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St. Columba: Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead's Final Conventional Car-Ferry Scrapped in South Asia

9th January 2022
St. Columba, custom built for British Rail/Sealink on the historic Irish Sea Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead route from 1977 until replaced by the Stena (HSS) service in 1996, has finally gone to the shipbreakers in Pakistan. For almost 20 years the ferry for many generations was a familiar sight in Dun Laoghaire Harbour (above as Stena Adventurer) with bow-visor partially open when off Carlisle Pier.The ferry was to head to Dover-Calais route, hence renaming but this never materialised. With the closure of the Irish Sea route in 2014, Stena Line were already operating out of Dublin to Holyhead with another Stena Adventurer (built 2003) that continues to serve along with Stena Estrid. St. Columba, custom built for British Rail/Sealink on the historic Irish Sea Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead route from 1977 until replaced by the Stena (HSS) service in 1996, has finally gone to the shipbreakers in Pakistan. For almost 20 years the ferry for many generations was a familiar sight in Dun Laoghaire Harbour (above as Stena Adventurer) with bow-visor partially open when off Carlisle Pier.The ferry was to head to Dover-Calais route, hence renaming but this never materialised. With the closure of the Irish Sea route in 2014, Stena Line were already operating out of Dublin to Holyhead with another Stena Adventurer (built 2003) that continues to serve along with Stena Estrid. Credit: Stena Line retweeted

St. Columba, British Rail/Sealink's largest custom-built Dun Laoghaire-Holyhead ferry which served many a generation with fond memories and which left the Irish Sea 25 years ago, has gone for scrapping in Pakistan, writes Jehan Ashmore.

The 44 year-old Massarah, originally of 7,836grt when launched as St. Columba in 1977 at the Aalborg Werft A/S in Denmark to serve the premier Ireland-Wales route, replaced a pair of classic 'mail-boats' Hibernia and Cambria. In addition the £19m ferry displaced Holyhead Ferry I, built in 1965 for the route albeit this smaller car ferry was only stern-loading. St. Columba with 2,400 passengers was the biggest on the Irish Sea and carried 335 cars or 36 lorries or a combination of both.

In December, Afloat referred (see photo-caption) that St. Columba /Massarah had gone to the shipbreakers as the renamed Assarah when beached at Gadani, famously known for shipbreaking. The ferry after its Irish Sea career went to the Mediterranean where in Greek waters served as Express Aphrodite until 2006.

This was followed with a career serving Egyptian based shipowners, Namma Shipping Lines trading in the Red Sea with calls to include Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. This involved Massarah serving the busy annual Islamic pilgrimage when Muslims headed to Mecca where the Haji is held.

For almost 20 years, St. Columba plied the 57 nautical-mile Irish Sea route and after Sealink UK was privatised by the UK Government in 1984, was acquired by Sea Containers and with the altered brand name of Sealink British Ferries. The ship retained its Sealink name, see photo.

This was followed in 1990 by another owner, Stena Line which led to the ship renamed twice. In the following year a major internal refit led to the first renaming as Stena Hibernia, this in hommage to the route's historical mail-boat heritage by the Swedish shipowner.

But in the final years on the Irish Sea, the ferry took on another name, Stena Adventurer until withdrawn from the Irish Sea route in 1996.

In that same year was introduced the Highspeed Sea Service (HSS) Stena Explorer, a craft that marked a significant new era on the link as then the world's largest and fastest vehicle carrying/passenger fast-ferry. The 1,500 passenger craft also handled 375 cars and 50 lorries.

To the ferry purest in particular, the contrast was considerable marked, as the almost 20 knot St. Columba offered a two-class service spread across two main passenger decks. They included lounge/bars named Landsdowne and Cardiff Arms in recongition of rugby travellers! In addition to waiter and self-service buffet restaurents, TV lounges, discoteque, a duty-free shop and nursing mother's room. However, by 1983 the 129m ferry was altered to a single-class passenger service.

Compared to St. Columba, the HSS Stena Explorer (preceded by a trio smaller 'Lynx' fast craft) consisted of just a single football sized passenger deck with open plan seating offering panoramic views through giant lattice windows. Though, despite the craft's much shorter 99-minute link been an advantage, the HSS still offered a Stena Plus / Motorists lounge, located forward and was impressive when underway at 40 knots! In addition to lounges, Duty-Free, MacDonalds and large-screen video panels for information etc.

Yet, despite the revolutionary design of the futuristic craft, the HSS only had a career of just 18 years on the Irish Sea when ceasing in 2014. (See: Ships Monthly, June 2015 for 'Farewell to Stena HSS' feature).

Whereas, St. Columba etc, had served for almost two decades, except for a single yet brief exception in 1982, having strayed to the St. Georges Channel. This was to stand in for chartered-in Stena Normandica while out of service on Sealink's Rosslare-Fishguard route.

St. Columba was named after the 6th century Irish abbot and with the ferry following sea trials was delivered in 1977 as alluded. Receptions were held in the ferry's homeport of Holyhead and then in Dun Laoghaire following an inaugural sailing from Anglesey in April. On board were members of the British Rail Board, tourism and other diginaties and at the Irish port the Taoiseach (prime minister) Liam Cosgrave was invited on board and also a reception was held in the nearby Royal Marine Hotel.

A maiden commercial crossing took place later from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, a route with origins that can be traced to 1835.

Introduction of St. Columba proved to be an instant success having after just one year in service carried its 1 millionth passenger. As the multi-purpose single ship modernised the link and notably as the Irish Sea's largest ferry with passengers accommodated in 1st and 2nd class quarters.

However, for many generations of Irish people emigrating to Britain and beyond, St. Columba, albeit sadly played a part in the nation's diapora. As the next step for passengers having disembarked in north Wales, was taking onward bus or train connection to UK cities and London to seek work.

Passenger traffic albeit of a happier note saw holidaymakers between the nations and those beyond taking the UK 'landbridge' to / from continental Europe. To those exclusively seeking a bargain with duty-free shopping (see recent comeback) or for some just intending a round-trip excursion.

St. Columba on a personal basis provided childhood memories having observed off the Kish Bank lighthouse, Dublin Bay and within Dun Laoghaire Harbour. In addition to having embarked on family holidays in 1981 and the following year, by taking the aforementioned 'landbridge' routes to France.

Noting some of these English Channel ferries would also serve on the Irish Sea due to a variety of operational reasons. The presence of Sealink's French-flagged counterpart ferries in Dun Laoghaire Harbour then seemed exotic! This was an added bonus and would strenghten my childhood interest with ferries and shipping in general.

When watching the St. Columba arrive in Dun Laoghaire, the somewhat stout-looking ship, when observed looking at certain angles, would berth bow-on at the harbour's linkspan at Carlisle Pier. It was at the adjacent quayside where the 'mail-boat' would occupy and opposite of the East Pier's Victorian bandstand.

This was an advantagous spot for onlookers when St. Columba's stern swung around (see recent Anna G containership story) for departures prior to heading through the harbour mouth.

Also fascinating to see was when the bow-visor opened when approaching the pierside, whereas in Holyhead, operations involved the stern-door when berthing in the port's inner harbour.

The confined harbour in Anglesey was why the ferry was designed with a stern-bridge to enable easier navigation when going astern beyond the Salt Island before swinging around within the harbour to head off the breakwater. See, recent Storm Barra / public access closure story.

Afloat understands that a former fleetmate of Stena Hibernia, the Altair, formerly St. Anselm/ Stena Cambria which served in tandem on the Irish Sea route during the early 90's, was awaiting to be broken up also in Asia.

As according to AIS, last month the ferry was last indicated to be offshore off Chittagong in Bangladesh. 

Published in Ferry
Jehan Ashmore

About The Author

Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore is a marine correspondent, researcher and photographer, specialising in Irish ports, shipping and the ferry sector serving the UK and directly to mainland Europe. Jehan also occasionally writes a column, 'Maritime' Dalkey for the (Dalkey Community Council Newsletter) in addition to contributing to UK marine periodicals. 

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Ferry & Car Ferry News The ferry industry on the Irish Sea, is just like any other sector of the shipping industry, in that it is made up of a myriad of ship operators, owners, managers, charterers all contributing to providing a network of routes carried out by a variety of ships designed for different albeit similar purposes.

All this ferry activity involves conventional ferry tonnage, 'ro-pax', where the vessel's primary design is to carry more freight capacity rather than passengers. This is in some cases though, is in complete variance to the fast ferry craft where they carry many more passengers and charging a premium.

In reporting the ferry scene, we examine the constantly changing trends of this sector, as rival ferry operators are competing in an intensive environment, battling out for market share following the fallout of the economic crisis. All this has consequences some immediately felt, while at times, the effects can be drawn out over time, leading to the expense of others, through reduced competition or takeover or even face complete removal from the marketplace, as witnessed in recent years.

Arising from these challenging times, there are of course winners and losers, as exemplified in the trend to run high-speed ferry craft only during the peak-season summer months and on shorter distance routes. In addition, where fastcraft had once dominated the ferry scene, during the heady days from the mid-90's onwards, they have been replaced by recent newcomers in the form of the 'fast ferry' and with increased levels of luxury, yet seeming to form as a cost-effective alternative.

Irish Sea Ferry Routes

Irrespective of the type of vessel deployed on Irish Sea routes (between 2-9 hours), it is the ferry companies that keep the wheels of industry moving as freight vehicles literally (roll-on and roll-off) ships coupled with motoring tourists and the humble 'foot' passenger transported 363 days a year.

As such the exclusive freight-only operators provide important trading routes between Ireland and the UK, where the freight haulage customer is 'king' to generating year-round revenue to the ferry operator. However, custom built tonnage entering service in recent years has exceeded the level of capacity of the Irish Sea in certain quarters of the freight market.

A prime example of the necessity for trade in which we consumers often expect daily, though arguably question how it reached our shores, is the delivery of just in time perishable products to fill our supermarket shelves.

A visual manifestation of this is the arrival every morning and evening into our main ports, where a combination of ferries, ro-pax vessels and fast-craft all descend at the same time. In essence this a marine version to our road-based rush hour traffic going in and out along the commuter belts.

Across the Celtic Sea, the ferry scene coverage is also about those overnight direct ferry routes from Ireland connecting the north-western French ports in Brittany and Normandy.

Due to the seasonality of these routes to Europe, the ferry scene may be in the majority running between February to November, however by no means does this lessen operator competition.

Noting there have been plans over the years to run a direct Irish –Iberian ferry service, which would open up existing and develop new freight markets. Should a direct service open, it would bring new opportunities also for holidaymakers, where Spain is the most visited country in the EU visited by Irish holidaymakers ... heading for the sun!

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