It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The plans had been in place for months for a week-long visit to the UK to spend Christmas with my sister and her family. Yesterday, my festive cheer was rudely stolen from me following a disappointing journey on board the Ben-My-Chree; a thick fog had enveloped Heysham port.
On Saturday evening, we had heard that that day’s sailing had been unable to dock at Heysham. ‘Unlucky people’, I had said to my boyfriend, ‘thank god we booked to go tomorrow’. Waking up on Sunday morning, we checked the Steam Packet website and were comforted to see that there was nothing to say the overnight sailing hadn’t made it to Heysham.
We had heard nothing from the Steam Packet, other than the automatic ‘wear your masks’ text, so we packed the car and headed for the Sea Terminal. Once there, it was pandemonium. What looked like hundreds of cars were queuing to check in – maybe the overnight sailing hadn’t made it after all. The girl in the check-in hut greeted us cheerily and, almost as an afterthought, told us there was ‘a little bit of fog at Heysham’ but they would ‘try their best’. She didn’t seem concerned so neither were we.
Once aboard, the captain welcomed us to the Ben-My-Chree over the tannoy. He explained in a monotonous voice that the last two sailings had been turned around at Heysham port, the fog had not cleared at all and so it was ‘highly unlikely’ that we would be able to dock either – but we were going anyway. It was at this point that the hearts of every passenger on board sank to the bottom of the Irish Sea.
We tried to remain hopeful, even as we arrived at the channel to see nothing but dense grey fog surrounding the boat. We heard from several different crew members throughout our journey, each one telling us the same thing – the fog was not due to lift. Essentially, we were waiting for a miracle. Wait we did. We paced up and down the channel for nearly two hours with the cut-off point of 2.15pm, when the turning tides dictated that we could wait no more, steadily approaching. It was this time that the tannoy chimed once more; they still didn’t have enough visibility to dock, so we were heading back to the Isle of Man.
A forlorn silence blanketed the boat. Not only had we already spent six hours at sea, but we now faced an extra three hours only to arrive back at our starting point. We were certainly thankful that we had a cabin at this point. I could only imagine what it must have been like downstairs as other passengers, crammed in like un-socially distanced sardines, were forced to spend nine hours wearing masks. Those who had tried twice before had ended up traveling for 36 hours to no avail.
Shortly after, another announcement was made with a vague apology on behalf of the Steam Packet. As it was now the third time that this had happened, the crew seemed fed up with delivering the same news. Apparently, we would be provided with complementary tea, coffee and biscuits that we could collect from the cafeteria. By this point we had now missed breakfast and lunch, so a biscuit seemed almost an insult to our rumbling stomachs. Luckily, we had brought a few bottles of water with us, however, these were quickly diminishing.
As the boat moved farther away from dry land, we hurriedly made use of the weak Wi-Fi and existing 4G to rearrange our plans. My boyfriend and I booked flights for the following day, whilst my parents, who also happened to be on the doomed sailing, had to wait until back in the Isle of Man to try to rebook themselves onto another crossing. My sister in the UK, having heard the news, even tried to ring on my parents’ behalf only to be told that they were unable to reschedule until the boat had docked back in the Isle of Man when it could ‘officially’ be classed as canceled.
Sitting in our cabin, we pondered how this could happen with 21st century technology. Has no one invented a modern, technological way to guide a boat into a port? What about some old school methods? Would it not be possible to use a few tug boats to lead us safely into dock? Of course, we could ponder all we liked. We relied on the captain and his crew to be the all-knowing professionals who would do everything within their power to get us to our final destination.
No one can help the weather; if Mannanin chooses to throw his cloak over the Irish Sea, we mere mortals are powerless to it. However, if we had known sooner that it was a mission doomed for failure, we could have stayed in the Isle of Man and made alternative arrangements, booking a flight to get us to the UK on schedule.
I ask the Steam Packet how this can happen in 2021? Why did they not update passengers earlier so that those going away with urgency could reschedule their travel as soon as possible? Why are measures not in place, both on the Manx side and Heysham side of the water, to resolve such issues?
We have now successfully traveled to the UK a day late by plane and our Christmas festivities can commence. I hope that the weekend’s disruption hasn’t ruined others’ plans and everyone is able to have a Merry Christmas.