‘Ferries: More than the sum of their bars’

Cross channel ferry

A ferry is the perfect place for shipping to engage with the general public, but it’s an opportunity that seems to be being missed. By James Wilkes.

Like thousands of people, I took a cross-channel ferry to France and back this summer.

At times it seemed I was the only passenger who got that we were on a ship.

By that I mean I felt I was the only passenger who realised that first and foremost a ferry is a ship. The fact that it is also a relatively entertaining form of passenger conveyance is secondary.

I was genuinely excited when I drove onto the vessel at Portsmouth for the overnight crossing from England to France. I watched as the crew (deck and engineers, as opposed to hotel staff) went about their work loading cars, vans, caravans, trailers and trucks – its cargo – for the crossing.

I breathed-in the oily smells of the vessel and felt the thrumming of its compressors, air conditioning units and generators under my feet.

I watched from the upper deck as the ship took on fuel from the immaculately-presented 7,000 tonne bunker barge WHITONIA.

I smiled when a solid shudder of the hull announced the starting-up of the main engine and the fact that we would be underway imminently.

The return passage was a daytime voyage of about nine hours. That’s a lot of time to kill even when you include periods of eating, drinking, watching the summer pantomime and trying to keep the children entertained.

However, I had 4G and the advantage of App-based AIS which meant I could track our course and identify the ships we were passing or that we saw on the horizon. I could also tell where they were going and what cargo they were carrying.

It was a small, slightly anorak-ish indulgence to be honest, but it made the voyage considerably more interesting.

However, and I might be doing many of my co-passengers a disservice here, my sense was that I was utterly alone in the fun I was having.

I was okay with that to begin with. It was my secret; my guilty pleasure. I knew something they didn’t; that this ferry was a ship and, to me at least, that made it special.

But it quickly began to bug me that here was a ship, carrying a lot of people, and there was next to nothing on board to tell them, me, us, anything about the ship, as a ship.

Nothing to explain what drives the vessel, nothing to explain who drives the vessel; no pictures or videos of the bridge or the engine room. None of all the technical stuff that we think is cool when it’s on an aeroplane.

For all the many flat screen-TV’s displaying what’s on the menu in the restaurants, the buy-one-get-one-free offers in the duty free shop and the premiership football match of that Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t one showing the progress of the ship’s passage or what other shipping was in the area.

There was nothing to engage any of the passengers; nothing to invite them to understand how a modern ship works.

That seems such a wasted opportunity.

People in shipping complain that we’re no good at selling shipping to the general public and that the man or woman on the street doesn’t understand the importance of ships.

Maybe that’s true.

But here was a situation where a couple of thousand people were on a ship for nine hours with, let’s face it, not all that much to do. It was a chance to involve, educate – even inspire. It was a chance that was left begging.

If all the ferries plying between England and France made some sort of effort to educate and engage just think how many adults and, more important, children could have their interest kindled.

Ferries are more than the sum of their bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities. They are ships, and often quite big ones at that.

It’s a sad contradiction that while ferries are probably the one ship many of the general public experience first-hand they remain so obviously overlooked.


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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