A remarkable anniversary for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s Mark Woodward tells Justin Merrigan about how the world’s oldest passenger shipping company is responding in remarkable times

A remarkable anniversary for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company
Steam Packet Company’s ferries transport passengers between the Isle of Man and mainland UK

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company celebrated its 190th anniversary in 2020, making it the world’s oldest continually operating passenger shipping company. The UK operator’s first vessel was a wooden paddle steamer named Mona’s Isle. Today, the island is served by a 96-metre fast craft built by Incat and a conventional ro-pax vessel operating regular services between the Isle of Man, Heysham and Liverpool and seasonal services between the Isle of Man, Belfast and Dublin.

In its 190 years, the company has weathered many challenges, including two world wars. The great challenge of today is, of course, Covid-19 and it is one that Steam Packet has faced with a commitment to maintaining the lifeline service so vital to the survival of the community it serves.

“From that very first ship to the current conventional ferry, Ben-my-Chree, or our fast craft, Manannan, Steam Packet’s vessels have always provided a sense of pride and security for the people of the Isle of Man,” says Mark Woodward, the company’s chief executive. “We are in the fortunate position of being owned by the Isle of Man government. That meant that from an early stage in the pandemic the government asked us to continue to provide a regular daily passenger and freight link to our main UK port. Other services to the UK and to Ireland were cancelled as the borders were closed between the Isle of Man and the UK.

“Because of the need to protect the vital freight lifeline, it was decided to operate Ben-my-Chree as a pure freighter, sailing her overnight each night of the week. The passenger service was provided by one roundtrip each day. While freight revenue fell significantly, passenger revenue all but disappeared.”

The easing of restrictions brought a return to limited passenger service with strict measures adopted to keep passengers and crew safe. “To minimise interaction of crew with shore staff and reduce transmission risk, we moved to a pure live onboard model for our ro-pax vessel – moving crew out of double berth cabins and in to some passenger cabins, again to minimise close contact,” Woodward says.

The Isle of Man appears to be much more cautious than most jurisdictions and at the time of publication, its borders remain closed to visitors. “Manx residents can now travel, albeit with the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days on their return,” says Woodward. “Events such as the TT and Festival of Motorcycling have been cancelled this year and we don’t yet know what effect that may have on these events in the future. As we approach the autumn and passenger numbers fall naturally it seems likely that we will see no return to normal demand patterns until either the Isle of Man fully opens its borders or there is an effective treatment and/or prevention available.”

Woodward suggests the biggest asset of the ferry industry going forward is a re-focusing of passenger priorities. “It may be that ferry travel, where passengers have the ability to try and separate themselves to some extent from other passengers, will be preferred to air travel for the foreseeable future – although the market is necessarily smaller, and travellers would have to eschew longer distance travel. The European resorts are mostly reachable by car and it may be that ferry companies can expect a rise in vehicle traffic as a result.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
05 November 2020

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