Twenty five years to the day since Stena Line relocated its Northern Irish operation from Larne to Belfast, we take a look at developments from 2010 onwards.
This is the second of our features celebrating Stena Line’s 25 years in Belfast. For a series of photos from 1995 – 2010, see Scott Mackey’s photo article about Belfast – Stranraer here.
During 2010, Stena Line announced its intention to acquire most of the Irish Sea routes and assets of DFDS. The €40m transaction, which didn’t fully complete until the following year after a competition enquiry, mean’t that Stena Line would take over the Belfast – Liverpool and Belfast – Heysham routes from DFDS, as well as the vessels serving them. These were the owned Ro-Ro’s HIBERNIA SEAWAYS and SCOTIA SEAWAYS (which became STENA HIBERNIA(ii) and STENA SCOTIA) and the chartered LAGAN VIKING and MERSEY VIKING.
The latter two vessels would become STENA LAGAN and STENA MERSEY and would subsequently be purchased outright by Stena. Stena Line also heavily invested in the refurbishment of ‘Lagan’ and ‘Mersey‘, replacing their more spartan as-built interior with the Stena corporate style.
The takeover also meant that Stena now operated from three separate terminals in Belfast, VT1 (Heysham), VT2 (Liverpool) and VT4. The company had relocated its Stranraer operation during 2008 from Albert Quay to the brand-new VT4, right on the outer edge of Belfast Harbour and closer to the mouth of Belfast Lough.
New Scotland terminal
On November 21, 2011, Stena Line relocated its Scotland operation from Stranraer to Loch Ryan Port near Cairnryan. The new purpose-built Stena-owned port removed the constraints on the size of ships that could be used imposed by Stranraer. This allowed the introduction of the 203m long STENA SUPERFAST VII and STENA SUPERFAST VIII. Although not new ships, they were comprehensively refurbished and rebuilt in Poland specifically for their new service.
Until then, the Belfast – Scotland service had been maintained by HSS STENA VOYAGER with backup from the 1980’s built STENA CALEDONIA and STENA NAVIGATOR. ‘Navigator’ herself had been a relatively recent addition.
She was acquired as SEAFRANCE MANET to allow more conventional sailings so that the fuel-hungry HSS could be used less. After a comprehensive refit alongside at Belfast, STENA NAVIGATOR introduced new concepts to the Stena Line fleet.
The introduction of the new ‘Superfast’ ships would see STENA NAVIGATOR and STENA CALEDONIA, the last passenger ship to be built in Belfast, sold for further use. Both continue in service to this day.
HSS STENA VOYAGER on the other hand was towed to Sweden and recycled after a number of years laid up in Belfast awaiting sale.
Further ‘new’ tonnage
Under Stena Line ownership, both the Liverpool and Heysham routes saw impressive growth. During September 2012, Stena Line chartered Seatruck Ferries’ SEATRUCK PERFORMER and SEATRUCK PRECISION to replace the smaller Heysham vessels. Consequently, both vessels left the Irish Sea.
However, continued growth on the Liverpool service meant STENA HIBERNIA returned from November 5, 2013, as a third ship carrying mostly unaccompanied freight. This allowed additional space on STENA MERSEY and STENA LAGAN to be released for accompanied freight. Continued growth on the Liverpool route saw STENA PERFORMER switched with STENA HIBERNIA during 2015. Sister ship STENA PRECISION would also be used on the route in ‘Performer’s’ place.
The Seatruck vessels were recalled by their owner at the end of their charter in 2018, meaning that STENA HIBERNIA returned to the Heysham route. Sister-ship STENA SCOTIA also returned to the Heysham route, having been deployed in the North Sea previously.
To maintain the successful three ship service on the Liverpool route, the huge Stena 4-runner MkII Ro-Ro STENA FORERUNNER was also transferred to the Irish Sea. She was subsequently replaced by sister-ship STENA FORECASTER, which remained in service until the Covid-19 pandemic reduced volumes earlier this year.
Subsequent growth saw SEATRUCK PANORAMA chartered from Seatruck to restore the three-ship operation this August.
Since the move from Stranraer to Loch Ryan Port, Stena Line has used solely Stena-owned or long-term chartered tonnage. STENA NORDICA, previously P&O’s EUROPEAN AMBASSADOR and a part-sister to EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY and EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER, has covered for the ‘Superfast’s’ multiple times, as did STENA SUPERFAST X.
STENA HORIZON has also visited Belfast, both as relief on the Belfast – Liverpool route and for maintenance at Harland & Wolff. STENA EUROPE has been a regular visitor for maintenance over the years, as has STENA ADVENTURER, but to-date neither has covered any routes from Belfast.
Most recently, STENA ESTRID, one of a pair of brand-new ferries introduced by Stena Line on the Irish Sea this year provided relief on the Belfast – Cairnryan route. As a result, she was reunited with sister-ship STENA EDDA, which replaced STENA LAGAN earlier this year, for the first time since the vessels were under construction together in China last year.
One familiar vessel which returned under Stena Line was STENA FERONIA. Originally MERSEY VIKING (i), she was a relief vessel on her old route between Belfast and Liverpool. She made headlines in 2012 when she was holed above the waterline by the cargo vessel UNION MOON on March 7. The captain of the cargo vessel was later imprisoned for being drunk while in charge of his vessel. STENA FERONIA has since moved on from the Stena fleet and is currently in service in New Zealand as STRAIT FERONIA
Looking ahead, Stena will continue to increase capacity at Belfast next year. A second brand-new E-Flexer class ferry, STENA EMBLA, is expected to replace STENA MERSEY in January.
Belfast is Stena Line’s busiest freight port, handling around a quarter of Stena Line’s total freight movements in Europe. The company continues to invest in its services to the port and also continues to support Harland & Wolff shipyard, just across the river from its ferry terminals.
Last year, the Olsson Family (owners of Stena Line), donated a bronze knotted gun sculpture to the city as a gift to its citizens.