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Stena Line – 25 Years in Belfast: Cairnryan, Heysham, and Birkenhead

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.

Dan Sten Olsson, chairman of Stena, pictured here with Paul Grant the Route Manager for Irish Sea North and Alistair McCarlie, Captain of the Stena Superfast VII.
Dan Sten Olsson (centre), chairman of Stena, pictured here with Paul Grant (Right) the Route Manager for Irish Sea North and Capt. Alistair McCarlie, Captain of the Stena Superfast VII mark the occasion of Stena Line’s 20th anniversary in Belfast.

Route expansion

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.

Mersey Seaways makes her way along Belfast Lough on another daytime sailing to Birkenhead. She is seen her with the Maersk funnel colours replaced with Stena colouring (but not yet their logo) in anticipation of the full Stena takeover of the service later that year. Sat 5/3/2011. Copyright © Steven Tarbox.
Mersey Seaways makes her way along Belfast Lough on another daytime sailing to Birkenhead. She is seen her with the Maersk funnel colours replaced with Stena colouring (but not yet their logo) in anticipation of the full Stena takeover of the service later that year. Sat 5/3/2011. Copyright © Steven Tarbox.

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 former DFDS freighter SCOTIA SEAWAYS in the process of becoming STENA SCOTIA at the Ship Repair Quay, Belfast. Copyright © Michael Livie.
The former DFDS freighter SCOTIA SEAWAYS in the process of becoming STENA SCOTIA at the Ship Repair Quay, Belfast. Copyright © Michael Livie.

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.

The terminal building at Belfast Victoria Terminal 4 (VT4). Copyright © Scott Mackey.
The terminal building at Belfast Victoria Terminal 4 (VT4). Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

STENA SUPERFAST VII and STENA SUPERFAST VIII at the then brand-new Loch Ryan Port terminal, prior to their entry into service. Stena Line
STENA SUPERFAST VII and STENA SUPERFAST VIII at the then brand-new Loch Ryan Port terminal, prior to their entry into service. Stena Line

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.

Stena Navigator in Loch Ryan. Copyright © Gordon Hislip.
STENA NAVIGATOR in Loch Ryan. Copyright © Gordon Hislip.

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.

Old and New(er)! STENA NAVIGATOR approaches one of the ships which was to replace her, STENA SUPERFAST VII, seen here berthed at Loch Ryan Port. Coincidentally, STENA NAVIGATOR had been displaced on the Dover - Calais route by another Superfast VII class ship, SEAFRANCE MOLIERE, the former Superfast X and present STENA SUPERFAST X. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
Old and New(er)! STENA NAVIGATOR approaches one of the ships which was to replace her, STENA SUPERFAST VII, seen here berthed at Loch Ryan Port. Coincidentally, STENA NAVIGATOR had been displaced on the Dover – Calais route by another Superfast VII class ship, SEAFRANCE MOLIERE, the former Superfast X and present STENA SUPERFAST X. Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

Stena Superfast VIII in Belfast Lough during the Tall Ships 2015. Copyright © Ross McDonald.
Stena Superfast VIII in Belfast Lough during the Tall Ships 2015. Copyright © Ross McDonald.
STENA NAVIGATOR and STENA CALEDONIA laid-up at the former Stena terminal at Albert Quay, Belfast. These ferries where the last passenger ferries built for the French and British state railway companies, SNCF and British Railways. Both continue in service in foreign waters at the time of writing (October 2015). Copyright Alan Geddes
STENA NAVIGATOR and STENA CALEDONIA laid-up at the former Stena terminal at Albert Quay, Belfast. These ferries where the last passenger ferries built for the French and British state railway companies, SNCF and British Railways. Both continue in service in foreign waters at the time of writing. Copyright Alan Geddes

HSS STENA VOYAGER on the other hand was towed to Sweden and recycled after a number of years laid up in Belfast awaiting sale.

HSS STENA VOYAGER being towed from Belfast by the tug AGAT. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
HSS STENA VOYAGER being towed from Belfast by the tug AGAT. Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

Stena Precision and Stena Performer in Belfast. Stena Line.
STENA PRECISION and STENA PERFORMER in Belfast. Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

Stena Performer passes flatmate Stena Superfast VIII while inbound to Belfast in September 2012. Copyright © Gordon Hislip.
STENA PERFORMER passes fleetmate STENA SUPERFAST VIII while inbound to Belfast in September 2012. Copyright © Gordon Hislip.

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.

STENA SCOTIA turns to berth at VT4s after her arrival in Belfast from Holland on 03.08.18. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
STENA SCOTIA turns to berth at VT4s after her arrival in Belfast from Holland on 03.08.18. Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

STENA FORERUNNER, August 2018. Copyright © David Faerder.
STENA FORERUNNER, Belfast Lough, August 2018. Copyright © David Faerder.

Subsequent growth saw SEATRUCK PANORAMA chartered from Seatruck to restore the three-ship operation this August.

New visitors

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 Line's STENA NORDICA and P&O's EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY seen together in Loch Ryan as the former arrives at Loch Ryan Port on Monday 25th Feb 2019. Both vessels were originally ordered for P&O Irish Sea and are part-sisters. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
Stena Line’s STENA NORDICA and P&O Ferries’ EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY seen together in Loch Ryan as the former arrives at Loch Ryan Port on Monday 25th Feb 2019. Both vessels were originally ordered for P&O Irish Sea and are part-sisters. Copyright © Scott Mackey

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.

STENA HORIZON leaves Belfast on the morning of New Years Day 2019 while providing dry dock cover for STENA LAGAN. Copyright © Scott Mackey.
STENA HORIZON leaves Belfast on the morning of New Years Day 2019 while providing dry dock cover for STENA LAGAN. Copyright © Scott Mackey.

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.

Sister-ships STENA ESTRID and STENA EDDA meet in Belfast. Copyright © Steven Tarbox.
Sister-ships STENA ESTRID and STENA EDDA meet in Belfast. Copyright © Steven Tarbox.

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

Stena Feronia at the ship repair quay in Belfast. Copyright © Alan Geddes.
Stena Feronia at the ship repair quay in Belfast. Copyright © Alan Geddes.

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.

STENA EMBLA seen alongside at CMI Jinling Weihai. Stena Line
STENA EMBLA seen alongside at CMI Jinling Weihai. Stena Line

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.

Steven Tarbox

Steven is a ferry enthusiast from Belfast in Northern Ireland. He founded what was then NI Ferry Site 2014. Since then the site has grown from nothing to an average of over 43k pageviews per month in 2020.
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