Belgian steamer, poster of 1897 (coll. Juergen Klein)

It's eight o'clock in the morning, a new day in January 1979. A refreshing breeze blows away the fatigue of the night travel on the train, the Tauern-Express, which just had arrived at Ostend Quay, coming from Yugoslavia. Travelers board the "Prins Albert", a Belgian car ferry of 6,111 tons. The English breakfast by the Wagons-Lits company in the restaurant aboard means comfort after the tiring journey, and the monotonous rush of the high sea is a welcome change compared to the endless rattatam of the rails. A dark-blue/white Sealink ferry with red funnel is coming from Dover. The white rocks of the English Coast are already visible when the ship stops and the captain informs by loudspeaker that on account of the storm the Western Docks of Dover are closed. He'll ask for permission to enter the Eastern Docks. The manoeuvre proves being difficult. The ship docks at two o'clock instead of a quarter to one. A crowded bus carries the travelers to the customs control and then to Dover Priory station, where they learn that the main line is blocked by a derailment. Finally we reach London during night hours.

"Prins Philippe" of RMT, coming from Dover, a picture taken from aboard "Prins Albert", Jan. 1979 (WS)

Breakfast aboard the "Prins Albert" (WS)

First Pioneers
For crossing the Channel, already in 1821, when rail connections were not yet built, the wooden 90-ton paddle steamer "Rob Roy" was tried between Dover and Calais. Acquired by the French Government and renamed "Henry IV", this little ship with a single sleek funnel opened regular cross-Channel services in 1823, followed by more steamers. At that time the Channel route had not been a prominent link of the British Empire and the ships generally were of 'open-deck' type.

Catamaran "Calais-Douvres", arrival at Calais with the Indian Mail, around 1880 (contemporary press)

Mail steamer at Boulogne, Avant-Port (coll. Wilhelm Tausche)

Dover Strait and Indian Mail
The 'Indian Mail' route was more important and only in the late 1830s, when a portion of the mail started to take the way through France, Channel crossing by paddle-wheeled steamers got more attention. This mail was transferred through France by stage coach for the first time from c.1837 and officially from 1839. From that time, British steamers operating for the Post Office and French government-owned steamers provided regular services to and from Calais, uneconomic however. In 1847 Boulogne got a rail connection, followed by Dieppe and Calais, the latter via Lille and only from 1867 the direct way via Boulogne. The railways in France conveying the Indian Mail were the Nord, temporarily also the Compagnie d'Orleans and from 1857 the PLM, uniting several predecessors. In 1848 the French ships were transferred to the Rothschild-owned railway Cie. des Chemins de fer du Nord. Their first two vessels, the "Invicta" and "Victoria", were chartered from England. In1844 the South Eastern Railway London - Folkestone was completed and the Indian Mail took the route Folkestone - Boulogne. From 1845 the South Eastern & Continental Steam Packet Co. provided services to Calais and Boulogne. In 1853 South Eastern Railway bought the ships of the South Eastern & Continental and around that time the timetable listed services Dover-Calais by South Eastern and Paquet-Poste as well as London - Calais by the General S.N.Co. The mail contracts were awarded in 1854 to the English, French & Belgian Royal Mail Co. which took over also the mail steamers of the Admiralty. In 1862 the mail contract for the route to France was transferred to the shipping department of the London, Chatham & Dover Railway (LC & DR). A French report from 1881 however stated that the "Calais-Douvres", a very uncommon twin-hull-type steamer carrying the Indian Mail across the Channel, was a French ship.

In 1875 a saloon car was coupled to LC&DR boat trains, provided by Colonel Mann, whose company was taken over in 1876 by CIWL, the Wagons-Lits company of Georges Nagelmackers. Between 1882 and 1884 the new British Pullman Palace Car Co. provided a service London Victoria - Dover. Only from 1889 an exclusive 'Club Train' service London - Paris was offered by CIWL, consisting of trains London - Dover, London - Folkestone and Calais - Paris. On that occasion a new prestigious "Calais-Douvres" of LC & DR was introduced, a conventional steamer, not to be confused with the older catamaran of that name. Between Calais Maritime and Paris Nord the Club Train was combined from 1890 with the new "Peninsular-Express" Calais - Brindisi, connecting there with the P&O. As the luxurious Club Train often ran almost empty, the "Calais-Douvres" was replaced sometimes by a smaller ship and in 1893 the service ended abruptly. Only from 1910 Pullman cars ran London - Dover, after CIWL and British Pullman had come under control of Lord Dalziel.

Apart from the LC&DR, also the South Eastern and the Chemin de fer du Nord continued to operate Channel steamers. An advertisement showed their paddle-wheeler "Le Nord" of 1898, praising the record-breaking 60 minutes travelling time. Sister-ship was the "Pas-de-Calais". From 1899 the South Eastern and the LC&DR, including their steamer services, formed the South Eastern & Chatham Railway (SE&CR). They introduced in 1903 the 1,650-ton "The Queen", the first turbine-powered steamer of the Channel route.

"Le Nord", a poster by Henry Gray (coll. Juergen Klein)

"The Queen" ? (coll. Juergen Klein)

Dover Strait and Golden Arrow
After World War I, the French services were transferred to the S.A. de Gerance et d'Armement, abbreviated S.A.G.A. Their "Le Nord" and "Pas-de-Calais" were replaced by the "Invicta" and "Empress", turbine steamers from England, built in 1905 resp. 1907. In the early 30s the new single-funnel "Cote d'Azur" and "Cote d'Argent" took their place.

In 1923 British rail and steamer operations were integrated into the Southern Railway. In the 20s the service London - Paris was upgraded by introduction of the 'Golden Arrow' from London and the 'Fleche d' Or' Calais - Paris, both exclusive day-saloon trains of the (British) Pullman Car Co. resp. CIWL, both companies owned via a holding by Lord Dalziel. A British predecessor of the Golden Arrow had started already in 1924. In September 1926 the Fleche d'Or took up service, in 1929 followed by the Golden Arrow, when an adequate steamer was introduced by the Southern Railway. It was the 3,071-ton "Canterbury", initially reserved exclusively for the clientele of the luxury trains - "fastidious passengers in a sybaritic age", as the Pullman Car Company's brochure pointed out. On 15 May 1929 the "Canterbury" had her first arrival at Calais-Maritime, where the passengers took the Fleche d'Or for Paris or the Calais-Bruxelles-Pullman with a sleeping-car for the Nord-Express to Berlin. Later the timetable (e.g. of 1934) listed the connection at Calais-Maritime with the Fleche d'Or in combination with the Simplon-Orient and Calais-Mediterrannee-Express (le 'Train Bleu') and the separate Rome-Express.

World War II interrupted the Channel services. In 1940 the British troops were evacuated from Dunkerque, in 1944 the Allied forces landed in the Normandie. After victory, the steamers operating for the British Transport Commission (BTC) and their partners connected with military trains and soon the reborn 'Grand Expresses' of the continent. The Golden Arrow and Fleche d' Or resumed their service in 1946, connecting with the 4,191-ton "Invicta" of 1939 and the traditional "Canterbury". In 1972 the last remainders of this pair of luxury trains ended. Nowadays' car ferries connect at the ports of departure with local bus shuttles.

Chemin de fer du Nord poster of 1924 (coll. Juergen Klein)

" Invicta " and SNCF trains at Calais, poster of 1948 (coll. Juergen Klein)

Ferry "Compiegne" and Fleche d'Or with 231K, Calais Maritime 1966 (Wilhelm Tausche)

Dover Strait Car Ferries
French railways, including their S.A.G.A. shipping services, had already in 1938 been united as SNCF. In 1951 they introduced their last turbine steamer, the "Cote d'Azur" (II), in 1972 sold to Monaco as "Marie Fondacci". In 1948 the four British Railway companies and their shipping departments were nationalized under the designation British Railways. Pullman saloon cars were always coupled to continental boat trains, until in the 60s they were replaced by electric sets. As Kai Ortel/ Horst-Dieter Foerster pointed out, BTC continued to order new passenger- and mail steamers (the last one the "Avalon" of 1963), instead of investing into car ferries, leaving a chance to private companies. Among the first modern car ferries was the "Halladale" of Townsend Car Ferries, introduced on the Dover-Calais route in 1951, followed by vessels of BTC and SNCF. A rise in comfort came with the "Free Enterprise" services of Townsend and the "Viking" class of Thoresen Car Ferries, in 1986 amalgamated as Townsend Thoresen. The way to London was shortened by the Stena Line with their service Calais - Tilbury.

Railway-owned British, French and other ferries became labelled Sealink, but in 1984 British Rail gave its ships away to the Sea Containers Group of James Sherwood as Sealink British Ferries. In 1990 that ailing business was sold to Stena Line for their subsidiary Stena Sealink, labelled Sealink Stena Line, maintaining the blue funnel with yellow ribbons. French services were managed by Snat, the ships with the red funnel sporting the labels Sealink plus SNCF.

When the P&O under Lord Inchcape had entered the Channel ferry market in 1976 with P&O Normandy Ferries, a mighty competitor has emerged, swallowing Townsend Thoresen in 1987. An English Channel ferry service Ramsgate - Dunkerque by Sally Line of Finland was closed down in 1997 (see Bruce Peter: Baltic Ferries). P&O Ferries had to compete on the Dover - Calais route with Snat-successor SeaFrance, which upgraded its fleet in 2007 by acquiring the 30,285-ton "Superfast X". As a competitor for struggling SeaFrance appeared the Norfolk Line, a part of the AP Moller-Maersk Group of Denmark (later entered by DFDS) with the attractive blue/white "Maersk Dunkerque" (2005/ 35,923 gt) and consorts, introduced on the Dunkerque route. P&O Ferries, in 2006 acquired by the Dubai Port company of the Emirates, responded in 2008 by signing a contract with Aker Yards for two 49,000-ton car ferries for the Dover - Calais route, the "Spirit of Britain" entering service in 2010. In 2009 LD Lines of the Louis Dreyfus Group entered the Dover - Boulogne ferry services with the 28,833-ton "Norman Spirit", the former "Prins Filip" of 1992. In 2010 Lloyds List reported the "market downturn" of Channel ferries, Grimaldi's considerations of pulling out of subsidized LD Lines services and the debt burden of government-owned SeaFrance. In late 2011 the ships were lying idle and for the story to follow see Lloyd's List.

"Maersk Dover", Dunkerque route 2008 (Cruccone, via Wikimedia)

"Pride of Britain", anticipation 2008 (STX Europe)

Dover Strait Hi-Speed
Headlines were made when on 25 July 1959 the first hovercraft, the SR.N1, had her maiden voyage crossing the Channel. Three years later the regular passenger service Dover - Calais was started. The first car-carrying hovercraft appeared with introduction of "Swift" and "Sure" by Hoverlloyd (under participation of Swedish Lloyd) in 1966 on the Ramsgate - Calais route, reducing travelling time for crossing the Channel from 1 ½ hour to 40 minutes. The larger "Sir Christopher" and "Prince of Wales" with 4 propellers followed. The SNR4 "Princess Margaret" and "Princess Anne" of British Rail Hovercraft Ltd with a capacity of 424 passengers and 55 cars were world's largest. In the time of Sealink, the label changed to Seaspeed. For the French, the 'Seaspeed' of SNCF was a sensation, an 'aeroglisseur' with 3 propellers. However, all these extreme high-speed vessels were uneconomic on account of high maintenance cost and increased bunker prices. The twins "Princess Margaret" and "Princess Anne" were withdrawn from the Dover - Calais run in September 2000 after 32 years of service. They found a place in the Hovercraft Museum. Only the Isle of Wight remained connected by hovercraft vessels of Hovertravel, crossing the Solent at a speed up to 45 knots.

"Sir Christopher" of Hoverlloyd (coll. WS)

Hovercrafts have been replaced by catamarans. In 1990 <>Hoverspeed of Sherwood's Sea Containers Group introduced the car-carrying InCat-built catamaran "Hoverspeed Great Britain" (then temporarily "Emeraude GB", in 2005 transferred to Aegean Speed Lines as "Speedrunner I"), covering the 21 nm Dover - Calais in 40 minutes with a speed up to 36 knots. Sister "Hoverspeed Boulogne" followed (later chartered by Emeraude Ferries from owner Sea Containers, as "Emeraude France"). A competitors' experiment with car-carrying aircraft proved unsuccessful. The Channel Tunnel however, completed in 1994, became a mighty competitor, used by car-carrying 'Le Shuttle' trains Folkestone - Calais, utilizing half of the tunnel's capacity, and by Eurostar high-speed trains, cost-effective. Nevertheless the Eurotunnel company had to be protected from insolvency in 2006, caused by the debt burden of 9 billion euro (reported e.g. by Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 3 August 2006), resulting from the building costs. International trains, once departing from the ferry terminals Calais Maritime and Ostend, have vanished long ago.

Hoverspeed competed with the Channel Tunnel by employing the hi-speeds "Seacat France" of 1990 and the "Diamant" of 1996. As James Sherwood preferred monohulls, the enterprise took in 1997 delivery of two monohulls of the extended Fincantieri MDV1200 type, misleadingly christened "SuperSeaCat One" (operating Newhaven - Dieppe, in late 2004 transferred to Silja Line) and "SuperSeaCat Two" (relocated from the Irish Sea, operating Newhaven - Dieppe, then Dover - Calais, in late 2005 sold to the Isle of Man S.P.Co., then becoming the "Viking"), in 1999 followed by the "SuperSeaCat Three" (in 2002 transferred from Liverpool - Dublin to Dover - Calais, then to Silja Line) and "SuperSeaCat Four" ( originally intended for Brindidi - Cesme services, laid up and going straight to Silja Line). ShipPax 06 predicted the fate of Sea Containers' daring operations: "With the closure of Hoverspeed and sale of Silja Line, their top position will soon fade".

"SpeedOne" (SpeedFerries)

In 2004 SpeedFerries started 'fighting the pirates' between Dover and Boulogne with the wavepiercer catamaran "SpeedOne" (ex "Incat 045", "Jervis Bay"), stopped in 2008. LD Lines created a sensation in 2009 with the "Norman Arrow", a chartered 112m InCat, the most advanced wave-piercing catamaran for a speed of 44 knots, with 800 lanemetres for truck and car transport. In 2010 she was transferred to Portsmouth - Le Havre, after Euroferries tried to enter Ramsgate - Boulogne.

England - Belgium
When the South Eastern & Continental Steam Packet Co. opened their Channel services in 1845, a route to the Belgian port of Ostend was included, from 1846 joined by Belgian steamers. In 1854 the mail contracts were awarded to the English, French & Belgian Royal Mail Co. and from 1862 the mail Dover - Ostend was conveyed exclusively by Belgian steamers. In the 1870s a saloon car London - Dover of Mann's CIWL predecessor connected with the Ostend steamer. In 1894 Ostend became the starting-point of CIWL's Ostende-Wien-Express, followed in 1896 by the Nord-Express to Russia. So the Channel fleet of the Belgian State Railway, from 1926 SNCB, gained importance. In 1904 its first turbine-powered ship, the "Princesse Elisabeth" (1,767 gt) was introduced with a speed of 24 knots. There was intense competition with the Dover - Calais route, giving reason for pushing through the introduction of CIWL's Oostende-Cologne Pullman express in 1929. With the "Prince Baudouin" of 1934, diesel power was introduced.

"Marie-Henriette leaves Ostend (old card, coll. WS)

"Prince Baudouin" of SNCB, near Dover (old card, coll. WS)

"Prins Albert" of RMT, Dover Eastern Docks, Jan. 1979 (WS)

The Belgian shipping monopoly was broken not before 1966, when Townsend Thoresen started a car ferry service Dover - Zeebrugge. The Belgian government answered in 1971 by founding RMT, soon labelled Sealink, replaced in 1986 by a marketing agreement with former competitor Townsend Thoresen. In 1987 the "Herald of Free Enterprise", one of Townsend's 7,951-ton flagships, capsized at Zeebrugge on account of a door not fully closed, showing the safety lack of those double-ender roll-on/roll-off ferries. 193 people died. After the catastrophe, the company was taken over by P&O European Ferries. From 1994 RMT had a new partnership with Sally Line, a subsidiary of Silja Line. In 1997 the highly indebted RMT was dissolved, sold to Holyman UK and Silja Line. In the new century Transeuropa Lines was successful on the Ramsgate - Ostend route. Quite another route was opened by Superfast Ferries of Greece between Zeebrugge and Rosyth. The "Superfast IX" and then "Superfast X" were employed on that service from 2002, in 2007 replaced by the "Blue Star 1", repositioned to the Aegean in 2008. Norfolkline took its place in 2009, competed by P&O Ferries.

The former "Spirit of Free Enterprise" (sister of "Herald of Free Enterprise") as "Anthi Marina" at Piraeus, 2007 (WS)

Boeing Jetfoil of RMT (coll. HSch, WS)

On those relatively long routes, hi-speed services were in a more difficult position. Europe's first jetfoil, the "Flying Princess", had been announced by P&O Jet Ferries in 1977 for a London - Zeebrugge route. From the same year a service London - Ostend by International Hydrofoil Services with two of the little Kometa type hydrofoils from Russia was reported. Then the Boeing Jetfoil service Dover - Ostend was advertised by Sealink. The service with the gas-turbine powered waterjet hydrofoil disappeared, like in the 21st century also the SuperSeaCat and SeaCat catamarans of Hoverspeed on the Ostend route.

Western Channel
Southampton became connected with London in 1840 by the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) and three years later it got its first dock. The LSWR provided steamer services to Le Havre and in 1911 they introduced world' first steamers equipped with geared turbines, the "Normannia" and "Hantonia". Steamers of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway connected Newhaven with Dieppe, competed by French ETAT railway's ships. An early French showpiece was the screw-driven 900-ton "Seine", built for a speed of 19 knots. In 1922 the LSWR and LBSCR were integrated into the Southern Railway.

In the age of the car ferries, Portsmouth, Poole. Plymouth and Newhaven became connected with French ports mainly by P&O Ferries, Sealink, Brittany Ferries, Transmanche Ferries, LD Lines and Condor Ferries. Snat had abandoned the traditional Newhaven - Dieppe route, but from 1992 Stena Sealink and later Transmanche Ferries continued it. With the "Stena Pegasus" of the Fincantieri MDV1200 type, the Channel had its first sight of a monohull (after a turbulent career she became the "Speedrunner II" of Aegean Speed Lines). The 86m InCat "Condor Vitesse", showing Condor and Brittany branding, was already an eyecatcher on the Channel Islands. The most spectacular vessel of the French company Britanny Ferries was introduced in 2005 on the Portsmouth - Caen route with the "Normandie Express", a 98m InCat catamaran.

"Armorique" of Brittany Ferries (via Wikimedia)

"Condor Vitesse" in Poole Harbour 2009 (Herbythyme, via Wikimedia)

England - Holland
The Great Eastern Railway connected London with Harwich on the East Coast, where their steamers provided daylight as well as night-services to Hoek van Holland. The screw-driven steamers were equipped with cabins and their names "Amsterdam", "Berlin", "Dresden", "Munich" and "Vienna" before WWI were a hint at the connecting trains on the continent. While the competitors on the Calais and Ostend routes cooperated with the Wagons-Lits company, Great Eastern connected with Prussian sleeping-cars. After WWI the Great Eastern owned a share in the new German sleeping-car company Mitropa via a Trans-European Co. Ltd. and from Dec. 1922 until 1925 the night steamer connected with a Mitropa day de-Luxe 'London-Berlin-Express' (consisting of royal saloons, in summer 1922 running as 'London-Holland-Muenchen-Expresszug'). In 1923 the Great Eastern was incorporated into the London & North Eastern Railway. From 1928 the night steamers connected with Germany's most prominent train, the 'Rheingold' to Switzerland. During that time the company's most renowned ships were the "Malines" (2,969 gt) and her consorts. After WWII, her sister "Antwerpen" served until 1951 the British Rhine Army on the route to Hoek, connecting there with the British military expresses. Today all the express trains have vanished from Hoek van Holland.

Poster around 1954 (coll. Juergen Klein)

"Koningin Beatrix" of SMZ, ad of 1989 (coll. WS)

During the age of car ferries, North Sea Ferries became a pioneer by opening a car-carrying service in 1965 on the Hull - Rotterdam route with the "Norwave". Then the first ships were replaced by the 12,988-ton "Norland" and sister "Norstar", introduced in 1974, later registered with 26,290 gt and taken over by P&O North Sea Ferries. Remarkable among the many car ferries were also the "St. Nicholas" (1982 / 14,368 gt, ex "Drottning Silvia") of Sealink UK, the "Koningin Beatrix" (1986 / 31,189 gt, later "Stena Baltica") of Stoomvaart Mij. Zeeland, the "Olau Hollandia" (1989/33,336 gt) and sister "Olau Britannia" of Hamburg-based Olau Line on a Sheerness - Vlissingen route (then chartered by P&O), as well the "Stena Hollandica" (2001/33,769 gt, then stretched) and "Stena Britannica" (2003/43,487 gt) of Stena Line, employed on the Harwich - Hoek route. Still larger is the "Pride of Rotterdam" and sister "Pride of Hull" (2001/59,925 gt) of P&O Ferries, used between Hull and Rotterdam. Without doubt the most breathtaking vessel appearing on the Dutch coast was the 19,638-ton HSS catamaran "Stena Discovery", from 1997 on the sensation of the Harwich - Hoek route for a decade until withdrawal in 2007. In the year before, Stena Line had already commissioned two ro-pax vessels, with 63,500 gt world's largest, delivered in 2010 as "Stena Britannica" and "Stena Hollandica" for Harwich - Hoek services.

"Stena Hollandica", Hoek van Holland Haven 2010 (Joop van Houdt, via Wikimedia)