20th anniversary of Stena Line switching the historic Larne - Stranraer service to Belfast.
Today marks 20 years from the last sailing of what was then Stena Sealink Line, into the Port of Larne from Scotland, with tomorrow the anniversary of the first Stena ferry sailing from Belfast. Few could have predicted at the time that 20 years, and 2 bespoke Belfast-Scotland terminals later, Stena Line would also offer services from Belfast to Birkenhead and Heysham, as well as operating a pair of 203 metre long ferries to Scotland from Belfast. Just six weeks after the switch, on the 31st December 1995, the "Sealink" name would disappear altogether with all UK operations being rebranded as "Stena Line".
Of course, things have also changed dramatically at Larne. No longer Northern Ireland's premier ferry port, Stena's rise at Belfast has been somewhat mirrored by P&O's decline at Larne. The services to Fleetwood and Ardrossan (which had itself moved from Belfast to Larne in January 1993)/Troon operated by P&O have gone, with only European Causeway and European Highlander operating the service to Cairnryan remaining as regular ferry visitors to the port. With strong growth from Seatruck's Warrenpoint to Heysham freight service, Larne has slipped to the third largest port in Northern Ireland by volume handled, having previously been the largest in all of Ireland!
Stena's many visitors
Many ships have operated for Stena Line to Belfast over the past 20 years, perhaps most memorably the HSS 1500 Stena Voyager. Of course, the 3 locally built sisters Stena Galloway, Stena Antrim, and Stena Caledonia transferred to Belfast from Larne, the latter operating to Belfast until the closure of the ferry port at Stranraer in 2011. She was joined in latter years by the veteran French ferry Seafrance Manet (ex Champs-Élysées, Stena Parisien), which herself underwent a substantial refit and introduced new concepts to the Stena Line fleet as Stena Navigator. Stena Cambria, the other Harland and Wolff built sister also visited Belfast, operating to Stranraer in place of the regular vessels whilst they went for refit. Incidentally, she was also the first of the former Sealink vessels to get a Stena name. More recently, Stena Nordica and Stena Feronia (which was originally Norse Irish Ferries Belfast - Liverpool vessel Mersey Viking) provided refit cover for the local fleet, though both vessels have now left the Stena Line fleet.
It is not widely known that Stena seriously considered at least a partial move back to Larne at the turn of the millennium in order to cut fuel costs, however, the prospect of a new terminal closer to entrance of Belfast Lough (which was to become Victoria Terminal 4) and intense lobbying by both Belfast Harbour and local hauliers, convinced Stena to stay. Had the move back to Larne gone ahead, the service (and perhaps the Port of Larne) would certainly look very different now, not least because the current ships would not fit Larne harbour in its current form!
In 2010, Stena added the Belfast routes of DFDS to their portfolio, less than 6 months after DFDS had acquired them with the takeover of Norfolk Line. The £40m acquisition, which included 4 ships (the chartered Lagan Seaways and Mersey Seaways, plus owned Scotia Seaways, and Hibernia Seaways), occurred at the same time that it was announced that the Larne to Fleetwood service Stena acquired from P&O in 2004 was to close. Lagan Seaways and Mersey Seaways of course became Stena Lagan and Stena Mersey, and were later extensively refurbished and purchased outright from their owners by Stena. The Heysham freight ships Hibernia Seaways and Scotia Seaways became Stena Hibernia and Stena Scotia, with the former still serving Belfast having recently switched back to Heysham operations after a spell as the third ship on the Belfast to Birkenhead run. Two of Seatruck's impressive FSG class, now renamed Stena Performer and Stena Precision, were taken on charter in September 2012 to operate the Heysham route, however Stena Performer recently switched with Stena Hibernia to boost capacity on the growing Belfast - Birkenhead route.
The original Stena Line Belfast terminal, at Albert Quay, is currently used by the Isle of Man Steam Packet for sailings from Belfast to the Isle of Man. Stena Line moved to a new state-of-the-art terminal on recently reclaimed land at Westbank Road in 2008, close to Victoria Terminal 1 and Victoria Terminal 2 which they would later operate after the takeover of the DFDS services. Indeed, only the container terminal at Victoria terminal 3 separates the 3 Stena terminals, with VT1 and 2 already next to each other. The facilities at VT4 are matched, if not bettered, by Stena's own port development at Loch Ryan Port (near Cairnryan) which opened in 2011, coinciding with the introduction of the current vessels. Loch Ryan Port is wholly owned by Stena Line Ports.
Many other Stena Line vessels have, and will continue to visit Belfast, with Harland and Wolff often selected to maintain and refit Stena's Irish Sea fleet. Next year could see the maiden arrival in Belfast of Dublin to Holyhead's Stena Superfast X, a sister to our own Stena Superfast VII and VIII (though she has a totally different layout inside), with some speculating she could also see service to Cairnryan whilst covering the regular vessels. Rosslare - Fishguard veteran ferry Stena Europe has also been a visitor in recent years, while Stena Mersey has visited this year already. The recent sale of the final HSS 1500 Stena Explorer however means that it is likely Belfast has had its last visit of Stena's own fast craft, having been the sole yard for dry-docking for all 3 HSS 1500 class vessels since they were built.
Title image: Stena Superfast VII and Stena Superfast VIII passing in Belfast Lough. Copyright © Alan Geddes.
Article: Copyright © 2015 Steven Tarbox.