Norman Arrow & Côte d'Albâtre
Dover to Boulogne and return, Midsummer's Day, Sunday 21st June 2009.
If the words of an L. D. Lines publicist were to be believed, I was destined to be treated to an experience of a vessel quite unlike anything previously seen before when I booked a crossing on the new Norman Arrow. The maiden arrival of this vessel was captured live on the B. B. C.'s 'South East Today' on Tuesday 26th May. As she was being tied up alongside The Prince of Wales Pier in Dover, L. D. Lines' representative, Nick Stevens, spoke of high hopes for the new service to the reporter. I had high hopes too when I went along the pier myself to check her out. But it turned out there was no chance of a sneak preview inside the craft. Being taller and longer than Speed One, she certainly looked impressive from the outside. A couple of L. D. Lines employees drove up and were eager to chat about their exciting new delivery. I asked about the the rather worrying lack of any stern doors to protect vehicles from tipping off the end in rough seas. I was assured that work was still being carried out on the vessel as she was literally fresh off the production line in Hobart, Tasmania. Stern doors would materialise I was told. Hmmm...
I decided to have the best of both worlds and take a day trip to Boulogne going out on Norman Arrow and returning on the 'borrowed' Transmanche Ferries' ship, Côte d'Albâtre. I was booked on the 0745 departure from Dover and turned up at the Eastern Docks forty five minutes before departure as required. L. D. Lines have taken on just a couple of check-in booths, and sign-posting is somewhat make-shift on the approach. Having said that it is still early days for the company at Dover and, no doubt, their presence at the port will become better established in due course. Processing of vehicles was somewhat slow and I began to wonder if I would be told I was too late to be granted embarkation by the time my turn came at the gate. There was no need to worry as it turned out.
Norman Arrow was tied up at Berth 3 alongside the towering Maersk Delft at Berth 2. Pride of Calais made an unusual sight berthed bow-in at the temporarily out-of-action Berth 6 (which was covered in scaffolding). As it later turned out, the 'Calais' was receiving some attention to her stern doors. The weather forecast for the day was a little over-optimistic and the sun was concealed by a thick blanket of cloud. However, the breeze was light and the sea was calm, therefore the prospects for a smooth crossing were good. Once loading got underway I was surprised to have to actually surrender my boarding pass before driving on to the linkpsan. No other ferry company I have taken my car across with has ever bothered to collect boarding passes. After all, if you get past the check-in barrier and are displaying your lane number 'hanger' on your rear-view mirror, it virtually an impossibility that you haven't paid for your passage!
I noticed as I boarded the main vehicle deck that it was as exposed at the stern as it was when she was delivered a month previously. All that stood in the way of vehicles and the water was some flimsy-looking wire netting! So much for the words of reassurance I had previously been given. Having driven up the port side of the bare aluminium cavern, I filed round to starboard to face outwards through the gaping aperture of the stern end. Having said that, if the advice of leaving vehicles in gear with the handbrake on is followed, the chances of sliding off the vessel during a bumpy crossing are virtually nill. No doubt the maritime authorities would not allow Norman Arrow to put to sea if the safety of passengers and their vehicles was ever in question.
Passengers alighting from the cars on the main vehicle deck worked their way up the ramp at the bow end. This led to the empty garage above. From here access to the passenger accommodation became apparent. I was surprised to see a gaping aperture in the 'roof' of this space from which I could see the forward-facing windows of the vessel's superstructure. I made my way towards the stern end where I could see a sloping gangway which I deduced would take me to the passenger deck above. As is usual with this type of vessel, outside deck space is minimal. What was further frustrating on Norman Arrow was the installation of cage-like fencing either side of the 'veranda' at the back. This certainly prevented anyone from looking over the sides and ahead.
Departure was reasonably prompt. The vessel steered diagonally away from the berth then turned sharply to head out of the Eastern exit. Then another sharp turn was made to venture out into the Channel. Visibility was reasonably good and one could see down the coast to Folkestone and beyond. Having watched the White Cliffs slip away I headed inside to have a look around. Having been promised interiors that were like nothing ever seen before, it was hard not to be a little underwhelmed by what I found. The interiors seemed to be predominately filled with aircraft-type seating. The layout was simple; a full-width bar lounge aft leading to a 'foyer-type' area (flanked by a small shop and snack bar) followed by a sub-divided lounge, and finally the most impressive part of the accommodation - a crescent shaped bar lounge commanding a full view forwards over the bow. At this early stage in her service L. D. Lines had yet to impose a premium for use of this part of the vessel - so I was lucky in that respect. The coast of France was already in view and I could just spot a small predominately yellow coloured blob ahead which I guessed must have been Côte d'Albâtre approaching. It was then I had an expected encounter with a work colleague and his family, whom, until that point, I was quite unaware of as I milled around!
I wanted to get some shots of Côte d'Albâtre passing so I ventured back to the stern end verandah. I discovered that the gates blocking access to the far reaches of the deck were not locked, so I decided to be a bit of a rebel and opened the port side gate to get an uninterrupted view. Having managed to take the photos of the 'Côte' I found myself being bellowed at in French by a crew member who I got the impression wanted me back behind the gate! Quite why L. D. Lines feel that their passengers are at risk by standing at the edge of the deck I do not know. After all, they are safely contained by the solid plated-in railings. The company doesn't seem to be so worried about the security of vehicles below which just have steel poles and wire netting standing between them and the sea. The preoccupation with 'Health & Safety' has spoilt the enjoyment of travelling outside on a lot of Cross-Channel ferries these days. Catamarans are by far the most restrictive when comes to providing access to the open air. But, as I have complained numerous times before, many conventional ships these days have their promenade and sun decks fenced off out of bounds. In the most extreme cases passengers are even kept away from the stern end lest they attack the vehicles sitting below with their cigarette butts (i.e. Pride of Canterbury and Pride of Kent).
Some how the hour long crossing was almost over in what seemed like far less time. The vessel glided past the long mole at Boulogne to starboard and turned to enter the inner harbour confines. The wooden pier of the Jetée Nord-Est to port came into view and the impressive Nausicaa aquarium building too. Boulogne's cathedral spire then became apparent amongst the dense urban sprawl of the city. Norman Arrow turned her nose towards the quayside and performed the nautcial equivalent of a 'three point turn' (for the want of a better analogy) as she backed towards the Berth 13 (previously used by SpeedFerries, and before them, P. & O. European Ferries). Foot passengers were summoned first to get off the boat via the linkspan (where a bus was waiting to cart them off to the terminal). Then came the call for drivers and their passengers to return to their vehicles and wait their turn to roll off.
Overall my impressions of Norman Arrow, having sampled a crossing on her, were positive. The crew were generally friendly and polite (except when I strayed too far outside!). The ride was smooth, none of the unfortunate heaving from side to side that I have encountered on earlier InCat vessels (even in the calmest of seas). Her on-board facilities would seem to be perfectly adequate for a sixty minute journey. Those interested in shopping would find a much more comprehensive selection on conventional ferries, but most people have learnt the best bargains are found on shore in this post-duty-free era. Catering was what you'd expect to get on a catamaran. No waiter-service restaurants, just a simple counter-service affair offering snacks and beverages. What I particularly liked about Norman Arrow was her forward bar lounge overlooking the bow. What I least appreciated was the very restricted views from the outside deck. The crossing seemed to be over almost as soon as it started. For those who don't particularly enjoy the experience of being at sea (but dislike the claustrophobic conditions inside the Channel Tunnel) this can only be a good thing. Personally, I much prefer going on 'proper ships', but Norman Arrow definitely represents positive advances in the evolution of fast ferries. I can quite see that she will develop a keen following and it is her crucial ability to carry lorries that will hopefully make Dover/Boulogne a profitable route in the future. It was staggering that in the four and half years of its existence, SpeedFerries never actually made a penny from running their service.
I drove round to Jetée Sud-Ouest on the other side of the harbour at Boulogne to capture the departure of Norman Arrow. It was still very cloudy and the lighting conditions made for some rather grey and dull photos as she left at 1045 local time. With a long wait for the 1330 arrival of Côte d'Albâtre back in port I decided to go exploring. After a foolish misadventure getting stuck in sand on the beach at Le Portel (and subsequently pushed off it with the help of kind-spirited natives!), I followed the coast down to Le Touquet which for me was rather reminiscent of Calais, with its unflattering rows of seafront tower blocks. Boulogne itself is definitely a much more interesting and attractive place to visit than Calais, with its walled medieval quarter and cathedral.
I had some good luck when the sun started to peep through the clouds at lunchtime as Côte d'Albâtre approached. The bright light lasted just until she passed the wooden pier and then all went overcast again. Nevertheless, I was pleased to get some reasonable footage of her arriving as this was supposed to be the last month of sailings to Boulogne's old Gare Maritime car ferry terminal. The actual train station at the port had been disused since the opening of the Channel Tunnel of course. Then there was the sad period of passenger ferry inactivity between the cessation of Hoverspeed's Folkestone service in 2000 and the inauguration of SpeedFerries in 2004. The 1st July 2009 was the projected opening date for the new 'hub' ferry port located the other side of the wall from the derelict hoverport at Le Portel. From thereafter it would not be possible to witness the comings and goings of the ferries from close quarters. Neither would travellers land close to the pavement cafés of the Quai Gambetta and other attractions in the city anymore. Whilst a disappointing prospect, the only way Boulogne could expand its facilities for Cross-Channel ferries was to relocate its terminal. And L. D. Lines are known to be keen to increase the volume of traffic on their new route.
Anticipating that the 'Côte' would stay at Berth 13 until my booked return crossing at 2030, I planned to do a bit more exploring of surrounding area. I felt like kicking myself when I missed the opportunity of capturing her vacating her berth and being parking herself out of the way at the Quai de l'Europe (in the new 'hub' port). I had wrongly presumed that Norman Arrow would dock at Berth 16 on the other side of the Gare Maritime. With time on my hands I drove up the coast to Calais that afternoon. The coastal road (or Route Par-le-Côte if you prefer) takes about and hour and affords some wonderful views along the sandy coastline. It also takes in some attractive towns and villages such as Wimereux, Ambleteuse and Wissant. The weather got bleak on approach to Calais and having had a blow along the pier I decided I didn't fancy hanging around for very long!
On return to Boulogne the tide was low and it was possible to get down the kelp-covered steps to the foot of the Jetée Sud-Ouest. From here I was able to get some views of Côte d'Albâtre looking imposing as she crept back to her berth in time for her evening departure to Dover.
I was looking forward to my return crossing on this ship. I had happy memories of her on a trip from Newhaven to Dieppe in her maiden season three years before. Checking-in at the 'Portakabin' terminal building was painless and boarding was accomplished with a minimum of fuss. No doubt this was helped by traffic levels being quite moderate, the upper vehicle deck remaining completely empty on departure. It was clear that it was going to take time for L. D. Lines to attract capacity loads to their new service. Perhaps, given the choice of the fast craft, more people opted to travel on Norman Arrow (especially those who were previously SpeedFerries regulars).
There is only one stairwell from the vehicle decks to the passenger accommodation. This seemed rather odd for a modern car ferry, but this might be attributed to the fact that Côte d'Albâtre has a certificate for only six hundred passengers and the public areas of her accommodation are located in the stern half of her superstructure only. I was very impressed at how well maintained she was inside after three years of service. There was no sign of wear or tear at all. Her laminated flooring sparkled and the décor and furnishings still looked great. She still stood out as a comfortable, well-appointed vessel with a bit a personality and charm. There was some corporate branding visible, but it was not excessive. For those who were aware of the company they were travelling with (and some are blissfully ignorant of this information), the 'Transmanche Ferries' logos may have been confusing, but then the complicated subsidy and leasing agreements between L. D. Lines and Transmanche Ferries would be enough to confuse all but the most avid ferry industry followers.
What was great about Côte d'Albâtre was her generous amount of unrestricted open deck space. This included a unique feature on the Dover Straits - an open sun deck at the top! It was actually possible to take a stroll around the funnel without being blocked by gates, fences, and rope!!! Only the area behind her wheelhouse was out of bounds. So I joined numerous other travellers outside to witness her 2030 departure from Boulogne. The skies were particularly leaden by now, with just an orange haze on the western horizon where the sun would have been setting. We were passed by an in-bound Norman Arrow to port and so a few snaps were caught of her against the dramatically lit skyline.
This was my first ever direct visit to Boulogne by sea and I could now fully understand why others expressed a preference for this route over Calais. The scenery along the way is so much more attractive and interesting. Added to this the bonus of travelling on one of the nicest ferries on the English Channel too (at that time at least!).
As it got darker, the wind picked up and showers developed. I sheltered inside and settled for one of the 'tub' seats on the upper tier of the stern end bar lounge. There was a fair number of passengers on board but the atmosphere was civilised. It felt a bit like being on Tregastel in the days of Truckline Ferries' 'Insiders' Way to France': a reasonably priced service pitched at those seeking a quieter service which was not mass-marketed. I did wonder whether L. D. Lines could afford to go on with half-empty ferries (without the ghastly coach parties and other seat-filling clientele) and the answer to my question came a month later - bad news for people like me who enjoyed the Côte d'Albâtre on the Dover/Boulogne route...
After a look around the shop (with a range much improved since 2006) I sensed we were approaching Dover and sure enough the White Cliffs were coming into view as dusk fell. European Seaway passed us to port as we headed for the Eastern Entrance. A fully illuminated Seafrance Rodin and Pride of Dover occupied Berths 9 and 8 respectively. Meanwhile the 'Côte' gently raised her massive bow visor as she docked nose-in at Berth 3. Due to the lack of twin level access at the bow end, all traffic filters off the main vehicle deck. This wouldn't have caused delays on this occasion as there was nothing parked 'upstairs'.
There was a polite call for drivers and passengers to return to their vehicles and a 'thank you for travelling with L. D. Lines'. On the way back down I spoke to a stewardess on hand in the reception area and asked how business was doing. I was told that Boulogne was picking up well but the Dover/Dieppe sailings were carrying next to no traffic at all. This was disappointing, but not altogether surprising to hear. An unprecedented link, Dover/Dieppe was a rather eccentric choice of route because any potential users west of Kent would drive all the way eastwards to Dover only to be taken back south westwards to France - a bit of a 'U' shaped journey. I sensed I'd better experience what I imagined to be a 'once in a lifetime' Dieppe crossing before the inevitable axe fell...
As it turned out I missed my chance to do Dieppe from Dover as L. D. Lines performed their last sailing on this 'half season wonder' route on 29th June. I was bargaining on trying it out in July, but the closure of the service came with very short notice indeed. Even worse news was to come: Having pledged to keep the Côte d'Albâtre's twice daily sailings to Boulogne going for the 'summer' it soon became clear that she would be spending a considerable amount of time each day idle (having dropped the Dieppe round trip). This was never going to be a tenable arrangement as far as making money was concerned. At the beginning of July she returned to Newhaven to cover her broken-down sister. Then came confirmation that she would not be returning to Dover. Instead she would transfer to L. D Lines' Portsmouth/Le Havre service, allowing Norman Voyager to initiate another new route elsewhere.
So Dover's gain was short-lived and I for one very much regret that Côte d'Albâtre will not be coming back again. She's a lovely boat and will probably go down very well with those used to travelling on Norman Voyager which, by most accounts, is just a freighter with a small accommodation block.
Although Boulogne has so much more to offer visitors than Calais, I can't see myself choosing to travel on Norman Arrow again. She is ideal for those who want to get the journey over with as soon as possible and want to land in a more attractive place. However, without Côte d'Albâtre the appeal of the service is lost on me. Being a 'shipboard for the fun of it' type of traveller, give me a 'proper ferry' anyday!