This week I visited Finland to see how the building of two new ships for P&O Ferries is progressing.
I was among a party of journalists who flew out from London to Helsinki on June 7 and made the three-hour journey across this sparsely-populated country to Rauma, where the vessels are being built at the shipyard of STX Europe.
Rising early the next morning we travelled the short distance from our hotel to the yard, where we were given a guided tour of the first of the ships, Spirit of Britain, which was to be floated out of her dry dock later that day.
The only previous occasion I visited a ship in the yard was in July 2008, when I was invited by SeaFrance to see Moliere being refitted at Dunkerque prior to her entry into the Dover market.
As then, I found it difficult while touring Spirit of Britain to understand why she represents such a leap forward for P&O, who describe this project as ‘two new ships, one new era’.
At 213 metres in length and 49,000 tonnes these will be the largest ships to ever sail between the Port of Dover and Calais. They will be capable of carrying twice as much traffic as the two ships they are replacing, the Pride of Dover and the Pride of Calais, but will require almost exactly the same crew level and amount of fuel.
It is these economies of scale that will really make the difference for P&O and leave the company well placed to capitalise when real growth returns to the economy.
Spirit of Britain, and her sister Spirit of France, whose keel-laying ceremony was held on the same day, are costing the company 360 million euros and have been designed to meet the highest safety and environmental standards.
P&O Ferries chairman Robert Woods said: “These ships are destined to become the most recognizable on the English Channel.
“And along the way people are going to marvel at their sheer size, the brilliance of their design, the luxurious nature of the facilities and their environmental credentials.
“Over many years to come they will carry millions of people and millions of vehicles and they are going to be a great success.”
After sending out requirements to numerous shipyards around the world and visiting 11 of them, it settled on Aker Yards, now STX Europe.
John Garner, the P&O Ferries fleet director, said: “We specified their specialist ferry yard as we had a clear vision to build for the very specific requirements of the Dover-Calais route and the expertise at Rauma stood out.”
In June 2008 a letter of intent was signed, contracts were exchanged in August and steel production began in March 2009. Now floated out, Spirit of Britain will be fitted out before commencing sea trials in November and entering service in January 2011.
Stephen Stagg, who will be Senior Chief Engineer Officer on Spirit of Britain, said: “The ship I serve on now, the Pride of Calais, was purpose-built for the Dover-Calais route and as a result I’d argue she has turned out to be one of the most successful ferries ever.
“Design features of our new ships, again purpose-built for the route, will take things to a completely new level.”
June 8 marked a big step on this important journey for P&O, but only in January will one new era truly begin.
* A report of the events in Finland, which appeared in the Dover Express on June 17, can be found here.