Dover to Calais and return, Thursday 8th March 2007
The weather forecast looked good and I took a chance on another day trip on foot with P. & O. At first I was told there were no spaces for my preferred sailing time so I said I would try Seafrance. ‘No need to worry about them, let me see what I can do’ was the response I got from the friendly Dutch voice and so the promotional fare was secured.
The 1005 sailing from Dover was my old favourite, Pride of Calais.
This was the first Cross-Channel ferry I ever travelled on. That was back in 1988 at the age of ten. I can remember the anticipation and excitement of that journey vividly. She was less than a year old and was definitely the bee’s knees at the time (along with her twin sister, Pride of Dover). Significantly longer, wider and heavier than the previous ‘Spirit Class’ ships, Townsend Thoresen (subsequently rebranded P. & O. European Ferries) had continued to do what they did best, and that was to invest in new ferries that were the envy of their rivals.
Nearly twenty years on Pride of Calais wasn’t showing her age too badly at all. Her fixtures and fittings have clearly been reupholstered over the years. I can recall how her rows and rows of aircraft style seats were originally leather with the ‘T. T.’ logo embossed on them. It took a year or two for P. & O. to remove the symbol that had become an unwanted mnemonic of the tragic Herald of Free Enterprise.
Outside I was disappointed, but not surprised to find that the practice of sealing off substantial areas of deck space had not eluded Pride of Calais. In this instance her promenades were roped off, leaving just the stern end to enjoy. At least there were still a few seats to rest on unlike the newer vessels in the fleet.
The sun shone and the breeze was mild. So it was possible to spend the duration of the crossing in the fresh air and watch the activity in the Channel. We came to a halt half way across to mind out of the way of a passing tanker which provided an interesting distraction.
On arrival at Calais I waited for an elusive tanoy call to disembark. It would seem that these announcements are not audible outside as I discovered I had missed the bus when I did venture inside to enquire. Not that it mattered too much as I had the run of the empty ship to look around whilst I waited for another bus to be despatched to remove me!
The arrangements of interior seating on Pride of Calais and her sister are very much in the vogue of the Townsend Thoresen era. The profuse quantity of aircraft style seating was very much needed when the vessels were carrying capacity loads of passengers, something that seldom happens now as a result of the budget airlines and abolition of duty-free.
The rows of seats are now seen by the industry as rigid and inflexible. The trend is now to go for chairs that can be moved around tables as people wish. So many parts of Pride of Calais would appear rather old fashioned in configuration now.
However, despite her twenty years of age, it is hard to fault Pride of Calais and her sister from a technical point of view. They have proven themselves to be thoroughbreds with a unsurpassed track record of service over two decades. They are the fastest vessels in the fleet and also have the highest passenger certificates. They are also, arguably, the most attractive looking ships. The nicely slanting superstructures very much echo the cutting edge lines of the ‘Spirit Class’, whereas the subsequent new builds/conversions are based on ‘Lego Land’ aesthetics.
The irony is that when Pride of Calais was built, her owners were still interested in ‘Blue Riband’ service speeds (crossings in under seventy five minutes) and economy of scale (with space for over two thousand). The P. & O. Ferries of today has turned its back on record breaking speeds to save on fuel and facilitate more revenue generating time on board. The newer vessels have lower passenger certificates too as there simply isn’t the demand there used to be. The booming form of traffic is solely freight now.
I was summoned by name to present myself at the starboard gangway where I made my way down to the quayside where a cheerful P. & O. minibus driver was waiting to cart me off to the terminal building, where, as ever, there was no official waiting to inspect my passport.
The bridge to the town was still of action and therefore another wearisome detour through the industrial wastelands of Calais was necessary to get to the pier.
The weather was kind and I got to test the full potential of the new camera, zooming in on the approaching vessels. Things weren’t quite as busy as they used to be. Think back to 2003 and there were eight (yes eight!) P. & O. ships running approximately every half hour. There were also Hoverspeed sailings. It was now apparent that the level of activity was significantly reduced. Of course, Norfolkline has made a spectacular success of the revived Dover/Dunkerque route at the expense of Calais, whilst SpeedFerries has effectively seen off Hoverspeed and taken the traffic down the coast to Boulogne. Considering the shortage of space at Calais, the recent success of its neighbouring ports may be just as well for the time being.
The return journey was to be the 1655 on Pride of Kent. Having sampled her sister, Pride of Canterbury, the previous Autumn (see Pride of Burgundy & Pride of CanterburyVoyage Report), I could have easily mistaken this ship for her twin. They seemed virtually identical inside and out (rather like Transmanche Ferries’ Côte d’Albâtre and Seven Sisters). The one difference I noticed, being a particular bee in my bonnet, was the fact that whilst the ‘Canterbury’ had half a dozen seats outside on her promenade decks (not of much use considering they are often out of bounds anyway!) there were absolutely none, zero, zilch on the ‘Kent’.
For the benefit of other connoisseurs of Cross-Channel ferries, it was brought to my attention that there is another slight external difference between the two ‘Darwin’ sisters: The ‘Canterbury’ has the high-visibility orange paintwork extended around the sides of her wheelhouse whilst the ‘Kent’ only features it at the front. This aspect of livery materialised after Herald of Free Enterprise ‘fell over’ (in the words of a retired P. & O. captain) twenty years previously. Although introduced as a voluntary safety measure, the fluorescent band is only seen on vessels of the P. & O., Seafrance and TransEuropa fleets, other Channel operators choosing not spoil the appearance of their ships in this way.
After witnessing a routine departure from outside I went down to the Information Desk (previously termed the ‘Purser’s Office’ in years gone by) to query the lack of outside seating and the further new restrictions to deck access.
I was informed that, due to smokers depositing their fag butts on to vehicles parked below, a barrier had been put in place to keep them away from the edge of the stern and prevent the fire risk. I asked why such a problem had gone unnoticed for the last fourteen years that Pride of Burgundy (with similar exposed vehicle decks at the stern) had been operating. I was told that the recent enforcement of a ban inside the ships had seen a sharp increase in smoking outside and the potential for lorries to be set alight inadvertently.
On the matter of locking the gates to the promenade decks, I was told that this was done to protect sleeping crews from disturbances from passengers outside. The cabins were utilised on alternate sides of the ship according to shifts and therefore either the port or starboard promenades were closed for this reason.
The absence of any seating on the promenade decks was something I was told ‘they were looking into’. Now how much expenditure would a few red plastic seats require? I was told that the Company recognised that people did value the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air on the sea crossing and that this was an advantage over the Channel Tunnel.
I explained that the reason for my questions was that I maintained a ferry enthusiast website and would be writing a report of my journey experience. To my pleasant surprise this met with a positive response. Nicola, the Purser, told me how she had been with the Company since the days of the ‘Spirit Class’. In defence of the change in style presented on board Pride of Kent and her sister, she said that the rows and rows of aircraft seats that characterised the 1980s vessels were no longer in fashion. Instead freestanding chairs arranged around tables were considered more sociable for passengers. I bemoaned how un-ship-like ferries had generally become in the pursuit of even more consumer outlets on board. I was told, sagely, that it was necessary to follow that trend from a commercial-survival point of view.
I requested a visit to the bridge, something I hadn’t done for ten years since a trip on Stena Fantasia. Having consulted Julian, Guest Services Manager, it was agreed that I would be allowed a trip up to the wheelhouse to meet James Foster, Second Officer of the ship. A sign of the tighter security measures was the issue of an identity badge before I was escorted by Nicola through crew quarters to the bridge towering over the bow end of the vessel.
I was greeted by James who spoke with enthusiasm about the ship in his charge. In his opinion the ‘Kent’ and ‘Canterbury’ were the best vessels on the Calais run (of course!). I put it to him that the ‘Rodin’ and ‘Berlioz’ had the edge with speed and looks. He asserted that the P. & O. boats handled better in poor weather and had superior manoeuvrability.
The ship was averaging only 18.5 knots which would account for the slower crossings now offered by P. & O. Ferries. James said that to achieve a slightly higher speed would burn up a substantially greater amount of fuel and therefore was uneconomical to do. I reminisced how a bridge visit on Pride of Calais in her early days found her to be storming across at 25 knots which met with a look of disbelief from my interviewee!
Another noticeable difference was the all-enclosed comfort of the wheelhouse compared to Pride of Calais two decades before (although more recently the older vessels have had their exposed bridge wings housed from the elements). The equipment was as it would have been when the vessel entered service as European Highway in 1992, having not been affected in any way by the vessel’s conversion from freighter to multi-purpose ferry.
In further conversation it was agreed that the Company had been through rough times with the fall out from losing duty-free revenue and being squeezed by the emergence of cheap flights abroad (having already adjusted to Eurotunnel’s entry into the Cross-Channel market). However, whilst a bitter pill to swallow, the rationalisations that took place at Dover in 2004 have yielded a subsequent return to profitability (assisted by further increases in the lucrative freight carriage sector of the business). New ships are keenly anticipated to vanquish the increasingly hot competition and re-assert P. & O.’s position as the market leader.
With the White Cliffs coming closer into view it was time to for me to be escorted back to the public decks and leave the crew in peace to steer the ship into port.
I walked off Pride of Kent with a bit of the ‘feel-good factor’. It was an interesting crossing in as much as I had been given access to parts of the vessel and people that most never get to see. It was tangible that the crew were really proud of their ship and were utterly professional in their conduct. My thanks go to them for their hospitality and interest in the Ferry Fantastic project.