Ben My Chree (Isle of Man Ferry) Review

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company is the oldest continually operating passenger shipping company in the world, having begun operations in 1830.

Today they operate regular ferry (and fast ferry) services which connect the Isle of Man to Heysham, Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin.

The Steam Packet carries around 600,000 passengers annually (2017 figures) and 170,000 cars and motorcycles. This represents an increase in passenger traffic of around 35% and 50% in vehicle traffic since 1996

I took ‘Ben My Chree’ (Woman of my heart), which is their current all-weather ferry, from Heysham, Lancashire, to Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man. I was a foot passenger, so I cannot comment on the car or motorbike experience.

At the time of writing (Aug. 2017) Footloose-fares (foot passenger) start at £18.00 each way for Adults & £9.00 for Children. There are also ‘Rail & Sail’ combo-tickets on offer.

Heysham

The facilities at Heysham ferry terminal are small, limited, yet adequate. There is a small shop, a café and seated waiting area. However the terminal has its own railway platform accommodating 2-carriage push-pull trains to Lancaster, a half an hour journey.

The sea crossing to Douglas is around three and a half hours, although it can take a little longer in poor sea conditions.

Ben-my-Chree was built by van der Giessen de Noord of the Netherlands and launched on 4 April 1998. The sixth vessel to carry the name, she is registered in Douglas, Isle of Man.

At a gross tonnage of 12,747, she is the largest ship so far to enter service with the company, although she is small by modern ferry standards.

Her passenger lounges have been modified since conception (expanded) and she now carries up to 630 passengers and 275 cars on two cargo decks. She has 20 four-berth cabins on offer. Her maximum speed is 19.5 knots.

Passenger Facilities

AlthoughBen My-Chree is comfortable and has all the facilities you need for her relatively short journeys that she undertakes, she feels like a ‘ferry’ and NOT a cruise ship, like some of today’s mega-ferries.

The Ben My-Chree’s passenger facilities are centred on Deck 7.

(Courtesy Steam Packet)

Deck 7

Coast-to-Coast café
Junior Shipmates children’s play area
Legends café/bar
Ocean Avenue shop
Manannan Premium Lounge
Niarbyl Reserved Lounge
Passengers with dogs lounge

Deck 8

Manannan Executive Lounge
Passenger cabins
Outside deck

At the bow of deck 7, is the Manannan Premium Lounge which is forward facing, being located above the navigational bridge. It has just 57 seats, some with tables or aircraft style fold down trays. A seat here will cost £17.50 and includes free tea/coffee, biscuits and newspapers. The staff will get meals for you from the café (chargeable). This small lounge can be relatively peaceful. It may also be cooler than the other lounges. It’s price can double you fare, but some passengers think it is well worth it.

Premium Lounge (Courtesy of Steam Packet)

Directly behind the ‘premium Lounge’ , is the heart of the ship is the Coast-to-Coast café/lounge area with many tables and chairs, plus some some bench seating. This is where many people sit for the duration of the crossing. This can be quite a noisy lounge.

At the aft of the ship deck 7, starboard side, is the Niarbyl Lounge, which has 89 seats in a theatre style layout. However most of the seats face backwards towards windows offering some sea views of the stern.  You can reserve a seat here for £5 (prices of Aug. 2017). It’s not a dedicated ‘quiet’ lounge as such, but it may be quitter than the café area.  Passengers can sit in seat within this lounge for free, if they have not been reserved and there will often be some available.

Niarbyl Reserved Lounge (Courtesy Steam Packet)

On the port side, aft, is Legends Café/bar, which has more of a pub feel with tables/chairs and some soft-bench seating.

At the bow of deck 7, is the Manannan Premium Lounge which is forward facing, being located above the navigational bridge. It has just 57 seats, some with tables or aircraft style fold down trays. A seat here will cost £17.50 and includes free tea/coffee, biscuits and newspapers. The staff will get meals for you from the café (chargeable). This small lounge can be relatively peaceful. It may also be cooler than the other lounges. It’s price can double you fare, but some passengers think it is well worth it.

There is also a dedicated room for passengers with pets (mainly dogs). The charge is £10 per animal.

The toilets were kept clean and were plentiful.

‘The Manannan Executive Club’ on deck 8, has  annual membership fee and is aimed at frequent travellers. The cost of a 1 year membership to the Executive Club is  £325.00 for a single membership and £515.00 for a joint membership. I never actually saw it, but I don’t believe food is included in the price,which does not sound great value to me.

The Coast-to-Cost Cafe’s food selections were simple: bacon/egg, Curry, Chilli and Fish & Chips etc. although tasty and filling. These was also a good range of pre-packed sandwiches, salads, pasties and muffins etc.  No one went hungry.  However all food and drink was a little over-priced of course. There was no fine dining option on this little ferry.

DSC_0305

(M.Oliver)

Originally open decks were not offered to passengers as built. The open deck is now available and reached by two staircases. Although not extensive in area, they were two levels, the upper level offering some forward views, but potentially being more windy, even though there were glass screens to offer some shelter. The lower level offered mainly aft views of the ships wake.

There was normally a few passengers walking their dogs and many smokers who were difficult to avoid as smoking was allowed anywhere on the outer decks.

Even though I took an August crossing, the seas became pretty choppy an hour and half away from Douglas. I believe the sea gets shallower as the island approaches and a moderate wind contributed to the ships movement. The fact that this is a small ferry must also affect her stability.  However I believe sailors would have called it ‘moderate’, but many landlubbers would disagree.

Berthing and disembarkation were handled pretty efficiently.

Douglas

Douglas sea terminal is a very impressive 1965 building and the facilities are more impressive than Haysham’s. In fact it feels like a small airport.

It has a crown on top which used to be a restaurant called the ‘Crows Nest’ , but unfortunately it became the harbour control unit.

There was more seating, a Costa, a WH Smiths and a tourist information shop.

DSC_0171

(M.Oliver)

The terminal is at the west end of the two mile promenade. So if your chosen hotel is on the promenade, it is possible to walk to it. Mind you if it’s at the east end, and you have heavy luggage, a five minute taxi ride would be wise. These will be waiting outside the terminal. The Steam and electric railways are a five minute taxi ride away too.

As for the Isle Of man, it’s not all about ‘TT Racing’, it’s a charming island steeped in history with much of it preserved for all to see.  I’d recommend a visit.

Conclusion

Ben My-Chree is not the sort of ferry that makes you go ‘wow’. She is a work-horse. However her smaller size makes he somewhat charming and friendly in feel. The two lounges that were added (forward and aft) and the access to open deck has improved her beyond the original design limitations.

Ben My-Chree may be slower, but she will give you a smoother ride in the temperamental Irish sea than her fast-ferry sister, Manannan. She’s also not so prone to cancellations due to rough weather or technical problems.

Malcolm Oliver

(One word of warning: Steam Packet’s Fast-Ferry, Manannan, is more prone to being cancelled due to poor weather or technical problems compared to Ben.)

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