Slow boat to Boulogne puts emphasis on pleasure: A former Isle of Man ferry aims to return nostalgia to the Channel crossing. David Hewson reports

WHEN the Channel tunnel opens it could face competition from a former Isle of Man ferry that will sail between Folkestone and Boulogne from next month.

Tony Bertin, a Folkestone solicitor who is a director of the venture, said that using new technology for reservations and modern crewing agreements meant the service ought to be covering its pounds 300,000 monthly overheads within four weeks.

The 20-year-old Mona's Queen is due to start working the route three times a day each way from the middle of June. The tunnel will probably begin services early in the summer of next year.

Mr Bertin said the leased ferry, with promenade decks, a nostalgic feel and a ban on heavy freight lorries, was designed to bring back the pleasure of cross-Channel ferries. 'The modern ferries are factory ships that offer a shuttle service. We'll cater for the day-trip leisure market and the holidaymaker.'

The company aims to carry between 300,000 and 400,000 passengers a year with up to six sailings a day. Prices have not been fixed but will be 'competitive', Mr Bertin said. The Folkestone-Boulogne ferry company has been rapidly assembled to plug a hole in the market which was causing serious financial problems for the two port towns, and increasing friction between Boulogne and its northern neighbour Calais. The pounds 500,000 venture will create about 120 jobs, most of them in Folkestone.

Two years ago Sealink, P&O and Hoverspeed operated to Boulogne, carrying three million passengers and 300,000 cars annually. Sealink decided to concentrate its services on Calais in 1991, and, in January, P&O pulled out of Boulogne too, in preparation for competition with the tunnel through a new generation of huge super-ferries. Now the only service to the town is the Hoverspeed SeaCat from Folkestone, which has a capacity of 100,000 cars and 750,000 passengers a year. The SeaCat services are fully booked for much of the time.

The loss of passengers has devastated trade at cafes and restaurants in Boulogne and worsened rivalry with Calais, which has better road links but few tourist amenities. Attempts to run shuttle buses between the towns were abandoned when the Calais authorities refused to allow them.

The Boulogne port director, Daniel Lede, said: 'It would have given British tourists a real possibly to continue to visit Boulogne. The SeaCat is our only link and it is very busy indeed.'

Martin Brown, a partner in the Grape Shop, a Boulogne branch of the Battersea-based wine store, was amazed by the antipathy between the towns when he moved to Boulogne in January. 'They seem to abhor each other, and it goes back centuries,' he said. 'If you drive off the ferry at Calais you don't even see any signs for Boulogne - there aren't any.'

Annie Wable, the deputy mayor of Boulogne, has been soliciting support for the new ferry from the French authorities. The venture has also received the backing of Kent County Council and Shepway District Council, which covers Folkestone. But Mr Bertin said that the municipal support was limited to helping with business plans and providing guarantees for the ship charter. 'We will not be a subsidised operation,' he said. Finance came from a variety of banks, venture capital and private sources.

The executives include Ken Faulkner, a former passenger manager with Sealink and a former director of Townsend Thoresen, Richard King, a former executive with the Independent Television Commission, and Malcolm Conyers, a former Sealink captain.

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