The Isle Of Man Steam Packet Company provides the lifeline ferry services to the Irish Sea island. The world’s oldest shipping company has seen many changes over the years. Slow to the RoRo revolution but quick to embrace fast craft.
Over 84,000 people are dependent on the ships they operate to bring freight and passengers from the UK. The island is not part of the United Kingdom or European Union, but has the status of crown dependency, similar to Jersey and Guernsey, with an independent administration. Its inhabitants are British Citizens though subject to the island’s own laws and tax regime.
Each year, the company carries around 600,000 passengers annually and 170,000 cars and motorcycles. The Isle of Man is famous for motorcycle road races and the T.T. Race Festival takes place during late May and early June each year. During the TT race fortnight, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company carries around 35,000 passengers and around 10,500 motorbikes on over 200 sailings. The other peak in traffic is during the Manx Grand Prix at the end of August.
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Sea Services Agreement
In 2018, the Isle of Man Government purchased the Steam Packet Company for £48.3 million and provided £76 million as a loan to the Steam Packet. The move was aimed at providing long-term stability for the Island’s lifeline ferry operations. The Company is run at arm’s length and receives no form of Government subsidy. The Board, Executive, Management, and staff of SPC are not employed by the Isle of Man Government.
A year later, the Manx Parliament signed a new Strategic Sea Services Agreement with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The agreement set the direction of the Steam Packet for the next 25 years. It included a wide range of requirements to ensure that the Island has the sea services it needs for its long-term economic and social wellbeing. It also incorporates conditions on fares, routes and sailing frequency. In return for almost exclusive use of the Island’s linkspans, the company is required to invest in new vessels and provide regular services throughout the year as well as offer apprenticeships and have a strategy to reduce carbon emissions.
In Autumn 2019, the company invited shipyards to tender to construct a new conventional ferry to replace the BEN-MY-CHREE. She came into service in 1998, a product of the Van der Giessen de Noord yard in Rotterdam. The company added extra accommodation to her in 2004, which brought her capacity to 666 crew and passengers. A faithful servant to the island running in tandem with fast craft, she normally sailed twice daily to Heysham in Lancashire, a sailing taking 3 hours 45 minutes.
Other services are provided by a fast craft. Since 2009 the company provided this service with MANANNAN, which is due to be replaced by 2026. She links the island with Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin.
The company awarded the newbuild contract in June 2020, during the Covid Pandemic to Hyundai Mipo Dockyard in Ulsan, South Korea. The design of the new ferry was constrained by the harbours at both Douglas on the island and Heysham. The new build was to be 10m longer and 3m wider than the BEN-MY-CHREE with significantly more passenger accommodation. She had to include an open upper stern deck for the carriage of dangerous goods.
To inform decisions around the ship’s facilities, a public consultation was carried out. 800 people responded. The name MANXMAN was chosen by a public vote. She is the third vessel in the history of the line to bear the name.
Construction started in South Korea in 2021.
Launched in June 2022, it was December 2022 when the MANXMAN was ready for sea trials. However, it was soon known that some remedial works would be required before handover.
However, on 11 May 2023, she was delivered to the company, her voyage to Manx Waters from South Korea starting two days later. She sailed via the Suez Canal to Southampton for final fitting out works, before making her arrival into Douglas Harbour on Sunday 2 July 2023.
Following her arrival in home waters the vessel required further remedial works including repainting the vehicle decks. Additionally, she undertook berthing trials in Heysham, Douglas and Belfast.
Comparison of Manxman and Ben-My-Chree
|SERVICE SPEED||19.25 knots||19 knots|
|VEHICLE DECK||1,500 lane metres||1,235 lane metres|
|MAIN ENGINES||4 x Wartsila 31 hybrid diesel electric||2 x MAK|
|PROPULSION POWER||2 x Electric propulsion motor 7850 KW||2×4320 KW Diesel|
MANXMAN entered service on Thursday 17 August with the daytime sailing to Heysham. The company plan that they will bed in the vessel whilst the crew familiarize themselves with the ship and limit her to daytime sailings until 17 September.
On the same day, she will perform around the island cruise at 1000, tickets allocated by a draw – before switching to night-time sailing. The BEN-MY-CHREE is rostered to switch to the daytime sailings. Currently, it is anticipated that MANXMAN will pick up the full roster on Sunday 29 October, the day that sees the last fast craft sailings of the season. The company has advised the public that during the familiarization process, Heysham Port has placed a restriction on the vessel entering port when wind strengths are over 26 knots. That saw the vessel off service on the 18th & 19th August as Storm Betty hit the UK, with the Ben’ cancelling the daytime crossing on the 19th.
The Steam Packet has had a long association with Hart Fenton, now Houlder. They had worked on the project converting MANANNAN from a military fast craft to ferry. So unsurprisingly, Houlder were the company chosen to lead the design of the ship.
Wärtsilä supplied not only the main engines, but also the propulsion package for MANXMAN. This includes the transverse thrusters. Additionally, Wärtsilä also supplied the navigation system, bridge console, and ballast water treatment system. The package has been described as a “a state-of-the-art bridge to propeller solution”.
MANXMAN is powered by two eight-cylinder and two 10-cylinder engines, which are recognised for a high level of fuel efficiency which reduces exhaust emissions. The Wärtsilä engines reduce diesel consumption by 8% and the set up allows for optimised combinations, reducing costs.
The vessel also has a hybrid aspect with excess power generated charging battery packs. These can can then be used to produce additional power in place of another diesel generator kicking in. The battery power can also be used during port manoeuvres to provide additional power as well as reduced emissions.
She has three bow thrusters, delivering twice the power of that seen on the BEN-MY CHREE – handy in Douglas and Heysham harbours with the bigger length of ship.
Her stabilisers have twice the effective surface area compared to the previous vessel and with an optimised hull form, bulbous bow and rudders that reduce vibration, the company hope MANXMAN brings new levels of economy, efficiency and comfort.
The MANXMAN is a stern only RoPax ship. With high numbers of drop trailers using the route, loading is therefore easier and more efficient.
The main vehicle deck is on Deck 3. An internal ramp port side leads to the upper deck 5.
A small mezzanine for cars (Deck 6) is on the starboard side for two lanes of cars- this also allows the earlier loading of passengers on the overnight sailings. There is 1200 lane metres of deck space
Design of the passenger areas on MANXMAN was placed into the hands of SMC Design who have reflected the Isle of Man’s rich heritage and culture. The lounge names use island locations, and this new branding is now in place on both MANXMAN and MANANNAN.
Passenger accommodation is spread over two decks with passenger access to stairwells at the forward end of the vessel.
Looking over the bow is the “Cornaa Café”. Panoramic views from the windows allow light in from three sides to a range of table seating. There is a servery offering drinks and light snacks.
On both port and starboard sides are lounges for dog owners and their furry family members.
Midships has the shop and information desk on the port side, with a children’s play area to starboard. The design, however, means that the noise of happy children enjoying themselves can be heard throughout the retail area and reception.
Small corridor-based seating leads onto “The Eatery” on the port side – the self-service restaurant – connected seamlessly to “The Bar” to starboard. There is a range of seating including yellow bar stools and bench-style bar seating.
There is a small stern-facing outside deck area accessed through central doors. With fixed metal seating, it can be difficult to stand and admire the view when seats are occupied.
Forward on Deck 8, surrounded by panoramic windows, is the reserved-seating “Niarbyl Lounge”. It mainly contains rows of semi-reclining airline style seating looking forward. At a cost of £7, you pick a specific seat with a sticker placed on your purchased location. To the rear of the lounge are a few areas of bay seating. It’s a peaceful, quiet and relaxing area of the ship.
Just behind this is the “Injebreck Lounge” with 26 Sleeping Pods and starry ceiling. A pod is currently priced at £25.
Cabin accommodation is located midships. There are 40 cabins, including six accessible cabins and four Pet Friendly cabins. Whilst the public consultation didn’t appear to indicate a wish for balcony cabins, there are some available at £95 a crossing. Standard cabins are in the range of £65. One of the more controversial aspects of the new ship are the two freight drivers’ cabins which have 6 berths, a toilet and no shower. That facility is provided within the toilets on the same deck.
Towards the stern to port is the “Barrule Lounge”, the Steam Packets “Premium Lounge”. It contains a range of seating varying from semi-reclining airline seats to arm chairs. A specific seat must be selected during booking, unlike most other operators.
The offering at £22 covers complimentary tea, coffee, biscuits, fruit, newspapers and magazines. The inclusive offering is significantly less than other Irish Sea operators for a similar cost – missing much of the range of snacks and complimentary wine found elsewhere. The door doesn’t have code entry leading to people coming in – and crew chasing them out!
Over the stern is a small balcony outside deck offering stern views with tables and chairs. Although glass windbreaks protect from the worst of the Irish Sea, they do obscure views somewhat.
To starboard is the Executive Club Lounge where regular passengers pay an annual fee to enter for a similar product to the Barrule. Membership prices are currently set at £415 per person annually, £655 for a joint membership.
A central stairwell leads up to a small outside area on the starboard side of deck 9. This offers a view to starboard and over the stern with a partition to the crew area outside deck to port.
The vessel was designed for her crew to live onboard. However, currently most crew live on the island and join per trip. Like the ship she replaces, it is a one week on, one off rotation with 0700-1900/1900-0700 shifts. However, the Isle of Man Steam Packet is in negotiations with unions to move to a live onboard arrangement with one or two weeks on.
Deck 9 has facilities for the crew.
The crew outside deck area over the stern leads to the crew messrooms and lounge. There is a crew cinema and gym with cabins leading forward to the officers TV room, ships office and bridge. The ship has a second back up bridge on deck 10, allowing the ship to be safe if the main bridge fails, a requirement for all new builds.
Heritage and Identity
MANXMAN’s name has been painted in gold for the first year of service with the company, a nod to tradition. Throughout the ship, the references to the island she serves are clear, from the naming of lounges to the artist’s work featured.
The new Island Lifeline
MANXMAN looks fresh and contemporary. Wood shades and varying textures bring a timeless classic design that will withstand many years of service. The passenger areas appear to flow well and the lounges have a pleasant atmosphere. The whole ship feels light and airy. A step change from the BEN-MY-CHREE.
The disappointment- the outside decks- narrow with stern views only, apart from deck 9 with a small starboard view. The internal doors will also take some getting used to with a slightly delayed mechanism. Some bins were missing on early crossings – it will be interesting to see how they blend in.
The test will be how MANXMAN handles an Irish Sea winter in Heysham and Douglas. However, as the crew will get used to handling and loading her as the new flagship, she will surely become a firm favourite amongst the islanders.
Cair vie! … as they say in Manx, Fair winds, Bon Voyage… MANXMAN.
With special thanks to David Færder, without whom this article would not have been possible, and Matt Davies for some of the images used.