Saturday, 25 May 2013

Brittany Ferries - Boarding a Cross-Channel Ferry

This last crossing has been my twentieth with Brittany Ferries.

The first time that I took The Rags to France was as a newly-single parent back in 1999. I'd recently returned to work after ten years as a full time mother, and was busy supporting my company's mainframe clients as they prepared to face the Millennium Bug which, contrary to popular belief, did pose a high risk to the I.T. infrastructure that supports our modern lives. I was dedicated and hard-working to the extent that while the whole world partied on December 31st 1999 I worked through the night and into the new millennium at my office.  I digress. In August 1999 we took our first trip to France courtesy of Brittany Ferries and that was to be the start of a long relationship.

So, let's take a cyber tour of a ferry crossing from Portsmouth to St Malo aboard the Bretagne, starting with the Art of Boarding.

It is a fact well-known to ferry passengers that no matter at what time you arrive at the port, no matter how early or how late, a strange, illogical law decrees that you will be summoned to board the ship in a completely random manner. Thus those that are first will often board last and vice versa. This can be quite frustrating, especially if one has arrived early and spent an hour and a half sitting in one's car. It can also be stressful if one is thinking anxiously of The Ramp that must be mounted in order to park on the car deck and, trust me, if it's The Steep One to deck five, then it is a nerve-wracking drive which I have, once or twice, almost failed to complete. (A note to the nervous, if you do stall on the ramp and if the handbrake on your old car fails to hold, simply experience a full-blown panic attack, at which point a nice man in an orange jumpsuit will probably appear and place blocks behind your back wheels thus ensuring you do not roll backwards like a bowling ball and skittle the cars behind you. Yes, it happened to me in 1999, and also in 2003, and almost in 2005 and 2006).

My colleague at work once recounted how she had witnessed a late-arrival at Portsmouth being forced to reverse up the car ramp. This tale still features prominently in my nightmares and is the reason why I am never late. In fact, this time I was a whole day early, not wishing to take any chances.Well, no, I was early because I had broken my car on the beach at Paimpol and didn't trust the slipping, damaged clutch not to cause us to breakdown during the drive to St Malo, so we set off a day early and stayed overnight in the town. Just in case...

So, once you have arrived on the car deck you may find the cars packed in as tightly as sardines in a tin, thus necessitating the adoption of a few yoga-like positions as you attempt to exit your vehicle. I recommend Downward Dog to avoid finding the neighbouring car's wing mirror in your lower abdomen, if you're flexible a nice limbo should also do the trick, at all costs, remember to expel all of the air from your body, hold your breath, close your eyes and pray you don't get stuck.

Please note that were Brittany Ferries not to pack the cars in so tightly the cost of the crossing would be a great deal higher and so this is not a complaint. :) And some crossings are less-busy than others in which case you will have the luxury of plenty of space.

If you have an overnight bag it's best to pack it in the boot, since boots open upwards you'll have more room to remove it than if it were on the back seat. There is also a tendency to over-pack the car when going to France, especially if you have a property over there, and opening the back door of a car can lead to an avalanche of items such as cases, picnic bags, pillows, containers of weed killer and mouse poison, gardening equipment, small items of furniture, mops and brushes. So best not to risk opening the back door until you are at your destination, and I mean your final destination and not the car park at your local Carrefour.  Yes, this also happened to me, on the last trip actually, when the contents of my back seat escaped and no, I never did recover the loose, last-minute-addition-to-the-pile deodorant which rolled under a car with a Finistere registration plate.      

If the ferry people try to persuade you to park in the corner, facing the opposite direction to the other cars and surrounded by mesh, resist at all costs. This is the spot on the deck that will, on arrival at your destination, become the exit and so, as you sit in your car waiting to depart and thinking, "How nice to have a special spot surrounded by mesh and facing the other way"  you will find the floor beneath you suddenly raise alarmingly until you are on a steep incline, and you will watch with growing despair, as everyone else drives under you until you are the last one of your deck. It is then that you will realise that you are incapable of reversing your car from the mini-ramp without hitting the back of the ferry and you will be obliged to cast the last remnants of your pride overboard and ask a nice ferry employee to extricate your vehicle from its cage. Yes, this also happened to me in 2008, and I was obliged to kiss my Knight in an Orange Jumpsuit on both cheeks as a thank-you, which was actually rather pleasant. 

So, you have successfully scaled The Ramp. You have managed to park your car in the sardine tin. You have remembered to leave it in gear in case of a rough crossing. You have managed to remove your overnight bag, your laptop case and your handbag. You have remembered to take your cabin ticket. All that remains is to collect the card from the helpful lady who will approach you when you switch off your engine. This card will remind you where, in the vast bowels of the ship you have left your car. This is an important piece of information. When you arrive at St Malo, over-excited, bleary-eyed after a night of fine dining, cocktails, perhaps a little seventies-style cavorting on the dance floor and a few hours of snoozing interrupted by frequent checks on your watch lest you over-sleep and are forced to flee your cabin in your PJ's, you do not want the humiliation of wandering the car deck vainly searching for your car. Especially in your PJ's.

All that then remains is to check that you have not left a pile of DVD's on the roof of your car as happened to me in 2010, because they will not be there when you remember them and return a few minutes later (thank you whoever took mine, I hope you enjoyed watching my favourite films), to pick up your bags and to climb the steep stairs to the deck on which you have been allocated a cabin.

A word to the wise.

For safety, security and common-sense reasons, you will not be permitted to return to your car until you dock at St Malo.  Do not, therefore, forget those PJs. 

So far, so good...


  1. rofl, loved this!
    Sorry about the nightmares! ;)

    1. And this latest crossing was a hundred times worse since I broke the car at the Pink Granite coast and it was hiccuping all the way to St Malo. Really, if we'd had to go to Deck 5 I would still be in France now :)

  2. The ramp is the stuff of nightmares. Well done for conquering your fears so many times.

    1. Thank you RR. Would that one could chose on which deck to park! Or failing that, purchase a car with a larger engine

  3. Some solid advice here Julia, and some good laughs, sorry they were at your expense! But now be honest, were you really obliged to kiss the man in the orange jumpsuit or did you just volunteer?

    Hope you had a good trip and glad you made it back OK, clutch cable notwithstanding!

    1. You know Lucy, I often seem to provide the laughs but I don't mind, it makes for an interesting life!

      hand on heart, the man in the orange jumpsuit held onto my car keys until I had kissed him on both cheeks. I was so relieved I would have offered to marry him!

  4. Julia, here is a little tip for climbing the ships ramps, always stay at the bottom until you can see there is a flat space at the top big enough for your car then go for it in one go.

    1. Good advice indeed and I do try to do that unless the person behind me is especially impatient and I cannot hold out under the barrage of hooting horns


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