Travel: Sailing down memory lane: Frank Barrett picks the winning chapter in our epic drama of ferry life on the high seas

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The Independent Travel
LAST month, inspired by P & O's announcement of a new service from Portsmouth to Bilbao, we published readers' memories of the old P & O service from Southampton to Portugal and Morocco operated by the Eagle. This week we offer a final selection of readers' recollections of other ferry services.

The prize of a return sailing on the new service for the best letter goes to Audrey Harrison of Chippenham, Wiltshire, for her memory of the baby that was dropped overboard (but happily survived). Although the Eagle's former captain said he had never heard of such an event (20 March), Mrs Harrison is resolute: 'I may have reached 70 but I have got a bit of memory left]'

She says she will pass the prize on to her recently married photographer son, Graham, and his Spanish wife, Amparo, who are keen to travel back to Spain to pick up wedding presents.

P & O's new service starts on 28 April. An eight-day return for a car and up to five passengers costs from pounds 437 to pounds 713, including cabin.

'ON 17 July 1980, my wife and I arrived at the Brittany ferry quay at Santander to find its vessel had broken down in Plymouth. Passengers were offered a full refund and a long drive back through France, or transport of their car by freighter and a chartered special flight.

'We accepted the latter. The aged Viscount was piloted by an affable, relaxed ex-RAF officer. Shortly before we reached Exeter airport, he announced with alarm that we would have to crash land. Pictures in the press next day showed it was a 'miraculous' escape of 62 passengers.

'The pilot lost his licence, but Ottery St Mary feted him at the summer show because he missed the village. We recovered to regard the world with much more affection and tolerance, although now we try to sit in 'exit' seats when flying.'

Robin Sellick

Market Harborough

'I RECALL a trip from Southampton to Bilbao in 1969 aboard Swedish Lloyd's Hispania (return fare for a family of four plus car: pounds 66). On the outward trip the car deck, normally accessible at all times, had to be closed because of the large number of passengers cooking meals on primus stoves around their cars.'

John Wood

Bury St Edmunds

'DID anybody else share our family's experience of crossing the Channel in the late Sixties from Torquay to Cherbourg? The service only ran for two years, I believe.

'We drove through the holiday throngs out on the pier on the Torquay seafront to join about seven other cars waiting to board the converted passenger boat: one would-be customer took one look at the ferry and left by road for Southampton.

'The boat had been converted to 'roll-on, roll-off' by welding a framework to the top deck. The system for loading was to drive up two planks on to a turntable which was rotated until it lined up with a vacant slot and then you were pushed into this slot.

'Our sailing was due to leave in mid-afternoon to arrive in France in the early evening in good time to find a hotel. In fact, we did not leave until the evening, arriving in Cherbourg at about 2am.

'When we boarded in Torquay, the tide was right out and the loading planks were at a reasonable angle. When we arrived in Cherbourg, it was high tide and the cars were 20ft above the pier. The drivers were summoned up to the cars and told to get ready to disembark (this manoeuvre was considered so dangerous that car passengers were instructed to walk off the ship).

'Drivers protested that the ramp was impossibly steep; there were no lights on the dock nor any sign of port workers. The crew insisted and lowered the planks, which were at a 45-degree angle. Driving off the turntable on to the planks, you could not see the planks or the dock.

'I thanked my lucky stars that I was not first in line, while feeling sorry for the elderly man who was. He was the sort of person who has misgivings but does not want to appear scared.

'Then, just as he was gingerly approaching the edge, a figure appeared on the dock running towards the boat, waving his arms and shouting: 'Non, non, non: arretez-vous.' Within a short time, a partially dressed crane-driver arrived and in a few minutes all the cars were swung off.

'When we returned three weeks later the company was in receivership and the ship manned by three men in pin-stripe suits. The few crew left were comatose in the bar. We were the only passengers.'

L B Sutcliffe


'IN THE summer of 1966, 'Wonderful' Radio London advertised The Londoner, a car ferry service from Tilbury to Calais with a special day-return fare and the chance to try a Swedish smorgasbord in the ship's restaurant.

The Londoner offered a cheap through route to Paris. But it was running at the time of the seamen's strike, so the British Railways/SNCF ferry was not operating.'

Clive Winter

London N12

'I WAS probably one of the earliest post-war disabled drivers to take a car on the Continent. In 1948-49, travelling from Dover to Calais in my ex-War Department Austin 8 open tourer, which I had converted to rudimentary hand-controls, I can remember the exhilaration at being hoisted aboard by crane while remaining in the car.

The method was simple and effective: slings were put under each wheel or a net enveloped the whole car - and one was deposited on the deck. One did not need to leave the comfort of one's own vehicle.'

John E W Burgess

South Molton

'THE lounge bar on the P & O ferry to San Sebastian was full of respectable passengers. The time was early evening. It was the golden age of youth travel, when the highways of Europe were filled with long-haired, bell-bottom wearers searching for free pleasure at a time when this was still safely available.

'The incident involved one of these hirsute bell-bottomers who had obviously spent the afternoon over-imbibing with the old duty-free rioja and Celtas cigarettes. He first drew attention to himself by racing along the deck and through the bar, issuing loud antipodean cries.

'When this produced no response, our Aussie resorted to indulging in the traditional Seventies statement by beginning to perform one of the more athletic streaks of the decade. This naturally succeeded in attracting the attention of the crew, who joined the race around the deck.

'There ensued a classic Keystone Cop chase around the boat, as our entertainer completed a series of laps through the bar, appearing on each occasion wearing less clothes but followed by a growing cross-section of the crew.

'He was eventually brought crashing to the ground by a chef. Rumour has it that he was clapped in irons and fed on bread and water for the rest of the trip.'

J H Kellett