Living on an island, a ‘small island’ according to author Bill Bryson (see note 1), before the advent of flying one was reliant on boats and ships if you wanted to leave! My great great great grandfather Stephen Nation would have taken a ship to India in 1798 to join the East India Company, his grandson George’s wife-to-be sailed to New Zealand on the Queen Bee in 1877, and George himself crossed the Atlantic on ocean-going liners, twice using the US Mail Ship St Paul, on his journeys to Alaska at the very beginning of the C20th century.
Since then air travel has fortunately become commonplace but occasionally it is necessary to take a boat of some sort, for instance if you want to have your own car at the other end. I guess we’ve all experienced ferry travel at some point, whether across harbours, up rivers, down estuaries, or in larger ships across seas and oceans. Our June 2018 use of Brittany Ferries to travel from England to Spain, and back in July got me thinking of other times in my life when I’ve taken a ferry.
My first trip was to the Isle of Man for the Christmas of 1953; my father, divorced, took my brother and me to stay with a rich friend. I remember being sick, having had Tomato soup for lunch as we sailed across the Irish Sea, and little else of the week, except that I saw a hamper with fresh oranges and other strange fruits – extremely rare in mainland Britain still recovering from the cost of WWII! A year later our grandparents took us to visit their son and family in Mönchengladbach, in what was then West Germany. I don’t remember the ferry itself and sadly have mislaid a black & white photograph, taken at the dockside, of their car being craned onto the ferry’s deck at Harwich, but have this other one of passengers disembarking from the same ferry.
The abiding memory of that visit was persuading my grandmother to buy us some biscuits to eat under the bedclothes, as we were perpetually hungry!! Funny how these things matter to an eight year old!
By the mid-1970s roll-on/roll-off ferries were the norm, but on the ferry that sailed between Civitavecchia, on mainland Italy just west of Rome, to Olbia in Sardinia, they obligingly craned my car, a Lancia Fulvia, onto the open deck for the overnight crossing. It was 1975 and I was going to Sardinia for a couple of weeks to crew a yacht. It had been a long drive from northern West Germany and the first thing I did, once on board, was find the bar and order a gin & tonic. The second thing? Order another gin & tonic! I can still smell and taste it; perfect! I slept the night in the car on the deck.
Before Wales and England were connected by a modern bridge across the River Severn, there was a little car and passenger ferry that crossed the river at Aust, so saving a long detour north to the first bridge at the city of Gloucester. I remember taking this ferry as a teenager, in 1958, although the reason for the journey is in that brown mush of un-recallable memories!
I have crossed the harbour in the Dorset town of Weymouth in a little dingy rowed by ‘arry, “That’ll be a pound please.”, crossed the Medina River on the chain ferry from West to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, experienced the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and have on many occasions been a passenger on the Sydney Harbour ferries; the last time was from Central Quay to Manley in January 2017. Another short ferry crossing that comes to mind is the one across the River Dart, between Dartmouth to Kingswear in Devon. My brother had started his Royal Navy career at the Naval College and this cross-river trip must have been associated with his commissioning parade in 1966 – the year England won the Football World Cup.
Note the dingy sailing on the river away to starboard.
During my Army service I had some troops stationed in Belize, in Central America, on a six month rotational tour. Naturally I had to visit them; this is me on some ferry in the middle of nowhere in Belize.
Then there are those that ply San Francisco Bay and the inter-island ferries of Seattle in Washington State. Larger boats have carried me between the Canadian city of Vancouver and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, and between Picton, on New Zealand’s South Island, and Wellington on its North Island. For a greater adventure in February one year, looking for the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), I travelled on the MV Polarlys of the Hurtigruten Company from Tromsø near the northern tip of Norway down the coast to Bergen.
Docked alongside at one of the numerous stops
This before a storm; note the snow on the deck!
The Norwegians treat this coastal service rather like a marine bus; there were numerous stops and people got off and people got on.
MV Columbia in Juneau
If you read PCs 44 & 45 you will know that we took the MV Columbia north up the Alaskan Marine Highway from Seattle to Skagway in 2015, a journey of some 1600 miles. It took 36 hours to get to Ketchikan, the most southern of the Alaskan cities; the next port of call was the Alaskan capital Juneau, only accessible by air and sea, although there are 16 miles of roads for the petrolheads to enjoy!! Four days out of Seattle we arrived in Skagway. Later on that trip we took a ferry across the Yukon on our way from Dawson City to Eagle.
The Yukon Ferry
This was a classic river ferry that used the strong current to its advantage; rudders kept the boat at 45º to the stream to produce a cross-river force. Ahead of us we had a 240 mile dirt road drive, the last 65 along the Taylor Highway during which we didn’t see another human being!
During my time in Germany 1972 -1976 we got very familiar with the cross channel ferries from Calais, Ostend, Dunkirk, or Zeebrugge to Dover – and if I am honest I always opted for a French-operated service as the coffee was better. Of course Zeebrugge, a Belgian port, became forever associated with the capsizing of the car ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise, operated by Townsend Thoresen, in 1987.
The vessel, a roll-on/roll-off ship, turned over just after leaving the harbour one cold March evening; the bow doors had not been properly closed, allowing the sea to surge in. One hundred and ninety three people died.
Richard 2nd March 2019 (to be continued)
Note. Bill Bryson – ‘Notes from a Small Island’ – a brilliant highly amusing book!!