In with the new at Wightlink

Wightlink has had a busy year, marked by changes in ownership and management. Justin Merrigan chats to interim chief executive John Burrows

In with the new at Wightlink
The flagship St Calre gas been extended to provide increased capacity
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Just over one year has passed since Solent ferry operator Wightlink was sold to Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Partners LP by Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund.

Each year Wightlink carries almost five million passengers, making it one of the UK’s largest domestic ferry operators. With a fleet of six ro-ro vessels and two passenger catamarans, it provides residents of the Isle of Wight with a frequent service to the mainland, as well as giving millions of holidaymakers from all across the UK and beyond a taste of Island life. The freight business is also a vital link in the Island’s supply chain.

Wightlink offers two convenient car ferry routes to the Island, explains John Burrows. “We sail Portsmouth to Fishbourne and Lymington to Yarmouth, in the beautiful West Wight. Our two catamarans link Portsmouth Harbour rail station with historic Ryde Pier and are popular with commuters heading to the mainland by foot.”

The company’s ferries transport traffic to two of the biggest festivals in the UK, the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival, and also carry more unusual cargo such as exotic animals and even locomotives on their way to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.

Once a part of British Rail’s Sealink network, the Wightlink operation has had several owners over the years and the purchase by Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Partners (BBIP) is bringing new investment to the business. Burrows comments: “BBIP is a long-term investor in infrastructure assets and manages investments on behalf of pension funds and insurance companies. “Under the previous ownership, Wightlink invested in a £70million investment programme, and purchased five new ships for our Lymington-Yarmouth and Portsmouth-Ryde Pier routes. BBIP will continue this investment in our company, investing £45 million in a new ship for delivery in 2018 and in the recent increase in capacity on the St Clare, our flagship on the Portsmouth-Fishbourne route, together with port improvements.”

He adds: “Our new owners have described Wightlink Ferries as a strong and stable business with room to grow and develop through further investment in its services. Our new ship will be the most environmentally friendly in the Solent, powered by both low-sulphur marine gas oil and electrical power. Protecting the environment is of key importance. Serving one of the most beautiful places in the UK, we are mindful of protecting the natural surroundings and our new ship will be designed and built specifically to operate in an environmentally sensitive area.”

Extending the upper vehicle deck on St Clare has increased its capacity and made loading easier. In addition, noise is reduced, “which is important as we operate in very close proximity to residential properties,” he says.

“In future, at both Portsmouth Gunwharf and Fishbourne, we will use double-deck loading ramps to be able to load vehicles more quickly, improving traffic flow at our ports. We are now seeking planning permission from the relevant authorities so we can commence work later in the year.”

Operating a ferry service around the clock every day of the year (except Christmas Day) in a competitive market obviously has its challenges. “The dedicated and hard-working staff at Wightlink keep our ships running on time even through inclement weather,” says Burrows. “Safety is the highest priority for our dedicated men and women onboard our ships and at our ports, and they ensure the highest standard of service is provided. Many of our crew members have worked with us for many years and have a great deal of experience in sailing the Solent.

“Customers enjoy a high level of service from three ferry operators to the Island, and we know we need to deliver consistently reliable and punctual services and excellent customer service, if we are to remain competitive.”

John Burrows has had a life in ferries which so far has taken him to New York, Dubai and Venezuela as well as postings closer to home in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but he was particularly delighted to join Wightlink in 2006, based not too far from his parents’ home in Dorset.

“I started my career in catering and worked for Little Chef and British Home Stores before changing occupation in 1988 and joining Stena Line as a passenger services manager. I relish the breadth of the job: every day is different in the world of shipping and I still enjoy sailing on our ferries; there’s nothing nicer on a sunny day on the Solent,” he says.

While ferries remain very much a people business, technology has transformed the industry. “When I joined the ferry industry, information technology was almost non-existent. It has taken an increasingly prominent role in our day-to-day management of our business in recent years I have been responsible for introducing several new IT and reservation systems and, most recently, an electronic planned maintenance programme to replace an outdated paper-based audit system.

“During my career, I have seen and been involved in the introduction of the first vehicle-carrying fast ferries. Rapidly increasing fuel prices stifled growth in the fast ferry market and a number of operators have reverted to conventional fleets. As a result of the introduction of the SECA zones, heavy fuel oil has now largely been superseded by low-sulphur marine gas oil and I am impressed by the technology behind the LPG-powered Viking Grace sailing the Baltic and operated by Viking Line in Finland,” Burrows says.

“We find many customers prefer to travel by sea than use busy airports – many people tell me a cruise to the Isle of Wight is an enjoyable part of their holiday. I suspect Wightlink will be in business and part of Island life for many years to come.”

Indeed it is clear to see that Wightlink is proud to be part of that Island life to which Burrows refers. The company supports Island charities and good causes and assists many talented athletes by way of discounted travel. It also contributes significantly to the Isle of Wight to promote tourism, both directly and through its Destination Management Organisation. In addition, Wightlink support NHS patients who need to travel to the mainland for hospital appointments, and offers discounted fares for people with disabilities and for adults who escort children of separated and foster parents across the Solent. This totals more than £1.0m of support for the Isle of Wight every year.

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
20 June 2016

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