This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed
There have been plenty of changes at UK ferry company Wightlink over the past 18 months. Last year, Wightlink was sold by Macquarie’s European Infrastructure Fund to Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Partners for an undisclosed sum, while Keith Greenfield was appointed as the new chief executive. The acquisition was swiftly followed by plans to invest £45 million in a new state-of-the-art ferry and infrastructure improvements to ensure smoother embarkation and disembarkation procedures.
Wightlink’s new £30 million hybrid ferry will be built at Turkish shipyard Cemre and is set to enter service in 2018. Operating on the Portsmouth to Fishbourne route, the new vessel will be the most environmentally friendly ever to serve the Isle of Wight, according to Wightlink.
Featuring two fixed vehicle decks for 178 cars, and capacity for 1,000 people, the newbuild will be slightly larger than Wightlink’s current flagship St Clare. It will be the first ferry to use Wärtsilä hybrid battery technology to improve efficiency, reduce exhaust emissions and lower noise level. In addition, it will be able to run on conventional diesel fuel.
Wärtsilä, which will start delivering equipment in spring 2017, will supply four six-cylinder Wärtsilä 20 generating sets, electrical and automation (E&A) systems, and a sanitary discharge system. Among the E&A technology to be supplied are integrated automation and power and energy management systems, and a 690V main switchboard. Wärtsilä’s hybrid management system gives a significant energy improvement over conventional systems by running the engines at optimal load and absorbing many of the load fluctuations using batteries. In addition, Wärtsilä will supply technical and project management, and solution integration engineering services.
Wightlink’s onshore investment programme includes new boarding ramps at both Portsmouth Gunwharf and Fishbourne to permit double-deck loading, an extension to the St Clare and a new terminal building at Portsmouth. This follows the £70 million spent over the past 15 years on new ferries for the Yarmouth to Lymington, and Ryde Pier Head to Portsmouth Harbour routes.
The company is also investing in a new vacuum-based automated mooring system designed by Cavotec. Named MoorMaster, the technology eliminates the need for conventional mooring lines. Remote controlled vacuum pads recessed in, or mounted on, the quayside, moor and release the vessels.
Sean Millward, head of business operations at Wightlink, explains that the shoreside infrastructure work is starting in September and will be completed next July in time for the arrival of the new vessel. The MoorMaster system will improve safety when involving in mooring procedures.
Initially, the system will be used for both the new vessel and St Clare, although it may be modified for other Wightlink vessels in the future. With the MoorMaster system the vessel can moor in under one minute and released in fewer than 20 seconds. “Our calculation suggests that, bearing in mind we do a two-hour roundtrip service, we probably gain up to 10 minutes in mooring time,” explains Millward.
Double-deck loading will also mean more quality time in port to discharge and load new traffic, Millward says. At the moment, cars must drive up an internal ramp to park on the top deck of St Clare. However, the car park area at Gunwharf is being double-decked to increase the marshalling area and enable cars to enter at the same height as the ferry’s top deck. This will speed up loading procedures and benefit drivers. “We want to give people confidence that they are at the correct height when driving onto the vessel,” says Millward.
Southampton-based Trants is the main contractor for the shoreside work, while specialist contractors including Cavotec, Reid Steel and MacGregor will construct the linkspan. The project is being completely financed by Wightlink as part of its £45 million funding package.
While traffic flows are fairly stable, Millward expects things may change following the recent UK referendum on the European Union, and as people review their holiday choices. Given recent events in Europe, he also predicts that people may feel more relaxed coming to the Isle of Wight.
As people commute to and from the island daily they need to be able to rely on the service to leave on time, and being used for commuting purposes, the service differs somewhat from the conventional holiday experience as passengers are planning meetings and appointments around their trip.
Millward, who has been with the company for 31 years and lives on the Isle of Wight, acknowledges that the Solent can be seen as an expensive piece of water to cross and to operate, however he is positive about the changes. The previous owners invested a lot of money in the company and this has been followed by the substantial investment from Balfour Beatty, which also benefits from the experience of the management team and the company’s employees.
“I think what we are doing is right,” he says. “It’s great to see investments to bring a modern fleet to the Isle of Wight and in improving the infrastructure to help the island succeed in the future.”