Le Havre: Route Closure (2005)

41 years after Otto Thoresen opened the Western Channel route to Le Havre, initially from Southampton but soon relocated to Portsmouth saw what was thought to be the final sailing between the two ports, on the 30th September 2005. P&O Ferries that had operated the route since 1987 after its takeover of "European Ferries" and in that time the route was to go through highs and lows both in fortunes and in the ships that operated on the route.

P&O Ferries undertook a full scale business review in 2004 which when published in September of that year rocked the ferry world when the announcement came that not only would the Portsmouth to Le Havre route close but also the equally historic Portsmouth to Cherbourg route also. Initially both routes were to be closed at the end of 2004, however the Le Havre route was given, what was believed to be a reprieve when the French company Brittany Ferries entered the scene and began negotiations with P&O to sub-charter the two ships "Pride of Portsmouth" and "Pride of Le Havre" along with the crews. Brittany Ferries planned to continue the route using the same ships, but operating a tri-angle system so that they operated to and from Le Havre overnight, with the one ship operating a round trip from Le Havre during the day and the other ship doing a round trip to Cherbourg from Portsmouth during the day. The handover was planned to be the end of September 2005, but sadly during a British Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation into the above mentioned transaction, Brittany Ferries withdrew from the deal in early 2005. The writing was on the wall that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission were going to block the deal on competition grounds despite it being obvious to everyone at the time that Brittany Ferries would have the monopoly on the Western Channel regardless of the deal. Therefore the axe once again was looming for the ships, the route and more importantly the crews and it was announced that the route would close after the summer season, and the 30th September would be a day to remember.

Both the "Pride of Portsmouth" and "Pride of Le Havre" have served the Portsmouth to Le Havre route faithfully for 11 years following their introduction in 1994. However the ships were not owned by P&O Ferries but were instead charted from their owners following the closure of the Sheerness to Vlissingen route, operated by Olau Line, due to union action and at the time it was quite a coup for P&O to obtain these vessels as they were highly sought after due to the high standard of onboard layout and fittings. But they came at a high cost not just in charter fees but also in the fact that P&O Ferries were late to the "superferry" concept on the Western Channel routes so P&O were constantly playing catch up with Brittany Ferries which at the time and since have been its been rumoured subsidised. At the end of the day there are many thoughts as to why the Portsmouth operations failed, but these are in the past and cannot change what is done.

I was lucky enough to be onboard the final sailing to and from Le Havre and the cold, wet and overcast morning in Portsmouth seemed to echo the occasion. Arriving at the port the "Pride of Portsmouth" was seen on her berth awaiting loading for the final sailing to Le Havre. The terminal staff were in good spirits despite most their jobs ending that day and were happy to help and assist to the last. The ship itself was reasonably loaded with passengers, the majority probably unaware of the significance of the crossing although there were a proportion of the passengers that were only to aware of what the day meant. Onboard were a group of press agents, P&O management and of course a large group of ferry enthusiasts who had travelled from all over the country to travel one last time and to wish the crew, many of whom regular travelling enthusiasts considered friends all the best for the future.

The departure saw more than normal amounts of people on deck, given the wet conditions, for the morning sailing to Le Havre and the ship slipped her moorings on-time at 8.30am and after swinging off the berth in front of rival Brittany Ferries "Mont St Michel" the ship headed out through the Naval Dockyard and out into the channel. Looking around the ship you could see the pride and professionalism of the crew, the ship was clean, tidy and apart from various shop announcements informing passengers about special discounts for the final sailing to Le Havre you could have been forgiven for mistaking the crossing for a normal everyday occurrence. Mid-way across the channel we passed fellow fleet mate and sister ship the "Pride of Le Havre" as she sailed in the opposite direction to Portsmouth on her final ever crossing for she was to begin de-storing upon her arrival that afternoon in Portsmouth pending lay-up on the River Fal.

The departure from Le Havre for the final time was unusually delayed due to industrial action by the port workers. The port workers then lined the berth to wave goodbye as the ship slipped her moorings and sailed away. The open decks of the "Pride of Portsmouth" were once again full with enthusiasts recording the event and passengers waving back to the port workers. With the flag flying at half mast and to the sound of the ships horn the ship manoeuvred out into the outer harbour and then through the port entrance. Six hours later, the "Pride of Portsmouth" quietly slipped into a cold and wet Portsmouth harbour having past fleet mate "Pride of Le Havre" and half-sister "Val de Loire" (operated by Brittany Ferries) outside of the harbour. The "Pride of Le Havre" was anchored and the "Val de Loire" on her overnight crossing to St Malo for Brittany Ferries.

After spending the weekend being de-stored in Portsmouth the ships headed down the channel to Falmouth and lay-up on the River Fal where they were to remain until transfer to their new owners SNAV in January 2006.

During December 2005 the ships were rotated through dry-dock at Falmouth for all the P&O branding to be removed, the ships were also renamed during this period.

Ironically only a few days later it was announced that the route would re-open, this time an Italian Maritime Company Louis Dreyfous Armateurs under the banner of LD Lines had chartered a vessel that was at the time barely suitable for the route and began operating 1 departure per day from each port, down from P&O's 3 departures a day. In what could be thought of as a kick in the teeth the ship had previously served P&O Ferries for several years on their Dover to Calais service before being returned to her owners in May 2005 as part of the same business review that closed the Le Havre Route. Now renamed "Norman Spirit" the ship was to be operated as a budget style operation and over the course of the next 12/18 months was to undergo various onboard modifications to make the ship more suitable for the route but never reaching the levels of onboard comfort as the ships that sailed before it.

Today, again ironically, the route is now operated by Brittany Ferries. LD Lines merged with DFDS Seaways in 2013 and the route was closed again at the end of 2014 due to not being profitable. As the saying goes "what goes around, comes around".