Gardenia & Larkspur
Ramsgate to Oostende and return, Friday 3rd June 2011.
One positive outcome from the parting of the ways between TransEuropa Ferries and L. D. Lines on the Ramsgate/Oostende route was the restoration of the fixed sixty hour return fare. L. D. did a great job of deterring customers by hiking up prices on their short-lived joint service to levels that were simply uncompetitive with Norfolkline/D. F. D. S and the other Dover operators. I for one was not willing to pay over a hundred pounds for a daytrip.
The chartered Ostend Spirit departed during March 2011, signalling the withdrawl of L. D. Lines' presence at Ramsgate. Officially the ending of the joint operation was very amicable, but one could not help wondering whether L. D.'s involvement had almost been the kiss of death for TransEuropa Ferries. With their dwindling fleet of vintage Cross-Channel ferries getting ever nearer to life-expiry, the hope had been to benefit from the use of a larger, newer ship that would increase freight capacity and entice tourists with a modern superferry experience. In the end, Ostend Spirit failed to generate enough revenue and actually lost TransEuropa money. L. D.'s supposedly superior marketing strength failed to deliver significant improvements in passenger carryings too. After the abandonment of Dover/Boulogne, this was another embarrassing retreat for the ambitious L. D. Lines.
With the loss of Ostend Spirit, TransEuropa were caught short, with just Gardenia and Larkspur remaining in their fleet to operate the Ramsgate/Oostende service. Primrose had been sold in 2009 (and subsequently scrapped). Oleander and Eurovoyager had been leased out long term to foreign operators in 2010. TransEuropa had to soldier on with just a two ship service. This meant that the freighter, Gardenia was now going to take tourist traffic too. This was too good an opportunity for me to miss!
On enquirying by telephone to the Company's Ramsgate office, yes, indeed it would be possible to travel on Gardenia on the 07:00 departure. I was advised that facilities on the ship were limited, but that didn't bother me in the least bit. I wanted to sample the delights of an old Townsend Thoresen relic now in her thirty fourth year of operation and find out what normally only lorry drivers get to experience. The fare was sixty one pounds, which could be used as a standard single, or a sixty hour return. I didn't plan on staying overnight in Belgium so booked to return at 20:30 the same day on another 1970s veteran, Larkspur.
TransEuropa's marketing of their service to the public could be described as rather discreet. Travel agents aren't aware of their existence. There is little or no advertising done. It seems word of mouth is largely relied upon. However, that is to the benefit of those who are seeking a very quiet crossing, free of crowds comprised mainly of ghastly school coach parties and young families. Indeed, the bread and butter business for the Company is carrying freight. Taking a few tourists and their cars is a small sideline that they seem happy to offer, if not desperate to sell.
Motorists are advised to present themselves an hour before departure, so this I dutifully did. Having got up by dawn's early light I arrived at Port Ramsgate in good time. There are no check-in booths. I parked up and popped into the terminal building and quoted my booking reference in order to get my tickets. At this point my passport was inspected too. How many cars were travelling that morning? No more than half a dozen. We were all treated to a thorough examination as we passed through the security formalities. This required each motorist and their passengers (if applicable) to get out of their vehicles and answer questions about the purpose of their journey and what they were carrying. A cursory inspection was made of car interiors. Then a signature had to be given before passage was granted. Imagine the traffic chaos at Dover if the thousands of cars arriving there every day had to be dealt with in such a way!
Shortly after that hurdle, the small party of cars were cleared to drive to the awaiting vessel. Gardenia was resting at the port's only double deck linkspan. I could recall boarding a relatively new Prins Filip on the long since dismantled foot passenger gangway at this berth. A few weeks after that particular crossing in July 1994 I was horrified to hear in the news that six passengers fell to their death when the very same gangway collapsed. I took a leap of faith and trusted that the vehicle ramp was safely intact for embarkation on this occasion.
I was directed to the upper vehicle deck where thankfully I was allowed to park under the cover of the superstructure at the forward end. I didn't relish leaving my car for four hours on the exposed stern end, being blasted with sea spray and wind. This privilege was reserved for unaccompanied trailers as it turned out. Access to the accommodation was via a stairwell on the starboard side. On asscending two decks above, I quickly realised just how limited the facilities were. A small reception office was manned by a crew member, presumably to direct lorry drivers to their cabins in the forward end. Astern of this was a modestly proportioned lounge comprising bench seating, a servery, and a washroom. Behind this area was out of bounds to passengers, but at a guess was the galley and crew's mess. I wondered outside to discover that the two short promenade decks were open. I was able to explore the alcove inside the port side funnel that led to steps down towards the after end of the ship.
The sun was shining and the buff coloured funnels (showing their age with the flaky paintwork) started spewing copious amounts of smoke as the propellers began to churn the water. One could feel the vibration of the engines as the ship prepared to depart. At around 07:00 the mooring ropes were dropped and Gardenia started to gently head out of the harbour. At this point a crew member sealed off the funnel alcoves to prevent passengers getting down to the open vehicle deck below. Somehow it seemed like I was reliving a bygone era, when ferries looked like, felt like, and even smelt like proper ships.
I watched the Thanet coastline slip away to port, as she ventured out into the Channel. The breeze was quite a strong North Easterly and I struggled to keep warm. Before heading back inside I explored the boat decks, which were pretty ineffectively barred from public access. It was fascinating to be able to the vessel's previous name, European Endeavour, displayed in relief metal lettering astern of the wheelhouse. TransEuropa had simply painted her new name over it in their red house colour. They did manage to replicate the old font quite nicely though.
A bit of history for those who didn't already know: She was the fourth and final vessel in a series of freighters built for Townsend Thoresen's Anglo/Belgian routes in the 1970s by Schichau Unterweser of Bremerhaven, Germany. She differed from the earlier three by dint of some design modifications including taller and differently shaped funnels. She entered service in April 1978 as European Enterprise, the tag 'Enterprise' being very much a Townsend trademark since the 1960s (this, incidentally, was not inspired by the 'Star Trek' science fiction series of the same era, based on the adventures of the U. S. S. Enterprise). She was almost exclusively employed on Dover/Zeebrugge services until the arrival of the 'Super European Class' in the early 1990s. She served out her last years with P. & O. (T. T.'s successor) on the link between Cairnryan in South West Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland. She was acquired by TransEuropa in 2002 and renovated prior to taking up here current role as Gardenia.
Back in the lounge, the lady manning the servery decided to play some interesting popular music from her native land. TransEuropa employ mainly Croatian and Slovenian crew members, and I have found them to be generally very pleasant people, showing nothing but consideration for their passengers. However, I found the loud Eastern European melodies a little intrusive in the small confines. I passed some time reading one of the newspapers left out for passengers. About half way across the sun started to shine on the starboard side of the vessel, where I found a humble wooden bench to rest on. At this point I was joined by a fellow passenger and we whiled away the remaining time putting the world to rights. Before we knew it Belgium came into view. Gardenia performed the customary passage along the coastline before eventually making a sharp turn on her approach to Oostende. She chugged into the harbour at around midday local time. In contrast to my previous visit a couple of years before, there were no other TransEuropa vessels to be seen this time. In September 2009 there were the sisters, Eurovoyager and Primrose alongside. They were long gone now.
Disembarkation was fairly prompt through Gardenia>'s upper vehicle deck hatch. The linkspan, incidentally, was constructed in 1991 specifically for then new Prins Filip and was Oostende's first double deck ramp. It also features a seperate side ramp for access to upper vehicle decks with suitably positioned side doors such as that of Larkspur. It is right by the city's railway station. The older linkspans, further out to sea, have long sinced been removed, and the berths have, until the recent departure of half of TransEuropa's fleet, been used for lay-by purposes.
I motored around to the Montgomerykaai which provided access to the gently curving Weststakestsel pier. Parking here was a bit of a free-for-all, with no marked bays. As it turned out, the local Police were out in force issuing fines to those who weren't members of the nearby yacht club. I guess they don't bother with me as I didn't have a Belgian registered vehicle.
Gardenia's engines started firing up around 13:30, signified by the clouds of smoke rising from her twin stacks. She then performed a kind of three-point manoeuvre, backing away from the berth and turning out to sea. I got some close-up shots of her as she passed the Weststakestsel. She was looking well for a ship of her age. Her owners are reknowned for high standards of maintenance. Crew members have even been seen touching up paintwork during crossings. They clearly take pride in their ships.