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Thumbs up for ‘Julia’ despite setbacks on inaugural voyage
By Leo McMAHON - Southern Star - Saturday March 20th, 2010

Conor Buckley, chairman West Cork Tourism Co-op welcomes Derek and Rosemary Abbey from Derby, the first car passengers to disembark from the MV Julia on its maiden voyage from Swansea to Ringaskiddy, Cork.

DESPITE the technical hitches, the delays and tides of misfortune, the vast majority of passengers who made the historic first scheduled voyage from Ringaskiddy to Swansea last weekend on board Fastnet Line’s ‘M.V. Julia’ expressed themselves well satisfied with the ferry.

‘The People’s Ferry’ owned by the Fastnet Line, a wholly-owned subsidiary of West Cork Tourism Co-op, offers real hope for tourism and trade in the south west region as it attempts in a practical and positive way to reverse the economic downturn and although the venture has been beset by numerous set backs, including cancellations since March 1, the strong sense of good will and determination for its success remains unwavered.

Last Thursday, March 11, the ‘Julia’ left Ringaskiddy just after the scheduled departure time of 9pm but dropped anchor for about 20 minutes just inside the entrance to Cork Harbour as a result of an electronic power failure to one of its four engines. Captained by Ivan Walsh, it managed to continue its journey to Swansea at slightly reduced speed but because of low tide on arrival at Swansea Bay, was unable to dock until 1pm.

The ferry was due to sail at 7pm on Friday, March 12 and although the inner bow door was closed, the electronic device to indicate same was faulty so Captain John Grace announced that for safety reasons, it was not possible to depart on schedule. The matter was rectified and the ‘Julia’ left Swansea on the next available tide at 1am and arrived into Ringaskiddy at 2pm on Saturday. Over 100 passengers on board were given vouchers for drinks in the Island Bar entertainment area and a complimentary meal.

Naturally, the delays on both journeys were most disappointing not only for first time passengers but also for the crew and management yet overall, as one person put it, most were “relaxed and philosophical”, being of the view that teething problems were better dealt with now rather than occurring in the high season. It was also stressed that having met its dry-docking process successfully and achieved certification and testing of safety systems, ‘Julia’ had met the strictest requirements demanded by the International Safety Management Code prior to commencing service.

Setbacks apart, the journeys both way were otherwise very smooth on board the 28 years old vessel which previously served in the Baltic Sea. ‘Julia’ has capacity for 1,860 passengers, 440 cars, 40 trucks and trailers. It has 300 cabins, extensive deck and indoor public areas, 15 kennels and sails six nights a week all year round. Pre-bookings have exceeded €1 million.

Food in the Fastnet Restaurant (head chef Sean Murphy) self-serving dining area and snack bar is excellent while the cabins (14 deluxe) are very comfortable and significantly rattle free, thereby ensuring a good night’s sleep. Good value is on offer in the shop. The crew totalling almost 80, comprised of mainly Irish and East European personnel, are friendly, very hard working and most helpful and among those we met were Paula McDougal, chief bursar; Aidan Kneeshaw, deck cadet; Sebastian and Agita in the restaurant and Victoria in the Island Bar.

Soon to be activated we’re told, are the cinema, children’s play area, televisions and casino. There is also need, I was told, for a new gangway to be provided by Associated British Ports at Swansea because until this in place, foot passengers must go through this terminal by mini bus.

Staff, shareholders and other supporters of the ferry on the inaugural voyage to Swansea included general manager Paul O’Brien; John Williams from Cardiff who has long agitated for the return of the Wales-Cork sea link and John Hosford who, along with Adrian Bagnall from Ballydehob tirelessly spearheaded the e petition campaign.

I also met Dena O’Donovan, who travelled with her 89-years-young mother, Mary, from O’Donovan’s Hotel and Con and Margaret Sexton, 43 years in business at Sexton’s Caravan Park, near Clonakilty, who had their literature in place next to the reception. Impromptu entertainment on the outward journey was provided by the talented West Cork based musician Justin Grounds en route to performing in The Luminaire, Kilburn, London.

Travelling also were Marie Walsh, wife of former Minister Joe Walsh; retired Clonakilty shopkeeper Mary Harte, Tim and Bridget (nee Kingston) Brooke from Bristol who have a holiday home at Rossbrin on the Mizen Peninsula; Colin Barrett, a man with a great knowledge of ferry ships; Denis and Theresa Murphy, Blackrock who said they would like to see young people from Swansea and Cork given work experience opportunities on the ship; Conor Moloney and retired Port of Cork employee Derry Desmond, who said it was the smoothest and most silent ship he had travelled on.

Every person spoken too had no complaints about price (e.g. €319 return for a car with two passengers and a cabin on both journeys) saying it compared well with other sea route providers when one took into account the accommodation provided and savings in fuel on a round trip of 600 kilometres by road.

As with all ventures, teething problems are unavoidable but based on a casual vox-pop of passengers on both sailings, suggestions included: 1) Improved marshalling at both Ringaskiddy and Swansea vehicle waiting areas so that travellers know exactly what is going on; 2) More prompt and regular communication with passengers on board to explain delays etc., if any; 3) Large display panels detailing the menus outside the eating areas, especially for the self-service restaurant; 4) A manned on board information desk with directions and literature to help first time visitors to Wales and Ireland; 5) a review of prices on some items (e.g. €4.55 for a pint of Beamish and €2.25 for a croissant and €35 for a meal in the restaurant could possibly be reduced) and 6) generally more attention to detail.

Carol from Andover, Hampshire called for Fastnet Line to follow the practice of other carriers whereby cars with a disabled traveller can flash hazard lights in the queue at the terminal and be parked close to a lift at the car deck and also near same in a cabin. There was also need for more information and staff presence for waiting foot and car passengers if there is a delay on boarding, she stated but otherwise was well pleased with the ship itself.

Overall, several passengers remarked on the sense of space and high comfort on board the ‘Julia’ and stressed a genuine desire to see the new service establish itself in year one and succeed for the benefit of tourism, trade and the general economy of the Cork and Swansea regions. Paul O’Brien said that two thirds of bookings had to date come from the UK, many along the M4 corridor between Swansea and the southern half of England leading to London and added that there was more marketing to come.

Many Welsh people made the journey to Cork, some to view the Ireland v Wales rugby match at hostelries in Co. Cork. The oldest passenger was 90 years young at heart Richard Miles from Clarence Street, Swansea making his first visit to Ireland just for a day. He watched the rugby game in Carrigaline Court Hotel.

During our short stay in Wales, which included a quick visit to the spectacular Rhossili beach and Worm Head in the Gower Peninsula, we met Pennard Community Councillor George Nash who expressed delight at the return of the ferry, in the 14th century Beaufort Arms in Kittle.It’s hoped that the twinning link between Pennard with Passage West-Monkstown signed in 1997, can be revived as a result of the ferry’s return. Kinsale is twinned with Mumbles near Swansea and has a friendship pact with Barry and the ferry is seen as giving opportunities for sporting, cultural and business links between other centres in Co. Cork and South Wales.

Many goodwill messages have been conveyed since the Cork-Swansea sea link was restored on March 10, including those from Welsh Assembly First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones and just prior to his resignation for health reasons, Minister for Tourism Martin Cullen TD.

Brendan Keating Chief Executive, Port of Cork said: “I would like to acknowledge the great effort of West Cork Tourism Co-Op in re-establishing the ferry service from Cork to Swansea. The arrival of MV Julia into Ringaskiddy to commence her service was a memorable day and I hope it will be the first of many sailing across the Irish Sea. This service will provide a vital link for both tourism and trade to the region.”

“It’s great to see the ferry sailing again,” said West Cork based Senator Denis O’Donovan.  “It’s been a long fight to get the service to this stage but from here on in we should start to see the benefits of bringing back this route.  It has been a huge loss to Cork and the entire South West region since it stopped in 2006 and it was important to get it back up and running for the benefit of our local tourism industry.”

“I expect the ferry to have a major impact on Cork tourism over the coming tourism season.  Our strongest tourism market continues to be Britain and this service will give many British tourists easier access to the South West.  That can only be good news for our hotels, our B and B providers, our restaurants, our bars and everyone who works in the tourism industry.

“It is estimated that bringing back this route will create approximately 1,100 jobs in the region and generate between €40 and €50 million for Cork and Kerry per annum.  That will have a very real impact on our local economy and the people of Cork who depend on it for their livelihoods. While there is still work to be done to secure more funding for the service, it is fantastic that we have reached this point and the ferry is sailing to our shores once more,” Senator O’Donovan concluded.

The sailing out of Ringaskiddy last Saturday was cancelled and at the time of writing, engineers were working to deal with outstanding technical faults ahead of the next scheduled sailing which was due to take place on Tuesday. All affected passengers were offered alternative travel arrangements, 50% discounts on future trips or full refunds.

Enquiries regarding the Cork Swansea ferry can be made to Fastnet Line, Ringaskiddy, Tel 021-4378892 in Swansea at 0044 844 5768831 or at