She served for so briefly and it seems so long ago now that (P&O) Southern Ferriesâ€™ Eagle of 1971 has almost been forgotten when reviewing the history of the British ferry. She was, however, a remarkable ship, straddling the ferry/cruise ship divide we take so for granted today that it is almost retrospectively applied to the past. Things were not quite so clear cut back then however and the Eagle, with her all en-suite cabins, meal-inclusive fares and built to US Coast Guard standards with potential future use in mind, followed a similar pattern to her predecessors on sailings to the Iberian peninsular, Klosterâ€™s Sunward (1966, briefly) and the Patricia of Svenska Lloyd (1967 onwards) in offering a mini cruise option which at times almost dominated the car ferry aspects in publicity.
The Eagleâ€™s introductory brochure covers all bases by calling her â€œthe new cruise liner car ferryâ€ and, operating a Southampton-Lisbon-Tangier service, she sailed direct to some of the most fashionable holiday regions of the age. Algeciras in Southern Spain was later added to the schedule. The ship’s hull lines were designed by ferry specialists Knud E Hansen, and supposedly optimised for the Bay of Biscay whilst there was a noticeable bulwark aft of the mooring deck to keep the worst of the waves off the forward superstructure, a feature missing from the Eagle’s two half-sisters, Fred. Olsen’s Bolero and Paquet’s Massalia.
The passenger accommodation was rather intriguingly finished, much use being made of bold colours and vinyl wall coverings, with the Red Room Lounge Bar and the lime-green Panoramic Lounge particularly notable although the choice of a quite distracting paisley orange and green colour scheme in the ten cabins de luxe was maybe regrettable. The design ethos of architects George Trew Dunn however was perhaps the Eagleâ€™s most long-standing contribution to the evolution of ferry design, the firm conceiving an almost â€œdisposableâ€ interior which could be renewed every five or ten years rather than the â€œlast for lifeâ€ attitude which had heretofore prevailed. Dismissing concerns as to how the most contemporary aspects would look in the long run, as they could be replaced, would supposedly enable interior design to be more â€œof the momentâ€, and, alas, just as quickly â€œof the pastâ€ as the cycle of fashion moved round. None of which carried much weight with Design Magazine, the house magazine of the Council of Industrial Design, which quite scathingly commented that â€œgood taste is not usually the top priority of the holiday maker, and though the architects have used the better furnishing firms available the mixture they have produced is at best entertaining, at worst restless and irritating. But â€¦ as the architects say, [it] can always be replaced.â€
The Eagle managed to last just five seasons; the recessionary aftermath of the OPEC oil crisis in 1973 severely undermined traffic and she was sold to the Nouvelle Compagnie de Paquebots, already owners of her half-sister the Massalia, becoming their Azur. Like the flamboyant Sunward, which had crossed the Atlantic and become the first successful modern Miami cruise ship, securing a place as perhaps one of the Worldâ€™s most influential passenger ships in the second half of the twentieth century, the Azurâ€™s future lay in cruising, and she was permanently converted in 1981 with additional cabin accommodation on her former garage deck. Chartered to Chandris from 1987 to 1994, slightly renamed as â€˜The Azurâ€™, the ship retained this name for the subsequent decade operating for Festival Cruises. Since the latterâ€™sâ€™ demise in 2004 the ship, now the Royal Iris, has remained a familiar sight in mainstream Southern European cruise destinations, catering specifically for the Israeli market of operators Mano Maritime.