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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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
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

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine