The shipping industry is usually considered the domain of Greek billionaires, not of a co-operative of ordinary people with no experience.
But when the ferry between Cork and Swansea was taken out of service - resulting in a massive increase in carbon emissions as people took to the skies or drove hundreds of kilometres to alternative ports - it was local businesses and individuals who clubbed together to raise the finance to buy their own ship.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn't the environmental cost that was people's main concern. The withdrawal of the ferry in 2006, which had been taking about 100,000 people a year from Wales to Ireland had proved 'catastrophic' to some in the tourism industry, said Cork county councillor Dermot Sheehan in a report to the council. Research had indicated that each time the ferry had docked in Cork, it resulted in an injection of some €100,000 into the economy. A year after the Swansea to Cork ferry ceased sailing, tourism in Cork was down 30 per cent with an estimated loss of €35 million.
Those affected didn't just sit back and despair. Within two years they had moved from an internet campaign to reinstate the service to actually owning a 22,000 ton passenger ship. The story could be made into a film.
In 2008, two men, Adrian Brentnall, a stained glass artist in southwest Cork and Tom Hosford, owner of a garden centre near Cork city, launched the 'Bring back the Swansea Cork Ferry' campaign with a website, where an e-petition soon gathered 4,000 signatures. As Brentnall explains on the new website, www.peoplesferry.com, detailing the 'long and heartwarming' story of the campaign, this snowballed into local media coverage, discussions with the port authorities of Swansea and Cork and, thanks to Hosford's connections, ultimately, talks with the Welsh Assembly and Irish Taoiseach (prime minister). The success of the campaign was down to good cyber-communication and excellent networking says Brentnall. E-newsletters, Google alerts and downloadable bumper stickers all featured.
'Our original plan had been simply to get the ferry service reinstated - by lobbying and PR,' says Brentnall. 'The idea of actually buying a ship and running it had never occurred to us - and probably just as well - to have talked about buying a ship in the current recession would have marked us as complete lunatics!' he says.
'But 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, namely the tourism and 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. Within a week, from the hub of operations at the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen, €2million was raised from individuals and the tourism industry.
|The MV Julia, a 154 metre, 1300-passenger vessel better known as 'the People's Ferry'. Photo: Paul Miles|
'We sold people a glimpse of an idea and they responded to it,' says O'Brien, manager of the West Cork tourism co-op that was formed as the group's official structure. As we chat, we are on board the new ferry, sitting in the self-service restaurant during one of the ten-hour crossings from Swansea to Cork, surrounded by camping and caravan club members and others, off to the Emerald Isle.
'There's no guaranteed return on the money,' explains O'Brien. 'It's not like a capitalist system where people are invited to invest for the return they get, but rather for the benefit of the continued trading of the ferry.'
Some of the three hundred €10,000 shares are owned by families with homes in both countries; another by a group of B&B owners and one by a woman in her 70s who lives on the Welsh coast and wanted to invest as she liked the idea of seeing 'her' ferry sailing past at night.
It's no wonder that the nickname, 'the people's ferry' has stuck.
On the crossing, in between spotting porpoises and seabirds, I meet Tom Brosnan, 63, who, with his wife, Nancy, has a supermarket and guesthouse on the West Cork coast and relatives in England. They bought a fifth of a share. 'It'll bring us more business and is much better than going via Roslare and Fishguard.'
Before the 'people's ferry' started its crossings, cargo lorries and holidaymakers travelling between England and Cork would have to drive an extra 600km round-trip. 'The annual savings in carbon emissions have been calculated at 6,000 tons,' says O'Brien.
As well as the miles of driving saved, the ferry is a greener way to travel. According to statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the People's Ferry' emits around 36 kilos of CO2 per passenger - the equivalent journey by plane would produce nearly 64 kilos of CO2 equivalent per person. 'This is partly because air travel has the additional complication of emitting carbon at high altitude, which is much more damaging than releasing such emissions at ground level,' explains Elizabeth Baines, spokesperson for aviation pressure group, Plane Stupid.
'Yet although air transport is by far the most polluting means of transport we have, this fact shouldn't lure us into assuming that the alternatives are without their own environmental impact,' she continues.
'We need a range of alternatives to air travel which are assessed according to their particular merits or failings, irrespective of their comparative impact with relation to other forms of transport. Although the return of the people's ferry is to be welcomed as a more eco-friendly alternative to air travel, it should perhaps come with a health warning: that being greener than the plane is not synonymous with carbon neutrality!'
The 154-metre ship, 1300-passenger ship is officially called MV Julia. It is a former Baltic ferry with nine decks, several dining options, including an a la carte restaurant and comfortable en-suite cabins. It cost €7.8 million to buy ('A bargain,' says O'Brien). Bought in the depths of the recession, the ferry is already valued at around €12 million. With their deposit raised, the co-op secured further loan finance as well as marketing assistance and set up a company, Fastnetline, to take bookings and run the service. (The name comes from the Fastnet lighthouse, the westernmost tip of Ireland, off the coast of West Cork.)
And so it was that on 10th March, to the accompaniment of a Welsh male voice choir and a welcome by tug boats spraying fountains, the MV Julia made its inaugural overnight sailing of some 200 miles between Swansea and Cork.
Business since then has been above target. On the first occurrence of the volcanic ash cloud, 2,500 extra passengers embarked MV Julia. 'Even without that, we would have exceeded our expectations for the first three months,' says O'Brien. 'There's a great sense of pride and satisfaction,' he says. But there's no time to be complacent.
There have been some technical teething problems: docking at Swansea is complicated by the tides and, as I can vouch, reaching Swansea dock on foot from the town is, frankly, impossible. 'We're still ironing things out,' reassures O'Brien. It's not only present problems that the co-operative and Fastnetline is having to manage. 'We're already looking at what the next ship's going to cost [when MV Julia needs replacing] and how we'll fund it,' says O'Brien as we sail into the sunset.
|Another community-owned ferry service
Brittany Ferries was also started by the communities it aimed to serve. In the 1970s, farming co-ops in Brittany, together with the North Finistere Chamber of Commerce, started a ferry service primarily to take vegetables from Brittany farmers to markets in Britain. Tourists would use the ferry to travel south to Brittany. The farming co-ops are still the major shareholders in a company which has expanded to include crossings to Northern Spain.
Paul Miles is a freelance journalist
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