From the Irish Times 18/06/2011

This article on Fastnet Line appeared in the Irish Times on the 18th June 2011 written by Brian O'Connell

Locals were so keen to revive Cork’s ferry link with Swansea that they raised €3 million to help buy a ship, and the route reopened last year. But, despite a good first 12 months, the service faces mounting challenges

OVER A YEAR ON, and the people behind what could be termed the closest thing to a socialist ferry this side of Havana are preparing for choppy financial waters.

When Swansea Cork Ferries stopped running its service, in 2006, it looked as if the passenger-ferry connection between southwest Ireland and south Wales had been lost to harsh commercial realities.

Yet locals in particular didn’t share that assessment, and a co-operative formed in an effort to re-establish the link. Many people, from university lecturers to shopkeepers, put their hands in their pockets, with some 300 people contributing about €10,000 each; the close to €3 million they raised helped to buy and fit out a ship to sail the route again.

The vessel was a German ferry, built in 1982, that had been working on cruise routes from Norway. Julia , as the ship was renamed, was bought for €7.8 million, and after its overhaul and some upgrading the “people’s ferry”, as it is now known, looked good for another decade at least. Now, however, Fastnet Line, the company that operates the ship, is battling rising costs and a seemingly unending Europe-wide recession.

The company says that, after some teething problems following the route’s reopening, in March last year, it met its target of carrying 78,000 passengers in its first 12 months, and in the coming weeks it expects Julia to carry its 100,000th passenger. For the route to remain profitable, the company needs to carry about 90,000 passengers a year. The company has introduced shorter and more flexible return breaks, cut fares by up to 40 per cent and fitted more luxury cabins, and it says its freight business is steady and growing.

When you ask people who are connected with the ferry, most say this year will be the real test of the commercial viability of the route. Although the booking office in Ringaskiddy has been taking more calls in recent weeks, passengers aren’t buying their tickets as far in advance as they used to, which makes it hard for Fastnet to judge how the summer season will turn out. Competition is intense; Stena Line and Irish Ferries are offering free places on their crossings for under-16s.

“This year will be a challenge for everyone in the travel industry, not least us,” says Michael Wood, Fastnet Line’s general manager. “There are a number of reasons for that. We face challenges with increased fuels costs, and it will be a late-booking year. People will still go on holiday but they are now booking later. I think, though, we seem to be holding our own in where we are compared to the market.”

ABOARD JULIA IN RINGASKIDDY , staff are mopping floors, stripping down machinery and changing bed linen in berths, getting the ship ready for one of its six night-time sailings between Cork and Swansea each week.

In the staff quarters, lunch is being served to crew in communal dining areas. At a separate table, Capt John Grace and chief engineer Robert Ives reflect on the previous 12 months. They are experienced seamen, with more than 40 years in the business between them. They swap notes on rough seas, engine capabilities and how much the industry has changed since they began their lives at sea.

Ives talks about how well the co-operative did in buying the ship, which he says was good business even though the vessel is almost 30 years old.

“I think they got an absolute bargain. A lot of the machinery has been improved since it was bought, but you must remember this ship was ahead of its time. The engines are extremely good, easy to work and not too expensive to keep going. A shipyard that knew what they were doing built it. I’ve seen some cheap builds not as well thought out, and to do simple jobs on them is very difficult. With the right staff, there is no reason why this can’t continue for a good long time. We are getting people coming back to us who like working here. All we need now is to get more guests on the ship.”

Grace says the ship’s passengers tend to be elderly holidaymakers, and one of the challenges for the company is to develop a broader appeal. It’s as much to do with changing public perception as with adapting its business model.

“When I first started out, in 1987, some of the ships were glorified cattle boats,” Grace says. “People were very surprised when the ash cloud hit last year and they had to travel by ferry. Many may not have done so for years and got a real culture shock. Now we have cinemas, bars, Wi-Fi and luxury cabins if you want them, whereas before they had a preconception you were herded on board and left to your own devices.”

The fortunes ofSwansea’s football team could turn out to be a saving grace for the route. In August Swansea City will become the first team outside England to play in the Premier League, having won promotion in a play-off against Reading. With their ground 15 minutes from the terminal, Fastnet Line is hoping for a bounce in numbers as a result. “During the winter time we will change the schedule to leave here on a Friday night so that people can go to the match, do a bit of shopping and leave for Cork the next day. Hopefully it can be a positive thing for us,” Grace says.

The travel industry can be a fickle world, and just because a route was well established in the past doesn’t mean it will thrive again. Also, the gap in service between 2006 and 2010 made tourists look elsewhere for their journeys to and from Ireland. The challenge for the company is to attract them back in large enough numbers to ensure the people’s ferry remains popular.

“The service was out of action for four years,” says John Hosford, one of the leaders of the campaign to bring back the ferry. “People went to alternative ports and operators, and now all that has to be gleaned back. So it’s like we are starting a new service in a sense. Except this time the local community are interested and engaged in it like never before.”

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