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Steam Packet considers shake-up of fleet

Concerns over committing to high-speed vessel which could become 'obsolete'

The Steam Packet says it doesn’t want to commit to a new, or second-hand, high speed vessel which uses technology that could become ‘obsolete very quickly’.

New details about possible amendments the company would like to see to the Sea Services Agreement (SSA) have been revealed as a result of a Freedom of Information request.

As we reported in August, the Department of Infrastructure is reviewing a request from the Steam Packet to replace the Ben-my-Chree with the Arrow as the fleet's back-up vessel.

Now, emails from the DOI, appear to show the future of fast craft services to and from the Island could also be up for review.

They show the Steam Packet hopes to extend the lifespan of the Manannan, and potentially dispose of the Ben-my-Chree, or ‘charter her out and bring her back during key events’.

One email also reveals the Department of Infrastructure discussing dropping the fast craft service in the future due to ‘emission issues’ and costs.

The Manannan has served the Steam Packet since May 2009 and is due to be replaced by a fast craft or fast conventional ferry by the end of 2026 under the SSA between the company and government.

In the emails Director of Harbours David Gooberman refers to the company’s ‘Fleet Strategy’ and how this will have implications for the SSA.

Addressing former Infrastructure Minister Chris Thomas, in April this year, he said: "Not only does this [the strategy] affect the SSA but also Douglas Port bearing in mind the Victoria Pier linkspan is only really good for a fast craft all year so if we move away from having a fast craft, extensive works will be required. (We are currently in the process of scoping out a life extension program for the 48-year-old existing linkspan with a potential total replacement in five years in line with the Douglas Harbour Master Plan.)"

In another email, from August this year, from Mr Gooberman to Ken Milne, an officer at DEFA, he said that the company was ‘looking at extending the life of the Manannan’.

But he added 'there [are] emission issues and most likely other environmental concerns I have not thought of'.

Mr Gooberman also confirms no variations to the SSA could be agreed prior to 1 June 2024 but adds he wants to start work on the variation request now.

The SSA is due for review on 1 Jan 2025.

In a statement, provided to Manx Radio, a spokesperson for the Steam Packet Company said: "The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company takes its responsibilities to its stakeholders under the Sea Services Agreement (“SSA”) very seriously and strives to provide safe, reliable and sustainable services to and from the Island all year round. The introduction of Manxman underlines that commitment.

"Manannan was commissioned in 1998 and, under the SSA, is due for replacement by 2026.

"The company faces a difficult task in replacing the popular and reliable high-speed craft with a vessel that is affordable, fit for purpose and which complies with existing and future emissions regulations.

"A direct like-for-like replacement would be likely to breach environmental restrictions and become uneconomical in a very short period of time.

"The company is committed to reducing the impact of its operations on the environment and is actively investigating technologies that would allow it to comply with both emissions regulations and the spirit of the SSA.

"To that end it has presented a strategy document to the Department of Infrastructure outlining several scenarios. 

"This is to begin the discussions required to find a solution that is satisfactory for all stakeholders, being very conscious of how much the travelling public values quick services to Liverpool.

"The Steam Packet Company is committed – as always – to providing the highest levels of service, quality and reliability in the best interests of Isle of Man PLC." 

Managing Director Brian Thomson added: "The maritime sector is, like the automotive industry, experiencing a period of very rapid technological development.

"What we don’t want to do is to commit to either a new or second-hand high speed craft design that uses a technology that becomes obsolete very quickly. 

"Equally, building a new vessel with new technology is fraught with risks. The board feel it is in the best interests of the company and its stakeholders to allow time for the technologies to mature and the future regulatory environment to stabilise before committing to such an expensive and important purchase. 

"We hope to work closely with our partners in DoI to ensure the best result for the Isle of Man."

Manx Radio has contacted the DOI for further comment.

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