Suzi Feay: Woman About World

The joy of decks: how I fell in love with ferries

You can keep your cruise liners and your luxury yachts. When I survey the shining pewter tray of the sea, sniffing the potent tang of diesel, it's from the highest deck of something far more robust and resonant than a pleasure cruiser. And when it comes to crossing the Channel, Le Shuttle and Eurostar might be convenient, but nothing can beat the sheer romance of the ro-ro.

I love ferries: egg and chips, one-armed bandits, muster stations, sticky carpets, the lot. The moment the car rolls up the dinted ramp is when the holiday really begins. The resolutely blue-collar ambience is set by the guy with earmuffs who beckons you in with casual indifference - "C'mon c'mon c'mon c'mon STOP." What could be as dismissive as that contemptuous flap of the hand?

The beauty of ferries lies in their utilitarianism. Yes, you may be going to the continent for a fortnight's break, but the lorry drivers of Europe have got widgets to transport, and while you may not actually see Pedro, Ivan and Jim - they're consigned below decks - their presence magically assures you that you are not simply a tourist. You are a traveller.

Ferries were a feature of every family holiday (I think we had shares in Townsend-Thoresen). I remember two clanking cross-channel warhorses above all - would it be Hengist, or would it be Horsa this time? (Another thing about ferries - they have great names.) I grew up, I kept crossing, to Ouistreham-Caen, Le Havre, Calais, St Malo. Pre-tunnel, it was the necessary prelude to a cheap trip to Paris (ah, the sight of the Orient-Express passengers on the deck below, vomiting over the side!). Summer holidays in my boyfriend's parents' "mobil'ome" near Quimper meant regular trips on Brittany Ferries. Too poor or too late to book a cabin on overnighters, we got entirely too close to those sticky carpets more than once.

Of late, though, the British and continental ports have lost their charm, the ferries themselves a little of their magic. A crossing to Santander on Brittany Ferries was a trip too far. The cafés on the Pride of Bilbao closed ridiculously early that night. A rough passage across the Bay of Biscay on a supper of only such food as can be obtained in the tax-free shop - cheese-filled crêpe snacks, macadamia nuts and Anton Berg chocolates - is not to be recommended. And on my last trip, a short crossing to Dover hideously extended by bad weather, the sickening feeling of dropping the height of a double-decker bus on to a concrete floor over and over again, could only be eased by the sort of deep breathing more associated with childbirth. I was watched throughout by a lorry driver eating an ogre-sized packet of cheese and onion crisps, and laughing.

At times like that, it's hard to remember that ferries have mythic qualities, too. We've all got to face the ferryman eventually - Charon, who'll have our last obol as he takes us over the Styx. (I picture it rather like the Woolwich ferry: it goes from nowhere to nowhere and is filled with doleful people carrying plastic bags.) Ferries are not pleasure craft. Baleful damsels pilot them in The Faerie Queene. Gloomy Venetians as well as skint tourists queue up for the traghetto across the Grand Canal. Esther Freud's isolated heroine in The Sea House is forever making moody little trips across the strait from Southwold to Walberswick on the ghostly Suffolk coast, trying to feel less like an incomer.

As for me, I needed to go across the world to find the magic again. Canada's BC Ferries provide the perfect mix of poetry and practicality. The fleet threads its way through some of the most glorious scenery in the world - the rugged coasts of British Columbia - yet those mysterious, mist-clad rocks and islands are inhabited by ordinary folk who need to get about. My brother, living at Sechelt on the laid-back Sunshine Coast (the Rainy Coast, before it was rebranded) commutes to Vancouver by ferry a couple of days a week. The Rock's remote island feel is belied by its regular and swift service back to civilisation.

Saturna, a tiny Gulf island I stayed on a couple of summers ago, has no municipal garbage collection and no litter bins; a house-to-house service is organised by an enterprising islander who trucks the rubbish away - on the ferry, of course. Using that route makes you part of the island community, for however brief a period. Saturna's only traffic jam occurs when the ferry's about to dock, and when I was there, the woman who checked the tickets by the ferry ramp also operated the island's one gas pump, popping out of her cabin at the sight of a thirsty car.

During a strike among air traffic controllers, I took a BC ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The crossing was rough, mostly under cover of darkness, and better forgotten. But a few years later, when asked why I was reading Jonathan Raban's A Passage to Juneau, I could say impressively, "Well, I've travelled down that stretch of water myself ..."

Raban gloriously describes the eruption of a killer whale out of the water hard by his tiny boat as being like a car bomb going off. On one of my very first BC Ferry trips, from the gloriously named Tsawwassen terminal south of Vancouver to Swartz Bay on the Island, the captain alerted us to the sight of a pod of orcas swimming alongside the vessel. Complacently, I thought this would happen nearly every time. Of course, I've never seen that glorious sight again, despite hours of hanging over rails and hoping. But orca or no orca, just give me that whiff of sea-spray, chips and diesel, and I'm perfectly content.

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