2016 - A busy year for both the site and the industry.
2016 was a busy year here on NI Ferry Site, with all-time views climbing by 57,000 to over 140,000! Its been a busy year for local ferries as well, with both the Rathlin Island ferry and Strangford Lough Ferry services having brand-new vessels built - though both have yet to enter service. The Lough Foyle ferry from Magiligan Point to Greencastle came under new ownership as well, following the previous owners calling it a day over funding issues. On the cross-channel routes, both P&O and Stena made changes to their vessels this year. P&O have made some improvements to the kids play areas and shops onboard European Highlander and European Causeway in addition to adding more outside seating, and have said they will launch a new restaurant offering onboard in the coming year after the ships dry dock in May. Stena made some less obvious changes to their Superfast twins, consisting of subtle changes throughout the passenger accommodation and improving upper deck access on Stena Superfast VIII for freight vehicles by removing some pillars. The ships passenger spaces had already been refreshed somewhat in 2015, notably with seating in the Met Bar and Stena Plus areas reupholstered in the current Stena corporate style.
Stena Superfast X made her first visit to Belfast, operating in place of the regular Superfast vessels while they took their turns at Harland and Wolff, and offering a slightly different experience to passengers than the regular vessels. Down in Warrenpoint, Seatruck are now officially taking limited tourist traffic and this year launched online booking facilities for passengers.
Also in 2016, P&O sadly confirmed as had been widely speculated, that they would be closing the Larne to Troon route. A knock on effect of this was no P&O vessel being available to operate additional sailings during the TT season from Larne on behalf of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, with that company instead operating additional sailings with Manannan and Ben-My-Chree. In a more positive development, the Bay Gateway from Heysham to the M6 in Lancashire opened to traffic, giving Heysham a direct link to the UK motorway network for the first tine and surely providing a boost to both Seatruck and Stena Line who both operate freight services from Northern Ireland to the port.
Belfast had a surprise visitor in the shape of Irish Ferries Ireland-France vessel Oscar Wilde in early February. A tragic accident onboard Irish Ferries flagship Ulysses delayed the company's refit program which was being carried out at Falmouth, leading to Oscar Wilde being sent to Belfast instead.
New tonnage ordered, at last!
Stena Line finally announced their long awaited new buildings programme, with the contract going to AVIC Weihai (China). Rumours persist that at least 2 of the 4 vessels ordered will be coming to Belfast, specifically to operate to Birkenhead in place of Stena Lagan and Stena Mersey. The first vessel isn't due to be completed until the end of 2019 though, so we may have to wait a while for any confirmation of what route they will serve.
Further afield, both Irish Ferries and Brittany Ferries have announced orders at Germany's Flensburger (FSG) shipyard, who also coincidentally built Seatruck's 'FSG Class' of which Stena's Belfast to Heysham vessels Stena Performer and Stena Precision are members. Even further afield, Tallink's new 212m long cruise ferry Megastar hit the water for the first time at Meyer Werft's Turku (Finland) yard in July, and Danish ferry and logistics giant DFDS have both ordered new freight vessels and lengthened existing vessels to increase capacity. Spanish operator Balaeria, who currently operate the former Stena Navigator (see below), also placed an order this year, for a 232m long LNG and solar powered ferry from the Spanish LaNaval yard with an option for a sister ship.
Other notable NI related developments this year
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most viewed story of the year on site was Former Stena Galloway to re-enter service?. Unfortunately her reintroduction has yet to materialise, and there does seem to be some uncertainty whether it will ever happen with her having been moved to another yard with little work having been carried out on her after months at Malaga. It is understood that significant work (at significant cost particularly given her low purchase price) will have to be undertaken if she is to ever be re-certified for service again. Perhaps more worryingly, the trail of part-sister ship Ibn Batouta, better known as Sealink's St Christopher and Stena Line's Stena Antrim, seems to have gone cold since she was towed to Bijela for refit and overhaul in 2015.
The other pair of the Sealink quartet built in Belfast continue to operate though, with Bari (ex St. Anselm and Stena Cambria) running between Italy and Albania for Ventouris Ferries and PortLink (ex St. David and Stena Caledonia) operating a long way from 'home' in Indonesian waters for ASDP Indonesia Ferry. PortLink's former Belfast - Stranraer operating partner, Poeta López Anglada (better known locally here as the former Stena Navigator) continues to operate for Spanish operator Balaeria. Now she is 32 years old, and with Balaeria embarking on their own new build programme, her years left with that operator are perhaps numbered though.
On the subject of former vessels, the ship most of us knew as European Endeavour was beached in India at the start of December after a career of some 38 years. Another former Larne to Cairnryan favourite also didn't see out 2016, the former Pride of Rathlin sank in Indonesian waters during July. Her sister-ship, the former Pride of Ailsa, of course also sank back in 2005 having been holed in a collision with a Cypriot cargo vessel at the southern entrance to the Suez canal. A somewhat tragic end for the vessels that many of us believe made P&O's Cairnryan operation competitive for passengers with the rival Stranraer operation for the first time. P&O's former Troon fast-craft Express opened a new service in Sweden, but it was only to last for its first season having failed to secure sufficient financial backing to continue next year.
2017, what we know already.
Looking forward to 2017, both P&O and Stena plan to dry dock all of their local vessels. Stena have announced that 9 of the 11 vessels they operate on the Irish Sea will visit Harland and Wolff as part of a £7m contract, with Stena Hibernia already in the Belfast Dry Dock at Harland and Wolff. As well as the aforementioned improvements to European Causeway and European Highlander announced by P&O, Stena are also introducing a revised livery across their fleet this year which will be applied as each ship is dry docked. Of course, there may be other changes and improvements we do not yet know about.
Stena Nordica looks likely to return on the Belfast to Cairnryan service this year, having returned as the designated relief vessel for Stena's Irish Sea refit period. 2017 will also see the introduction of the new Rathlin Island ferry Spirit of Rathlin and the new Strangford ferry Strangford II, in the case of the latter once the current issues she is experiencing with berthing are rectified. Of course this will also mean saying goodbye to two veterans, 1975 built Canna on the Rathlin Island service and the 1969 built Strangford Ferry, the latter of which has already been withdrawn and offered for sale. The passenger only Strangford ferry Rachlyn has also been offered for sale.
NI Ferry Site in 2017
As we move into a new year (the sites 4th!), i thought it was time the site underwent its own refit period. A new livery has been applied, and some changes have been made on the technical side which should hopefully improve site performance. 2016 saw 43 posts and 14 new pages being published. The site continues to be powered by the Wordpress platform, and currently averages around 600 views per week. Much more new content is planned for the coming year, not least completion of the current vessel profiles section! The ever popular interior galleries and deck plans sections will also continue to grow and will be updated to reflect the changes made during this years refit periods.
So thats it for 2016, all that remains is to wish all of our visitors (and contributors) a Happy New Year!
Title image: Stena Superfast VII (outbound) and Stena Superfast X pass in Belfast Lough. Stena Line.