It was certainly an amazing few days, and it was a privilege to have been onboard the maiden voyage of the Pont-Aven…
Tuesday 23rd March
The Val de Loire slipped her moorings for the final time a little after 9pm on Tuesday the 23rd March. She was making room for the Duc de Normandie, inbound from Roscoff, sailing empty to St Malo to position herself for her what is now her permanent route, running alongside the Bretagne to Portsmouth and also to Cherbourg. A grand total of 4 people watched her leave from Grand Parade for what might be the final time. The Duc de Normandie sailed past her in the Sound whilst the Pont-Aven was at anchor off Cawsand – 3 Brittany Ferries in Plymouth at once! The evening climaxed with drinks in ‘The Bank’ with fellow BFE members – which has effectively become our new base in the south west!
Wednesday 24th March – The Big Day
Following a very pleasant nights sleep at the Holiday Inn I awoke to a bright sunny morning, whilst the Pont-Aven was still lying at anchor. She began to make her way into the Sound at around 08:30, her paintwork gleaming in the morning sun. It was noticeable that a small patch of the blue and red stripe had been rubbed off towards the forward end of the starboard side, a badly positioned fender in Plymouth being responsible. Slowly but surely she berthed stern first in, awaiting her maiden voyage are first fare paying passengers.
Checking in a little after 2pm, following pre-voyage drinks in ‘Sippers’ the terminal was already full of foot passengers eager to get onboard as early as possible. Not since the Bretagne has Plymouth seen so many mini-cruisers! Boarding card in hand it was time to board, boarding via deck 6 aft arriving right at the bottom of the atrium. Being one of the few passengers who actually knew their way around I quickly took the lift to deck 8 to check into my cabin, number 8412, one of 18 luxuriously appointed ‘Commodore Class’ cabins. The Commodore Cabins are individually named after famous artists from Pont-Aven and contain the standard features from the fleet. A mini bar, tea making facilities, plasma tv, dvd player, radio… and of course a balcony. A nice touch in the Commodore Cabins was that you got a bottle of wine which was same as the name as your cabin when you went to Spain. No wine in here… well not yet anyway. There was also no onboard guide folder as is usually found in the cabins. Instead there is ‘Pont-Aven TV’ which acts as the onboard guide.
Having placed the order for tea and breakfast and a dinner reservation it was a race to who got to go out on the balcony first before inspecting what would be ‘home’ for the next 3 days. After a whistle stop tour around the ship we were called to the information desk where we were invited to visit the bridge for the departure out of Plymouth.
Once on the bridge, which is furnished with antique maritime memorabilia, and after the obligatory pleasantries with the officers a surprise was in store for the Captain. On behalf of the site a painting was commissioned by myself depicting the Pont-Aven with the Kerisnel in Plymouth Sound. Prior to the departure this was presented to Captain Pascal Saludo to what can only be described as an emotional response. The painting attracted allot of attention with the crew, notably with the ships Chief Officer who’s father had been the Captain of the Kerisnel all those years ago! The painting is being placed on the bridge, described as a lucky charm for the ship! (see end of report).
The departure out of Plymouth was delayed slightly due to the volume of traffic, not to mention this being the first time the ship had actually been loaded so extra care was being taken. A little after 1620 the Pont-Aven slipped her moorings and began to make her way out of the port. A large crowd lined the Hoe and Marine Parade with flags waving, and even a firework being let off as we slowly sailed out, the Captain making it look all too easy and ‘matter of fact’. Due to her length it is necessary for the bow thrusters to be used when negotiating the channel off Mount Batten. As we passed the breakwater I was invited to sound the ships whistle as a ‘goodbye’ to Plymouth… the Pont-Aven was underway!! Her ‘sticks’ were pushed forward and all eyes closely watched the ships speed increase to 25.8kts as we shot past the incoming HMS Somerset and the Eddystone Light.
Following the departure it was back to look around this mighty vessel once more, taking in the ships shopping mall which was already selling out of ship postcards. Amazingly someone has felt the need to computer edit the image of her by reversing the flag logo on the funnel and logo – sometimes I wonder! In contrast to the rest of the fleet there is just one shop onboard, however it has been divided to make a kisoque, la cave and perfume shop. It works well.
It wasn’t long before it was time for dinner. In keeping with the restaurants name every table had a fresh flowers, a nice touch. The buffet was as delicious as ever, all the better with a bottle of Muscadet. I do think far too many cakes were taken for desert though! During dinner the lights of NW France could be seen – in record time! The friendly service made the meal, despite a rather long delay in paying due to some teething problems which were experienced in operating the tills which delayed the second seating somewhat.
Fully nourished it was time for the bar, being just in time to watch Illusion show with ‘Jason & Johanne’ – good entertainment which really did you wondering ‘just how did he do that?’, followed by live music with ‘True Flair’. There was a lively atmosphere in the bar which looks fantastic at night with blue neon and rope lighting plus great stage lighting which includes a laser which can write messages on the mezzanine deck! There were some quite ‘strange’ people on the dance floor (no, it wasn’t me!). A giant conga dance around the bar, all 2 decks of it, signalled the evening was coming to a close!...after ‘just a few’ drinks slow progress was made in returning to the cabin, conveniently also on deck 8, only to devour a bottle of champagne left to chill on our balcony. Quite where the cork went is now is anyone’s guess!
At night even the outside decks look impressive with ‘rope lighting’ being set into the stairwells and of course string lights spanning from the radar mast, funnel to the stern.
Thursday 25th March
The day started off by taking breakfast on the balcony, despite it being cold it just had to be done. Most onboard had been early risers and by the time the coast of Spain could be seen the ship was bustling with people eager to have a look around Spain, or indeed start their holiday. The crew began to put up the ships ‘bunting’, keen to make a good first impression to Spain of their new ship. Rounding la Magdalena the city could be seen and the pilot boarded. Sometime later he finally appeared on the bridge ready to ‘watch’ the arrival. The weather was just holding for us, as launches surrounded the ship as she edged her way past the sand banks and fishermen in boats resembling bathtubs! A couple of helicopters took a few passes, no doubt for later TV coverage. People who were out for a morning walk stopped to take a look at their new regular as we neared the berth before turning around 180 degrees to come alongside bow first. The heavens then opened one we were berthed! After a few ‘tense’ moments the bow door was finally opened and discharge began.
This being the ships first visit to Santander a large press function was held with the city welcoming the ship and presenting the Captain with the cities plaques and thanking the company for the faith shown in the city over the past 21 years. All of BF’s ‘top brass’ (as they became known) attended the event including Alex Gournevec.
The ferry terminal is literally in the city centre, being only a stones throw from the shops and central park area. After visiting the animals in the mini zoo in the Magdalena palace it was time to head back for the afternoon departure back to Plymouth. The terminal was packed full, not helped by the coach loads of Spanish school children. The port has been refurbished including redesigning the interior of the terminal and the construction of a new linkspan capable of receiving the Pont-Aven.
Departure was delayed as we awaited 5 cars which had not turned up in check-in, and a couple of mini cruise passengers. At 1730 the decision was taken to sail, and for the first time the ships whistle boomed over the city, echoing off the hills and buildings. Quickly building up speed, pilot having disembarked, we rounded the peninsular into a moderate swell as we sailed north back home. Looking aft from the outside decks at the wake you get a real feeling of the ships speed. The water ‘jets’ out of the back almost in the same way as on the Vitesse, as she steams along at an average sailing speed of 26kts.
The decision was taken to sample the ships pool, looking so inviting. Unlike the Val de Loire its use is free, your passports or equivalent being used as a deposit for a towel (our towels were still all wrapped up!) and locker key. The locker rooms are smart but small, their being only one changing room and shower meaning delays if its busy! Today thankfully it wasn’t. The pool is very nice, even having underwater lighting, is at a good temperature and definitely the largest swimming pool I have seen on a ferry. Swimming against the large waves generated is quite a challenge though! The pool remains open until 9pm when it is netted off, the area becoming a pleasant bar area in the humid and pleasantly lit surrounding area.Dinner once again was of the usual high standard, with a few new items being placed on the buffet. Back in the bar the magician was doing his stuff with a different show followed by live music and disco.
Friday 27th March
The following morning breakfast was taken in ‘le Flora’ having a continental style buffet followed by a cooked English breakfast. Usually on BF the cooked breakfast is brought to your table, but here you served yourself. Not sure if that is a good thing or not? All too soon the Cornish coastline could be seen, as we passed the Eddystone lighthouse. The ship made its turn off Millbay before coming alongside, her maiden voyage complete.
The Pont-Aven certainly impressed all onboard, her style being a contrast between the Bretagne and the Mont St Michel. Thankfully she is not as open plan as the Mont is, but in the areas which she is the effect works well. The atrium is impressive and a focal point, although I am not the only one who is not quite sure about the fake ice between the lifts. The bar in my opinion is the heart of the ship with its magnificent cascading staircase which frames the swimming pool area whilst opening up the bar to two levels with its own glass ceiling. The ship has, as expected, its own mobile phone network, however thoughtful signs restricting their use have been placed outside the restaurant and commodore lounge. Probably something that will only happen whilst she is new, but her carpets are so deep that when you touch anything metallic you get a shock. By the end of the trip I was quite tired of being electrocuted whenever I opened a door, although it did have its funny side! Oh yes, a top tip, don’t put your swim shorts out to dry on your balcony… they wont be there when you wake up!!
The ‘early’ arrival of the Pont-Aven has certainly been a boost to Brittany Ferries who are clearly impressed with their new acquisition. The ship has already boosted Santander figures for the year by 25%, and I am sure that once word spreads both via the press and word and mouth she will be hard competition to beat. In fact, just about the only complaint anyone had about her is that there wasn’t enough time to do everything onboard.
My thanks go to all who made the trip as enjoyable and memorable as it was, with special thanks to her officers and crew and Brittany Ferries at Plymouth.