Twenty years ago this week, P&O Irish Sea introduced its first catamaran ferry, SUPERSTAR EXPRESS, in place of the monohull fast-craft JETLINER. Her first sailing from Larne to Cairnryan was on April 18th 2000. SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was initially sub-chartered from P&O Portsmouth who had replaced her with EXPRESS on their Portsmouth to Cherbourg service. She was the final of four similar Austal AutoExpress 82 Catamaran’s built for various operators in the late-1990’s. SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was the largest of the quartet with an extended upper deck superstructure outboard and aft.
SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was constructed by Austal Ships in Freemantle, Australia, for Singapore-based Star Cruises for use on a service between Butterworth (Malaysia) and Langkawi (Indonesia). Entering service in 1997, she would later be renamed as SUPERSTAR EXPRESS LANGKAWI. During 1998 she was chartered to P&O Portsmouth for a new fast-ferry route between Portsmouth and Cherbourg under her original name SUPERSTAR EXPRESS.
While the concept of P&O Irish Sea’s fast service between Larne and Cairnryan had proved popular with the public, the first vessel they had used, JETLINER, had proven less than ideal. Her reputation for a ‘lively’ ride in all but calm seas, limited speed of around 31 kts, and recurrent technical issues meant P&O Irish Sea were on the lookout for a replacement.
At the same time sister-company P&O Portsmouth wanted a larger vessel for their Portsmouth – Cherbourg fast service which had proven very successful, and had agreed the charter of Buquebus’s CATALONIA (later EXPRESS). As a result, P&O Irish Sea sub-chartered SUPERSTAR EXPRESS from their sister company. This arrangement would continue until the charter with Star Cruises expired in 2002 when a more favourable agreement was struck directly between P&O Irish Sea and her owner. The ship was also re-registered in The Bahamas during 2002 instead of Panama as before.
On Tuesday 15th April, 2003, SUPERSTAR EXPRESS became the first fast-ferry to operate between Larne and Troon while still also offering sailings to Cairnryan. The Troon route would prove particularly popular with day trippers going to Glasgow with the ports well linked to the city, something P&O would actively promote in marketing. The route competed directly with the SeaCat service from Belfast to Troon, but was significantly faster due to the shorter distance between Larne and the Scottish port. SeaCat closed their Belfast to Troon route after heavy losses in the 2004 season.
SUPERSTAR EXPRESS continued with P&O Irish Sea at Larne until September 2004 when she left the port for the final time on the 22nd September for lay up at A&P Birkenhead (now Cammell-Laird). The ship that had replaced her at Portsmouth, EXPRESS, would also replace her at Larne from Spring 2005. By this stage P&O Ferries was undergoing reorganisation and it had been decided to make cuts at the loss-making Portsmouth operation.
This meant that EXPRESS was spare in the fleet. SUPERSTAR EXPRESS was sold to Buquebus and renamed AVEMAR DOS for service across the Gibraltar Strait between Algeciras and Ceuta. In 2008 she passed to Baleària for whom she continues in service on the same route today.
SUPERSTAR EXPRESS could accommodate 800 passengers in P&O Irish Sea service, a 33% increase in the 600 passenger capacity of JETLINER. She could also accommodate 107 cars on the main deck, with a further 68 cars on her mezzanine deck. Alternatively, 70 cars and ten coaches could be carried. Four 6,850kW MTU 20V 1163 TB73L engines linked to Reintjes gearboxes could propel her up to 41 knots using KaMeWa water jets. Even though the ship had a design passenger capacity of 872, she could be crewed by just 24. The passenger spaces were spread out over two decks with a grand central staircase connecting the two. Onboard there were separate restaurant and bar areas, a kids play area, shop, video games, and a Club Class premium lounge.
EXPRESS would continue on the seasonal Larne to Troon route until 2015 when it was closed by P&O Ferries at the end of the vessels charter. She was the final fast-craft in service between Northern Ireland and Scotland after the established operators P&O and Stena Line had seen off the SeaCat challenge with SUPERSTAR EXPRESS and HSS STENA VOYAGER. The latter vessel was withdrawn in 2011 due to her high operating costs having been replaced along with STENA CALEDONIA and STENA NAVIGATOR by STENA SUPERFAST VII and STENA SUPERFAST VIII.
The following images are official promotional pictures from P&O Irish Sea