in interest. Therefore, although frustrating, it is in many ways a positive sign. In an effort to improve the reservation process, we have now activated the online booking facility. This was disabled whilst a new reservation system was being introduced.

When we review our business internally, we are well aware of the items which have to be improved. Equally we are satisfied with the progress which has been made in the past year. Personally, I feel that in commercial ownership we will quickly overcome many of the limitations which currently exist and will emerge as a first class company in time for next year.

Agree entirely about the passenger terminal. I received agreement yesterday to the finance to complete the refit of our main terminal for foot passenger use also. It will be a happy day for us all when the existing passenger terminal is closed.

Should you ever require any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Andy Wells
Freight Sales Manager
Transmanche Ferries, Newhaven