The new Manxman – August 2023

This voyage report was first published on The Ferry Forums –

On the August Bank Holiday weekend together with a couple of friends I took the opportunity to sail on the new Manxman, from Heysham to Douglas and back again the following day.

Before joining her 1415 sailing from Heysham I took a walk around the nuclear power station to the lighthouse at the southern side of the port entrance to watch her come in. Despite being a somewhat blustery day (with sunny spells) there were a decent number of people out and about and it seemed more than a couple had timed their wandering to coincide with her arrival. Also in port were the Seatruck Precision, enjoying a weekend off, and the Stena Scotia, awaiting an evening sailing to Belfast.

As the Manxman came in it was noticeable how much she heeled to port as she turned towards the port entrance (on our way back on the Monday this turn was accompanied by crashing as unsecured items fell off tables and counters).

Manxman arriving at Heysham
Stena Scotia, Seatruck Precision and Manxman at Heysham

Heysham ferry terminal has a car park which offers spaces at £12 per 24 hours. However on this occasion the barriers both in and out were open, there was no ANPR and mysteriously they didn’t appear to be any enforcing of these charges. The car park was well filled: apart from being Bank Holiday weekend it was the final few days of the Manx Grand Prix so traffic was heavy. More spaces opened up as passengers disembarked from the busy inbound sailing.

Heysham ferry terminal

Heysham ferry terminal
Heysham ferry terminal

Heysham terminal has been given a makeover at some point since my last sailing to the island a decade ago but I think the core of the building dates back to the conversion of Sealink’s Belfast passenger ferry operation to car ferry in 1970. There was no need to check in: if the passenger so desires the entire Steam Packet experience can now be paperless with electronic tickets on your phone, no boarding cards etc. So we simply queued up at the foot passenger entrance, had a barcode scanned and were on board. Footies boarded ahead of cars so we had free pick of the plum seats at the front in the lower Cafe lounge.

Boarding at Heysham

I’ve long felt the Steam Packet’s Ben-my-Chree is the least appealing major ferry sailing from the UK – her accommodation is simply too small, the design is cramped, the décor is miserable and the outside decks are mean-spirited. A quick look around the Manxman confirms she certainly addresses most of these – the ship is simply palatial in comparison to the Ben and the capacity for 948 passengers is a significant increase on the earlier ship’s 634. The accommodation is spread over two decks: Deck 7 with the Cornaa Café forward, shop, play area and reception amidships and The Eatery self service and The Bar aft. The Café area is pleasant with the sofas overlooking the bow. A pair of small saloons for owners with their pets are either side just astern of this. Better, no doubt, for the pets than previous arrangements but they honestly looked somewhat depressing places for the owners to spend three or four hours cooped up.

Cornaa Café
Cornaa Café
Pet lounge (stbd side)
The shop, amidships

The bar and self service areas aft form one big U-shape. Both are entered by saloon doors which are kept closed: so used are we to open-plan ships this gave the initial impression that they were not open. The bar is said to evoke a country pub but that was a hard claim to perceive in reality; it is spacious and comfortable though. The self service food seemed to be the usual sort of stuff (but when did the Steam Packet stop serving kippers?!)

Self service restaurant
Bar seating area
Bar counter
Aft outside deck on Deck 7

Upstairs on Deck 8 are the premium facilities. Forward is the Niarbyl Lounge, again with good views over the bow. Here you can reserve a reclining seat for £7. However if you don’t reserve a seat you are entitled to sit here free anyway – just not in one of the seats marked with a reserved sticker. Unless the ship is very busy, or unless you want one of the front row seats, the reservation probably isn’t worth it. At the after end of the lounge, there is a section of booth seating around tables.

Niarbyl Lounge
Niarbyl Lounge

Heading aft, next is the (windowless) Injebreck exclusive lounge with fully reclining seats in an almost pitch black environment, save for the twinkly-effect stars overhead. Upgrade here is £27, worth it perhaps if you want to be guaranteed some sleep but want a cheaper option than a cabin. Speaking of which, heading aft again we come to the cabins themselves, which are well planned and nicely furnished, including a distinctive Legs of Man carpet design. When booking for this day crossing the inside and outside 4 berth standard cabins were the same price – £65. Executive cabins, with their novelty of a balcony, were £95. For a sub-four hour crossing time most will deem it not worthwhile but there is always a segment of the market happy to pay and they will be especially popular presumably on the 0215 out of Heysham.

Injebreck lounge
Balcony cabin

Right at the back are the two Club-style lounges: to starboard the Executive Club Lounge, available to members only (annual price £415, or £655 for a couple) and to port side the Barrule Premium Lounge (£22 per crossing). The latter space has reclining seats at the forward and aft ends, some lounge seating in between around the perimeter and some central tables with chairs where food is served to order from the menu (which is largely the same as the one downstairs in the self service). You can choose your seats when booking in the reclining or lounge seating areas.

Executive Club Lounge
Executive Club Lounge
Barrule Premium Lounge
Barrule Premium Lounge

Outside deck is somewhat limited: a couple of narrow slivers aft on Decks 7 and 8 (the latter the preserve of passengers in the Executive and Premium lounges) and a larger area up on Deck 9. Some deck furniture is provided but it’s a shame there isn’t just a little more space.

Deck 9 outside deck, with pools of water from a rain shower which appeared unable to drain away
Leaving Heysham

The ship left Heysham on time and, in the conditions prevailing on that day, there was a notable slamming every now and then as she encountered larger waves. Despite the breeze it wasn’t that choppy and she will face much sterner tests in the months ahead.

The banging didn’t delay us though and we were pulling alongside the Victoria Pier berth in Douglas just after 1800. The Ben-my-Chree was in port on the Edward Pier linkspan and would take the evening/overnight round trip as the two ships share the main ferry itinerary for now. Foot passengers disembarked via a short gangway directly onto the quayside where a short walk took us to the covered walkways leading into the magnificent Sea Terminal. Walking past the linkspan you can still sea its original ‘Manx Line’ markings.

At Douglas, the Ben-my-Chree was awaiting her evening sailing
Douglas gangway
Manx Line still visible on the linkspan
Douglas Sea Terminal
Manxman moving berths at Douglas

We returned on the Bank Holiday Monday at 0845. The ship had overnighted on the outer side of the Victoria Pier, clearing the berth so the Manannan could use it in the meantime. On this sailing the ship was much busier – there were a lot of motorbikes – but there were still plenty of spaces to sit. We upgraded to the Premium Lounge for this leg where the offer includes free hot and soft drinks, fruit and biscuits, newspapers and magazines. We opted to have breakfast served to us in the Premium Lounge and it was pretty good – the Full Manx Breakfast and a round of toast came in at £12.45. We left about 10 minutes late this time but made up most of that by the time we got to Douglas.

Loading at Douglas on Bank Holiday Monday

Overall I really liked this ship. The standards of design are very high, both in layout and décor, the attention to detail is good and she felt spacious even on the busier return sailing (although still not full). And a special shout out to a couple of niche interests: the artwork integrated into the design is interesting and a sign of a quality vessel whilst I think this ship has the highest standard of onboard signage on a British ferry since the Spirits of Britain and France more than a decade ago. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in SMC, they share the same designers. On the Manxman it’s bold and clear and quite fun with island motifs decorating the stairwells.

Manxman stairway
Manxman stairway
Manxman signage
Car deck stairwell ident

Downsides? Well, given what an upgrade she is in almost every respect compared to the Ben it seems churlish to nit pick. But the outside deck space is still rather miserly. There appear already to be problems with plumbing: overflowing toilets, mysterious pools of water on the floor, non-working automatic taps. And there’s that questionable seakeeping in some conditions. Plus whatever is going on with the automatic doors (which is most of the doors) which seemingly half the time don’t open when you press the buttons or pull the handle. The doors and the plumbing, presumably, will be fixed up as the ship beds in.

Then there’s the way she looks from the outside. Let’s be honest, this is not an attractive-looking ferry. We know that there are port limitations which govern the ship’s length and she was probably inevitably going to look top-heavy. Given this it would have made sense to have sought out professional design advice to help sculpt the exterior or to design the most flattering livery application – but with the way she’s turned out I can’t believe this has been done.

Combining all the topside vents into a huge funnel structure hasn’t worked visually; the severe straight black line applied to the middle of the funnel just seems silly (I know this is the ‘traditional’ livery but what works on pleasantly proportioned steamships or motorships with tall funnels isn’t necessarily appropriate for ships like the current Ben or Manxman).

Most of all though there’s the superstructure, a mass of largely unadorned white paint with no window shading, and the hull where the low application of the black paint makes the ship look like her pants have been pulled down. The latter treatment simply highlights the vast blob of whiteness above, making the ship look even more top heavy. The narrow black band at the bottom sees ‘STEAM-PACKET.COM’ squeezed in, produced in thin and weedy capital letters of an undistinguished type (and is the .com really needed in 2023?) Just a little bit of thought here could have made a big difference to what currently looks like an oversized bath toy.

But let’s not end on a down beat. Overall the new Manxman is a real pleasure to sail in. She is a vast upgrade on her predecessor/fleetmate and is a ship that takes the Steam Packet from having perhaps the worst car ferry of any significance operating around these shores to one of the best.

Ben-my-Chree & Manxman at Douglas

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