We just did exactly that - the (extended) Patently family crossed from Poole to Cherbourg and back in order to spend a week in Normandy (before you ask, yes, the tapestry is worth visiting). We booked a ferry crossing simply because the detour to Folkestone and Calais would have meant that driving via the Tunnel would have taken just as long; with no real difference in the total journey time, we reasoned that it was better to sit on the ferry and relax than have to drive all that way. We booked the crossings simply on the basis of what was available at what time, so that we could choose a convenient crossing time. There were, after all, four children in the party so convenience scored highly.
Without really realising, therefore, I ended up with a very good comparison between the three ways of crossing the Channel. I have used the Tunnel several times before, and am a definite fan provided it fits the intended route well enough. Our trip out (Poole to Cherbourg) was via a traditional roll-on-roll-off ferry, the Barfleur (operated by Brittany Ferries):
Our return was via a different ship, the Normandie Vitesse, operated by Condor Ferries but bookable via Brittany Ferries:
All other things are very definitely not equal, however. You see, there are ways in which Newton's third law applies to all things. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You have to spend longer on the Barfleur, so they make the accommodation much nicer. Comfier seats, more room to walk around, a nicer restaurant, more to do on board. The Normandie Vitesse, suffering from the design compromises inherent in the catamaran style of hull that allow its speed, has only a small cabin which is busy, noisy, and somewhat cramped. There is no deck to walk on, only two small viewing platforms directly above the engines. But all of that is ok, because it is so quick, right?
Wrong. Take a close look at the picture above. Tell me where, on that hull, there is an exit for vehicles at the front as there is on the Barfleur.
If you're having difficulty finding it, that's because there isn't one. There can't be; the hull shape dictates this. The only entrances for vehicles are at the back. This means that cars have to drive in via the same exits that they will use in order to leave at the end of the journey.
Also, look at the shape of the hull. Deep gashes on the underside define the catamaran shape, and eliminate most of the interior space. The car deck is therefore in the style of a multi-storey carpark. You drive in, you are guided by staff into a space, and at the end of the trip they guide you out of your space and off the ferry. In theory.
In practice, our experience was a little different. The ferry arrived at the port half an hour late, by which time the staff were obviously under pressure to turn the ship round quickly, and a bit stressed as a result. It then took an inordinately long time to unload the cars, for reasons we could not understand (but soon would). Then, loading started with the taller vehicles first. My 5-series was left until later, being of only normal height. When we were called, the lower deck was full on one side, leaving the other side as a route through to the ramps leading to the upper decks. With tight clearances, I had to reverse back and forth in order to get round the corners demanded of me in order to spiral up through what I can only describe as the multi-storey carpark from hell - until at the top of the last ramp, we met a solid bulkhead. Here, we were guided into spaces marginally larger than the car itself, and asked to leave the car deck for the cabin. All around us, cars were still being guided into equally small spaces. Our children are old enough to be sensible, but I noticed many stressed parents trying to prevent their children from being squished. One parent was evidently saved that concern, albeit by having a car parked so close to hers that it was physically impossible to remove the infant from its seat via the door. I don't know how that one was solved.
Walking to exit, I noticed that there were no markers as to where in the car deck we were. No sign explained what level we were on, or which zone we were in - standard practice in pretty well every other ferry and every large car park that I have visited.
We settled down into our reserved seats for the journey. That turned out to have been a waste of money; there were enough seats for everyone (despite the car deck being at capacity), and the non-reserved seats were actually cleaner and more comfortable than the reserved seats. However, I had the advantage of a seat at the very rear, from which I could see the remaining cars being loaded. An increasingly stressed member of staff was guiding the last few cars onto the ship in reverse, along a ramp that had a bend in the middle, into the cramped car deck. Now, I am a pretty confident driver but that gave me the heebie-jeebies, partly because of the sheer challenge involved and partly because the over-stressed "guide" in a high-vis vest was shouting at the driver, banging on his bonnet, and generally distracting the driver so as to make it even harder.
Nor had our relatives (with whom we had been holidaying) fared any better. My mother-in-law was shouted at because she ignored the instruction to get out of the car so that her husband could park it sufficiently close to the bulkhead. This upset her a little, not least because the initial request had been utterly drowned out by the noise within the cardeck of the marine engines, air-conditioning, and 199 other cars being driven past into their inch-tight spaces. The first she knew of the need to get out was Mr Irritable and his shouting.
Anyway, the journey across the Channel was uneventful, and as Poole approached we were asked to return to our cars. This proved a challenge; with many other families trying to find their cars in the unmarked decks, a full search of all the (unmarked) levels proved harder than expected. However, eventually we found ours and I helped the children and Mrs P into their seats. I walked round to my door, to find this:
I had indeed lost some weight while on holiday (despite the French food), mainly due to the extra activity as compared to office life. However, much as I appreciate the implicit compliment offered by the ferry staff, I am in fact still incapable of passing through a door that cannot open more that about an inch. Nor could the passengers trying to get into the car next to me; at least I could ask Mrs P to get out to allow me in via the nearside. Recent practice in the art of in-car gymnastics enabled me to get to the driver's seat without injury. No such luck for those hoping to get into the other car, they had to wait until others had been moved.
Staff turned up to help us reverse out back to the ramps so that we could leave. Mr Stressy was there; I thank my lucky stars that I was helped out by a colleague of his, as I watched him shout, gesticulate, and generally do his best to unsettle and distract the driver who was evidently (and sensibly) ignoring him. Given the time needed to find cars, the packed state of the cardeck, the tight tolerances involved, the need to wait until people could actually get into their cars to move them, the complex route required, and the many tight turns involved, this took a long time. We realised why unloading had been so slow when the ship first arrived.
As we left, we passed two cars being photographed by ship staff to evidence the damage done to them while on board. I don't know how common that is, but I have not seen it happen on any other ferry.
Overall, then, the selling point of a Condor ferry is speed - about two hours faster than the Barfleur. However, we were an hour late by the time we arrived at Poole, and took a further long period of time to disembark. By the time you add in the stress involved in loading and unloading, and the very obvious risk of damage, it is not worth it. And worse, these delays meant the kennel had closed by the time we arrived home, so we had to spend an extra night without Shadow:
Sad dog is missing you
My advice? If you want a fast crossing, use the Tunnel. If you need to go by sea, relax and take your time. Don't use a "high speed" ferry.
Note: this post is based purely on my experience yesterday, and may not be representative. I will not be using a Condor ferry again, but if you are a foot passenger, driving a tall vehicle (which will be first on, first off, and on the lower deck), or on a pushbike or motorbike then you may find that it suits you better than it did me. If Brittany Ferries or Condor Ferries would like to respond to this post then they can email me at the address in the sidebar and I will be more than happy to print their response.
Update: @AlJahom has had better experiences on Condor Ferries, but Hugh Miller had a similar one on the Stranraer to Belfast catamaran...