Dover to Boulogne and return, Sunday 14th March 2010.
Since my last trip with L. D. Lines from Dover to Boulogne, there had been numerous upheavals/changes in strategy (depending on your point of view). The lovely Côte d'Albâtre was but a distant memory, having been sent to Portsmouth the previous August after less than half a year on the company's fledgling Cross-Channel route. After much fuss was made about the arrival of Norman Arrow (world's largest diesel powered catamaran and first to to carry lorries, etc.) she proved to be slow when fully-laden with freight, and couldn't carry enough to meet demand/generate enough revenue. So, having originally been earmarked to start the new L. D. Lines Dover/Boulogne route on 1st July 2009, the larger conventional vessel, Norman Spirit belatedly took up the service in November of that year, whilst the catamaran was laid up for the winter pending future use elsewhere (Portsmouth/Le Havre as it happens).
I was pleased at the prospect of being able to take a trip on Norman Spirit across to Boulogne. I first experienced her some sixteen years previously on a round trip from Ramsgate to Oostende when she was still in her original guise of Prins Filip (although the service had been moved from Dover). I could recall what an impressive ship she was in those days, far bigger than anything else operating alongside her. Of course now she was pretty standard as size goes. But, after just three months back at Dover, in keeping with L. D. Lines growing reputation for changing their plan at the drop of a hat, it was announced that Boulogne was to lose Norman Spirit by the middle of March 2010, her place being taken by a chartered freighter, Norman Bridge.
So I figured I'd better get in there quick and book a trip before she was due to become Ostend Spirit and reprise her former role as Ramsgate/Oostende flagship, this time in a joint service agreement between L. D. Lines and TransEuropa Ferries.
I turned up at the Eastern Docks, allowing the required forty five minutes to clear check-in prior to the 07:00 departure. A reasonable quantity of vehicles were lined up in the marshalling area for Berth 8 where Norman Spirit awaited. Embarkation was prompt and I ventured upstairs to the main passenger deck to see how she was looking. My memories of her Prins Filip configuration were rather hazy. The main alteration I could see was the removal of cabins the forward end of Deck 7 and the creation of the rather bland 'Horizon Lounge' furnished with aircraft-type seats. This conversion had been done by P. & O. Stena Line whilst she was running on Dover/Calais as P. & O. S. L. Aquitaine. However, I am given to understand that the bar counter had been partitioned off by L. D. Lines, who didn't see the need to continue with such a facility. The most awkward oversight was the small cabin-sized windows forward. Decent views were afforded through the larger windows that had been cut either side, but for some reason the original ones at the front were left as they were, as if people weren't bothered about the best possible vantage point.
Throughout the rest of Deck 7 it could be seen that much remained of her previous operator's refurbishments. The laminated wooden flooring smacked of P. & O. Ferries. What would have been the 'International Food Court' had become 'Little Italy', remaining a 'free-flow' self-service style affair. The 'Blue Mountain Café' seemed to be out of action. Meanwhile, to compensate for the loss of the cabins forward, L. D. Lines clearly had opted to fit new ones either side of the shop far aft. The shop itself had half of its floor space cordoned off, with a much diminished range of goods on offer. Upstairs on Deck 8 was the rather dubiously branded 'Dirty Duck Pub', still very recognisable as a P. & O. 'Silverstones' with the distinctive patterned carpeting. Amidships on Deck 8 were the 'Tweed' and 'Velvet' lounges that contained copious quantities of reclining seats. These were all out of bounds for the daytime sailing. Further along were the well renowned 'Sleeper Seats' designed for sleeping flat on. One could see that such facilities weren't really required on a crossing of less than two hours. The 'Club Lounge' on Deck 9 had become the rather oddly-named 'Cotton Club'. This was effectively the first class lounge, entrance on payment of a surcharge.
I found my way outside at the stern end to witness the departure from Dover. It was overcast so lighting wasn't particualrly good for photography. However I took advantage of the close proximity to an arriving Norfolkline 'D' class vessel. As we were blocking the Eastern Entrance, P. & O.'s Pride of Dover made a rare approach via the Western Entrance instead. I got talking to a chap in a red L. D. A. (Louis Dreyfus Amateurs) boiler suit who turned out to be Ricky, the ship's bosun. I asked how the service was doing and he said that the freight was developing nicely, but the tourist traffic had been slow, hence the decision to tie up with TransEuropa at Ramsgate and bring a freighter in her place. I expressed disapointment that the 'Spirit' was going so soon as she seemed a pleasant vessel, particularly in view of her extensive open deck outside. I was asked if I would like to see the wheelhouse. Naturally I accepted the invitation and was then led through the seemingly rambling corridors of the crew accommodation and up a steep flight of stairs to reach the bridge. I was met by Captain Smith whom I thanked profusely for allowing me the opportunity to have this behind-the-scenes experience, now almost unheard of with most ferry companies, such is the continued security anxiety caused by the '9-11' atrocities of nine years previously.
In conversation with Captain Smith it emerged that he had entertained none other than the Ferries of Northern Europe forum moderator on previous occasions. The topic of the changing strategies of the company was discussed, and it it happened two representatives from TransEuropa Ferries were also present on the bridge as part of a crew familiarisation exercise in preparation for the ship's handover to the Oostende-based operation. One of these gentlemen told me that they wanted Norman Spirit as their existing vessels could only break even in terms of operating capacity. The Captain himself was transferring (along with some of the other crew members) to Norman Arrow for the summer season at Portsmouth. I asked why the shop had been cut back. The explanation given was that L. D. Lines didn't have the buying power of the bigger ferry operators, thus the savings that could be passed on to passengers were less attractive. Demand for the on board shopping was therefore pretty minimal. The TransEuropa chap chipped in that his company had done away with their shops altogether and this had met with little complaint from the clientele. With all the chatter, Cap Gris Nez was soon close by as we headed down the coast for Boulogne. As we approached the exceptionally long mole to starboard we could see literally hundreds of fishermen lining the wall. This was clearly going to be the best place to get views of Norman Spirit leaving, now that service was running from the new 'Hub Port' development instead of the old terminal in the heart of the city.
Having nipped outside to get a few shots from the normally out of bounds Deck 10, the vessel was being tied up and I returned to the wheelhouse to say my thank yous and receive an escort back down to the passenger decks.
Having driven off I stopped by the berth and took a few more snaps of Norman Spirit docked bow-in. Meanwhile, across on the adjacent quay was the newly chartered Norman Bridge which I had seen travelling down the Channel the previous afternoon. I felt some regret at the iminent down-grading of the service from a truly multi-purpose ferry to a freighter with a very modest passenger accommodation block. However, the numbers travelling at the time clearly didn't warrant a vessel of Norman Spirit's capabilities (although it would have noce if L. D. Lines had given her more time to develop the route).