I had been looking for an opportunity to compare Norman Arrow, a modern 112m Incat, with the Manannan, the 98m Incat recently acquired and rebuilt by our local ferry operator, the IOM Steam Packet Co. Having tried out Manannan, we booked a round trip from Dover to Boulogne. This was originally intended to give us the return trip on Cote d'Albatre, however we ended up having to travel both ways with Norman Arrow.
On driving aboard, we were immediately impressed by the sheer size of the lower vehicle deck, which offers some serious freight capacity. We joined a queue of cars heading up the ramp to the upper vehicle deck, and found ourselves in another large area. The vehicle decks and working areas were all unpainted aluminium, with the exception of the pillars and cross-stays, that were painted yellow to make them clearly visible. The main vehicle deck, being fairly high above sea level, is like other Incats, and has no apparent means of stopping vehicles from driving straight off at the end other than a low wire fence and curtain. We were soon parked, and set off to the passenger accommodation.
The interior stairway taking us into the passenger accommodation was covered with light brown lino. The passenger accommodation is all on one deck, and split up into a number of different areas. At the back, there is a small area of outside deck space, between stairs and ramp up from the vehicle decks. The top of the vehicle deck access is like a cage, with a gate that is kept closed during the crossing. There is no forward view, and hardly any side view, from the public area. Smoking was permitted outside, and there were a couple of bins with stubbing out facilities.
Moving inside the vessel takes you to the "Blue Mountain Cafι", which sells a variety of drinks and some snacks. Seating in this area is a mix of airline style high backed chairs and low backed chairs around tables. Immediately ahead of the bar, in the centre core of the vessel, are two (small) toilet areas, and ahead of these is the "Wave shop". The shop sells a very small selection of duty free goods, some newspapers, motoring requisites and toys. Disappointingly, there were no LD Lines souvenirs, and we found nothing that tempted us to make a purchase.
On either side of the shop, there was a video "room", with a big screen. No videos were being shown, probably because of the short duration of the journey. The ship's map shows one of these areas to be a "Pitstop" restaurant perhaps this was in the original plan?
Moving forward again brings us to a large seating area. This is airline style seats at each side of the craft, some with tables, and at the rear of the section there are a number of low backed seats around tables. In the centre of this area is a rather strange circular construction, which looks as though it should be a large round table, but it has a circular sofa backing onto it! Around this are some tub seats and tables. Immediately ahead of the circular settee is "Le Bistro du Norman", which is a double sided self service snacketeria. This sells a variety of cold snacks sandwiches, cakes, croissants, etc. There are some items that can be warmed, and for this purpose there are 2 microwave ovens available for public use.
Ahead of the Bistro, in the central core of the vessel, is a second toilet area. This is larger than the facility towards the rear of the vessel, but when I visited about half way to Boulogne on a lightly loaded trip, there was a queue. The taps were automatic, and very reluctant to supply water.
The whole of the accommodation at the front of the vessel is a premium lounge, which has its own central "Horizon Bar" and small toilet block. The seating in this area is higher quality than elsewhere on the vessel, much of it facing a large wrap-round picture window. The seating is a mix of low and high back, some around tables, all bright colours. This section has a very bright and airy feel to it. Entry is restricted to premium club card holders, or to ordinary passengers on payment of a £7 supplement. I was told that the supplement did not include any refreshments, however I believe that one drink may be included. If you are pre-booked into this area, you get priority loading (but not discharge). We did not upgrade for this short trip, as we were going to spend at least some of the time outside, but I was allowed in for a quick look around before we sailed back to Dover.
The video screens throughout the vessel were all set to a map of the English Channel, displaying Norman Arrow's position and speed, after showing the safety video.
It was a smooth crossing, so we had little motion to contend with just the usual fairly heavy vibration that you get from a fast craft. At one point, soon after leaving Boulogne harbour, she reached 39.5 knots (according to our GPS), but this was speed was not maintained for long, and dropped to 35 knots for most of the journey.
Positive Impressions: Very light and airy throughout, comfortable, plenty of space, huge vehicle capacity, very attentive and helpful crew.
Negative Impressions: Too few toilets, resulting in queues even well before the end of the crossing, and automatic taps that were temperamental at best.
Constructive Comments: One of the 2 video areas could be used to show short cartoon films for children there is no area on the vessel that caters for them, and while it is only a very short voyage, small children soon get bored. A few LD Lines/ Norman Arrow souvenirs would go down well with not just shipping enthusiasts at the very least, postcards, pens, playing cards etc. do not take up much space, and would take the advertising further afield.
And That Comparison With Manannan?
Vehicle spaces: Far superior on Norman Arrow (though to be fair, she is much bigger). No apparent problems with car drivers having insufficient space to open car doors. Space seemed tight on Manannan. There is sufficient freight space on the larger Norman Arrow to provide cover for Ben my Chree (weather permitting) without necessarily restricting passengers travelling with cars. Manannan has fairly restricted freight capacity on its one vehicle deck may have to do two or more freight runs separate from cars in time of need.
Passenger Accommodation: Light and airy in both, but
the windows are larger and lower set on Norman Arrow, so wherever you sit, you can see out. On Manannan, to see out, you have to stand up. It struck us that the new accommodation block on the top of Manannan was a big wasted opportunity, as there was clearly no need for the windows in that section to be as small, or set as high, as they are. The seat-back tables in Manannan's main passenger lounges seem to be rather more flimsy than those on similar seats on Norman Arrow (maybe another comparative visit should be made after a couple of years, to see how everything has worn in service!). The tables in both appear to be designed for quick and easy cleaning they have smooth surfaces and no raised edges, which means that even in a slight sea, crockery and glassware starts to become a little lively (on our first trip on Manannan, there was quite a loud sound of crashing crockery soon after we left Douglas, and on a smoother crossing more recently a drinks glass started to wander around). On the rougher days, perhaps a few non-slip mats could come out?
Toilets: This seems to be an area that neither vessel has got right there are too few in both, though Norman Arrow seems substantially worse in this respect there are far too few facilities for the number of people it can carry, given that most will wish to use them at least once in the crossing (usually close to the arrival port). The taps in Norman Arrow did not work properly, and the hand dryers were slow. Manannan scores higher in both respects.
Catering: Manannan scores highly for having a kitchen, and being able to provide hot meals. Norman Arrow's Bistro is set up for quick throughput of passengers wanting cold snacks but on the short crossing, there is little need for much more provision.
Cleanliness: Both (so far) appear to be kept well clean. It is too soon in their careers to look for any real nasties. A further review may be warranted in a couple of years!
Crews: Excellent on both vessels smart, cheerful, helpful. Great. Keep it up!
Overall: I do not have comparitive fuel consumption figures, but note that Norman Arrow (Incat 066) can run at reduced speed (25 knots) with significant fuel savings ideal for occasional freight runs. With its much greater flexibility, and capacity for increasing trade (if marketed properly), I can't help but think that the Steam Packet may have bought the wrong Incat, though this is said without knowing what the final cost of each was.