I hadn’t been to the Belgian port since the ill fated passenger roro service from Rosyth aboard Norfolk Line’s chartered Scottish Viking and then I was both impressed with that ship and with Zeebrugge.
I had seen Pride of York in port then on her long running North sea Ferries-P&O service and I knew that was a trip I would have to make. Firstly, for its own sake - it was a long time since I had experienced either of P&O’s Hull services - but also because I realised Pride of York was now, and most likely would remain, the very last UK built passenger ship.
She had been delivered as the Norsea by Govan Shipbuilders in ’87 and she is the only UK built passenger ship operating out of the UK. No similar vessel is ever likely to be UK built again, at least for decades into the foreseeable future. There is no longer a yard with the skills and experience to deliver this scale of merchant vessel whose cost, anyway, would most probably be well above that of the competition even in Europe let alone in China, Korea or Japan. So sailing on Pride of York was partly a kind of nostalgia trip, but it was also to experience this service as a magnificent way to travel to the continent: comfortable, convenient and stress free.
But maybe not for the crew because when, on the bridge, I was introduced to Captain Keven Alcock and Chief Officer Aaron, they were focussed on the wind-speed indicator which had just shown gusts of 50+ knots.
It was a bleak February night with driving rain and we were feeling the gale on the berth in the dock where sailing had been postponed to see if the wind would die down. She was a big ship with great windage for manoeuvring in the confines of the King George V dock. Her larger consort, Pride of Hull, on the Rotterdam run, was on the river berth outside the lock and she too was feeling it as the Humber was its choppy, turbid self. Both ferries had ordered tugs to assist them from their respective berths as the wind was seen to steady at 32 knots (gusting to 42). The SMS tugs Yeoman and Statesman were ordered to attach their lines bow and stern. Yeoman pulled and the big ferry moved ahead into the centre of the basin for the tugs to help swing her. But at times, the bow thrusters were having diffi culty moving the ship in the face of the stiff south westerly coming straight out of the lock from the river.
She was eventually brought into the eye of the wind and Yeoman disappeared under our bow as she snugged down in the lock, the gates closed behind us and the water was lowered to the river level. Meanwhile, Pride of Hull had Svitzer Josephine (rather nicely called by everyone on the radio simply ‘Josie’) and Svitzer Valiant secured at bow and stern, but they were requested not to pull her off the berth until Pride of York had cleared the lock.
Captain Alcock asked Josie’s skipper to be careful of our wash as we surged out of the lock. We would need the power on to fight both wind and tide and our stern would swing towards Pride of Hull‘s bow tug as we departed. But Josie said they would be fine and our 31,875 gt ship popped out of the lock like a cork. Yeoman was asked to hurriedly cast off now we were pointed downriver toward Grimsby, Spurn Point and the sea. In our wake, Josie and the Valiant pulled at the towering Pride of Hull, the tugs lively in the chop, gradually hauling the big Holland ferry against the wind and off the berth.
As Pride of York settled into its sailing routine, Captain Alcock warned the passengers that the crossing might be quite rough once out of the river. Those moving around the stair-wells and especially on the outer decks should take special care.
Threading our way down the dark Humber’s channel bouys , with no moon or stars visible, fi rst the lights of Immingham and then Grimsby were left behind and, on passing Spurn Point, Pride of Hull came abeam as she started to diverge from us, her stern deck lights remaining a glow in the gloom for a long time as she settled onto her course for Rotterdam.
Overnight, the lights of Lincolnshire and Norfolk would pass with a forest of red lights that now indicate the presence of wind turbines and it was a good night for them. The wind that was heading us, would be pumping quantities of electricity into the UK all night.
We were lightly loaded with around 1,000 tons of freight and vehicles and 300 passengers – well it was February – though none of the passengers had seemed phased at all by the prospects of the crossing. And they were quite right, the ship was extremely steady. She is a great sea boat and the crossing in the conditions was remarkably smooth. The stabilisers were worked hard, but taking the weather largely on the nose we were slowed and we would be some 90 minutes late into Zeebrugge but I heard no grumbling.
I had sailed on Norsun, now running our running mate Pride of Bruges, in summer ’87 when she was newly delivered for the Rotterdam run from the Japanese yard Nippon Kokan and I asked Captain Alcock how the Japanese built ship compared with the Clyde-built version. He pointed out that, though they were thought of as sisters internally, there were significant differences, but I had the impression handling and build quality were similar. After Norsea’s delivery, her Govan yard had morphed into ‘Kvaerner Govan’ and eventually became BAe Systems’ warship yard. I assume Norsea - Pride of York’s plates came from the Ravenscraig works at Motherwell which itself was dismantled in ’92.
In ’87, I had found Norsun extremely efficient and comfortable with marvellous catering and Pride of York in 2015 was no different. The crew were unfailingly friendly, the deck crew and admin staff were largely British, one I met had been with the ship a full 27 years, since she was new. The hotel-catering crew were largely Portuguese, all were helpful and polite and they all spoke of her being a good happy ship to work in.
Captain Alcock had started his career with Houlders and its various associates and I met him on the bridge on lookout. Also at the helm were Alan and Terry who had served deep sea with UK companies including Shaw Saville, PSNC and Harrisons. Alan had most recently worked aboard Celtic Link and with LD Lines, latterly St Nazaire – Gijon alongside French, Polish and Latvian crews. He was glad to be back with P&O Ferries.
A bright if breezy day welcomed us to Belgian waters and crossing the busy sea lane off Zeebrugge can be tricky. Zeebrugge is largely reclaimed land and dredging is almost constant. Alexander von Humboldt 10,451,’98 passed out to the dumping grounds and she had to dodge the NYK Nebula 55,534,’07, 4882 teu, on her way to Halifax NS on North American service having recently arrived from Oakland and the Eastern Seaboard.
Conning Pride of York into Zeebrugge, we were dwarfed by Elly Maersk 170,794. When built at Odense in 2007, she was one of the largest in the world at up to 15,500 teu. She was loading for China. Containers were coming in and out on world traders, on short sea and coastal feeders, and on specialist estuary and up-river hulls.
In the northern corner of the port, was the Cobelfret terminal with three ro-ros on berths, while at the heart of the harbour was transhipment between sea and rail with rakes of container wagons galore loading and unloading on inland Belgian and trans-continental rail services. In amongst this great mass of commerce, we quickly berthed behind the Finnish flag freight roro Mistral 10,471,’99 in from Teesport. We would backload for the Tees and Humber respectively in tandem later in the day.