2006 - in the beginning
The story began in 2006 - when the previous operators announced that they would be suspending their ferry between Swansea and Cork from October 2006.
2007 - the impact starts to be felt...
The good people of West Cork, Co Kerry and South Wales, many of whom relied on the ferry service for their tourist and business incomes, waited patiently for the appearance of the new ship for the Swansea - Cork service.
Sadly - nothing happened - and people began to become concerned at the impact the continuing lack of the ferry link was having on their businesses.
Some visitors from the UK to West Cork continued their regular holiday visits - but many commented on the sheer inconvenience of the extra hours driving via Fishguard - Rosslare, and how the extra effort made their visits less enjoyable.
There was a general feeling in West Cork and Kerry that central government was out of touch with the South-West - and that there was little understanding of the predicament we faced.
Cork County Councillor Dermot Sheehan had been relentlessly pursuing the issue since mid-2006 - and, in October he reported to the County Council :-
...the loss of the service was catastrophic for some tourist businesses, especially those in West Cork.
In its past three years of operation, the ferry brought 285,250 passengers and more than 108,000 cars into Cork.
.... since the service stopped last year there has been a 30% drop in tourism revenue this year, with an estimated loss of 35m to the south west of Eire. One golf club in West Cork had seen a 51% fall in business since the ferry stopped operating.
Fresh hopes were raised in November - with reports that there were three companies in discussions to provide the new service - sadly none of these actually bore fruit.
2008 - the Campaign starts
In early 2008 there was still no prospect of a ferry service materialising - and a chance conversation between a stained-glass artist (Adrian Brentnall) and the owner of a garden centre (John Hosford) led to the formation of the Campaign - with the aptly-titled website ‘www.bringbacktheswanseacorkferry.com’.
The initial intention, according to Adrian, was ‘Simply to raise awareness and embarrass the h*** out of somebody to get the service restored’. Everybody in West Cork was bemoaning the lack of the ferry, and the associated visitors / business traffic - but there was no single, united voice. Adrian, a recent ‘blow-in’ to West Cork, had run an internet consultancy back in the UK - so had some experience of creating websites - though neither Adrian or John had ever been involved with active campaigning.
Luckily there was massive support for the restoration of the ferry link - both in the South-West of Ireland and in South Wales - as well as further afield. From day 1 (14th April 2008) the website featured an ‘e-petition’ - where people affected by the loss of the ferry could add their support. The e-petition eventually collected nearly four thousand messages of support - and was an vital tool in proving that the ferry was an important issue.
The Campaign was run, as Adrian puts it, “on a budget of nothing” - relying heavily on people working in their spare time, tremendous public support and massive goodwill from the local press and radio. Despite being financially challenged - the campaign was highly successful at getting the word out - and we were soon getting full-page spreads in the local and national papers.
Luckily, John Hosford enjoys a massive network of contacts around West Cork and throughout Ireland - and he was soon hard at work lobbying everybody from the Taoiseach downwards, while Adrian created a series of press releases and campaign newsletters.
Disappointing news came in late May, when it was announced that the vessel that several Irish business groups had their eyes upon (the Christian IV) had been sold to a Russian ferry company for €13m.
Captain Michael McCarthy (Commercial Manager - Port of Cork) said
I am very frustrated - we have spent a considerable amount of time and money assisting with the negotiations on this vessel - and to have them fail at this late stage is very annoying. Unless the Cork-Kerry region really gets its act together suitable vessels like the Christian IV will again be lost to the region. It is imperative that a focus is established to re-establish the route
(In one of those strange twists of fate that’s characterised the Campaign, the Russian company renamed the ship ‘Julia’, set it to work in the Baltic, and swiftly went bankrupt! This is the same ship that was later purchased by the co-operative - but that’s getting way ahead of the story....)
Our campaigning continued throughout the first half of 2008, with widespread media coverage, and worldwide online publicity. The campaign received a tremendous boost in July when Castletownbere resident Noel Harrington was elected County Mayor of Cork - and pledged his support for the Campaign, by setting up a co-ordinated programme between Cork and Kerry councils and their counterparts in Wales aimed at financing the new ferry service.
“I believe the private sector has failed and we have to step in”
said Noel, prophetically.
By August, the Campaign was being mentioned on national radio - and our publicity efforts continued, assisted by downloadable “car/window/whatever stickers”, campaign badges, and shameless courting of publicity through every possible channel. Research by the Campaign uncovered the astonishing statistic that every docking of the ferry at Ringaskiddy represented a cash injection of €100,000 into the economy of West Cork - and this eye-catching figure was widely reported in the media.
Meanwhile Capt. McCarthy was working hard to forge links between the Port of Cork and Associated British Ports (the company responsible for running Swansea Port) - in an attempt to agree incentives to help the ferry service restart. (Throughout the campaign, the Port of Cork has been a tremendous support - and we could not have been successful without all of their hard work).
Through his contacts in South Wales, John gained the attention of some supportive folks in the Welsh Assembly - and started a round of petitions, discussions and general lobbying.
As the end of 2008 came in sight, with lots of goodwill and support for the project but nothing ‘concrete’ in terms of a ship or an operator - concern rose about the prospects for the tourist industry in the South-West. Many tourism operators had experienced their worst season for years - and realised that much of this was to do with the lack of a direct ferry link between the UK / EU and Cork. A series of meetings held in Glengarriff, with an impressive array of speakers including local Councillors, TDs and Senators were well-attended - but the lobbying efforts of these good people fell on deaf ears in central government.
As 2008 drew to a close, optimistic reports in December suggested that reinstatement of the ferry link was ‘only a step away’. Capt. McCarthy and his team had visited seven countries and identified four possible ships, and expert consultants had created a business plan, with a bank agreeing to fund 60% of the start-up costs. Everything looked very rosy....
2009 - a time for heroes
The optimism continued into January 2009 - and it really looked as if the ferry would sail again in time for the 2009 Spring season. A press release for the Campaign said
It's definitely time for action. We are now looking for a relatively small investment from Munster businesses (particularly in tourism and industry) in order to secure this vital link. As an island nation we cannot afford to be isolated any longer.
It now seems clear that no Government funding will be available, although some EU money may be accessible one the service has started.
If the missing investment can be secured in the next four weeks then we are confident that the service can be running in time for the 2009 holiday season.
Our original plan, way back in April 2008, had been simply to get the ferry service reinstated - by lobbying and PR. The idea of actually buying a ship and running it had never occurred to us - and probably just as well - (some people thought we were crazy in our original aim) - to have talked about buying a ship in the current recession would have marked us as complete lunatics!
However - it began to become clear that, if this thing was going to happen at all, then it would have to be driven by the people who were most affected - the tourism / business interests of West Cork, Kerry and South Wales.
There was one small obstacle - a little matter of €3m cash that was required as a ‘deposit’ on a suitable ship - to be matched by a small group of Cork-based business investors.
At this stage, the whole Campaign moved up a gear. Whereas previously it had been very much a 2-man operation, we were delighted to welcome West Cork Tourism in the shape of Conor Buckley and Paul O’Brien and their team. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of raising €3m of investment for the project within a few short weeks - they swung into action.
Working alongside the Campaign, and based in a conference room in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen - Conor and his team embarked on a hectic round of 20-hour days, fundraising ’roadshows’ around West Cork, publicity, planning, and general ‘rallying of the troops’. The plan was to secure three hundred ‘pledges’, each of €10,000 - within seven days. The pledges were either in the form of single €10k amounts - or, frequently, as syndicates made up from two to twenty individuals - all putting in their smaller amounts to form a single €10k share.
Amazingly - and all credit to the fantastic work done by Conor, Paul and their team, over €2,000,000 of pledges were secured in the first seven days of the fundraising - with massive support at the fundraising roadshows. (The eventual total was very close to the €3m target - which was a tremendous achievement).
All seemed plain sailing - and it seemed that success was in sight at last!
Sadly not - over the next few weeks there were a series of discussions and negotiations around the deal - and it finally emerged that the original business partners who were to have injected significant capital to fund the start-up would not now be taking part. This left a significant shortfall in funding - and it seemed that the project had, once again, run aground.
Nothing daunted, Conor’s team came up with an audacious plan.
“Why not”, they asked, “run the whole thing ourselves ?”
On the 7th of April, at the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen, a meeting of co-op shareholders formally voted to go ahead with the formation of the West Cork Tourism Cooperative, and elected a Board with the authority to negotiate with the Finnish Bank over purchase of the ship- now named the Julia (a.k.a Christian IV).
Speaking after the meeting - Conor Buckley - newly-elected Chairman of the Co-op - said
"...this is what we have been working towards and what we hoped the outcome would be from tonight. Shareholders recognised the great deal that has been negotiated and wholeheartedly gave it their backing. I am extremely proud of the region and of all those who have pledged their money and support to this great cause which holds the key for the future of the South West.”
As you would expect - the news was met with great delight at the prospect of the ship being put into service just in time for the 2009 holiday season.
There was one small obstacle still to be overcome. Although the Finnish Bank had indicated that it was happy to sell the ship to the co-op, and would in fact loan us 60% of her value, the deal had first to be ratified by the Finnish Courts (as it related to the bankruptcy of the original operator). To make matters more interesting - brand new legislation had just been introduced, and our deal would be the first time that this legislation had been implemented. However, we were assured that this would be a mere legal formality.
Soon after this, Cork County Council gave us a massive confidence boost by agreeing a package of marketing assistance worth €250,000, and the Port of Cork and ABP in Swansea agreed significant subsidies to make life easier for the new service.
Once again - everything looked wonderful, and everybody prayed that all the pieces would fall into place and the ferry link would be reinstated in time to save the 2009 tourist season.
A new website at www.fastnetline.com was set up - and a ‘pre-booking’ form invited potential travellers to register for news updates and special travel offers on the new ferry. By September, this list had more than 8,000 subscribers - who were all eager for news of the new service.
Early in May, and after exhaustive and continuing negotiations between the co-op and the Bank in Finland, it was announced that the ferry would not be sailing until 2010. This was, of course, a massive disappointment - but it was generally accepted that there was little point in rushing into service and failing though insufficient preparation. The legal wrangling in Finland were still continuing - with no firm date for completion, and many of the ferry’s potential summer passengers would have already made other arrangements. March 1st 2010 (St David’s Day) was the new start date for the service.
Conor Buckley said
We reluctantly took this decision in light of the large part of the 2009 booking season already lost to the service, due to the unexpectedly long negotiations, and the fact that many potential passengers have already made their bookings for the crucial July, August and September sailings.
“We would have liked to have had the service resumed for 2009 but despite the enormous amount of work we have already put into the formation of the co-op, we feel there is an overpowering economic case not to proceed this summer.
“No one would thank us for rushing into service now and sustaining huge losses. It would undermine everything we have worked for and would be a potentially huge loss of shareholders’ money. It is far better that we continue with the very solid foundations we are building now and ensure a totally sustainable business for the next twenty-plus years.”
There was precious little to report during the summer of 2009 - apart from a record amount of rainfall in West Cork! One of the conditions of the Finnish Bank was that the negotiations regarding the ship must take place under a total ‘News Blackout’ - so there wasn’t a lot of news....
Behind the scenes, Conor and his team spent many long hours in discussions, financial predictions, flying between Cork and Finland, fundraising, and interviewing and selecting a CEO for the new company, now known as Fastnet Line.
On the 14th September came the news that we’d all been waiting for!
“West Cork Tourism Co-Operative Society Limited, is pleased to announce the purchase of cruiseferry, the Julia, for a consideration of €7.8 million. The Julia, which will operate under the Fastnet Line brand will arrive in Cork in the coming weeks to proclaim the dawn of a new era for the South West region”.
...and we all heaved a collective sigh of relief.
As if life hadn’t been hectic enough already
- things now moved into overdrive!
On the 16th of September at 4pm (Irish time) the Julia set sail from Finland to Cork, via Swansea (for berthing trials). She arrived at Swansea on the 22nd September, successfully berthed at the ro-ro terminal, and, after a brief stay in Swansea, set sail again for Cork.
She arrived in Cork City on the 25th September, where she berthed at Horgan’s Quay in the centre of the city until the end of January 2010 - while a crew were recruited, and essential maintenance work was undertaken.
Coincidentally - the presence of this beautiful ship in the centre of Ireland’s second city was a great opportunity to gain some free publicity for the new service - and she was soon sporting a massive promotional banner across her stern!
Amateur radio enthusiasts in Ireland and Swansea ran a series of ‘special event stations from September to March (2010) under the callsigns EI2GBW and GB2EI - with a special award certificate available to operators working both of the stations. There were plans to operate from the ship herself - but these fell foul of marine legislation and had to be cancelled at the last minute.
In early October the initial ‘placeholder’ Fastnet Line website was updated to include information about sailing schedules, photos of inside and outside the ship, contact information, FAQs and a whole lot more. Meanwhile, Fastnet Line were busy recruiting key staff to work in sales, marketing and operations - everything being focussed on the planned sailing date of March 1st 2020.
The new service came one step further in December when the online booking engine went live. After a couple of fairly frantic days as the initial systems were debugged and refined, booking went from strength to strength - and there was tremendous optimism surrounding the service.
An early Christmas present for the project was the announcement of €400,000 funding by Cork County Council and Cork City Council, and the launching of a Business expansion scheme at (€50k per bond) for larger investors.
2010 - the dawn of a new era
In January it was announced that Kerry County Council would also be investing in the ferry, to the tune of €50,000.
Bookings for the new ferry had topped the 1,700 mark - with considerable interest from coach tours and group bookings.
In the last week of January, Julia set sail on the short voyage from her overwintering berth at Horgan’s Quay down to the ro-ro ferryport at Ringaskiddy for berthing trials. Everything went well - and she set sail on 31st January to Swansea Dock for dry-docking, some internal refurbishment work, and her annual safety certification.
The Co-op’s own Conor Buckley was honoured as Cork Person of the Year - for his tremendous efforts in making the dream of a new ferry link into a reality.
Fastnet Line again hit the news with the revelation that online bookings now totalled more than half a million euro - not bad for only five weeks!
We’ve already exceeded our own passenger targets for March and April - said a delighted Tom Barrett - CEO Fastnet Line
Paul O’Brien (General Manager, Co-op) said - We have had fantastic support from Cork city and county councils as well as from Swansea City Council and the Welsh Assembly. I think everyone realises just what an important tourism asset this link represents...”
After dry-docking in Swansea, and some minor delays due to certification issues, Julia commenced her regular scheduled service between Swansea and Cork on March 10th - nearly 2 years after the campaign started and 3 1/2 years after the previous service ceased.