Cross Solent Ferries
Power to operate Steamers was granted by the South-Western and the Brighton Railway Companies (Steam Vessels) Act, 1879. At the beginning of 1924 Southern Railway bought 2 acres of land at the head of Fishbourne Creek with a view to establishing a berthing facility for car ferries. Power to construct the terminal was granted by the Southern Railway Act, 1924 (S.45), and the British Transport Commission Act, 175, authorised alterations to the slipway (S.9) Subsection 2 of that section defines the limits of the terminal, within which the master of the slipway may exercise powers under and subject to the provisions of the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act, 1847 (Section 51 – 65 of this Act stipulates the powers of a harbour, dock and pier master). In particular subsection 6 authorises works on the bed of the Creek and confirms certain powers granted in the Act of 1924. In practice British Rail have only dredged and maintained a narrow channel along the line of the marker piles. Work on the shore based facilities started in March 1925 with the construction of a waiting room, car parking and pens for the containment of livestock, which were also transported on the ferry. A new road was constructed joining the ferry terminal with the main Newport to Ryde road at the head of Fishbourne Lane. In conjunction with the land-based work, dredging work was in hand to create a channel for the boats. However this work took longer than anticipated and the facility did not open until March 1926. Initially the service was two round trips per day but could be increased at peak times, cost for a car between 10 and 14 feet long was 22/- shillings single The service was operated using tugs to tow three barges which could carry a maximum of three cars. The demand for the service rapidly increased and Southern Railway asked Denny of Dumbarton to design and build a new car ferry, and in July 1927 the first purpose built roll-on-roll-off vessel called the M.V. Fishbourne was brought into service. Dimensions were 131ft long and 25ft in the beam, extra screws and rudders being incorporated in the design to increase manoeuvrability, the cost was in excess of £13,000.
Capacity of the ferry service was now 15 cars and 99 passengers with a crossing time of 55 minutes, facilities for passengers were much improved. The original tugboat capability was retained for the transport of livestock and in case the car ferry was out of service. With the success of this service, an additional boat called M.V. Wootton was order and came into service in June 1928 with a capacity of 16 cars and 100 passengers, this was followed in June 1930 by a third boat called the M.V. Hilsea with a very slight increase in capacity, all three ships had an operating speed of 8 knots and were around 200 tons in weight. The purchase price of two of the later ships was now over £17,000. It must also be mentioned at this point that both M.V. Fishbourne and the M.V. Wootton sailed to Dunkirk in 1940 to help in the evacuation of soldiers both ships came back.
After the Second World War the railways were nationalised the ferry service came under the control of British Railways. Towards the end of the 1950s the three ships were reaching the end of their service life and as a result two new ferries called “Fishbourne II” and “Camber Queen” were ordered from Philip & Son of Dartmouth, at a cost of around £175,000. The new ships were bigger at 640 tons and carrying 34 vehicles and 165 passengers with a service speed of 10 knots and entered service July ans August 1961 with the two new ships coming into service “Wootton” and “Hilsea” were withdrawn.
In September 1981 a subsidiary called Sealink was formed with a view to privatisation and orders for two new roll on roll off ferries were announced at a cost of £5 million each. The first of the two new ferries called St Catherine 2036grt. 76.10m long was launched at the Henry Robb Caledon Yard, Leith, Scotland, on the 30th March 1983, entering service at Portsmouth on the 3rd July. The second ship called St Helen was launched on 15th September from the same shipyard and entered service at Portsmouth on the 29th November of the same year. Both these ships were considerably bigger than there predecessors with a carrying capacity of 142 cars and 770 passengers and had an operating speed of 12 knots. In July 1984 Sealink was privatised and sold to Sea Containers for £66 million and became known as Wightlink Ltd. Two more ships entered service, the first was St. Cecilia on 27 March 1987, followed by St. Faith in July 1990. both built by Cochrane Yard, Selby. England, their prices were similar to the two previous ships and they had the same carrying capacity and operating speed.
In June 1995 the company was the subject of a management buy-in and became a private company until 2005, when it was acquired by the Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund. The company has progresses from its early pioneering days of steam travel to operate a modern fleet of eight car and passenger ferries between Lymington & Yarmouth and Portsmouth & Fishbourne (historically, the youngest of the routes) and four high-speed FastCat catamarans, between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier.
Footnote: In July 2001 the St. Clare weighing in at 5359 grt. was capable of carrying 186 cars and almost 900 passengers entered service, this ship was a departure from all the other ships in that it was built by Gdansk Ship Repair Yard in Poland and the cost was now £1,100,000, the service speed had increased slightly to 13 knots.
Sealink Isle of Wight by John Hendy. Published by Ferry Publications Ltd
Further history can be obtained from the publication ‘Fishbourne Car Ferry by John Faulkner. 2004