A French flagged operation which began in 1973 with a freight ferry service mainly intended to ship produce from the small fishing port of Roscoff in Brittany to Plymouth. From these modest roots a network of Western Channel routes was developed using a succession of second hand vessels. St. Malo gained its link with Portsmouth in 1976 whilst ten years later the port of Ouistreham (near Caen) was opened to Cross-Channel traffic. A series of purpose built super ferries began in 1989 with Bretagne, followed three years later by Barfleur and Normandie. The latest vessel to be delivered is Armorique, the second ship in the fleet to have carried this name.
Brittany Ferries had hoped that its routes would be untouched by the impact of the Tunnel on the Dover Straits, however a suicidal price war by the 'short sea' operators dragged the company into 'loss leader' fare slashing. Consequently the firm relies heavily on generous French Government subsidy. Its freight handling operation was, until 1999, known as Truckline, a brand affixed to the Poole/Cherbourg crossing. Truckline began as an independent freight ferry service in 1973 but nowadays H. G. V. licenses are not a prerequisite for passage.
In recent years Brittany have been heavily investing in some impressive new ships, the most spectacular being Pont-Aven, which entered service in March 2004. This ferry is truly in a league of her own, with nothing else coming quite near her in terms of design and on-board experience.
The future prospects for the company, it seems, have been assisted by the withdrawal of P. & O. Ferries from the Western Channel, leaving little competition for market share.
British Channel Island Ferries (1985 – 1994)
Previously: Channel Island Ferries
A subsidiary of Brittany Ferries established in 1985 to break the Sealink monopoly of sailings to St. Peter Port (Guernsey) and St. Helier (Jersey) from the mainland. They began as simply Channel Island Ferries with Corbiére, a sister of Sealink's Earl Granville. By offering discounted fares they soon brought their rivals to their knees and Sealink pulled out after a merger was mooted. They adjusted their name to British Channel Island Ferries in 1987. This latterly became regularly abbreviated to the acronym of B. C. I. F. The company enjoyed its own monopoly of car ferries to the Islands until a sudden reversal of fortunes when Condor arrived on the scene with Condor 10, their first vehicle carrying fast ferry. When offered the choice of a six hour passage by traditional ship or just over two hours by catamaran, passengers voted with their feet.
Condor Ferries (1964 to present)
This venture was born in 1964 with the deployment of high speed hydrofoils linking the Channel Islands with France. The company initiated its first service to the mainland in 1987 with hydrofoil Condor 7, filling the gap left by Sealink's abandonment of its Channel Islands services. Their first flirtation with catamarans was in the form of Condor 8, a prelude to the larger car carrying varieties. Competition from the conventional ferries sailing out of Poole was seen off in 1994 when B. C. I. F. sold out to Condor. Then the Channel Islands freight carrier, Commodore Ferries, absorbed Condor, and introduced their Commodore Clipper to offer a year round daily passenger sailing from Portsmouth to the Channel Islands in order to support the weather prone catamaran service. The Commodore brand was dropped in favour of Condor Ferries from late 2003.
D. F. D. S. Seaways (2010 to present)
Formerly known on the English Channel as Norfolkline
D. F. D. S. Seaways is a brand name familiar to North Sea ferry travellers for many decades. However, it became established for the first time on the Cross-Channel market through its acquisition of Norfolkline in 2010.
Hoverspeed (1981 - 2005)
An amalgamation of: Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed (British Rail Hovercraft)
A name that was coined from the merger in 1981 of British Rail's Seaspeed subsidiary and the independent Swedish owned Hoverlloyd. Six S. R. N. 4 hovercraft were built from the late 1960s. These were to be the world's largest commercially-operated hovercraft, and turned out to be the only ever built to successfully carry cars and passengers across the Channel.
Having already acquired Sealink British Ferries, the Bermuda based Sea Containers purchased Hoverspeed in 1986. Plans were publicised for the future of the hovercraft service, with the promise of larger, more fuel-efficient, vessels. These belatedly materialised in the form of the 'Seacats'. Sea Containers was beset by a conflict of interests: They were bidding to build and operate the Channel Tunnel to replace their ferry business. Their ferries, in the meantime, were competing against their hovercraft. The Princess Anne and The Princess Margaret were the last surviving members of the hovercraft fleet, with three of their four sisters having been cannibalised for spare parts. They were offered for sale after retiring on 1st October 2000, but at the time of writing remain in the care of the Hovercraft Museum at Lee-on-Solent. The smaller Swift had been donated to this charitable organisation seven years previously. Sadly she was dismantled in 2004 due to the unaffordable cost of leasing the land she rested on.
With a market niche based on offering faster Channel crossings, Hoverspeed’s position was threatened by Eurotunnel. The company demonstrated enterprising spirit by resurrecting abandoned conventional ferry services and introducing their Seacat vessels in their place: The Folkestone/Boulogne route given up by Stena Line was revived in 1992 by Hoverspeed, but closed again on the same day that the hovercraft were axed. With Oostende Lines having withdrawn from Dover at the beginning of 1994, the Seacat reactivated the link to Belgium four years later, but gave up in early 2003. A revival of the Newhaven/Dieppe fast ferry service in 1999 also subsequently failed. The company controversially downgraded its flagship Dover/Calais operation to seasonal operation from late 2003, laying off its staff for the winter. Far worse was to come in November 2005 when the company abruptly finished operations permanently due to heavy losses incurred as a result of rising fuel costs.
Sea Containers itself filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and was finally wound up completely in 2010. The fate of The Princess Anne and The Princess Margaret remains uncertain. In the long term The Hovercraft Trust hope to preserve one of these remarkable vessels.
L. D. Lines (2005 to 2014)
The French shipping company, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, took a bold step into the Cross-Channel ferry industry when they promptly filled the gap left by P. & O. Ferries abandonment of its loss-making Portsmouth/Le Havre route in early October 2005. Within three days of the last P. & O. sailing, L. D. Lines arrived with Norman Spirit, a ship that had been withdrawn from P. & O. Ferries' Dover fleet. She was not an ideal choice of vessel for overnight service as much of her original cabin accommodation had previously been converted to lounges. The low-cost solution to this problem was the provision of one hundred-and-eighty-degree reclining seats that allowed passengers to lie flat if they wished to attempt to sleep. These became known as L. D.'s 'Sleeper Seats'. The once-daily round trip service proved viable, and additional tonnage materialised with the deployment of the new Norman Voyager.
In 2007 L. D. Lines won the tender to run the Transmanche Ferries service between Newhaven and Dieppe. In return for the receipt of a subsidy, the company took over the operation of the route and sought to transform its fortunes. L. D. Lines operated one of the Transmanche vessels on an unprecedented Newhaven/Le Havre seasonal service in 2007 but this closed the following year. Impatient with continued losses on Newhaven/Dieppe, L. D. Lines moved Côte d'Albâtre to Dover in early 2009. From here she inaugurated the company's first foray into the 'Short Sea' sector by offering a new service to Boulogne (three months after the failure of SpeedFerries). However, she was also to perform weekday overnight crossings to Dieppe too. Few saw this untried route succeeding, and sure enough it was abruptly closed in June of that year.
L. D. Lines took delivery of the world's largest diesel-powered catamaran, Norman Arrow, and placed her on the Boulogne service in June 2009. Within weeks Côte d'Albâtre was transferred to Portsmouth to replace Norman Voyager (which was later sub-chartered to Celtic Link Ferries on their Rosslare (Eire)/Cherbourg service). November saw the Norman Spirit replace Norman Arrow at Dover. Only four months later she was on the move again, this time to Ramsgate, in conjunction with TransEuropa Ferries and under her new name of Ostend Spirit. Six months later the Dover/Boulogne route was abandoned, much to the dismay of the Boulogne port authorities who had invested heavily in their new ferry terminal.
The frequent reshuffling of L. D. Lines' fleet units left industry commentators questioning the strategy of the Company. The seemingly short-term nature of their operations would indicate that they have struggled to establish a profitable formula for their network of Cross-Channel routes. They have certainly provided plenty of interesting developments for the enthusiast to follow.
MyFerryLink (2012 - 2015)
When it comes to developments in the modern Cross-Channel ferry industry, the maxim "expect the unexpected" would seem most apt. Rising from the ashes of Seafrance comes MyFerryLink, for all intents and purposes a replacement Seafrance service on the Dover/Calais route. Whilst ferry industry pundits debated whether P. & O. or D. F. D. S. would end up buying the three wholly owned vessels (Berlioz, Rodin and Nord Pas-de-Calais), few seriously saw Eurotunnel as the victor in the bidding. Why would Eurotunnel want to buy into the ferry industry and effectively compete with themselves? Well, of course, there are many who choose not to use the tunnel, and there are certain types of freight that cannot go underground. And, should the tunnel have to close at any time, they now have their own alternative option. Eurotunnel were quite clever in their methods: They sealed the deal by promising to lease the vessels to a co-operative of former Seafrance workers (who would have to spend their redundancy payouts to get their service up and running). The S. C. O. P. chose to bury the Seafrance name, wishing to distance themselves from the failed Company. However, the brand 'MyFerryLink' is somewhat regrettable. 'Seafrance' had strong relevance, dignity and gravitas. 'MyFerryLink' sounds cheap and rather naff, like some of the budget airline brands in existance. Added to this issue is the task of getting public recognition. It would have been easier to have stuck with the old name. With Eurotunnel having completed the purchase of the vessels in June 2012, a month later S. C. O. P. declared their plans to have 'MyFerryLink' operational by mid-August. An ambitious target given that the ships needed overhauling and many staff had yet to be recruited. Furthermore, P. & O. and D. F. D. S. were seemingly compelled to throw a spanner into the works and report Eurotunnel to the Competition authorities, claiming that their alliance with S. C. O. P. gave them too great a share of the market (even if their involvement in the ferry operation was merely provider of the vessels). The greatest hurdle for MyFerryLink is always going to be attracting enough business to achieve profitability in an overcrowded market dominated by the two giants of the shipping industry. P. & O. is the established market leader and D. F. D. S. is sufficiently big to absorb losses whilst they get a foothold on the much prized Dover/Calais route. MyFerryLink will not have the benefit of any financial support from Eurotunnel. Indeed, Eurotunnel will expect to be paid the cost of hiring their ships regardless of whether MyFerryLink makes any profit.
Norfolkline (2000 - 2010)
Norfolkline was part of the Danish shipping giant, A.P. Møller – Maersk Group, which had a long established network of freight ferry services across the North Sea. It made an unexpected entrance into the Cross-Channel market in 2000 when it chartered a newly constructed large freight ferry, Northern Merchant, to resurrect sailings between Dover and Dunkerque (Ouest). Space for accompanied cars was advertised on the new service and traffic levels soon justified the introduction of two of her sisters, Midnight Merchant, then Dawn Merchant. With the financial strength of its parent to draw uopn, Norfolkline placed an order for three identical multi-purpose superferries for delivery in 2005/6. These were to be, by far, the biggest ferries to operate from Dover. At over thirty-five thousand gross tonnes, the 'D' Class boasted freight capacity fifty percent greater than their nearest competitors. They also introduced a substantial increase in passenger accommodation for the Dunkerque service. Such has been the success of Norfolkline's purpose-built vessels, they have taken Seafrance's place as second biggest carrier at Dover. The company was acquired by fellow Danish shipping line, D. F. D. S. in July 2010 and was subsequently rebranded under the D. F. D. S. Seaways wing.
Oostende Lines (1994 - 1997)
Previously: Oostende Dover Line, Regie voor Maritiem Transport, Belgian Marine
The Belgian state owned ferry division, Regie voor Maritiem Transport, provided the historic link between Dover and Oostende for a century and a half until its sad but inevitable demise in 1994. Once an impressive presence on the Channel, its fleet of sleek and powerful vessels were but a distant memory when the route died. The company simply failed to keep up with the changing trends in Cross-Channel traffic. It was still building passenger boats in the late 1960's at a time when other operators were opting for multi-purpose 'drive through' ferries. The reluctance to cater for the booming freight trade was to cost R. M. T. dear.
From the 1970's R. M. T. participated in a pooling agreement with Sealink U. K. Limited whereby the latter took a small share of revenue in return for marketing Dover/Oostende sailings in Britain. When Sealink U. K. Limited was privatised they set about to increase their stake in the route by introducing their St. David in 1985. Sealink's new owner, James Sherwood, was annoyed that Townsend Thoresen were 'sweeping up' the Belgian bound freight traffic on offer, while his Belgian partners failed to provide the capacity to compete. R. M. T. took offence and switched their allegiances to none other than Townsend! Sealink staff retaliated by preventing vehicles from boarding Belgian vessels at their Dover Western Docks Station terminal. This precipitated a tedious practice of Oostende ferries embarking rail connected foot passengers via a gangway at the Admiralty Pier, then sailing to the Eastern Docks to load vehicles. This lengthened crossing times by about an hour!
A short term solution to the lack of freight capacity in the R. M. T. fleet was to insert a second lorry height vehicle deck beneath the superstructures of the three largest vessels at that time. However, the era of the 'superferry' had already arrived and the Oostende ferries were the cause of growing dissatisfaction. An attempt to restore faith in the service was made by the introduction in 1992 of Prins Filip; a formidable vessel indeed, but she nonetheless served to underline the shortcomings of her antiquated fleet counterparts.
P. & O., who had inherited the pooling agreement shared by Townsend and R. M. T., gave notice to the Belgians that they would not renew the arrangement at the end of 1993. A new partnership with Sally Line began the next year with the route switching to Ramsgate under the brand of Oostende Lines. This proved to be a tactical error. Ramsgate simply could not match the far superior transport links offered at Dover. The Belgian government decided that the continued subsidy of Oostende Lines was throwing good money after bad. The company had failed to cover its operating costs for many years and there was no realistic hope of achieving a change in fortunes. The last sailing was operated at the end of February 1997.
P. & O. Ferries (1980 - 1985) (2002 to present)
Previously: P. & O. Stena Line/P. & O. Portsmouth/P. & O. North Sea Ferries/P. & O. Irish Sea,
P. & O. European Ferries, Townsend Thoresen, Townsend Car Ferries/Thoresen Car Ferries/Atlantic Steam Navigation Company/Normandy Ferries
The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, more commonly known as the P. & O. Group, was one of the largest shipping companies in the world. Its first venture into Cross-Channel ferries was through its subsidiary, Normandy Ferries in 1967. This was a joint service operated from Southampton by P. & O.’s Dragon and the French flagged Leopard (owned by Societe Anonyme de Gerame et d' Armencent). Expansion followed in 1976 on to the Dover/Boulogne route. Latterly branded as P. & O. Ferries, the company was the subject of a surprise sale to Townsend Thoresen (European Ferries Group) on the 4th January 1985. P. & O.'s absence from the Channel was to be only a brief interlude for on the 5th December 1986 it took a controlling interest in none other than European Ferries. A previous attempt by P. & O. to acquire ‘T. T.’ was thwarted by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. However, this objective was eventually achieved, albeit in rather round-about way! European Ferries had been diversifying into areas such as property development: Its most ambitious, and perhaps disastrous investment was a building project in the United States. This haemorrhaged money at an alarming rate and left the owners of Townsend Thoresen in a financially vulnerable position. Of course, waiting in the wings to bail out the Company was none other than a triumphant P. & O. Group!
Stuart Townsend initiated the first independent Cross-Channel car ferry service from Dover to Calais in 1928. The small converted naval vessel, Forde, required vehicles to be winched aboard by crane. It was not until twenty five years later that Dover could facilitate drive-on loading at its first linkspans. Townsend Car Ferries invested in its first purpose built car ferries in the early 1960s, including the first British 'drive through' ferry, Free Enterprise II. Meanwhile, a Norwegian entrepreneur, Otto Thoresen, was busy developing a highly successful new car ferry service from Southampton to France. 1968 saw Thoresen Car Ferries merge with Townsend to form the European Ferries Group, using the well renowned Townsend Thoresen brand. Further expansion took place with the acquisition of the grandly named Atlantic Steam Navigation Company who operated on routes across the Irish Sea and North Sea, but, ironically, not the Atlantic! Townsend Thoresen was a formidable rival to the previously dominant Sealink consortium, and went on to establish itself as the market leader in the Cross-Channel sector.
Shortly after the P. & O. Group gained a controlling interest in European Ferries, the horrific loss of Herald of Free Enterprise acted as a catalyst to bury the household name of Townsend Thoresen. The continuation of the 'T. T.' identity with its distinctive orange and green livery was deemed unthinkable. Therefore P. & O. European Ferries was launched on 21st October 1987, with the network of routes organised into port based subsidiaries at Dover, Felixstowe and Portsmouth. Vessels bearing the 'Free Enterprise' nomenclature were restyled with the now familiar 'Pride of...' identities. In came a smart livery of navy blue and white.
P. & O. European Ferries (Dover) Limited was merged with Stena Line's Channel services on 10th March 1998, with P. & O. having a sixty per cent share in the joint company. P. & O. Stena Line achieved significant savings through the disposal of excess capacity. However, further rationalisation came with the closure of the Newhaven/Dieppe service shortly after. In 1999 P. & O. European Ferries (Portsmouth) Limited adopted 'P. & O. Portsmouth' as a brand for its routes to Le Havre, Cherbourg, and Bilbao. The Scotland/Northern Ireland service was amalgamated with P. & O. Pandoro freight routes under the banner of 'P. & O. Irish Sea'. Over four years after the formation of P. & O. Stena Line, the P. & O. Group availed itself of the opportunity to buy out Stena Line's forty per cent share. From 15th October 2002, the brand 'P. & O. Ferries' was revived to represent the unification of all its continental ferry operations (from Dover, Portsmouth, and Hull). P. & O. Scottish Ferries was wound up at the same time, having lost the state subsidised franchise to operate vehicle ferry services between mainland Scotland and the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.
In May 2003 an agreement was reached between the P. & O. Group and Stena Line whereby the latter would acquire part of the P. & O. Irish Sea operations: This was to involve the route between Fleetwood/Larne, with their respective vessels. The remaining Scotland/Northern Ireland operations were retained under the 'P. & O. Irish Sea' banner. Stena Line took on P. & O.’s Felixtowe based services in part exchange for their stake in P. & O. Stena Line. It was interesting to see how these two giants of the ferry industry so willingly cooperated in certain areas.
A devastating blow for the Cross-Channel ferry industry was announced in October 2004 when P. & O. Ferries gave notice for the abandonment of its services from Portsmouth to France. After the great success of the original Thoresen Car Ferries venture in 1964, some four decades later the routes to Le Havre and Cherbourg simply were not profitable in the face of strong competition from French state-subsidised Brittany Ferries, the Channel Tunnel, and the low-cost airlines. Dover's Pride of Aquitaine and Pride of Provence were taken out of service too. The freight link between Rosslare in Eire and Cherbourg was also curtailed, leaving no presence by P. & O. on the Western Channel. These drastic cut-backs left industry analysts speculating whether P. & O. would seek to sell their remaining ferry interests, leaving their initials standing for 'Pulled-Out', as a B. B. C. reporter quipped.
Having already divested itself of its container shipping division (sold to Royal Dutch Nedlloyd Group) and its cruise operations (the brands P. & O. Cruises and Princess Cruises continue to exist under the ownership of Carnival Cruise Lines), the remaining assets of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (including P. & O. Ferries) were acquired by Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation of Dubai (trading as D. P. World) in March 2006. Under new ownership, it appeared P. & O. Ferries had managed to turn a corner. Its resurgence was demonstrated by the opening of a new Tilbury/Zeebruge route and the purchase of El Greco (formerly Midnight Merchant) to augment its services. Then came the order of giant new tonnage purpose-built for Dover/Calais. This apparent upswing of confidence was somewhat dampened by the decision to close its sole surviving route from Portsmouth upon the expiry of the charter of Pride of Bilbao in September 2010.
Sally Line (1981 – 1998)
Operated as: Holyman Sally Ferries (1997) and Sally Direct (1998)
This company was on off-shoot of the Scandinavian-based Viking Line consortium. The name was initially difficult to take seriously, but Sally Line became a familiar brand to Cross-Channel travellers for nearly two decades. It had an inauspicious start in 1981 using a windswept berth constructed outside of Ramsgate's Royal Harbour. A service to Dunkerque (Ouest) was operated by The Viking, one of the ubiquitous 'Papenburg Sisters'. The company invested heavily in building an outer wall to protect its linkspan and further develop the terminal. A series of second hand ships frequented the Sally Line service, reaching its zenith with Sally Star, the largest ferry ever to be operated by the company. Competition from the Channel Tunnel hit Sally's services hard, pushing them into financial losses. A joint venture with the Australian-owned Holyman Group saw Sally Star's charter allowed to expire, and Sally Sky relegated to freight only. Condor 10 took over sailings to Dunkerque (Ouest) in 1997, but these were abandoned by the end of that year. Holyman Diamant and Holyman Rapide were meanwhile deployed in lieu of the failed Oostende Lines. In 1998 these catamarans moved to Dover under the wing of Hoverspeed and were subsequently acquired outright by that company. Meanwhile, the last remnants of Sally Line staggered on with Eurotraveller (formerly Sally Sky) operating under the brand of Sally Direct to Oostende. This folded by November of that year where upon Trans-Europa Ferries moved in to pick up the pieces and made a surprising success of the route.
Seafrance (1996 - 2011)
Previously: Sealink/S. N. A. T., Sealink Ferries S. N. C. F. (including Sealink Dieppe Ferries), S. N. C. F. (French Railways)
This French state-owned ferry company was descended from the Armement Naval, a division of the S. N. C. F. (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français/French Railways). It contributed to a joint Dover/Calais service with British Railways and its successors. The pooling arrangement survived the privatisation of Sealink U. K. Limited in 1984, but relations were strained when Stena Line inherited the Anglo side of operations in 1990. Latterly S. N. C. F. created a separate subsidiary for its Cross-Channel shipping operations called Société Nouvelle de Armement Transmanche (S. N. A. T.). After six years, Stena Line declared that it wished to jettison the Sealink brand name in favour of its own. S. N. A. T. decided that there was no longer sufficient common ground to be able to continue operating in partnership. It decided to go into competition with Stena Line and Seafrance was born.
In order to successfully establish a share of the market, 'loss leader' fares were the chosen line of attack against formidable opposition in the form of P. & O. and Eurotunnel. With the backing of generous state coffers, Seafrance underpinned its future by investing in the impressive purpose-built Seafrance Rodin and Seafrance Berlioz. The Company latterly sought to significantly reduce its spiralling running costs through the withdrawal of its oldest and smallest vessels. It encountered great resistance from its main French seafaring union (the C. F. D. T.) in its attempts to broker cuts in manning levels. Heavy losses were sustained from 2008 onwards, the result of the recession and sharp falls in traffic volumes.
During 2010 Seafrance was placed into administration whilst a recapitalisation by parent Company, S. N. C. F., was investigated by the European competition authorities. The question was whether a multi-million euro bail-out of Seafrance could be justified. The argument against such a move was based on the distortion of the market caused by pumping masses of French public money into a failing state-owned enterprise. Seafrance was able to undercut competitors' fares as long as it had the financial backing of S. N. C. F. and this angered rival operators (particularly P. & O. Ferries, who lodged the complaint with the E. U.). The political ramifications of allowing the Company to go to the wall with the loss of over a thousand jobs were equally troublesome.
The Commercial Court in Paris put Seafrance up for sale. No bidders were initially forthcoming. The period of administration was then extended until the end of October 2011, by which time the E. U. had ruled against recapitalisation. The only remaining options were a sale to preferred bidder, or liquidation. Sunday 14th November 2011 was to be the very last day of Seafrance sailings. The Company's online booking facility was closed. The court's decision was due two days later. In response to threats of sabotage by militant union activists (and what was rumoured to be a lack of funds to keep running), management decided to have the fleet taken out of service. The two remaining bids for the Company (from D. F. D. S./L. D. A., and a workers' co-operative calling itself S. C. O. P.) were rejected in favour of liquidation. However, more time was given for the submission of improved bids. At this stage D. F. D. S./L. D. A. withdrew from the running.
The final verdict for Seafrance came on Monday 9th January 2012. On further examination, the S. C. O. P. bid still failed to satisfy the Court that it had sufficient financial backing. The Company was ordered to cease commercial activities with immediate effect. A very sad day for over a thousand workers on both sides of the Channel. Whilst rival operators may have gleefully danced on Seafrance's grave, those who had enjoyed travelling on their ships regretted the ending of well over a century of French shipping heritage that brought style and innovation to the Cross-Channel ferry industry.
SpeedFerries (2004 - 2008)
When it seemed ferry activity at Boulogne was forever consigned to history, along came another brave newcomer to the English Channel in the form of SpeedFerries. This Danish family-run company re-opened sailings from Dover in May 2004 using a chartered 'InCat' catamaran. The last ferry service closed in early 1993 and nobody imagined that Dover would ever restore its links with the city of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The media-savvy director of the company, Kurt Stavis, was on a mission to revolutionise the Cross-Channel ferry market with a budget airline-style fare structure. The 'book sooner, pay less' offer was to prove popular with travellers. However, it was alledged (in a 2005 BBC documentary charting the apparent successes of the company) that rival operators were not so happy that SpeedFerries had knocked the bottom out of the market. Claims of a 'dirty tricks' campaign were made, resulting in the now infamous 'Fight The Pirates' slogan emblazoned in large orange lettering on the company's one and only vessel, Speed One. In the early days Mr. Stavis was to be seen lending a hand on board and helping to raise the profile of the service in ways no other ferry company had ever thought of before. But despite all the goodwill that had been achieved, SpeedFerries dramatically imploded in November 2008, grabbing headlines of the least favourable variety. The true extent of the poor financial health of the company was exposed when Speed One was arrested by the port authorities in Boulogne for non-payment of harbour dues. What was initially suggested to be a misunderstanding and slight hiccup turned out to be the tip of the iceberg that was SpeedFerries' debts. The company was placed into administration and was later wound up. It had come to light that, in its four and half year history, SpeedFerries had never made a net profit. There was outcry from customers who faced the prospect of losing their money, having purchased promotional books of tickets in advance. For them the 'pirate' of the Cross-Channel ferry industry was SpeedFerries.
Stena Line (1996 – 1998)
Previously: Stena Sealink Line, Sealink Stena Line, Sealink British Ferries, Sealink/British Rail, British Railways
The famous Sealink brand was born in 1972 as a common identity shared by the ferry divisions of British Rail and the S. N. C. F./French Railways. The Belgian state owned services also adopted Sealink as a label. The 'Big Fleet', as it was marketed, was certainly big, (larger than any rival at that time) but not necessarily best! In fact British Rail's fleet suffered from an historic lack of funding to keep up with demand and provide ships that could match the modern, capacious ferries which private companies such as arch rival, Townsend Thoresen, heavily invested in.
Sealink very much mirrored the poor state of affairs found on Britain's railways. A 'make do and mend' culture prevailed and the capital simply wasn't readily available to modernise and improve the Cross-Channel shipping division. New building projects were stifled by the on-going threat of a Channel Tunnel as far back as the 1960s. Whilst British Rail had to opt for converting antiquated passenger ships into low capacity stern loading car ferries, Townsend and Thoresen were steaming ahead with up-to-date, spacious drive-through vessels. Where Townsend Thoresen led, Sealink lagged far behind!
After years of under-investment, the Thatcher Government earmarked Sealink U. K. Limited for privatisation in 1984. The fleet of thirty seven British registered ferries and the associated harbours were 'sold for a song', at a derisory sixty six million pounds, to James Sherwood's Sea Containers. Ironically, this American tycoon was soon involved in bids to build the Channel Tunnel. His idea was mooted as the 'Channel Expressway' which he planned to replace his ferry business. He never got beyond the drawing board.
The conflict of interests that had ensued meant that although great promises were made for the future of Sealink British Ferries, very little was to materialise. Refurbishments of the Dover 'Saints' were at best 'Band Aids', in the language of Sherwood, to stave off the need for bigger, better, new tonnage. In 1990 Sealink British Ferries was the subject of a 'hostile takeover' from the Swedish based giant of the Scandinavian ferry industry, Stena Line. They embarked on a lavish spending spree, bringing in their Baltic style of on board entertainment for passengers. This, however, coincided with the recession of the early 1990s and resulted in heavy losses. Widespread rationalisations, including the closure of the Folkestone/Boulogne route, were imposed. The fleet name was adjusted to Stena Sealink in 1993. Three years later the 'Sealink' half of the identity disappeared altogether.
The Tunnel had made it presence felt and Stena Line soon embarked on negotiations with P. & O. to merge their respective 'Short Sea' operations. What would have been an unthinkable alliance in pre-Tunnel days was forced into being a reality. Never destined to be the best of bed fellows, considering the disparity of their philosophies, the joint P. & O. Stena Line did manage to achieve its initial objective of cost efficiencies. P. & O., however, took advantage of buying out Stena's minority shareholding at the earliest opportunity contractually provided for. Thus, from October 2002, the last remnants of Sealink and Stena Line on the Channel had been totally eradicated.
Trans-Europa Ferries (1998 to 2013)
This interesting company effectively saved the Port of Ramsgate by reviving the link to Oostende that had previously been operated by R. M. T., then Holyman Sally Ferries and Sally Direct. Thought to be owned by British-based family interests, Trans-Europa Shipping Lines (T. E. S. L.) is registered in Cyprus and trades as Trans-Europa Ferries. It picked up where Sally left off in November 1998, eventually buying up a string of old favourites that would otherwise had, in all likelihood, ended their days being dragged on to Indian beaches and broken up for scrap. Instead, the likes of the former Sally Sky and Princesse Marie-Christine were beautifully renovated with teak decking and interior decor that harked back to the golden age of the great liners. They were given names based on species of flowers (with the exception of Eurovoyager), hence Larkspur and Primrose. Later additions to the attractive buff-funnelled and white-hulled fleet included Laburnum (formerly Free Enterprise V), Begonia (formerly European Clearway), Gardenia (formerly European Enterprise) and Oleander (formerly Pride of Free Enterprise); a roll-call of some of Townsend Thoresen's best known stalwarts.
In 2004 Trans-Europa Ferries started to accept tourist traffic on the Ramsgate/Oostende route, but the service remained something of a well-kept secret for the few that got to enjoy the delights of the vessels sailing on the service. It seemed that 'word of mouth' rather than aggressive advertising was relied upon. The 'bread and butter' trade was still freight. All change occurred in early 2010 when a deal was struck with up-and-coming L. D. Lines to run a joint operation. The immediate result of this was the charter of L. D.'s Ostend Spirit (formerly Norman Spirit) to increase capacity. Her arrival spelled the demise of some the oldest members of the fleet, now well into their thirties. L. D. sold car and passengers spaces on the Ramsgate/Oostende route whilst Trans-Europa continued to handle the freight side of the business. It was envisaged that the marketing strength of L. D. Lines would raise numbers using the service, however little success was achieved on that front. In fact, L. D.'s pricing resulted in a heavy increase in fares which would hardly have attracted new business. The arrangement was abandoned after just a year, with Ostend Spirit returning to her original L. D. Lines route from Portsmouth. TransEuropa decided to stagger on with just a two-ship service from Ramsgate.
The future of TransEuropa Ferries looks rather uncertain. Their fleet is exceptionally old now and will continue to become more expensive to maintain. They have barely enough capacity to make the service pay. As they prefer to avoid massive borrowing, the Company's ability to buy newer and larger tonnage is limited. So without a upturn in the market, their days may sadly be numbered.
Transmanche Ferries (2001 to present)
Conseil General de Seine Maritime, Dieppe
This publicly owned French company resurrected the conventional ferry service on the Newhaven/Dieppe route in 2001, after P. & O. Stena Line pulled out two years previously. Using the chartered Sardinia Vera (whose sister was once Reine Astrid) the company made its inauspicious debut. The service was later complemented with the addition of Dieppe, formerly operated in Scandinavia as Saga Star.
In 2006 Transmanche Ferries took delivery of the first purpose-built ferries for Newhaven in thirty three years. Côte d'Albâtre and Seven Sisters were splendid little ships and much improved the service. Unfortunately they struggled to make it profitable again. The Seine Maritime authorities decided that the future operation of the route was better off in the hands of a commercial operator. Therefore the subsidy to maintain the Newhaven/Dieppe link was put out to tender. L. D. Lines beat off competition from established Cross-Channel ferry companies to take on the running of Transmanche Ferries. L. D. were keen to make the route pay, but had to argue hard the case for reducing to a one-ship service in line with demand. Côte d'Albâtre was chartered to open L. D.'s unsuccessful Dover/Boulogne service and later moved to Portsmouth/Le Havre. She remained in the vivid yellow colours of Transmanche Ferries under the terms of her lease.