Allow me to indulge myself in this edition of Sea Breezes with a trip down memory lane to a very exciting part of my career.
This June marks the 25th anniversary of the commencement of SeaCat Scotland’s fast ferry service from Stranraer in the corner of South West Scotland to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I headed up this operation on behalf of Sea Containers, a company which pioneered the use of passenger and car Wave Piercing Catamarans (WPCs) in the early 1990s and together with many wonderful colleagues enjoyed a front seat in the “fast ferry” revolution that the SeaCats instigated.
Having been involved with conventional ferries throughout the 1970s and 1980s, setting up the SeaCat service was an exciting adventure with the Tasmanian built WPC SeaCat Scotland able to travel at speeds up to 40 knots (thus halving journey times) and attempting to set high standards in customer service with a freshly recruited team, many of whom were in the infancy of their careers and new to the ferry industry. With the tremendous speed of this dramatic new vessel we were able to offer a 90 minute service from Stranraer right up the River Lagan to the very centre of Belfast. Very significantly the launch of this new service was to rejuvenate the Port of Belfast as a passenger ferry port.
Everyone was on a huge learning curve and there were challenges aplenty, not least with initial technical reliability, greater susceptibility to weather induced cancellations and the lack of year-round freight revenue which conventional ferry operations could fall back on (at that time the SeaCat did not have the capacity to carry heavy freight traffic). The SeaCat teams ashore and afloat who had to deal with these challenges had great character and were enormously resilient.
There are many who debate the merits of fast ferries, but I was always a true believer, despite criticism from our competitors at the time, within three years the Northern corridor of the Irish Sea saw the introduction of P&O’s Jetliner (a fast monohull) and shortly after that Stena line introduced the “HSS“, a veritable leviathan of the fast ferry industry. In response to SeaCat, Stena had already switched the Northern Ireland end of their operation from the long-established port at Larne (Co Antrim) down the coast to Belfast.
The SeaCat service eventually finished up just over a decade later, victim not just to the strong competition within the ferry market, but to the growing attractions of low cost carrier airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair who grabbed a significant chunk of the passenger market. Success can be measured in many ways, and the termination of the service was not a happy ending to the story, but in many other parts of the world fast ferries are definitely here to stay; and the vision of James Sherwood at Sea Containers and Robert Clifford of InCat (the Hobart builders of the SeaCats) all those years ago should be applauded. SeaCat Scotland was hull number 28 from the InCat yard and their current new-build (for Virtu Ferries in Malta) is hull number 89, so the production line still rolls on.
The SeaCat team was very proud of the vessel and the ground-breaking role it played. But my admiration was also reserved for my SeaCat colleagues and the remarkable spirit of adventure they demonstrated in starting a new route and a brand new type of service on June 1st, 1992.
The approach they adopted was that “anything is possible“ and for a while it was. I remember them all with respect and great fondness. On June 1st I will be raising a glass to them all and to some of the lasting and best memories of my career.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR