I have an enduring childhood memory of a trip to Scotland in the days before the Firth of Forth had a road bridge next to the railway one. Returning from dinner with friends, we ran out of petrol as we approached the ferry on the north side of the firth, the car stopping about fifty yards short of the summit of the hill beyond which was the slope down to the ferry – the last of the evening. It must have been a gentle incline for my sister and I pushed the car to the summit before jumping back inside to enable my father to freewheel all the way down and on to the waiting ferry, the last car to make it.
The few minutes crossing gave us time to consider our predicament. The road on the south side was inevitably uphill again. There was no way we would get back to base, or even off the ferry, without fuel and few if any petrol stations would be open once the ferry had closed, even if we had been able to get to them.
The problem was solved by a casual conversation with another passenger. Ignoring his wife’s repeated warnings that they were themselves low on fuel (as my father had ignored my mother’s at each open petrol station we passed on the outward journey) he was so anxious to show off his newly acquired spare can, complete with retracting spout and non-drip pouring arrangement, that he sold us its contents and we drove gingerly home. It could be that trip that gave me a lifelong fondness for the idiosyncrasies and occasional dangers of ferries.
We made three trips to Ireland last year, using three different ferry services across St. George’s channel, an odd name for the stretch of water that further North becomes the Irish sea. The advantage of the ferry is that you can take your car, avoiding the preposterous charges levied by the car rental companies (it won’t be long before they lend you the car for nothing so long as you buy the insurance), and you can take your dog without all that nonsense about rabies inoculations and microchips. Our dog thinks Ireland is the best place in the world because she can swim in the sea at the bottom of my sister’s garden, surf in the breakers on Garretstown strand and get lost at low tide on Inchydony beach. We open the car window as we arrive and she jumps straight out and is gone.
But what is a ferry? The three services across St. George’s channel are a standard one (roll on, roll off and hope it doesn’t roll over), a fast twin hull powered by huge diesels that leave a spectacular double wake you could probably surf on and that I once clocked at 35 knots on my GPS, and the overnight one from Swansea. This last has its advantages, though the food is not one of them, giving you a scenic ride into Cork harbour in the morning as it passes the floodlit church at Cobh and the Titanic’s last mooring place at Queenstown, before docking conveniently at Ringaskiddy, twenty minutes from the unspoilt, if expensive, delights of Kinsale. But somehow none of these meets my sense of a real ferry.
In Scandinavia, where the coastline probably travels fifty or more miles for a direct route of ten, there are ferries of the traditional sort by the dozen. A traditional ferry is a simple device, certainly incapable of 35 knots, and offering an alternative to a longer or more dangerous journey without it. The fee does not reflect the cost of operation but is set to be marginally less than the incidental costs and time value of the alternative. It should need no booking and involve no queuing, or the time and convenience advantage is lost. The best ones have something idiosyncratic or even mildly risky about them, or an unusual system of propulsion, such as being rowed across by the owner. Many are driven by an engine that engages the links of a chain and drags the boat across, briefly raising the chain from the river bed as it passes. I pass the time speculating about other traffic having to avoid sailing too near the ferry for fear of fouling the chain, or imagine the chain breaking and the ferry drifting helplessly out to sea on the ebb tide. No doubt the health and safety people have provided for all eventualities.
To sample a real ferry, go to Ireland via Rosslare, and head for Cork, or anywhere on the south coast. About ten miles out of Rosslare divert along the south coastal route through real Irish countryside to Ballyhak where you board a flat bottomed boat that transfers you smoothly to Passage East in about five minutes, following a curved route that is different every time, adapted to the wind and tide of the moment. It runs from early morning to late evening and has a simple, irresistible old fashioned charm. When we arrived a fraction late one evening we were amazed to see it stop and reverse from some hundred yards out just to save us the wait for the next trip. Whether it actually saves time on the full Rosslare-Cork journey is debatable, probably even more so when the Waterford bypass is opened. But this is Ireland, so that’s not the point. It’s the quality of the journey that counts. There is a counterpart to this ferry at Passage West, providing a pleasanter route from Kinsale to Cobh, though whether the two are formally connected I do not know.
We should savour the delights of the earthly ferries before we take our inevitable final ride across the Styx, Charon’s toll in our hand.