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Review of the Year  2000

A personal view from John Luxton

The advanced notice of the Readers' Digest Prize Draw arrived on December 27 and I realised it was time to get the Review of the Year underway! However, there was little time available as later that day I would be getting ready to set off for Heysham for my seasonal trip to Dublin on the BEN-MY-CHREE. Last year, a shorter holiday and resulted in me foregoing the trip and consequently resulted in a more polished Review of the Year for 1999. Therefore I must admit this offering is not of the same quality as I have also has to prepare a BEN-MY-CHREE voyage report for this update. 

As usual one puzzles where to start such a review. It is tempting to just run through the weekly updates and produce a summary of events, however, all that results is an edited list of principal events. To avoid this I think it is probably best to explore a few themes.

However, before examining these themes I would like to thank all the people from all around the world with whom I have corresponded during 2000. Their input into Mersey and Irish Sea Shipping has been of enormous value into the development of the web site and the provision of a wide range of material for the updates.

From an operational point of view Mersey & Irish Sea Shipping faced major technical problems between late May and early August. The original web site host 1Way Internet, decided to pass on their hosting business to another Bristol based company - City Netgates. Unfortunately the new operator never came to terms with providing hosting that supported Front Page 2000 extensions. This made uploading extremely difficult, however, during the period it was possible to keep the news service going - just! Normal operations did not resume until early August when after countless promises and excuses offered by City Netgates I transferred M&ISS  to RAMJAM of London who have operated the site flawlessly since.

Despite the problems during the summer it is pleasing to note that the site has continued to go from strength to strength with accesses recently breaking through the 1000 hits per week barrier. As is customary there has been a seasonal fall off around the Christmas period, however, I have no doubt that the number of accesses will continue to increase as more enthusiasts  and maritime professionals go on line and the general public also drop by. 

The fact that the general public are finding their way to the site has been evidenced during the past month M&ISS has received e-mails which should have found their way to some Irish Sea operators' reservation departments! This year has also seen the site approached by mainly Eastern European and Asian operators and businesses which think it is part of a shipping company rather than just an on-line magazine. Earlier this year I received a message from an Indian company wishing M&ISS to quote for a cargo of scrap to be conveyed from Liverpool!

November 2000 saw the launch of the Irish Sea Ships egroup which has got off to a great start with now over 100 members signed up and a through put of 455 messages to 15:00 on December 31 and is proving to be an excellent public forum for the exchange of news and views. 

M&ISS also managed to develop a higher profile off the internet with photographs from the web site appearing in the US Government Publication "Sailing Directions: Ireland and the West Coast of England". One or two images of the new Sea Containers floating terminal also had quite a wide distribution among various newspapers and journals - Thanks Simon!

FUTURE PLANS

Within the short term the Maritime Queries feature will be automated, through its transference to an eGroup. This will speed up the posting of queries and subsequent answers. Implementation of this will be achieved by early January 2001.

The production of CD-ROMS containing selections of images is underway, but behind schedule. I hope that the first will see the light of day in the spring. The first CD-ROM will cover the mid 1990s and all will be presented in a web-site format which should be useable by anyone with MS Explorer web browser. I will aim to have a large selection of pictures, many of which will not have appeared on the web site before, in high resolution on each disk.  Sales of these disks will help to off set the increasing running costs of the web site. 

During the coming year I will also be making some improvements to the web site's presentation and layout, however, don't expect anything too drastic as the old expression goes "If it isn't broke - don't fix it!"

Now on with the review of shipping news during 2000. This is not intended to be comprehensive!

2000 -  A YEAR OF CONTRACTION

The years 1998 and 1999 were notable for the rapid growth in Irish Sea services and considerable investment by most ferry operators in the area. However 2000, turned out to be the year of contraction for some operators and consolidation for others. Sea Containers managed to experience many mixed fortunes both locally and further a field. The effects of which will have some bearing in their fleet deployment plans for 2001.

SEA CONTAINERS

After two years of significant growth, the company finally appeared to run out of steam during 2000 as far as its shipping interests were concerned. The year started with much speculation over the future of the Argyll & Antrim Steam Packet operation between Ballycastle & Campbeltown. Discussions continued through the early part of 2000 between Sea Containers and various interested parties. However, the writing was on the wall. The AASPCO logos had disappeared from the new timetable brochures and there was no mention of the route in early 2000 publicity. By mid February the CLAYMORE had moved to join the Sea Containers collection of redundant assets which reside at Vittoria Dock, Birkenhead. However, it took the company until February 21 to confirm that which everyone had suspected for weeks - the service would not run again during 2000. This was very unfortunate for the Scottish and Northern Irish Tourist industries which must surely have preferred an earlier decision.  There was some hope that another operator could be found, however, it was much too close to the holiday season to get a new service into place. CLAYMORE has spent almost the whole year at Vittoria Dock, apart for a short charter to the Faeroe Islands. It is understood that she has recently been inspected by potential purchasers. 

Shortly after the announcement of the closure of the Ballycastle to Campbeltown route came the shock announcement that the original SeaCat Scotland Belfast to Stranraer route was to close. Sea Containers had been facing pressure to restore a reasonable frequency of service to the Belfast - Stranraer corridor from the local authority which owned the port facilities at Stranraer and faced an April 2000 deadline. Since the introduction of the Belfast - Troon service in 1999 the shorter Stranraer - Belfast route had suffered a major reduction in frequency. Sea Containers decided to bow out from the short sea route in favour of the longer service to Troon.

Further a field service reductions on the English Channel followed including the closure of the Folkestone - Boulogne route at the close of the 2000 summer season and perhaps more widely publicized, the final withdrawal of the remaining two SRN-4 hovercraft - THE PRINCESS ANNE and THE PRINCESS MARGARET despite the fact these vessels had received extensive interior refits prior to the 2000 season.

Not everything in the Sea Container's empire was contracting, the Isle of Man Steam Packet routes from the UK to Douglas showed notable growth in both passengers, private vehicles and freight. However, the passenger routes from Douglas to Ireland showed a  noticeable decline in patronage. The high value of sterling against the punt being held partly to blame.

Much speculation surrounded the future of the LADY OF MANN as she would have to comply with new more rigorous safety requirements before she could be recertified for operation during 2001. Though still no official announcement has been made as to the that fact that she will be upgraded she now appears in the 2001 schedules and it is common knowledge amongst observers that the Cammell Laird group will undertake work during the spring to have her ready for the TT season.

SUPERSEACAT TWO known by the enthusiasts as "Bagpuss" made an appearance on the Irish Sea in April 2000 on the Belfast - Heysham route. However, this vessel which was plagued with technical trouble on the Liverpool - Dublin route in 1998 once again encountered various technical problems with the Belfast - Heysham service closing earlier than planned. It was understood that the technical problems which brought about the early closure were of a structural nature. As for the 2001 season the Belfast - Troon service is being marketed not as SuperSeaCat but SeaCat, and speculation still surrounds which vessel will actually be deployed, it may be the RAPIDE one of the former Holyman 81m Incats or perhaps one of the older Incats.

The autumn has also seen one of the SUPERSEACATs placed on market. At present there are plans to operate all four for the 2000 season, but if one is sold there will have to be some reorganisation. At present three SuperSeaCats are expected to be deployed on the English Channel.

ISLE OF MAN STEAM PACKET COMPANY - 170 ANNIVERSARY

The 170th Anniversary of the founding of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company was celebrated during 2000. The high spot was a round the island cruise operated in perfect conditions by the LADY OF MANN in June. Immediately afterwards the Lady departed from the Irish Sea for her summer holidays - a charter once again to the Acor Line with whom she remained until September.

STENA LINE

Stena's financial problems continued through the year. It came as no surprise to many that the company announced that in the autumn conventional services between Scotland and Northern Ireland would be reinstated on the Stranraer - Larne route some five years after they had been withdrawn. The HSS STENA VOYAGER would maintain the Belfast - Stranraer link.  However, as yet the Stranraer - Larne service has yet to start, the company now claiming that a start up date would be early in 2001. The delay being due to contractual issues with port operators. 

Stena confirmed the sale of STENA CHALLENGER to Marine Atlantic which will see the ship replaced on the Dublin - Holyhead service by the chartered STENA FORWARDER currently being completed in Italy. This vessel being very much an enlarged version of the Cenargo's chartered LAGAN VIKING & MERSEY VIKING.

High fuel costs are currently casting a long shadow over the operation of the HSS1500 class vessels. During the next year or so it might not come as too much of a surprise if Stena were to announce their replacement by smaller more fuel efficient fast craft. If this  happened it is difficult to see what the future would hold for these fuel thirsty vessels and their expensive, specialised port infra structure. Perhaps there might be some future for them in a freight carrying or military support role? 

NORSE MERCHANT FERRIES

The acquisition by Cenargo of Norse Irish Ferries in October 1999 paved the way for the announcement in spring 2000 that the two companies were to be fully merged in the autumn of 2000 under the Norse Merchant Ferries trading name. From late summer the new wavy pennant logos replaced the MF and Viking sail logos on the respective vessels. The terminal notices changing to the new branding just before Christmas. Two further members of the "race-horse" class vessels were delivered from Spain during 2000 - MIDNIGHT MERCHANT and NORTHERN MERCHANT - these are currently on charter to Norfolk Line who operate the vessels on the English Channel. SPHEROID spent the whole year berthed at Birkenhead for sale, despite reports in early January that she had been sold to a Mediterranean operator.

FAST CRAFT GO SEASONAL

Three Irish Sea operators finally decided that some of their routes were not suited to operation by fast craft during the late autumn and winter periods. In the light of the wet and windy weather which has plagued the British Isles since August this appeared to show a remarkable degree of foresight something for which some operators are not renowned!

Stena line decided to terminate the Rosslare - Fishguard STENA LYNX III service from the end of September leaving only the KONINGIN BEATRIX to operate the route until spring 2001. Meanwhile Sea Containers, withdrew the Liverpool - Dublin and Liverpool - Douglas SUPERSEACAT THREE service from early November, with Liverpool - Douglas being operated by the ever reliable LADY OF MANN and the Liverpool - Dublin abandoned to P&O and Norse Merchant Ferries. Stena and Irish Ferries continue to operate their central corridor high speed services to Holyhead and Sea Containers have continued with their Troon - Belfast Service.

P&O's chartered SUPERSTAR EXPRESS which debuted on the Irish Sea this year in place of the much troubled JETLINER also disappeared for winter lay in the autumn. However, it appears that the conventional EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY has turned out to be something of a fast ferry in her own right.

HELLO & GOODBYE

Some interesting ships appeared on the Irish Sea and adjacent waters during the past year, either as visitors or long term operators her are some which are of particular note - apologies if your favourite hasn't appeared!

HELLO

GRAND TURK the replica 18th Century frigate which starred in the Hornblower series on TV undertook a round British Isles which saw the vessel call at a number of Irish Sea Ports.

STAVROS S. NIARCHOS - the splendid new sail-training brig made her appearance on the Irish Sea during the autumn when she was opened for public inspection at Birkenhead for several days.

PONTUS - the floating, former Silja Line terminal arrived at Liverpool in early May. After berthing trails at the Landing Stage she retreated to the dock system for modifications before being installed alongside the Landing Stage in August. However, she has as yet still to fulfil her full role as a terminal facility, and acts as a motorists lounge and providing accommodation for Sea Container's Liverpool administration.

GRANUAILE - The new Commissioners of Irish Lights entered service in February. Her large size, and functional layout designed by Sea Containers subsidiary Hart-Fenton and executed by Damen Shipbuilders attracted a fair amount of comment, not always complimentary when compared to the almost private yacht like lines of her predecessor GRANUAILE II

LIBERTATEA - The former ROMANIAN Royal Yacht, originally constructed for UK aristocrat Lady Yule, appeared at Devonport Dockyard Plymouth in the early Spring. By late spring she was installed in Clarence Dry Dock, Liverpool undergoing preliminary work by Cammell Laird. 

EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY - the Mitsubishi new build appeared on P&O's Cairnryan - Larne service in August and appears to have proved herself with her owners

SUPERSTAR EXPRESS - was transferred from the English Channel to operate on the Cairnryan - Larne high speed service replacing the much troubled JETLINER.

JEANIE JOHNSTON - the replica emigrant ship which has been under construction Blennerville near Tralee in the west of Ireland was launched in spring and taken to nearby Fenit for fitting out. However, various delays in completion of the work have meant that her trans-Atlantic voyage to the USA and Canada has been postponed until 2001. 

QUEEN ELIZABETH II - The Carnival - Cunard liner appeared on Merseyside to the usual fanfare - whether she receives such a warm welcome in future years considering she is part of the same group which was responsible for the COSTA CLASSICA fiasco remains to be seen. However, she was the only large passenger ship to call at Merseyside during the year.

HMS INVINCIBLE - The Aircraft carrier made a repeat visit to Merseyside during the early summer. There was much effort put into reinstalling and later removing special moorings provided for the Battle of The Atlantic commemorations in 1993 which involved the MD&HC's  MERSEY MAMMOTH, as well as the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service's SALMOOR and MOORFOWL.

GOODBYE .......

Some well known ships disappeared from the Irish Sea and adjacent waters during the past year many were well respected and loved, though with one in particular it was probably a case of goodbye and good riddance!

GRANUAILE II - the former Commissioners of Irish Lights tender which had been given the II suffix prior to the delivery of her replacement finally bowed out early in the year. After lay-up at Dún Laoghaire and Dublin she was eventually sold for further use and was last noted being refitted at Great Yarmouth.

PRIDE OF RATHLIN - the somewhat ugly - but nevertheless much loved Pride finally bowed out this summer from the Larne - Cairnryan service. After a period of lay-up at Harland & Wolff she was sold to PT Sungai Budi of Indonesia. Departing from the Irish Sea as the BSPIII.

PEVERIL - The last ship to wear the original Isle of Man Steam Packet company finally departed from lay-up at Vittoria Dock over two years after she was replaced by the BEN-MY-CHREE. Sold to Caribbean interests she was reported to have failed at Santander. It is not known if she has reached her new home.

JETLINER - the unloved vessel was sent packing by P&O at the end of her charter to be replaced by the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS.

SIR JOSEPH BAZALGETTE The Dublin Corporation sludge vessel departed to Dubai as the MAYAM. The ship was originally constructed at Port Glasgow 1963 for operation on the River Thames. However, her recent withdrawal followed the implementation of EU environmental policies which ended the dumping of sewage sludge at sea. SIR JOSEPH's counterpart on the Mersey - CONSORTIUM I had been withdrawn and disposed of the previous year. SIR JOSEPH BAZALGETTE departed Dublin flying the Argentine flag with San Lorenzo as her port of registry.

TEAM PHILIPS - it isn't usual for M&ISS to cover maritime sport but the final demise of the troubled, ugly racing catamaran did not come entirely unexpected. After breaking one of its twin hulls of the Isles of Scilly in spring TEAM PHILIPS later suffered from sail troubles and was finally abandoned in the Atlantic during a winter storm during sea trials in December. I visited the Totnes boat yard visitor centre during the summer and wasn't very impressed with what I saw. In reality the craft looked even more ugly, the whole venture did however appear to be a brilliant exercise in marketing, sponsorship and hype! I wish I had had a few quid at the start of the year on a wager against her ever making the start of "The Race"  ....!

It wasn't just ships which disappeared but also the last rites were performed on some famous names in the shipping business: 

CORY TOWAGE - in January the  Ocean Group agreed to sell its marine services business, Cory Towage, to the Wijsmuller Group. By the summer the well known Cory livery had disappeared to be replaced by yet another mainly "blue"  livery that of Wijsmuller.

Two well known but now dormant companies disappeared this year: Manx Line's winding up was announced at the start of the year following a resolution passed at the end of December 1999.  

Manx Line was originally founded in 1978 by Jeff Duke, the famous "TT" racer, and Isle of Man business interests to introduce a ro/ro service between Heysham and Douglas to compete with the established IoMSPCo Liverpool to Douglas freight and passenger service. The vessel chosen to operate the route was a former Aznar line vessel Manx Viking. After various problems, including the destruction of the original Victoria Pier Linkspan at Douglas during a gale, the company was acquired jointly by British Railways Sealink and James Fisher & Sons of Barrow.

Manx Line passed into Sea Containers ownership in 1984 when Sealink was sold by the UK Government. In 1985 somewhat controversial merger terms were agreed between Manx Line and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company which resulted in Manx Line acquiring 40% of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company shareholding. Thus putting Sea Container's foot firmly in the door of Imperial Buildings and paving the way for the subsequent full take over in Spring 1996.

Meanwhile on Merseyside the famous Liverpool Shipping company Elder Dempster passed into history on May 8 when the company was formally wound up. Though the company had ceased trading around twenty years ago  it remained a dormant subsidiary to parent company SDV. 

Established in 1890 with the merger of the British and Africa Steamship Navigation Company, managed by Alexander Elder and John Dempster, and the African Steamship Company which founded by the son of Birkenhead Shipbuilder William Laird, Mc.Gregor Laird. 

The company continued to operate services between Liverpool and West Africa until the final voyage by the AUREOL in 1972.

TERMINAL TROUBLE!

During the past year little progress was made in establishing new terminal facilities at Pier Head, Twelve Quays or Langton Dock on the Mersey.

At the start of 2000 Sea Containers and MD&HC announced alternative plans for the Pier Head terminal and vehicle marshalling area to answer the criticisms of the Millennium Walk Committee to the original proposals. A well publicised public consultation in January produced few responses from the public, though the majority returned were supportive of the new plans, the Millennium Walk Committee once again raised objections and a final ruling on the plans is still awaited.

Mersey Docks & Harbour Company finally awarded the contract for the construction of the much delayed Twelve Quays terminal in the autumn to contractors Christiani and Neilson. Unfortunately the company promptly went into liquidation. The announcement of a new contract was expected immediately before Christmas but still has not taken place. 

SHIPYARDS

Things turned sour for the two major Irish Sea shipyards this year whilst the Ailsa Troon yard closed down .....

The long troubled Belfast yard of Harland & Wolf - part of the Fred Olsen empire hit the headlines following disagreements over the drill ship construction contract, subsequent arbitration and the failure to attract new orders resulted in the announcement of redundancies in the autumn. Earlier in the year it had been announced that the company were likely to gain a contract from a new US based company Luxus for the construction of two cruise ships. This was some consolation for the company which narrowly missed the contract for the construction of the new Carnival - Cunard QUEEN MARY 2.

Meanwhile across the Irish Sea at Birkenhead the successful new Cammell Laird  company found itself in a dispute with Carnival owned Costa Crociere over the COSTA CLASSICA lengthening contract announced in 1999. During the early autumn rumours were emerging that the construction of the mid-section module was behind schedule and that  the promised second deal involving the lengthening of the COSTA ROMANTICA wasn't going to happen. The final bombshell came in November when the COSTA CLASSICA on its delivery voyage to Birkenhead was turned round and taken back to Genoa.

Cammell Laird withdrew from the MoD ro/ro ferry bid process in the autumn when it looked as though they had snatched the Luxus contract from Harland & Wolf. However, the UK Government has not offered sufficient guarantees [80%] to underwrite construction and Luxus has as yet failed to attract sufficient financial backing - thus leaving the plans as yet unconfirmed. The mid-body section of the COSTA CLASSICA is now afloat in the corner of the wet basin at Birkenhead having been launched on schedule in November. It is understood at present that the work will now be completed next winter.

AND FINALLY .......

Last year's review ended on a rather amusing note concerning the over reaction of certain security staff to an amusing incident. This year perhaps it is fitting to consider the serious side of the maritime world, particularly that close to home as it is now almost one year since M&ISS reported on the SOLWAY HARVESTER tragedy:

"On the evening of 11th January seven Scottish fishermen died when their scallop dredger SOLWAY HARVESTER foundered 11 miles south east of Douglas.

The 21 metre modern vessel was operated by Jack Robinson Trawlers of Kirkcudbright having been constructed in Yorkshire eight years ago. The SOLWAY HARVESTER had been operating alongside sister vessel TOBRACHAN and were both heading for home when they ran into Force 9 gales on Tuesday evening.

A massive search operation commenced at 18.15 hours after the vessel's emergency radio beacon was activated. Liverpool Coastguard called out Port St. Mary, Peel, Douglas and Ramsey Lifeboats. The lifeboats being supported by Royal Navy, Royal Airforce and Irish Air Corps Rescue Helicopters along with a Royal Ulster Constabulary spotter plane. The BEN-MY-CHREE, which had been operating the 19.45 sailing from Douglas to Heysham, joined the search, as did LE CIARA of the Irish Naval service and Royal Fleet Auxiliary BAYLEAF.

At 21.00 on Tuesday one of the SOLWAY HARVESTER's liferafts were located, the second was found at 07.30 on Wednesday morning. Both liferafts were unopened suggesting that the fishing vessel had foundered so quickly as to prevent the crew from launching them.

On Wednesday afternoon the commander of the LE CIARA, Lieutenant Commander Martin McGrath said that a sonar search had located a wreck on the seabed near where the emergency radio beacon was set off. Lt. Comdr. McGrath explained that there was no previous wreck charted in that area.

It is not yet clear if it was simply the prevailing conditions, which were responsible for the vessel sinking or that it had been in collision with floating debris or possibly an errant freight container.

The seven men who died were Craig Mills [skipper], his brother Robin Mills and his cousin David Mills; the other crewmen were Wesley Jolly, John Murphy, Martin Milligan and David Lyons. James Gorman, an eighth member of the crew had missed the voyage due to illness." 

The SOLWAY HARVESTER was recovered thanks to the positive actions of the Manx Government and is currently is berthed in Douglas Harbour whilst police and others continue their investigations. 

The sea brings pleasure to and provides the livelihoods for countless people. However, we should all remember that we venture out onto the sea as guests. The se has proved to be the final resting place of many, not just the unwary and unprepared.  Let us hope that 2001 proves to be a safer year at sea both locally and around the world.

Finally I would like to wish everyone a happy, safe and prosperous 2001.

John H. Luxton

December 31, 2000

 

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