The Val de Loire joined the Brittany Ferries fleet in June 1993 as the companies flagship, sailing between Plymouth, Santander, Roscoff and Cork. Her operations remained largely unchanged until the arrival of the Pont-Aven in March 2004 which saw her transferred to Portsmouth where she operated daily sailings to St Malo and Cherbourg. It was announced on the 25th November 2005 that Brittany Ferries had sold the Val de Loire to North Sea operator DFDS Seaways for operation between Newcastle and Amsterdam, where she will be renamed 'King of Scandinavia'. After almost 13 years sterling service the Val de Loire left the Brittany Ferries family in 2006. In this special feature we take a look back at her career as we celebrate '13 years of the Val de Loire'.
The Val de Loire was built as the Nils Holgersson in 1987 for TT-Line as hull number 1059. She was built at the Schichau Seebeckswerft AG, Bremerhaven Shipyard, Tyskland, at the time being one of the largest ferries in the world, along with her sister ship, the Peter Pan (now sailing as the Fjord Norway). She entered service on 26th June 1987 between Trelleborg - Travemünde. In 1992 she was chartered to Rederi Ab, Gotland and later sold to SweFerry Ab, Trellborg. Following the her sale to Brittany Ferries and completion of service for TT-Line she was renamed Val de Loire on the 14th January 1993 and set sail for the Ankommer INMA Shipyard, Italy where she underwent a complete refurbishment and re-build.
As well as being a sister to the Fjord Norway the Val de Loire also has 3 near sister ships. TT Line leased the plans of these two vessels to Olau Line who themselves built two sister ships of only slightly differing specification. These ships were the Olau Britannica and the Olau Hollandica. Following the demise of Olau in 1994 P&O Ferries chartered these two ships and renamed them Pride of Portsmouth and Pride of Le Havre respectively. They operated between Portsmouth and Le Havre until the route was closed in September 2005. Additionally, Stena Line built a smaller version - the Konginin Beatrix, at the Van der Giessen shipyard in Holland.
Battle of the Bay
Following Brittany Ferries introduction of their new flagship, the Bretagne, on their Spanish and Irish routes, passenger traffic increased significantly. This new cruise ferry, the first to be constructed for both Brittany Ferries and the English Channel, had captured much interest from the public and media alike with her now trend setting luxury interior and amenities. The success the company was experiencing on the route did not go un noticed with its rivals. P&O Portsmouth had long been rumoured to be investigating the possibility of operating their own route to the Iberian Peninsular, but the lack of suitable tonnage was hindering their progress. P&O had previously operated a route to Northern Spain but it was closed in 1981, it wasn't until Brittany Ferries started their own service, the first to offer just one night at sea, was a UK-Spain passenger service found to be a success.
In April 1992 P&O Portsmouth announced that it had secured the long term charter of Viking Line's Olympia from Irish Continental Group (Irish Ferries), who had purchased her outright. The new ship was to operate a twice weekly service between Portsmouth and Bilbao and be renamed Pride of Bilbao. This was to go head to head with Brittany's established Santander service, despite the longer sailing time of 36 hours compared to their own 24. Brittany Ferries looked to Germany's TT-Line which was looking to redeploy its own fleet more into the freight sector. In May 1992 it was announced that they had purchased the Nils Holgersson for $60 million for the Santander service. The new ship was to undergo a major £40million rebuild and refurbishment programme in Italy before emerging in June 1993 as the Val de Loire.
The Italian Job
The most noticeable change, apart from her new paint scheme, was the addition of a new bow and forward section. This addition made the ship look more pleasing to the eye, and also permitted the installation of an observation lounge and forward balcony on decks 7 and 8. This work did, however, result in a decrease in the ships sea keeping capabilities, making her 'ride' the waves more than before, despite a redesigned bow configuration. Commodore Class cabins were added on deck 10 ( a first for the company), and the majority of the aft passenger spaces on decks 7-9 were all completely transformed and given the full Brittany Ferries treatment. All of the public spaced were transformed, most notably on decks 9 and 7, and on deck 1 the leisure centre was refurbished and two cinemas installed.
As well as Commodore Cabins the Val de Loire brought a number of other 'firsts' to the company. An alternative restaurant, le Café du Port on deck 8 was a French bistro restaurant which produced some of the finest meals on the channel. An observation lounge was located at the forward end of deck 8 allowing panoramic views across the bow as well as providing navigational instrumentation and charts for passengers to view. A Commodore Class lounge was also created on deck 9 within the exclusive Commodore Class section of the ship. A swimming pool, sauna and gym were available for use on deck 1 and a tourist office was located on deck 9 beside two conference rooms. A hair & beauty salon was also provided, although this was removed in 2004 once she left the Spanish route. These facilities set the Val de Loire apart from both her own fleet mates but also that of her competitors.
The 'theme' used throughout the vessel was that of 'Maritime Tradition'. Numerous detailed models of various ocean going liners were positioned throughout the vessel's interior, along with items including sextants, search lights, compasses and telescopes. The ships restaurant 'le temps de vivre' was decorated with watercolours of the Loire Valley creating a calming atmosphere, whilst the 'Cafe du Port' and the salon du the (le Grand Large) were lined with fishing imagery from Roscoff including some unique stained glass murals. Commodore cabins were named after different wines within the Loire Valley, complete with a complimentary bottle of the name sake's cabin inside for Spanish sailings.
Brittany Ferries Flagship
Once work had been completed in Italy she set sail for Santander where she carried out berthing trials before heading to Roscoff. A number of press events were also held prior to her entry into service, during heavy weather conditions ion the Bay of Biscay. The Val de Loire arrived in Plymouth for the first time on 4th June 1993, and began operations to Santander on 9th June 1993, following her first passenger sailing from Roscoff-Plymouth the previous weekend. Upon her arrival the Bretagne was transferred to to Portsmouth - St.Malo route.
The operations of the Val de Loire remained similar since her arrival. She continued to operate between Plymouth, Santander, Roscoff & Cork, and between Portsmouth & Caen during the winter months until March 2004. She also spent periods sailings between Portsmouth and St.Malo (with a weekend sailing to Plymouth and Roscoff) before permanently moving to the route, having been displaced by the Pont-Aven in Plymouth. During the 2004 season she operated alongside the Bretagne alternating between Portsmouth, St Malo and Cherbourg services until operating solo to St Malo in 2005. The Val de Loire has also undertaken a number of popular Christmas and New Year cruises to Santander and Rouen.
It has been pretty much smooth sailing for the Val over the years, but as with all ships, she has had her moments. Her appearance has remained largely unaltered, apart from the addition of a fast rescue boat on the starboard side in 2001, and the re-colouring of the company colours from orange to red in the late nineties. The Val had the tightest turnarounds of all the ferries operating on the channel, in peak season never stopping for more than two and a half hours. Her 2 crews, under Captain Barbancon and Captain Saludo, work on a week on, week off rotation pattern, most having been onboard since the very beginning in 1993.
During the winter of 1998 the Val de Loire, whilst vacating the berth in Plymouth to allow the Quiberon in during severe gales, was blown off course whilst reversing off the berth and landed against the outer pier at Millbay docks. This caused structural damage above the waterline and following a preliminary inspection at the DML naval dockyard (having sailed up the River Tamar) she sailed, with temporary repairs, for Brest where she was fully repaired. She had no passengers or cars onboard during this incident, and remained out of service for just over a week.
The Val de Loire became a TV star when Channel 5 filmed 'Ferry Tales' (a 'fly on the wall' series) onboard. An episode followed the Val de Loire on one of her winter sailings to Santander covering the exploits of some of her more 'interesting' passengers, offering an insight into the behind the scenes operations of a cruise ferry.
In September 2000 the Val de Loire suffered severe problems with one of her propeller shafts overheating. When the problem was initially identified it was hoped that it could be repaired on site but it was soon realised that it was more serious than first thought, and as a result a sailing between Cork and Roscoff took some 30hrs and she was forced to sail to Brest for repairs that took over two weeks, having originally been estimated at only one weeks work at most. During this time the fleet undertook the largest shake up for over a decade. The Barfleur was initially transferred to cover for the Val de Loire at Roscoff but when her return was delayed the Bretagne came back to Plymouth. The Duc de Normandie covered for the Bretagne at St Malo and the Barfleur covered the Caen route in place of the Duc de Normandie. Services from Poole were suspended until her the Val de Loire returned.
The Val de Loire made worldwide headlines on the 19th June 2001 when Spanish police uncovered a plot by the terror organization ETA to explode a bomb onboard in Santander in an attempt to sink her at the berth following evacuation of the passengers. Thankfully the suspects were arrested, and the Val de Loire sailed safely on. Security has been raised dramatically however both in Santander and Bilbao in light of the plot.
In 2000 Geolink chose the Val de Loire as the first passenger ship to be fitted with a wireless mobile GSM network. No matter where you were, you can use your mobile phone onboard just as you would if you were on land. There is no longer any escape from a phone, something some consider to be a little excessive when on a 'holiday ferry' but never the less great modern feature in today's technological age. Such was the sucess of the trials this feature has now become common on most cruise ships and ferries.
During 2003, her final year on the Santander service, the Val de Loire continued to hit the headlines, for different reasons. On the 8th May a young woman from Plymouth jumped overboard in the Bay of Biscay prompting a large search of the area, sadly proving unsuccessful. On the 17th September a 24 year old Vietnamese man jumped from the ship as it was arriving into Plymouth. He was recovered in minutes by a MOD launch, and following criminal damage and assault charges was retuned on the following ferry to Spain, along with several other men. During the summer of 2003 the Val undertook trials of a new radio link enabling the crew to access Brittany Ferries' reservation system whilst at sea.
Upon the arrival of the Pont-Aven in March 2004 the Val de Loire bid farewell to Plymouth, following her final sailing to Santander on 21st March, transferring to her new Portsmouth base. Here she was to spend the year operating in tandem with the Bretagne on an enhanced St Malo service as well as on Brittany Ferries new Portsmouth to Cherbourg route which was opened in direct competition with that of P&O Ferries long established operation. Carryings on the new route were low, and combined with a lack of advertising and a regular sailing schedule the route looked set to close until it was announced that P&O Ferries were to axe their own route at the end of the year. During 2005 the Val de Loire operated alone to St Malo route, with occasional visits to Plymouth during the winter months. During her last few months of service the Val sailed initially between Portsmouth & Cherbourg, before switching to the Caen route to cover for refits. Her final sailing for the company was on the 20th February 2006 between Portsmouth & Cherbourg at 0745.
Hall of Fame
After almost 13 years service the Val de Loire left the Brittany Ferries fleet, joining the likes of the Amorique, Quiberon and Bretagne, as vessels to have sailed on the flagship Spanish services. The Val de Loire became the first super-ferry/cruise ferry to leave the fleet. She is also one of the companies most travelled ships, having operated on all but the Poole - Cherbourg route at some point during her career. The Val will be replaced on the St Malo route by the Bretagne which will be making a comeback to the route, which in turn is to be replaced by the chartered Pont L'Abbe which was later purchased outright by Brittany Ferries. This vessel was formerly the Duke of Scandinavia and is the vessel the Val de Loire replaced on the North Sea.
The Val de Loire is fondly missed, having become a favourite amongst Brittany Ferries passengers as well as a familiar and welcome sight at the ports she operated to over the years. She has given her owners sterling service over the past 13 years, and has generated much growth and income. Her new life as the King of Scandinavia wont see her go too far from home, and we wish her well with her new owners, DFDS Seaways.
Merci Val de Loire, au revoir et bon voyage!