Brittany Ferries’ work horse Normandie began service back in May 1992, on the Ouistreham - Portsmouth for which she has been built. It mean she has kept sailing on this route for 25 years, up to three times a day with the reliability of a Swiss clock. Built to accommodate the growing numbers of passengers traveling to Normandy, she still looks very modern, despite her age.
Willing to make something relaxing throughout a mid-August week end, we decided to make a cruise with Brittany Ferries. That was an occasion to sail aboard a workhorse we haven’t given the attention she deserves the last time we sailed on her five years ago.
A travel report (text and pictures) by Antoine and Benjamin.
We arrived in Portsmouth from Saint-Malo on Saturday evening after a further relaxing crossing aboard Bretagne. Soon after we arrived, we head to Gosport in order to be able to greet our next day’s ship on her late arrival in Portsmouth. However, Etretat arrived first instead of Normandie that night. When she eventually entered the harbour, her majestic shape enlightening the military harbour.
At 13h30 on Sunday, we arrived at the Portsmouth International Port in order to check in prior to our boarding. As Normandie knows how to be expected, she arrived slightly late. On the other hand, it means the cleaning staff had to be quick to prepare the ship in order to set sail as early as possible.
Unloading went very quickly, and our car was soon parked in Normandie’s car deck.
Soon after our arrival aboard, it was time to set sail. Thanks to the invitation of captain De Saint-Pierre, we went up to the bridge for the departure. When we arrived, Captain was already giving his orders to a young seaman that has taken the wheel. Normandie set sail smoothly in Portsmouth’s channel, which was ready to welcome the next week a new comer, HMS Queen Elisabeth.
Throughout the pilotage out of Portsmouth harbour, captain gives regularly instructions to the seaman (as 176°, the wheel at 30° left...”) which corresponds to azimuths towards which the vessel should sail.
When we have left the channel, captain asked the navigation cadet to bring us to the Engine Room in order to enable us visit the ship’s engine. On our walk to deck 02, we were able to have a view on the Galley, were the cooks were already preparing the evening’ meal, which wasn’t to be served before 19:00 British Time. Normandie’s Galley (namely the Kitchen) is located at the middle of the ship’s starboard side, on deck 08 ; with the Self-Service Restaurant and the À la carte restaurant located respectively Fore and Aft of the same deck.
Aboard Normandie, the food, packed in containers, is delivered directly to the Galley in Ouistreham. Indeed, she is equipped with a crane that can be deployed on both sides of the ship, enabling containers to be lifted directly from the pier to the Galley. It enables the cooks having a direct access to the storage rooms when they are preparing the meals.
At the rear of the Galley is located a crew-only lift that gives access directly to deck 02. Whilst we were going down, we gradually began to hear a very familiar purr... And actually, when the doors opened, we directly arrived on deck 02, next to the auxiliary engines.
We immediately go to the Engine Control Room where we were welcome by five of Normandie’s engineers, including the chief engineer. The room is surrounded by wide electric boards that dispatch the electricity the ship produces to its users (from the navigation instruments to the lighting of the public decks) ; whilst its centre is occupied by the (auxiliary) engines control desk, that features a few computer screens, several dials and push buttons.
The chief engineer kindly shown us computer screens enabling him to control the ship’s engines and gave us a few tips about how his ship works.
We were then taken to a tour of the ship’s engine room. Normandie has four main engines that are responsible of propelling her, and three auxiliary engines that produces the electricity she needs. On more modern ships, they are necessary only at peak times (namely departures when the bow thrusters are in use), as the main engines are paired not only to the propellers, but also to alternators.
This part of the ship is quite tiny and busy, and there are a bunch of stairs as the area is split in a lot of levels, as a lot of components have to be embedded in the engine room to enable the perfect working of the ship. Recently, Brittany Ferries engineering team had to find room to install the scrubbers’ pomps.
Scrubbers are required in order to filter the ship’s exhausts on the purpose of complying with the latest regulations. Normandie has open scrubbers, meaning the water used to clean the fumes is rejected in the sea without being cleaned. This simple technology ensures however the reliability of the system.
Having finished our tour of the ship’s private part, we went back in the ship’s public ones.
Normandie features very wide open decks, offering a lot of possibilities to enjoy the fresh sea air. Sea air is very good to breathe in when you want to relax, as it contains more ions than conventional air, making it very good when it comes to fight against stress. Therefore, there is nothing better than a cruise throughout a week end to feel good during the following weeks. Normandie’s outdoor decks are much wider than Bretagne’s, whose, on the other hand, fore outdoor deck, is open to the public.
The aft sun decks offer a splendid view wherever you are, as the design of these decks makes the decks below the one you stand invisible. On top of that, it is possible to access to the upper deck of Normandie, offering a 360° view on the horizon.
To put it in a nutshell, the weather conditions on that day were just unbelievable. Indeed, there was absolutely no waves on the sea, and no clouds in the sky. It was like being at some beginning of paradise, in the middle of nowhere. We spent a lot of time on the outdoor decks, enjoying that sunny day.
On top that, that uncommon idyllic atmosphere was made even more magic by a band who played back pipes throughout a large part of the crossing on the aft sun deck. They looked like the Titanic orchestra although there were no iceberg in the foreseeable miles. It was just magic.
As two ships (Normandie and her younger sister, Mont-St-Michel) are sailing the Ouistreham - Portsmouth route, and depart from their respective ports more or less at the same time, they pass each other at mid-crossing more or less far from each other. Moreover on afternoons, Etretat also passes on the horizon en route from Le Havre. Thanks to magic sea conditions, we were able to see each of them very clearly although they passed quite far from Normandie. Nonetheless, seeing this two ships quietly on passage on the same route as us was also very magic.
When it comes to the inside, Normandie’s accommodation decks have a very harmonious and still modern decoration. These decks are organised around the central staircase, that begins in front of the information desk located at deck 07. Cabins are mainly located on sides of decks 05 and 06, at the same level as the car decks. Besides, there are also cabins located at deck 07, including the commodore class ones.
As Normandie is primarily a day ferry, she does not provide a lot of cabins. On the other hand, she has bunch of seats, organised in five seat lounges located at fore deck 07. The five seat lounges all features the same reclining seats (whereas on most ferries passengers have to upgrade to benefit from this more comfortable type of seats), coated with the same beautiful material that mimics a Scottish tartan.
At the centre of the same deck is located the wide shop, in which every articles, but the press, have been gathered together. Its door is located in front of the main stairs.
All around the shop is located a quiet corridor that offers several seats for passengers who want to read a book, play a game or just get relaxed. Other seats are provided all around the central staircase, offering Normandie’s guests a wide choice of places where they can enjoy their crossing.
Deck 09 is mainly occupied by the ship’s bar, which is divided in two counters. One of these is dedicated to the snack, named Le Pays d’Auge offering a wide range of products to satisfy small hanger (including quite popular pizzas); the other to the bar itself, Le Derby. Once again, Le Derby bar, where live entertainment can be proposed, provides a lot of seating for passengers. Thanks to its location and to the provision of windows all around the bar, passengers can have a clear vision of the landscape. Eventually, the access to the ship’s kiosk is also located in this lounge.
At the deck below is located Normandie’s self-service and à la carte restaurants.
The self-service restaurant, named Riva Bella (referring to the entire name of Ouistreham) proposes a wide choice of products, all perfectly cooked aboard. The à la carte restaurant, Le Deauville, which is smaller than Bretagne’s or Pont-Aven’s (that have been built for longer crossings), proposes nonetheless the famous buffet which offer a large variety of not so common tasteful products. Personally, my choice was easy to make, and I went to the buffet, whereas my colleague went to the self-service restaurant.
For a few year, Brittany Ferries has been proposing to its guests the possibility of choosing between the buffet menu only, and a mix between the buffet and a main course stewed with care in the Galley. This enables the guests being offered a much wider choose for their meal. Besides the, the buffet also exists for deserts, all prepared aboard.
Actually, my biggest problem at the buffet is I never know what to choose... therefore, I choose nothing and try all of the fine and colourful dishes.
Once we have both finished to eat in our favourite French restaurant, we went outside to witness the sunset.
On the horizon, we were already able to see Normandy’s coast, meaning on the other hand we were close to arrive in Ouistreham - Riva Bella. Thanks to the captain’s kind invitation, we were able to go up to the wheelhouse to witness the arrival.
Captain de Saint Pierre left under his supervision the arrival in Ouistreham to another officer. Indeed, captains are responsible of teaching their officers to enable them to apply to higher positions in the hierarchy. Indeed, most of Brittany Ferries’ captains have entered the company at the lowest commanding positions, before being taught how to master their ship under their own responsibility.
Once the ship is close enough to the pier, the officer took over the ship’s direction control from the seaman that was applying this officer’s orders before, and went to the bridge wings to have a clearer view on the pier. He headed Normandie’s bow towards a river located next to Ouistreham’s lock, on the opposite side of the berth ; in order to be helped by its flow in performing a U-Turn. Indeed, would Normandie have positioned her bow on the linkspan, she would not have been able to berth as the flow would have blocked her in the middle of the river.
Regularly, the officers in charge of the mooring reports to the wheelhouse the distance remaining between the stern and the pier. Although the place seems to be tiny, a lot of space remains when Normandie turns, meaning Honfleur (which will be equipped with stern thrusters to increase manoeuvrability) should not have problems to berth when she will enter service.
Eventually, after a smooth manoeuvre, the ship was in place to open her bow door and to enable the vehicles Normandie shipped on that smooth crossing to roll on the earth again. It was therefore time for us to leave the wheelhouse and therefore that superb ship, one of the best of the fleet.
Although Normandie is now ageing after a 25-year service on the Channel, she still looks like a modern ship, offering a top-of-the-class service to her guests to ensure they spend a nice crossing aboard. Although she is made for shorter crossings than the fleet’s favourites, she however offers premium services that have nothing to envier to a pure cruise ferry. Actually, she is one of the best ship of the fleet, not least thanks to her crew.
We would like to warmly thanks captain De Saint-Pierre, the officers, the purser and the crew of Normandie for their friendly welcome and their professionalism throughout this crossing. We would also like to thank Brittany Ferries' communication service for their help in the preparation of this report.