North Sea Ferries: 1965 - 2002

It was 1965, it was a different world. Growing car ownership saw the government introduce the 70 miles per hour speed limit on motorway's. Overseas travel and trade was booming, and a new company was finalising plans to transform ferry links between the UK and Holland.

It was on 17 December 1965 that a company called North Sea Ferries started what would become nothing short of a revolution, when their newly built and purpose designed ship the "Norwave" made its inaugural sailing from Hull to Rotterdam’s Europoort in Holland. With sister ship "Norwind" a schedule was established that has been maintained pretty much to this day. P&O interest was through its subsidiary General Steam Navigation Company, which had a 35% stake in North Sea Ferries. With ships of 4,306 tons and a what was at the time a mighty 360 feet in length, it wasn't so much the space for 249 passengers that was unusual, as the ships capacity for trucks, trailers, coaches and cars.

The new service was not without its teething troubles though, news reports of the time tell how journalists sampled the crossing in a howling gale that had trailers bouncing around the vehicle deck, until they were firmly lashed down and sceptics / experts were sure the new ships were too ambitious, bringing too much capacity that couldn't possibly be required. These same people claimed the route would never survive and would fail. After all what ferry service needed to pass through locks to gain access to the ferry terminal. In the first year 54,000 passengers were carried. Over 40 years later it’s over a million. Not bad for a route that experts said would fail.

Despite the critics the service went from strength to strength, and in less than a decade demand so outstripped supply that in 1974 the vastly bigger "Norland" and "Norstar" were introduced. Fresh from the builders yards and designed once again by North Sea Ferries themselves, these 2nd Generation ships weighed in at 12,988 tons making them the largest ferries the world had ever seen at that time. However like most first's this title was taken by other ferries within a few years, however the title was to return to Hull again in years to come.

Ferries of this unprecedented scale transformed the comfort of passengers during the crossing and despite their larger size they still engaged in the daily practice of locking in and out of King George Dock in Hull. The true ocean-going capability of such ships was underlined when the Ministry of Defence requisitioned the British Registered "Norland" for service in the South Atlantic as part of the British Task Force sent to the Falklands in 1982. Following their introduction in 1974 these ships relieved the 1st Generation ships which in-turn, once again, pioneered new ground for North Sea Ferries and operated a nightly departure to the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium. Again a tradition was set with the Zeebrugge sailing departing about 30 minutes before the Rotterdam sailing, this delay was so that the first ship had time to begin clearing the lock gates and also free up space to allow the Rotterdam ship room to manoeuvre in the tight confines of King George Dock.

The "Norland" and "Norstar" were impressive in their day but history was soon to repeat itself and they soon became too small, so 1987 represented another giant leap in scale. Both routes had expanded to the point of requiring larger ships, so a decision was taken to design a 3rd Generation ship. The result of this design entered service in 1987 and saw a new corporate livery and an increased range of on-board facilities. Enter the "Norsun" and "Norsea". At 31,785 tonnes and 179 metres long, they were built to the very limit of what can pass through the lock gates into the King George Dock at Hull. The ships are 25.35 metres wide and the gates just 25.9 metres! Unlike other routes where ships were getting faster to reduce crossing times, the new "Norsun" and "Norsea" remained at 18.5 knots service speed, a speed introduced in 1965 over 20 years earlier. The argument was why increase the speed due to the length of the crossing and style of crossing there was no advantage.

Sadly the introduction of these ships saw the 1st Generation ships "Norwind" and "Norwave" leave the fleet, after 22 years of faithful service they were no longer large enough to cope or be profitable on the North Sea Routes. So following the "Norland" and "Norstar" being upgraded which also saw them being cut in half and an extra 20.35 meters placed in the middle of the ships the "Norwind" and "Norwave" sailed from UK waters for the last time having been sold on for further service in walmer waters.

Success continued to breed success and in 1996 the North Sea Ferries name was to sadly disappear, over 40 years after showing the critics that they were all wrong. However all is not bad, North Sea Ferries had by that time been owned 50% by P&O and 50% by the Royal Neddloyd Group of Holland. In a multimillion pound business deal Royal Neddloyd's share was purchased and the fleet incorporated fully into the P&O brand and route network. Little happened initially, the ships were repainted from the two tone blue of North Sea Ferries into the deep blue hulled P&O livery and also re-branded internally. Another tradition that was to change was the dropping of evening meals being included in the price of the crossing, these now needed to be purchased extra. Some say that the old North Sea Ferries livery suited the "Norsun" and "Norsea" far more than the deep blue of P&O ferries, something that was resolved in part a few years later when P&O Ferries went through a re-branding of their passenger fleet and dropped the full blue hull for a part blue hull that is seen today.

As part of the success over the years dedicated freight ferries became part of the fleet, sailing from Teesport in the North and Felixstowe in the South to both Rotterdam and Zeebrugge on a nightly basis. Freight ferries were becoming a common place as well at Hull with the ships once again beginning to struggle with the amount of freight being carried. In 1994 two new 'superfreighters' were built and entered service on a nightly basis from Hull to Rotterdam. These ships however were so large they were unable to pass through the lock at Hull and therefore a new river berth was constructed specially. The design of these ships was based on feedback from hauliers and as such they had an increased service speed meaning that a 9pm departure was possible without effecting the arrival time, also with not having to navigate the lock at Hull anything upto an hour could be saved.

These new ships whilst a success simply began the circle again and demand soon filled them, so within two years following the 1996 changes P&O went back to the drawing board and designed two new ferries. These new ferries can only be described as 'superferries' weighing in at over 60,000 tonnes they once again took the title of largest ferries. These ships were not surprisingly designed for the new river berth rather than the original passenger berths within the lock. These ships built by the cruise liner specialist Fincanterri of Italy and saw another North Sea Ferry tradition disappear as the ships entered service named "Pride of Hull" and "Pride of Rotterdam". The ships were essentially larger versions of the freight ships that were currently operating on the route and with a car deck added on top and then the passenger decks added on top of that. In 2001 when they entered service the "Norsea" and "Norsun" were sent away for upgrading pending transfer to the Hull to Zeebrugge service and again when they returned now carrying the names "Pride of York" ("Norsea") and "Pride of Bruges" ("Norsun") they took over from the "Norland" and "Norstar" which at 28 years of age were withdrawn and sold to SNAV in Italy for further service. As a sign of their condition they were still in service some 37 years after being built, however October 2010 saw them finally withdrawn from service and sent to India and the scrap yard.

The effort to refine services was constant and as the 40th anniversary date approached P&O Ferries introduced the acclaimed Langan's Brasserie to its North Sea ships. These authentic versions of the famous Langan's in London's West End have already proved a huge hit on other services operated by P&O Ferries.

Much of the North Sea Ferries operation remains today with freight services from Teesport in the North to both Rotterdam and Zeebrugge with the Southern route moving slightly to Tilbury. The operations out of Hull continue to operate to the same timings and once a year when the "Pride of Hull" or "Pride of Rotterdam" stand down for overhaul either the "Pride of York" or "Pride of Bruges" transfers back to the Rotterdam route and once again operate the route they were designed and built for. Timings for the route get confusing at this time as the older ships don't have the speed of the newer ships and as such the departure time is altered back to 18:30.

2017, some 52 years after North Sea Ferries set sail for the first time the news broke that the "Pride of York" and "Pride of Bruges" which are now 30 years old will receive a multi-million pound refit and continue in service for years to come. The ships whilst showing their age and over 2 million nautical miles are well looked after by their crews and given that they spend 10 hours a day in port have time to receive attention it is hoped by loyal travellers that they will remain in service for many years to come as no matter what they are eventually replaced any new ship will just not be the same.

Authors note:

I have had the privilege to have sailed on all the passenger ships from the "Norwind"/"Norwave" through to the "Pride of Hull"/"Pride of Rotterdam" and over the years of operating this website have met many great crew members and have also experienced being on the bridge of the ships as they passed through the lock at Hull which is an experience that just cannot be described. The skill of the Captains manoeuvring those ships through the tight confines is nothing short of impressive going forwards but on an Ebb Tide the ships are required to enter the lock stern first from the River and that seriously is impressive.