Sunday, 31 July 2011

Reasons for not using Condor Ferries...

We are, as is well known, an island race with a strong maritime history.  It is no surprise, therefore, that even now that cheap flights and fast Eurostar trains are available, there are still a wide range of ferry services available to let us cross the Channel and visit our nearest neighbour.

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:

As the name suggests, the Normandie Vitesse is seriously quick - 40mph was quoted to me.  Unlike the Barfleur, it is a fast catamaran built to go quickly, at the price of carrying a smaller number of passengers and cars.  The reasoning, presumably, is that we will pay more to get across the Channel in two and a half hours than we will to cross in four and a half.  All other things being equal, I would say that is right.

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...


  1. Very good description of a 'high speed' ferry. A few weeks ago we crossed from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Condor, but on a small normal ferry, which was fine. Condor the company seem no better or worse than the competition, the problem is the type of ferry so I quite agree with your advice - don't fall for the hype, take your time and go on a 'proper' ship.

  2. I've had a similar experience with Condor. When you take into account the considerable delays you experience getting on and off the ship, and the fact that this makes the ship late to arrive in the first place, the time benefits are largely, and perhaps totally lost.

    But there is a safety issue here. I travelled with small children. Getting them safely back into the car in such a small space and then strapping them in, required considerable physical flexibility on my part.

    As you point out, some people couldn't even get into their cars until others had moved theirs. So what does a lone parent do with (say) three small children in such circumstances? It would be highly dangerous to leave them between the cars while people are reversing and doing the odd manoeuvres Condor expect you to do. Sending them back to the cabin until the surrounding cars have been moved, would only add to the delays, for themselves and for those they had blocked in.

    This raises a further worry: as there are such problems of disorganisation and safety in the car deck, how confident would you be if the whole thing started to sink?

    Doubtless they would say they have adequate procedures in place to ensure everyone's safety. But if those procedures are no more adequate than those of getting cars on and off, then I for one would be not very confident at all.

    From my one experience of Condor (and in fairness it may not be representative - but presumably, it reflects how stretched they are willing to become), it looked to me like an organisation that put profit first.

  3. Hi buildingstoat, welcome to the blog! Yes, my whinge is about fast catamaran ferries; Condor seem to be the main operator of those in my nearest bit of sea.

    Albert - while we were getting into the car, I did wonder what would happen if there were an emergency there & then. On reflection, I suspect that is not a serious risk; they only asked us to go back to the cars once we were actually in Poole harbour and manoeuvring into the dock, so I doubt the water was too deep there. The only risk would therefore be of cars shifting - although that is quite frightening, it beats drowning by a long chalk.

    I would not have relished trying to care for small children though. Perhaps you should take JuliaM's advice?

  4. In relation to Newton’s third law, the large catamaran sits high in the water compared to a ferry. Apart from the ridiculously small amount of space between the cars on the car deck, the fact they travel faster across the surface of the water means they are far more susceptible to turbulence as they are tossed about by the waves. The possible consequences of this should not be underestimated, p.

    The experience I can recall is that when my daughter was three and my son a year old, we crossed in fairly rough weather. The car was chained down. We were not allowed back on to the car deck once we left port. I think this is common practice though.

    Given the rolling and rollicking that went on, my daughter and my husband soon felt ill. She then threw up all down my front. Under the instructions of do something and that look of 'or your life might be in danger', my husband obtained special permission to be able to go down and retrieve a change of clothes for her and me from the car. He dutifully did this. We cleaned ourselves up as best we could and changed. Only for her to ‘chunder’ all down me again half an hour later. Ah, the smell. I was given a very wide berth for a long while afterwards.

    It was a nightmare journey. The good news is that it even put me off my food for a good few days.

    I like the ferry. It is also less noisy. However, we have only ever taken the tunnel since.

  5. Oh, you *so* have my sympathy for that journey, M!

  6. There are many ferries that would offer reasonable price and good facilities. As you said, its not good to use 'high speed' ferries.

  7. We used to travel regularly with Condor, but gave up as they were so unreliable. The fast cat lost an engine on three occasions resulting in several hours delay, worse still at the other end waiting for us.

    Once upon a time they compensated us well, but then got wise to being nice to customers.

    I switched to LD but firstly they crashed (yes crashed) the boat on an earlier crossing, meaning on the first time they put on two smaller and very slow ferries (we were genuinely about 8 hours late) and the second time simply cancelled leaving us in the lurch. From then on we have used Brittany Ferries. Two other points on LD, the one time the fast ferry worked (Le Havre to Portsmouth) it was excellent. They then stopped operating the fast ferry. A third point, Newhaven to Le Havre was ok until they changed that as well.

  8. Mr Patently,

    There is a reason for allocated seating. The catamarans do not have solid lifeboats: they have inflatable liferafts, some of which are accessed by aircraft-style emergency slides and others by climbing off the back of the boat. It would benefit neither crew nor passengers to have everyone head for one raft - in fact it would be seriously dangerous.

    I hold no brief for Condor - I live in the Channel Islands and am lumbered with the b*ggers - but as I said, this is not an irrational requirement.

  9. Thank James, interesting to hear where there is a reason for these things.

  10. Golly, didn't realise it might have been this dangerous! We had a good crossing recently. Normally I get seasick but found the Condor catamaran comfortable. Spent most of the 2.5 hours watching the amazing jet engine action as water was spewed out below, and it seemed even more stable that far down. I concur with the Mr Stressy element when backing our (thank God small) car out, but otherwise quite enjoyed the journey since it was shorter than the other ferries.

  11. I stumbled across this post while reading about the latest Condor fiasco on the Guernsey Press website here. As a (former) Guernsey resident I can confirm that the fast ferries have been a nightmare from day one. It's not just your isolated experience. They've capped it now by bringing in a replacement boat that makes the Vitesse look like a model of reliability.

    BTW - I sympathize with the tight squeeze between the cars experience. On one trip I had to climb out and back in through the passenger window because none of the doors would open enough.

  12. Like everyone above, I booked on Condor last year. On loading, I had the Mr Grumpy who shouted at me to move closer to the rails - I refused as this was impossiblme - I was already only 3 inches away so exactly where he wanted me to go, I have no idea! On returning to the car upon docking in Cherbourg, I then found I was unable to squeeze between the cars to gain access - one side had a drop down to lower levels leaving me only a 6 inch gap to slide through, open the door and enter my vehicle. Fortunately the car alongside me had only a driver and no passengers so he'd been OK. Sorry, but never again - it's the RO-RO's for me anytime!

  13. I've had similar experiences twice running. The island's tourist economy must be being damaged by Condor's cavalier "sod the customer" attitude. We won't be going again. On the last trip (2013) I assume we had Mr Stressy, I was instructed to drive my car into a gap too small to open the doors and was yelled at when I couldn't get out. Nor was there room for others to open their doors or walk around my car to get off the car deck. When I returned to it there was a large dent in the bonnet where someone had presumably sat on it whilst squeezing through, and a sizable dent in the door. They just didn't want to know, yelled at me to get the car off the ferry and put a complaint in. My complaint to head office was responded to rudely, I was told to claim on my insurance. Jersey is pleasant but not enough of a draw to put up with that. I can go to France on a decent ferry with a decent service without the additional cost of bodywork repairs. Friends of ours who spent 6 hours waiting outside Jersey harbour, and relatives who also had their car damaged on a (completely separate) trip have made the same decision. Sorry Channel Islands, but your government needs to sort out this company to put customer confidence back.

    1. Sorry to hear you've had the same experience. Last time we went to Jersey, we flew & hired a car. We saw the Condor option but were not inclined to opt for it...