French ferry company Brittany Ferries celebrated the introduction of its newest vessel last weekend after one of the most turbulent periods in the company’s 50 year history. While all ferry companies were impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Roscoff-based Brittany Ferries had a particularly hard time due to its traditional reliance on summer tourist traffic. This resulted in the company re-focusing on its origins.
Brittany Ferries wasn’t always primarily a passenger operator, with its roots firmly in freight. The company was established by Breton farmers to export their produce to the new European Economic Community member, the United Kingdom. This realised a dream harboured by generations of Bretons – to be able to sell their produce directly to the UK market in volume without having to send it on a lengthy detour via ports in Normandy or further afield.
A Symbolic Gift
Brittany Ferries’ first sailing, by the KERISNEL, left Roscoff for Plymouth on 2 January 1973 carrying trailers of Cauliflowers, Artichokes, and Onions. It was the latter product which Brittany Ferries President Jean-Marc Roué, himself a working Breton onion farmer, presented as a gift to 120 invited VIP guests at a special celebration lunch onboard SALAMANCA last weekend. Roscoff pink onions are famed for their unique mild and slightly sweet flavour and are a Protected Designated Origin product.
In a passionate speech, M Roué highlighted the symbolism of the gift guests were about to receive;
“At Brittany Ferries we come from the land, but we are committed to the sea”
“Nothing symbolises this relationship more than the Pink Roscoff Onion. They were part of the first cargo Brittany Ferries carried from France to the UK fifty years ago. And now that tradition continues with our newest vessel Salamanca. I am proud to present this very special gift to our British friends, on behalf of the Breton farming community, as a symbol of ongoing partnership and friendship.”Jean-Marc Roué, 25.03.2022
The trade of Breton onions with the UK goes back much further than the history of Brittany Ferries, and can be traced back almost 200 years. In the earlier years sellers with strings of onions travelled from town to town by bicycle. Nicknamed “Onion Johnnies” in the UK, it is thought the appearance of these individuals gave rise to the enduring stereotype in Britain of French men in striped tops and berets riding bicycles laden with onions.
The gift of Roscoff pink onions was not only a nod to the company’s past but also an acknowledgment of how the Breton farming community supported Brittany Ferries throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. As the majority shareholders in the business, Brittany’s farmers provided financial support to the ferry company which found itself in serious financial difficulties due to the almost total elimination of passenger traffic during the Covid-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions which followed.
Brittany Ferries had to take drastic measures, including laying up vessels and asking for (and receiving) French state loans and tax relief. This was alongside stakeholder financial support just to continue to exist as a company. The previously almost unthinkable step of making staff temporarily redundant was also taken, an arrangement that will be repeated in the 2022-3, 2023-4, and 2024-5 low seasons.
Thankfully, the company survived and passenger favourites such as BRETAGNE have now returned to the operational fleet.
Securing the Future
The past two years have not been all doom and gloom for Brittany Ferries, however. The first ship in the company’s fleet replacement programme aimed at securing its future, GALICIA, joined the fleet in 2021. She is the first of five Stena E-Flexer vessels being built in partnership with Stena RoRo and her arrival allowed the chartered Ro-Pax BAIE DE SEINE (SIRENA SEAWAYS) to leave the fleet.
The remaining E-Flexer’s will replace the oldest and least efficient members of the Brittany Ferries fleet. This will not only introduce a modern passenger experience but will also deliver gains in efficiency and help the company achieve its ambitious environmental ambitions. Reducing the impact of its operations on the environment is a key goal of Brittany Ferries management and the company has invested heavily in efforts to reduce its environmental impact.
GALICIA is the only Brittany Ferries E-Flexer ship to be ordered with conventional diesel propulsion but is fitted with exhaust gas scrubbers. The combination of modern diesel engines and exhaust cleaning technology means that the 1,100 passenger capacity ferry emits a fraction of the pollutants that her older fleet mates do.
SALAMANCA, and her yet to be delivered sister-ship SANTOÑA, go a step further as they can run on cleaner burning LNG instead of diesel. In fact, SALAMANCA is the first LNG powered ferry to operate between the U.K. and the continent. On the UK to Spain routes, she replaces CAP FINISTERE, which has been sold to GNV. Although CAP FINISTERE wasn’t the oldest vessel in the fleet, she is known to have been one of the least efficient.
As well as consuming less fuel and having lower emissions, SALAMANCA has much more freight space than the vessel she replaces. This means that she has potentially a much lower environmental impact per unit carried than any previous vessel which has served the UK to Spain route. Her capacity of 1,100 people (including crew) and 2,723 lane metres of freight better reflects the year-round demand on Brittany Ferries’ passenger route than the ship she replaces. For comparison, CAP FINISTERE could accommodate 1,500 passengers but only around 2,000 lane metres of freight vehicles.
Should it be required in future, GALICA (like all E-Flexer series vessels), is prepared for conversion to LNG operation as well as a variety of other possible gas and liquid fuels. Brittany Ferries intends for GALICA, SALAMANCA, and SANTOÑA to form the backbone of its Spanish operations for many years to come, and has a purchase option on the ships. As with GALICIA, SALAMANCA and SANTOÑA are also designed to be upgraded to burn alternative fuels such as e-methanol as they become commercially viable.
Two E-Flexer’s have also been ordered for Brittany Ferries’ French operations. These ships, which will replace NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE in the fleet, are set to be the most modified E-Flexer’s yet when delivered in 2024/5. In order to fit the constraints of the French harbours where they will be required to operate, the new NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE (which have the working name of NORMANDIE II and BRETAGNE II) will be 194.7m long instead of the 214.5m of the E-Flexers delivered so far.
Reflecting changed customer trends since NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE were introduced in 1993 and 1989, the new ships will carry less passengers and more freight than the vessels they replace. While overall passenger capacity is lower, the number of cabins will increase compared to the older vessels they replace. This reflects an increase in the number of passengers opting to book a cabin rather than sleep in a reclining seat onboard.
The two French ships are being customised specifically for routes they serve, and the BRETAGNE replacement will surrender freight capacity in favour of an additional passenger deck.
Freight remains an important part of the Brittany Ferries business and the higher freight capacity of the new ships will give the company an opportunity to build this further. The haulier that carried that first shipment containing onions, Mesguen, remains an important customer. In fact, Mesguen transported the consignment of onions given to VIP’s onboard SALAMANCA last weekend, with one of the company’s trailers boarding the vessel when she called at Cherbourg while en route to Portsmouth from Spain. Of course, over the past 50 years, many more freight customers have been added.
As Brittany Ferries is the only operator serving the western channel between France and England, it offers a unique proposition for hauliers in Western France wanting to reach England as well as hauliers wanting to move goods in the opposite direction. The company also plans to move into rail freight services through the opening of a regular service for trailers between Cherbourg and Bayonne, near the French-Spanish border.
Brittany Ferries has also been expanding its services linking Ireland in recent years, and has also added its first route not serving either France or England between Ireland and Spain. While the single-ship route is still young and developing, Brittany Ferries is said to be pleased with the performance of the Rosslare – Bilbao route. It is understood that GALICIA will replace CONNEMARA on the Rosslare routes once SANTOÑA arrives, delivering a major service enhancement.
Brittany Ferries has also seen an increase in customers taking their dogs on holiday with them, and so the new ferries will, like GALICIA, SALAMANCA, and SANTOÑA, feature pet-friendly cabins. Notably, other companies such as Stena Line are now following Brittany Ferries lead in introducing pet-friendly cabins to the UK market. The ability for customers to be able to keep their pets with them throughout the journey is a key point of difference from other forms of transport.
Securing the Future
As previously mentioned, Brittany Ferries is emerging from a period which threatened the very existence of the company. While this can be mostly accredited to the travel bans imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting loss of public confidence, the reality is that passenger trends and preferences have changed in the past few decades.
The traditional British holiday by car to France has been in decline in recent years and the demand for a quality product becoming ever stronger. The result is that companies like Brittany Ferries are more reliant on freight trade than they have been in the past.
Vessels designed 25-30 years ago didn’t take current and future travel patterns into account, and so these ships are more difficult to make money with versus modern efficient tonnage with its large unobstructed vehicle decks and optimised passenger layouts. Passengers now expect larger cabins than they did previously, and of course with modern connectivity options such as multiple plug and USB sockets.
While all of the Brittany Ferries E-Flexer’s are similar in layout, each ship has its own character as a result of the bespoke artwork commissioned for each vessel. Curated by artist Kimberly Poppe, who has also contributed her own photographs to the collections, the artwork mostly reflects the primary destinations on the continent that each vessel will serve. Special one-off pieces of art have been commissioned specifically for the vessels, continuing a tradition that started with the company’s first purpose-built ship BRETAGNE.
Brittany Ferries has also confirmed that artwork commissioned for the cancelled vessel HONFLEUR will not go to waste and will appear throughout the five E-Flexer vessels.
Some have criticised the loss of individuality within a fleet that has traditionally had single one-off vessels, but standardisation brings benefits for both the passenger and the operator. Passengers benefit from a familiar layout that is easy to get oriented with. The public decks have wide unobstructed walkways which run along the port side of the ship. As new ships, Brittany Ferries E-Flexer’s are of course fully compliant with all current disability legislation and have totally flat decks without any ledges for people with wheelchairs or buggies to negotiate.
From an operational point of view there are obvious benefits to having a common fleet. The E-Flexer design is known to be one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly in the world, and having a number of such vessels in one fleet multiplies that effect.
Brittany Ferries has already made well documented efforts to reduce the environmental impact of its operations, and replacing older more polluting tonnage with more efficient and “cleaner” ships helps reduce this further.
Vessels such as NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE run on expensive ultra low sulphur fuel to remain compliant with emissions legislation as the age of their engines means it is not viable for the company to add exhaust gas cleaning scrubbers to allow cheaper fuel to be used. A common side effect of ultra low sulphur fuel is increased wear on components due to the reduced lubricity of the fuel. This in turn increases already escalating maintenance costs.
The E-Flexer design is reportedly around 25% more fuel efficient than previous Ro-Pax ferries, and even more so versus the late-1980’s and 1990’s tonnage that the Brittany Ferries units will replace directly or indirectly. This efficiency will likely increase even more on the two examples with hybrid battery technology onboard. It should also be noted that as all E-Flexer ferries are built on a common platform, GALICA, SALAMANCA, and SANTOÑA are already prepared for possible upgrading to battery hybrid operation in the future.
Having five similar ships means there is a high degree of interchangeability in the fleet. It is expected that the NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE replacement could be used as relief vessels during refit season with the “fit” of all the vessels in port also standardised. Maintenance should also be simplified with all vessels having a high degree of commonality despite the three different propulsion solutions being used. From a crewing point of view, training across the fleet will be simplified due to the similar layout and operation of all five vessels. The optimised layout of the E-Flexer vessels also means that they should be able to be operated by fewer crew than more complex older tonnage.
Gas and Electric
Significantly, NORMANDIE II and BRETAGNE II will have an LNG-Battery Electric power train and are set to be the first large ferries in the U.K. to use this propulsion solution. This means that the vessels will be able to manoeuvre in port using power stored in batteries and without the use of the main engines – port manoeuvres are one of the most polluting stages of a ferry journey. As with hybrid cars, excess energy generated by the ships engines will be used to charge the batteries.
Both vessels will also be fitted with shore power connections so that they can be powered from the electricity grid while alongside, though in order for this to be used ports and their partners will need to invest in new infrastructure . A reported investment of around £50 million will be required at council owned Portsmouth International Port to allow ships to connect to shore power when alongside.
Continued Regional Support
The acquisition of the replacements for NORMANDIE and BRETAGNE is being financially supported by the regions of Brittany and Normandy. These represent the interests of the farming communities and other local stakeholders which have supported Brittany Ferries since its foundation 50 years ago. They, and the management of Brittany Ferries, will hope that the acquisition of the E-Flexer tonnage will help secure the next fifty years of Brittany Ferries operations.
While the two ships for French routes are initially chartered from Stena RoRo for 10 years, a clause allowing Brittany Ferries to purchase the vessels outright may be exercised with the support of the French regions. The Spanish vessels also have purchase options which will be a potention when the company is again on a stable financial footing.
As with most passenger ferry companies, Brittany Ferries is hoping to see a surge in demand this summer. Unlike some though, it approaches the high season in the knowledge that it’s fleet replacement is secure.