Seafrance Renoir
& Seafrance Cézanne

Dover to Calais and return, Sunday 15th October 2006.

It had been some eight years since I had last travelled on these two vessels. At the time I was taking advantage of a seemingly desperate promotional offer of free daytrips for visitors to the then newly launched website. At the time I remember being quite impressed by the then recently refurbished Seafrance Renoir, but not so much Seafrance Cézanne which still featured much of her original Fiesta incarnation fittings.

Having recently read a lot of flack on the Yahoo! Groups levelled at these two oldest of ferries now operating from Dover, I was curious to find out how decayed they had been allowed to get.

This year Seafrance have taken the unusual move of operating a one-ship roster using two vessels. In this instance Seafrance Renoir operates two daylight morning crossings then lays by in Calais for the rest of the day whilst Seafrance Cézanne takes over in the afternoon and does three round trips lasting her until the early hours. Meanwhile Seafrance Manet takes freight only in lieu of, or sometimes in addition to Seafrance Nord Pas-de-Calais. The luxury of having effectively two spare vessels either standing by or running part-time is something only a state owned and subsidised entity such as Seafrance could afford. Indeed, such practices really haven’t previously been seen since the glory days of R. M. T. on the Dover/Oostende route. One has to bear in mind the risky political implications in France lest the fleet was slimmed down and crews were laid off! This is something P. & O. seemed to implement within its British crewed operations without precipitating strike action, demonstrating the disparity of power held by the unions on either side of the Channel.

I made my booking the evening before over the telephone and was surprised to learn that Seafrance no longer allowed foot passengers to transfer to later sailings free of charge. I was warned to arrive promptly 45 minutes before departure or face a £7.50 amendment fee and a 90 minute wait for the next available sailing. This seemed rather draconian considering in previous years the Dover operators ran a relaxed arrangement for those travelling without a vehicle and check-in could be as late as 20 minutes before scheduled crossings. Presumably the adoption of the budget airline fares model has also resulted in the pedantic enforcement of check-in ‘closures’. I certainly didn’t wish to test how strictly the new policy was being enforced. The prospect of waiting another hour and a half and effectively paying more than twice was not an attractive one!

So having paid my full £6 fare (I didn’t have any ‘promotional code’ to quote in order to get a discount) I made sure I got to the port in good time for the 1100 sailing by Seafrance Renoir. I was astonished to discover I was one of only two foot passengers booked for the crossing. The depressing collapse in the tourist traffic was furthermore underlined by the abandonment of the Port of Dover’s Departure Lounge. We were escorted by a bus driver from the ‘Travel Centre’ (effectively a ticket sales hall at the entrance to the Eastern Docks) to an awaiting vehicle on the forecourt outside. We were then conveyed to a Passport Control and Customs shed en route to Berth 5. Our driver commented that the foot passenger business had been in meltdown since the end of duty-free and the emergence of cheap flights abroad. Now it seems that Dover is more reliant than ever on the booming freight traffic to make up for the alarming decline in tourist turnover.

Having boarded the old Seafrance Renoir at her stern end through ‘Le Relais’ cafeteria, I immediately noticed how grubby she was now looking. More unsatisfactory still was the mean-spirited barricading of her most attractive areas; Le Parisien Café accessed via the spiral stairs in her ‘conservatory’ (the twin tier glazed structure at her rear) and the forward bar lounge, ‘Le Pub’. That left a miserable selection of areas to enjoy, and the lack of general maintenance was rather tangible. Some tables needed a good wipe with a damp cloth and upholstery on the seats could have done with a thorough clean. Windows were filthy too.

Outside on the former Côte d’Azur passengers used to have the run of plentiful deck space, but now her upper sun deck is permanently sealed off (for ‘Health & Safety’ reasons so I was told).The paintwork is now flaking away and rust is developing unchecked. It was frustrating to find many doors locked thus necessitating exasperating detours to get around the vessel.

All in all, the impression of Seafrance Renoir is a jaded vessel. She is clearly uncared for and has been allowed to gently run down over a prolonged period of time. It would imply that Seafrance expect to eventually build further new tonnage to replace her at some stage, but in the mean time no investment seems to have been made to bring her back up to acceptable standards. It is worth remembering however, she was originally set to leave the fleet back in 2001 when Seafrance Rodin arrived. And she was given another reprieve when Seafrance Berlioz came into service. This would appear to be partly due to the increase in freight traffic, but also to keep her crew in work and the French unions at bay.

I asked the Purser why so much of the vessel was closed off and was told that it was a management decision based on the amount of traffic not justifying manning all of the facilities. I felt passengers were being short-changed considering advance notice of limited amenities was not given. It also seemed like a cynical wheeze to conceal further evidence of the general lack of cleaning done. Let’s face it, ferry passengers do tend to drop crumbs and spill drinks over tables and seats and closing half the ship is an easy way to avoid dealing with the problem, especially if there isn’t the will to do so.

One positive observation was the smoothness of the ride. She slipped away from the berth at Dover with out the slightest of a shudder and there was no motion to be felt in the Channel. Whilst I haven’t experienced her in rough weather, she gave the impression of being a good ‘sea boat’ as they say.

Seafrance Renoir, for all her shortcomings is still my favourite current Cross-Channel ferry. The reason being she is almost unique now in as much that she looks like a ship, rather than a giant ‘Lego’ model like Pride of Burgundy. She was the largest ferry ever to enter Dover Harbour when she made her maiden arrival in 1981, a quarter of a century ago, but she is now the smallest. It seems quite remarkable that she is still operating on the route for which she was built. In fact she holds the record for the longest continuous service on a Cross-Channel route by a car ferry, having only deviated from Calais for refit purposes and possibly some relief sailings. Once the jewel in the crown of the Sealink ‘Flagship Service’ in the 1980s, she has since fallen from grace.

No doubt her survival is not by dint of ferry enthusiasts’ appreciation of her classic good looks, but rather her operators’ obligation not consolidate its fleet and reduce its manning levels. Until a third ‘Rodin’ comes along, probably by the end of the decade, I dare say we will still be seeing the old girl ambling along still, even if she is now allowed a lighter timetable in view of her age and general low standard of upkeep. I was told that as each vessel in the fleet had to pass an annual inspection to renew its passenger certificate, the roster sharing arrangements for the older units kept their engines ticking over.

Unfortunately for Seafrance, each time passengers get to sample the delights of the new superferries then suffer the inadequacies of the ‘Renoir’, they may not always feel inclined to return. Although I suspect most travellers are not fussy enough to allow a worn-out relic them off. It’s the price of the ticket which is probably crucial. However there are no discounts or rebates offered to Seafrance Renoir patrons!

On shore in Calais I was exasperated to find the swing bridge linking the port area to the rest of the town was still impassable since I last visited in July. So the tedious trail along windswept and bleak industrial land was repeated to get to where I could photograph ferry arrivals and departures, the pier. Incidentally I was bemused to find one of Seafrance Manet’s redundant lifeboats suspended from a gantry standing in the vicinity of the port’s inner basin. Quite what the purpose of this was I couldn’t fathom. Maybe the idea was to preserve a piece of Calais’ maritime history, even if it did appear rather surreal taking a ferry’s lifeboat and placing it in a totally incongruent context.

The remarkable difference between England and France on a Sunday afternoon was very tangible. Whereas most Brits would think of the Sabbath as being an ordinary shopping day, in Calais the town was deserted at lunchtime. Hardly anything open for business and barely a soul to be seen (apart from the huddles of African immigrants milling aimlessly as they contemplate an uncertain future in an unfamiliar land).

Later, the townsfolk come out in force, joining a continuous procession along to the end of the pier and back again. The people of Calais seem more fascinated by their ferries than their neighbours in Dover. It is quite reassuring to see so many people captivated by the boats considering such an interest would be deemed by most as an ‘anorak’ type activity over here! Another example of the eccentric sense of humour in Calais is the ‘(pris) depuis un point fixe’ legend painted on the lighthouse at the end of the pier. Less appealing is the distinct whiff left by the fishermen who treat the venue as a public convenience. Maybe that is why few linger at the end before turning back to the beach!

So I jostled with the fishing rods to catch a few snaps in the hazy Autumn sunlight. Typically my camera’s batteries failed just as I was about to take a nice shot of Seafrance Manet entering the port. However this was compensated for when, having replaced the batteries, to my amazement she quickly loaded up with more freight and was followed within a minute or two by the equally well patronised Seafrance Nord Pas-de-Calais back out again. The lorries are clearly keeping the business afloat as she was not even scheduled to be running!

I was booked to return on the 1830 sailing by Seafrance Cézanne and thus had to allow myself a good hour to walk back to the ferry terminal (the long way round) plus the twenty minutes Seafrance staff in Calais advised me they would allow for last check-in (what used to be acceptable at Dover until the recent security panic impeded port traffic).

There was a healthier load of foot passengers waiting for the crossing compared to the derisory two of whom I was one on the outward leg that morning. Having been bused over to the berth we boarded via the side hatch entering into ‘Le Relais’ cafeteria amidships.

I was quite surprised, considering the amount of criticism that I had read about this ship, that she was in quite reasonable condition. The old signs suspended from her ceilings are a quaint relic from her Fiesta days. Interesting to be reminded that despite her post-conversion delivery to French owners, her on-board directions were all blatantly in American-English, hence ‘Women’ and ‘Men’ instead of ‘Femmes’ and ‘Hommes’ (or ‘Ladies and Gents’ for that matter!).

The pretentious sweeping staircase that shrouds the entrance to the shop looked a little lacklustre now, particularly against the backdrop of a tacky ‘Seafrance Shopping’ advertising mural. And the biggest disappointment was finding, as before on Seafrance Renoir, ‘Le Café Parisen’ was firmly shut. Housed inside her dome structure amidships, this is widely considered to be her most attractive feature for passengers to enjoy and it seemed ludicrous that Seafrance saw fit to keep it locked.

That left only ‘Le Pub’ and ‘La Brasserie’ as an alternative places to rest. Indeed, the lack of any quiet seating areas away from venues of consumption emphasises the ‘motorway services at sea’ ethos of the ferry operators who seek to extract as much revenue as possible from their ‘captives’ for the duration of each crossing. And the exorbitant amount one is expected to part with in order to obtain refreshments is certainly on a par with the likes of ‘Roadchef’.

After witnessing the sun set outside on our departure from Calais I settled for a comfy ‘tub’ chair in the bar lounge at the stern end. Here I watched the waves roll by as others tried to extract entertainment value from the French television channel flickering away on the television screen in the corner.

I cannot comment on the food on offer as I refuse to pay more for a meal than the fare for the crossing! I always take something to get by on in a carrier bag. (I must be the least profitable type of passenger as I neither smoke or drink booze!).

Arrival at Dover was at dusk and the disembarkation was achieved with reasonable efficiency. I didn’t particularly enjoy the bus transfer from the berth to the arrivals hall. Usually an ordeal, this time was no different, with what must have been the maximum legal quantity of passengers squashed into the vehicle for transit in all the comfort of a cattle wagon!

For me Seafrance Cézanne was a not unpleasant experience. There was plenty to satisfy nostalgia for her early days as Fiesta when she gave novelty value of the highest order. But her original fully coordinated interior design has been eroded through partial refurbishments and the adoption of the bland corporate branding everywhere. In her favour, she still offers by far the largest amount of open deck space of any ferry sailing from Dover which I personally value a great deal when travelling in mild weather conditions. On the downside, the closure of her best feature, the ‘dome’, was a faux pas in my opinion.

The former Fiesta began her days remarkably different to anything that had previously flown the French flag on the Channel. However, times have moved on and what she has to offer now is no longer exceptional. Both she and her sister were ‘superferries on the cheap’, created from the conversion of second-hand freight ships at the fraction of the cost of new builds. Since then Seafrance has dipped deeply into its coffers to bring the travelling public Seafrance Rodin and Seafrance Berlioz; two ships that are longer, sleeker, more powerful and luxurious than their incongruent fleetmates.

It will be interesting to see how the ‘Cézanne’ will fit into the future plans of the Company. At twenty six years old her days are surely numbered. Then again, we could be seeing her around for many years to come!