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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
voices
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
newsBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried