Dear fellow travellers
September will not be remembered as an easy month for ferry operators in the waters around the British Isles. Early autumn storms twice severely disrupted sailings to the Hebrides from western Scotland, and in the Channel Islands a ferry operated by Manches Iles ran aground on rocks off the island of Alderney. The Victor Hugo was en route to Guernsey.
The Victor Hugo mishap is a reminder that, however reliable modern vessels are, ferry travel is still not utterly predictable. Travellers in Devon (in southwest England) found that to their cost last Wednesday when the car ferry across lovely Dartmouth Harbour found itself grounded at Dartmouth slipway. Fast running spring tides meant that the water level fell unusually quickly, leaving the vessel high and dry with two dozen vehicles aboard. Help came in the shape of the evening high tide which refloated the ferry.
With the end of the peak summer season, many ferry operators look to their books and ponder how (or even whether) they can survive the leaner winter season ahead. Two car ferry routes in northwest Ireland are struggling with financial uncertainty. The route across Lough Swilly between Buncrana and Rathmullan ceased operation on 31 August. Promises by the operator that the Swilly ferry will return in 2010 are treated with some scepticism by the locals. The service is run by the troubled Lough Foyle Ferry Company, which in 2002 pioneered the sole car ferry crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, linking Magilligan Point (Co. Derry) and Greencastle (Co. Donegal). That service still runs seven days a week and all year round, but with heavy financial losses already in 2009 many are questioning whether the service can be kept afloat for 2010.
Meanwhile, in western Scotland a new fast ferry link from the mainland to the island of Jura has run into choppy waters. George Orwell spent a while on Jura and commented on just how tough it was to reach the island, which until last year relied on a sole ferry link with nearby Islay. That changed with the launch of a fast passenger boat service from Tayvallich (on the coast of Argyll) to Craighouse on Jura. The service received a start-up subsidy for three years from the local council, but already there is talk of the route needing extra funds if it is to survive. The service will be suspended from next week until spring 2010.
There is brighter news for ferry travellers between Wales and Ireland. The Swansea-Cork car ferry route was suspended three years ago, and residents of both cities have campaigned for the reintroduction of the link. On Friday the MS Julia steamed proudly up the Lee into the heart of Cork city. The Julia, which last saw service on the short lived link between Helsinki and St Petersburg in 2008, will sail the Cork to Swansea route from March 2010.
Tomorrow, the European ferry industry will remember one of the darkest moments in recent maritime history. It was in the early hours of the morning of 28 September 1994 that the MS Estonia broadcast a Mayday signal. The ship was on an overnight run from Tallinn to Stockholm. Within an hour the MS Estonia had sunk. The catastrophe claimed the lives of 852 people.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)