Scott Mackey looks at one of the less-known lifeline ferry services in the British Isles, the short but vital link between Portaferry and Strangford across the narrows of Strangford Lough in County Down, Northern Ireland.
Operated by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Department for Infrastructure across a treacherous stretch of water with fast flowing currents and hugely varying tidal ranges, the service is the fi rst of two under the department’s management for which a tendering process to build a new vessel was awarded in 2015.
Despite being only around one mile apart, the towns of Portaferry and Strangford are separated by a very dangerous channel, called ‘the narrows’ at the mouth of Strangford Lough, the largest inlet in the British Isles. The rush of the tide through the channel is so strong that Norsemen named it Strang Fiord.
There are records that a ferry in some shape or form has existed since around 1180. For approximately 400 years there has been a ferry service without a break between Portaferry and Strangford with daily sailings taking around eight minutes. The alternative is a road journey of approximately 47 miles and takes about 90 minutes. Strangford can also boast the first steam ferry in Ireland which came into service in 1836 while in 1946 two landing craft that could carry 2 cars and 36 passengers were brought into service. This service was discontinued when one of the craft capsized resulting in the loss of a life and was replaced by a number of small boats providing a passenger only service.
In 1967, the link was adopted by the Government under Down County Council and they ordered a new car ferry to be delivered in 1969 from the Verlome Shipyard in Cork. The Strangford Ferry was launched on 6th September 1969 with capacity for 18 cars and 260 passengers and was joined by the Portaferry Ferry in 1974, a support and backup vessel purchased from a Welsh operator and modified by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. Operation of the ferry passed from Down County Council to Downpatrick Division of Roads Service in 1973.
Today, the ferry provides a vital link, connecting the Ards Peninsula to South Down. Approximately 140 school children who live in the Portaferry are use the service to travel to and from school in Downpatrick and many thousands more people rely on the ferry to travel to and from work and carry out their daily business. The ferry is also often used to help the emergency services attend incidents or emergencies on the Ards Peninsula, providing much faster response times for vehicles from Downpatrick than those from Belfast.
An investment of £2.7 million was allocated to provide a new ferry for the route in 2001. The vessel was built by McTay Marine in Bromborough on Merseyside and named Portaferry II replacing the small second hand 1975-built Portaferry Ferry which was sold to an operator in Wexford and relegating the slightly larger Strangford Ferry of 1969 to second ship. The new vessel was the largest and most advanced ever seen on the route and removed a 7.5 tonne weight restriction which was in place for the older vessels. She also boasted increased capacity of 28 cars and 260 passengers. In 2009, the Rachlyn became the passenger only support vessel.
The 1969-built Strangford Ferry was considered to be reaching the end of its economically operational working life so a project was developed in 2014 to procure a replacement vessel due for delivery in 2016. This new ship would also replace the Rachlyn and would be based on the design of the Portaferry II with a maximum payload of 150 tonnes.
In 2015, it was announced that the contract to build the new ship was awarded to Cammell Laird at Birkenhead on Merseyside. The procurement exercise attracted interest from shipyards across Europe and represents an investment of £6.2 million. The new ferry is equipped with the latest technology in terms of marine engineering and ease of maintenance. It also provides a comfortable passenger lounge for the short journey between Strangford and Portaferry.
The design of Strangford II includes significant improvements to access for those with reduced mobility, quieter noise levels both in operation and when lowering the ramps, and reduced emission levels compliant with existing and future emissions regulations. Unlike Portaferry II the new vessel does not have a traditional funnel. Instead she uses a wet exhaust system at the waterline in order to reduce airborne particulate emissions. This also has the effect of reducing noise transmission from the exhausts when compared to a traditional funnel. Additionally, the engines are all equipped with dry exhaust gas silencers to reduce airborne noise, and resilient engine mountings to reduce the transmission of engine vibrations through the structure.