Ferry Fantastic is for all who have an interest in the Cross-Channel car ferries of past and present.
It features illustrated histories of those that have sailed since the evolution of 'drive-through' nearly five decades ago.
Keep up-to-date with new features and amendments by checking the Updates page.
Latest News: TransEuropa Ferries is no more: Having taken over Ramsgate/Oostende sailings from defunct Sally Line in November 1998, this inauspicious operator enjoyed a boom period in the early 2000s, with a 'heritage fleet' of former Townsend and R. M. T. vessels offering up to ten round trips a day. A somewhat mysterious company, its vessels were mainly registered in Cyprus, whilst its crews were comprised of Croats and Slovenians. Their original business model was based on buying up old ferries very cheaply and renovating them in-house. The revenue they could earn was said to be in the region of five hundred pounds a truck, and in their hey day they sailed full. TransEuropa were to regret their abortive tie-up with L. D. Lines which cost them dear. In 2011 and 2012 they struggled on with just two vessels. The charter of Ostend Spirit (II) proved to be a false dawn for the twenty six year old ship, which was abuptly repossessed by P. & O. Ferries on Thursday 18/4/13, the last day of TransEuropa services. After several days of silence, it was confirmed that the company was bankrupt, with massive debts. So the future for the Port of Ramsgate looks bleak. It may well suffer the same fate as Folkestone, which quickly declined after the cessation of ferry operations thirteen years ago. Not good news at all. For recent photos see the Photo Gallery page.
In the 1960s, a time when the Cross-Channel car ferry really began to thrive, the method of 'drive-through' loading through stern and bow doors was at last being exploited. The concept was pioneered by Thoresen's revolutionary 'Viking' series.
Meanwhile, a remarkable British invention was going from strength to strength in the form of the hovercraft. Although incredibly noisy and thirsty for fuel, record breaking crossings in under half an hour had become possible. The mid 1970s was the golden age of the hovercraft. By the end of 1974 nearly one and half million people a year going were going across the Channel by hovercraft, nearly a third of all passenger traffic. Sadly the cost of fuelling these extraordinary vessels continued to rocket, and after a reign of over three decades they had become unprofitable to run. In an ironic twist of fate it was the very first car-carrying hovercraft, The Princess Margaret, which performed the final 'flight' in 2000. Whilst the hovercraft had been consigned to history, the future had already arrived in the form of the aluminium twin-hulled 'Seacat'.
The necessity to accommodate rapidly growing amounts of road traffic on board the Cross-Channel ferries resulted in some extremely utilitarian designs that purely met functional requirements. Economy of scale took precedence over the nicely rounded features of the 'miniature liners'. Numerous attractive vessels were subsequently spoilt by the insertion of extra vehicle decks intended extend their potential useful life. Ugly stability tanks, known as ‘sponsons’, also appeared on many vessels to comply with tightened safety regulations. However, there have been some spectacular looking new vessels delivered in recent years.
The prospect of the Channel Tunnel had always been a source of great fear for seafarers who made their livelihoods on the Dover Straits. It was expected that the Tunnel would take all the traffic underground. Rather than preparing for defeat, the market leader, Townsend Thoresen, introduced the superb Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais in 1987. These vessels offered the widest ever range of passenger amenities and unprecedented passenger and vehicle capacity. After over two decades of incredibly reliable service they had proven themselves to be the most successful Cross-Channel ferries of all time. By the time the faithful Pride of Dover retired from service in December 2010 it had been calculated that she had carried a staggering thirty-five million passengers across the Channel.
The Channel Tunnel did successfully capture the largest share of Cross-Channel traffic after it opened in 1994. However the market has since grown substantially to compensate for this. In fact Eurotunnel has no where near enough capacity to accommodate the total amount of freight that now crosses the Channel.
Established ferry operators have had to undergo several painful rationalisations such as the abandonment of the less profitable routes and the amalgamation of rival services. 'Cut-throat' competition from new upstarts has seen the emergence of the 'loss leader' tickets and slim profit margins.
A totally unforeseen source of woe materialised in the form of the 'budget airlines'. Cheap flights really caught the ferry companies on the hop. However, it inspired Danish entrepreneur, Curt Stavis, to launch a 'no thrills' service called SpeedFerries, resurrecting sailings between Dover and Boulogne in 2004, after a gap of over eleven years. Sadly the low-cost/high-speed concept proved to be unprofitable and the company went out of business less than five years later.
Freight has proved to be the saving grace of the Port of Dover and its ferry operators, with a record-breaking two million lorries passing through in 2005. This has helped to offset the dramatic collapse in the numbers of tourists travelling by sea. Such is the growth in traffic, four additional berths are planned to open at a new Western Docks terminal proposed for completion by the end of the decade.
A new milestone was reached in 2009 with the debut of Norman Arrow for L. D. Lines, a new entrant on the Dover Straits. The largest diesel-powered catamaran in the world, she carried up to thirty lorries, in addition to tourist vehicles and their passengers. The vessel represented a leap in the evolution of the 'Seacat' type vessel Channel travellers had known for the previous two decades. However, despite their willingness to experiment with new vessels and routes, things were not plain sailing for L. D. Lines, who struggled to capture market share with their Boulogne service. They abruptly removed their catamaran from service after just five months and subsituted her with the much larger conventional ship, Norman Spirit. Only three months later the Company announced that their flagship was moving to Ramsgate in conjuction with TransEuropa Ferries, her place at Dover to be taken by the chartered Norman Bridge. Within another three months a sister vessel, Norman Trader also arrived. Then, alas, the whole operation was axed in early September 2010, a year and half after the celebrated revival of sailings between Dover and Boulogne. L. D.'s troubles certainly demonstrated the volatility of the ferry industry which had taken many knocks in recent years.
French-flagged vessels have come to dominate Cross-Channel routes in recent years. Seafrance had an inauspicious start in the mid 1990s, before growing into a serious player. In the first decade of the new century the Company operated the two most highly regarded sister ships on the Dover/Calais route. Seafrance Rodin and Seafrance Berlioz introduced a combination of emense size, power and opulance which had never been seen before. The company also operated one of the longest ferries on the Channel, Seafrance Molière, although she was not the operational success hoped for. Towards the end Seafrance flirted with bunkruptcy in the face of heavy over-manning and stiff competition for traffic in a recession-hit market. Ultimately, the generous coffers of its parent, S. N. C. F., could not save it. The E. U. competition authorities cried foul, pointing to the 'distortion' of the market that would be caused by recapitalising a business offering excess capacity at loss-leading rates. The final Seafrance sailings took place in November 2011. The Company then went into liquidation. However, in an unexpected twist of events, a 'new' Seafrance was to rise from the ashes as 'MyFerryLink' in August 2012...
Perhaps the most unexpected and audacious success story of recent years has been the diversification of Norfolkline (later to become part of D. F. D. S. Seaways) from North Sea freight into the Channel ferry business. The growth of the revived Dover/Dunkerque route has been nothing short of phenomenal. The purpose-built 'D' Class eclipsed their rivals in terms of size and interior splendour when brought into service in 2005/6. In keeping with their expansive intentions, D. F. D. S. Seaways did a deal with the much smaller L. D. Lines to run a joint service on the Dover/Calais route in early 2012. A significant breakthrough was made in January 2013, when more passengers travelled with D. F. D. S. from Dover than P. & O. Ferries, the one-time preeminent operator.
Whilst Seafrance imploded and D. F. D. S. leapt in to fill the gap, P. & O. Ferries delivered the second of the two biggest ships yet to operate on the Cross-Channel routes. Like Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais did twenty-four years previously, they provided a doubling of vehicle capacity per crossing using the same amount of fuel. Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France represented economy of scale on the grandest level yet.
The evolution of Cross-Channel car ferry design has developed as the nature of the business has changed beyond recognition. Rival companies continue to vie with each other to seize the "wow factor" and offer ferries that are truly "fantastic".
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