Friday, 16 September 2016

The Ferryman

With kind permission from Martyn Tolcher, freelance journalist based in Guernsey, here is an interesting look at the changes in our local sea connections since 2007. This article appears in the 2007 edition of 24/7, a magazine across both Islands which was free at Chequers supermarkets.

HD Ferries was a fast catamaran Channel Islands ferry service between Jersey, Guernsey and Brittany. HD Ferries had daily departures (six crossings per day; average crossing time per leg of just one hour) from the port of Saint Helier (Jersey) to St Peter Port (Guernsey) and then to St Malo.

HD Ferries was established in January 2007 following the cessation of Emeraude Lines in November 2005. Earlier, Condor Ferries and Emeraude Lines were the only two services operating in the region. The States of Jersey, States of Guernsey and Regional Council of Brittany required an additional ferry service to meet the demand for passenger and freight travel between the Channel Islands and France. The Jersey authorities had been attempting to encourage other companies to start a rival service to Condor, to maintain a competitive environment

The vessel suffered from two collisions with Condor vessels, problems with berthing at the ramp in Jersey, and various engine breakdowns. The Shipping Times reported a war of words:

Condor Managing Director Rob Provan, speaking to local paper Guernsey Press & Star said: "This vessel, HD1, was never designed for open sea operation, as confirmed by both the shipbuilder and the handling difficulties now evident."

Now HD Ferries CEO, Chris Howe-Davies, has responded with an attack on Condor. He starts his statement saying he does not like to throw stones as they often 'come back as rocks' and then proceeded to lob a few boulders at Mr Provan and Condor.

He listed the calamaties that Condor ferries had been involved with, including one of their vessels slicing another boat in half, and said it was interesting that Condor had forgotten about these incidents.

HD Ferries ceased all services from 7 September 2008, after giving customers who had booked tickets 4 days notice.
Blogger Robert Mackenzie wrote at the time:

"This brings us to the suspension of services. This has been presented as a decision created by the incessant demands of 'stakeholders' that prevent them operating the service they would like. Of course cynics would suggest that the decision has as much to do with the fact that the winter period is very unprofitable and there could well be problems with weather affecting sailings and creating more image problems for the company."

"One thing is for sure, HD have brought lower fares to the St Malo - Jersey route and when the vessel has been operating, there is little to differentiate between the two companies in terms of service. If they can sort their operational problems out and come back in March with all four engines working and the highest level of seamanship, then they might just be able to survive"

But they never came back, leaving Condor in sole control of the route. It is notable that some of the problems which Condor face today - delays, engine breakdowns, etc - were those which led to the demise of HD Ferries. However, when HD Ferries left the scene, there was another operator already there: that's the difference today. There is no alternative on the route.

But here in 2007, the COE faced rosier times ahead, looking to a bright and sunny future might bring, when he talked to Martyn Tolcher.

The Ferryman
Interview by Journalist Martyn Tolcher, 

Chris Howe Davies is the man whose initials form the name of the new ferry company that has just begun operating a new low-cost, high-speed service between the islands and St Malo. His aim is to make HD Ferries the local seaborne equivalent of air carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair - and he has no doubt that his 2rriorrow group of companies has both the financial clout and, more importantly, the infrastructure to carry it off.

"We’ve always had this low cost model in the back of our minds," says Mr HD "The model is widely established but I think we’ve gone a stage further than the typical low cost carriers, including easyJet and Ryanair, because we have greater integration.'

When you begin to learn about his business background and the group of companies he has built up over the years, together with his sons James and Michael, you begin to see what Chris means.

He began his entrepreneurial life more than 20 years ago, when the Internet was in its infancy, by developing computer software products for the travel industry. "Our objective from a technical point of view was to develop software that was geared to using the Internet, and so we set out to build reservation and operational management technology, not just for ferries, but for airlines, buses, whatever.

'We realised then that the Internet was there to be exploited and, because I’ve had a very long relationship with the P&O group, we got into the ferry business. I think we were probably one of the first organisations to actually have any ferry online booking, which we did for all the P&O ferry companies.'

For Chris, the traditional way of operating ferry services was always backward and bureaucratic - even in the days before tow cost airlines. "We realised that there was a big gap in the ferry market for distribution and that the business model that was being used in the ferry business was completely wrong," he says. "We came up with a model which we presented to a number of ferry operations, including P&O and Stena, but they didn't believe it could be done. They didn't believe you could run a ferry operation on a low cost model."

Chris' founding company, Entee Global Services, continues to specialise in providing Internet technologies for low-cost airline, ferry, bus, train and cruise ship operations. In 2005 it launched three new ventures for easyJet owner Stelios Haji-loannou - easyBus, easyCruise and easyHotel - but the main interests of the organisation are, and always have been, in sea travel.

"At the end of 2000 we bought a travel agency because it was the cheapest way for us to get travel experience and to get contracts with the ferry operators We then built real-time links to all of the ferry operators and to date we have about 120 to 130 operators, a thousand routes throughout Europe, and in five or six years we've gone from nothing to 35 million pounds last year in ferry ticket sales - all in real time, all via the Internet."

About 18 months ago, the group behind HD Ferries took the process a stage further by launching an actual ferry operation out of the UK. "We put together the whole of the non-ship part of LD Lines in six weeks. We set up alt the ground handling in Portsmouth and Le Havre; we put in the distribution, the technology. Everything barring running the ship. We did the same for Acciona Tran in May last year so we’ve set up two ferry operations out of the UK in last 18 months arid the only thing we haven't done is run the ship!"

Earlier this month, the group achieved another first when it took over Newhaven and became a port operator too, but with the launch this week of the HD Ferries service between the islands and St Malo, Chris is finally where he wants to be, at the helm of his own ferry operation. The softly spoken entrepreneur reveals that his group has been planning for seven years to get to this stage but that the decision to make the Channel Islands its starting point was taken only in the last 12 months.

"What we've been looking for are routes where there is an opportunity and where there's a gap basically to be filled. We looked at three or four last year and it just so happened that the Jersey St Malo Guernsey came up first. With Emerraude going, we know there's a hole in the market from a distribution point of view. Since Emeraude stopped, a hundred thousand people have just stopped travelling, and so if we can stimulate people to travel again...

It sounds like a tall order but Chris has a message for those who continue to doubt that there is enough room - and enough business - for more than one operator on the St Malo route. "I like to do things people say can't be done," he answers. Our objective is to provide a service, a sustainable service for islanders - one that they’ll be pleased to travel on. The whole schedule is designed to get people on and off the islands as often as possible."

That moves us onto the ferry, the appropriately named HD1, which is being managed for HD Ferries by Northern Marine, a division of Stena Line.

“When we started on this route we decided straight away we were not going to manage the ship and it’s proved to be the right decision," Chris explains. "I like the fast craft model because it’s more like a low cost carrier. Its high speed, fast turnaround, but what's really good about this ship is that it carries freight as well as passengers."

With the Channel Islands newest ferry service now finally up and running there is a beam of satisfaction on Chris' face. "One of the most emotional things about it was when we first brought the ship in," he admits. "It was a very moving experience and it was great to see everybody on the shore coming to see it. Our job here really is to provide a value for money, safe and reliable service and that’s what we are focused on

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