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
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
  • Get to the point
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: Front of House Receptionist / Receptionist

    £21K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Front of House Receptionist to provide th...

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders