There has been much speculation recently about Destination Gotland’s fast ro-pax the Visby, with her owners announcing the ship will be chartered out from December for a six month period to an un-named party. The timings and the seemingly speculative nature of the ship’s operation coincide neatly with the opening of DFDS’s newly-announced Dunkerque-Rosslare route at the start of January, for which three ships will be required.
The most likely candidates for one or two of the slots are Visentini-built ships such as the Kerry (which DFDS has recently taken on charter) or her sister the Pelagos (ex-Liverpool Viking), in DFDS service until May this year and still to be deployed on the new Marseille-Tangier service of her new owners La Meridionale. The circumstantial evidence suggests the Visby is a strong candidate to be the third ship – or, at least, to be chartered by DFDS to free up another ship from elsewhere – and she would be be an entirely different proposition. Whereas the workaday Visentinis are now quite a common sight and can be found in operation around Europe and beyond the Visby, in contrast, has never left the domestic Swedish trade for which she was built and is very much a day ship which was never intended to operate on sailings of more than four hours’ duration.
The Visby was delivered in 2003, the first of a pair of fast ro-paxes built in China for the ‘Destination Gotland’ operation of Rederi AB Gotland. Named after the island’s capital and primary port, the ship and her sister the Gotland swept away the established pattern of regular longer overnight sailings (usually leaving at midnight or 2330 and arriving 0530 or 0600) from the mainland ports of Nynashamn and Oskarshamn which dated back to before the dawn of the car ferry era. Henceforth, even when sailings left late in the night, they would arrive little more than three hours later.
Amongst the first Chinese-built passenger ferries for European owners the new Visby and Gotland were reference ships for the builders in Guangzhou and came at a very favourable price, reported to be as low as $75m each. They replaced the company’s previous Visby and Thjelvar, both dating from the early 1980s and each of which had once served UK waters (as the Stena Felicity and Sally Star respectively). The new ships, supported by fast ferries, maintained the Gotland services regularly and reliably until the arrival of the new generation Visborg and Gotland in 2018 and 2019 (the previous Gotland is now the Drotten). The success of the earlier ships’ design was demonstrated with the 2018/19 generation being very clear derivatives of the 2003 pair, coming from the same shipyard and not being appreciably larger, albeit they are LNG-fuelled.
Initially the earlier ships remained in service with the fast craft sailings being curtailed but Covid and reduced demand eventually saw the Visby being made available for charter.
I first sailed on the Visby in April 2004, when she was still very new, and again in 2011 after she had received some minor modifications and refurbishments. Perhaps the two most notable aspects of the ship and her sister when compared to the previous generation were the relatively low-key passenger accommodation, designed by Claus Horn, and the vast vehicle decks, where the combined lane metres of the new ships was almost double that of the pair being replaced and largely put an end to appearances of the company’s freighter the Gute in Destination Gotland service.
Whereas the ship’s direct predecessor, the Visby of 1980, was delivered with a variety of bars, lounges, restaurants and more than 1,000 cabin berths, the new generation were deliberately designed to be more functional, befitting the speeded-up timetable. The ship does however have 119 two- and four-berth passenger cabins on Deck 8 providing a total of 316 beds – often these are used by passengers in their daytime configuration with the bunks folded back to leave a pair of facing sofas. If anything even this provision was excessive and the latest pair of Gotland ships have fewer cabins despite a slightly larger overall capacity. However if the ship were to be used on significantly longer crossings with primarily or exclusively freight drivers on board the number of cabins would be able to pretty much guarantee each driver a private room – a point which was perhaps not coincidentally highlighted by DFDS when announcing their new service.
A small conference room is also provided on Deck 8 but the majority of the passenger accommodation can be found below, on Deck 7. Here, there are three distinct zones, forward, amidships and aft, with the area at the front of the ship home to a vast reclining seat lounge with a capacity for 562.
If the Visby does enter service on the new Ireland-France route the ship and her crew will be following the path of the earlier Visby which, as Felicity and later Stena Felicity, served Rosslare from Fishguard under the Swedish flag between 1990 and 1997. On that occasion Rederi AB Gotland were somewhat upset at the condition of their vessel when she was returned to them (“look what you did to our ship!” being the reputed exclamation of Gotland management before they sent her for an extensive post-charter refit). This time around the Swedish operator probably has little to fear from the charter party or their passengers, but the exposed nature of the route around Land’s End would certainly be a test for their ship’s seakeeping abilities – and her reserves of speed would be useful in making up time lost to English Channel and Irish Sea gales.