24 December 2006
Isle of Wight ferries
Mark HollandDespite having seen it from the mainland, or the North Island as the islanders call it, on hundreds if not thousands of occasions, yesterday I visited the Isle of Wight for the very first time. Very interesting. I didn't know what to expect really. It was much more built up than I expected although apparently it's a lot more wild towards the south and west. I'm currently training for some big cycling events in the summer so I reckon a lap of the island sometime in the spring would be a worthwhile undertaking on a number of levels.
I've seen the ferries operating from Lymington, Southampton and Portsmouth many times before, from the shore, but was only up close up I realised just quite how impressive the whole set up is. Sure, it might not be as glamorous as an airport. And if a Force 12 were to delay crossings I wouldn't expect 24 hour rolling news channels to park their satellite trucks on Red Funnel's dockside to show us the anguished faces of people unable to get to Cowes for Christmas. Actually I reckon weary travellers would probably take refuge in the living room furniture department in the West Quay shopping centre's John Lewis and the major problem would be the supermarkets on the island running out of goods while their laden truck trailers were sat idle on the mainland. The weather would have to be very bad for that to happen though.
Normally the amount and frequency of crossings means The Solent might as well have a paved causeway. From Portsmouth there are three levels of ship.
The car ferries are like floating Tardises. They mightn't look like much from the outside but they have either two or three car decks whose heavily laden ramps are lifted and lowered by doubtless phenominally powerful hydraulic arms. The headroom on the lowest deck easily accomodates trucks.
Then there are the passenger ferries: Fast catamarans which take 18 minutes to zip between Portsmouth and Ryde, compared the 45 minutes it takes the car ferry to reach its dock. Thanks to the vision of the Southern Railway (1923-1948) and its predeccesors, the same people who turned Southampton into a modern port and built Britain's first international airport at Shoreham, Portsmouth Harbour railway station brings trains direct from Waterloo right up to the dockside. On the otherside is Ryde Pier where the ferries come alongside at the end, beyond the whims of the tide, and the trains come right out over the sea to meet them. Thus we have proved an integrated transport policy can only be acheived through central government direction, er hang on.
And finally there's the hovercrafts. From the beach infront of Southsea's Clarence Esplanade, right next to the amusement arcade where Uncle Bernie shoots down the aeroplanes in The Who's Tommy movie, the craft reverses over the sand and right out onto the water, turns through 180 degress and fair belts across the water. It zipped past us and left the cross channel ferry standing. 10 minutes the trip takes. I know it's pretty old technology these days but I still find it highly impressive.
Like I said, none of this is terribly glamorous, a bleak sea in December isn't for some reason. Nevertheless these ferries are a vitally important transport link carrying people and goods all day and everyday.