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Ferry nice indeed

Peter Booton enjoys a short journey across the mouth of Poole Harbour, courtesy of the Bramble Bush Bay

Duty Captain Steve Sabine, in a control cabin, driving the ferry towards North Haven

A chain ferry service for the conveyance of road vehicles and foot passengers across the narrow mouth of Poole Harbour has been in operation since 15 July 1926. The first ferry, coal-fired and steam-driven, was built by shipbuilders J Samuel White – on the Isle of Wight – and was capable of carrying twelve cars. During Ferry No. 1’s first summer season it carried 12,000 cars and 100,000 foot passengers across the 320m wide harbour entrance.
A means of linking Sandbanks (North Haven) to Shell Bay (South Haven) was first raised in 1904 when a scheme was proposed that would swing cars across the harbour mouth by means of a cage and chains arrangement supported by vertical towers. It was refused by Poole Corporation and Poole Harbour Commissioners. A bridge was proposed in 1929-30 but the plan was defeated in the House of Commons. A similar scheme in 1955 also failed.
The present ferry service operated by the Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament in July 1923. Under the provisions of the Act a road between Studland village and South Haven was constructed on land acquired from the Bankes Estate and the ferry company was permitted to charge a toll for its use. At that time the charge was 2/6d (12.5p today) for a car and driver’s one-way use of the road and ferry, with an additional 3d per passenger.
Since the 1980s the ferry company has been owned by Fairacres Group Ltd, run by Mr Rodney Kean. Now in his eighties, Mr Kean, and his family, maintain a great interest in the day to day operation of the ferry. The present owners have instigated a number of major improvements, including the building of new slipways, a modern office at Shell Bay and new toll booths which operate a computerised toll system. A new ferry, named Bramble Bush Bay after the small bay near South Haven on the harbour side, was also commissioned and entered service in January 1994 at a cost of £3.5m (including the slipway and marshalling area).
Bramble Bush Bay is the fourth vessel to operate the ferry service, and the first to be named. It replaced Ferry No. 3 which was built by J. Bolson & Son Ltd in Poole and had been in service for 35 years. At 74m long, overall, the present ferry is 24m longer and 3.5m wider than its predecessor which gives it a much greater carrying capacity of 48 cars. Perhaps surprisingly for a 750 ton flat-bottomed vessel, the ferry has a draught of little more than 1m when fully loaded. Technically speaking, Bramble Bush Bay is a floating bridge, not a chain ferry. However, the massive chains that guide it across the harbour mouth are essential to its operation. The ferry has three diesel engines, only one of which is used at any time to power, via a hydraulic pump and motor, the two drive wheels with which the chains engage to haul the vessel through the water. Each chain weighs 14 tons and is 386m long. Due to wear they have to be replaced every 18 months at a cost of £24,000 each.

Part of the large engine room below the vehicle deck, with one of the drive wheels in the centre and engine no. 3 on the left. Part of the hydraulic system for lifting the prows is on the right.

The ferry service operates at twenty minute intervals from 07.00 to 23.00 daily throughout the year, except during its biennial refit, and on Christmas Day when the service is 08.00hrs to 18.00hrs. For a refit the ferry is towed to Marchwood, Southampton by two tugs. After a journey of six to seven hours it is winched onto a slipway at Marchwood Slipways Ltd which is the nearest facility able to deal with a vessel the size of Bramble Bush Bay. Testbank Ltd, based at Southampton Docks, is the contractor who has carried out the most recent refits involving a thorough overhaul, anti-fouling and painting of the superstructure. However, the refit in January this year involved the considerable extra cost of rebuilding the engines which were nearing the end of their useful life after nineteen years.
Maintenance of mechanical and electrical equipment on a day-to-day basis is carried out by the engine attendants who keep a watchful eye on the engine room below the vehicle deck. If a fault sounds an alarm, and if they are unable to resolve the problem themselves, they notify the company’s Consultant Engineer, Acting Chief Engineer or Assistant Engineer. When I visited Bramble Bush Bay, Adrian Saunders was the Duty Engine Attendant, a job he has performed for fifteen years. During a tour of the extremely noisy engine room Adrian pointed out some of the main features, including the engines, drive wheels and hydraulic gear for operating the prows (loading ramps), as well as a large steel bucket for collecting seaweed caught in the chains! The ferry is refuelled with around 5500l of diesel every two weeks and Adrian estimates the ferry uses about 400l per day. Once a week the ferry also takes on water, at North Haven, which is stored in separate tanks depending on whether it will be used for drinking and making tea for the crew – they have an on-board staff room, or for cooling the engines and cleaning the vessel.
On the vehicle deck I met Duty Captain Steve Sabine who was about to drive Bramble Bush Bay across the harbour mouth for the umpteenth time since becoming a captain ten years ago. Steve is one of seven captains employed by the company and he proudly refers to his charge as ‘the Queen of the Seas’. Bramble Bush Bay has two control cabins, one at each end of the vessel with duplicated controls for varying the speed of the ferry and operating the prows, as well as various switches for the lighting and alarms. Essential kit is the VHF radio tuned to Channel 16 for contact with other vessels and Poole Harbour Control. Before getting under way a duty captain hoists the black ball above the control cabin which serves as a day-mark to warn other vessels that the ferry is about to leave. A white light after dusk achieves the same purpose.
After two years as an engine attendant, Steve received training to be a captain from the other skippers. He says, ‘Driving the ferry takes a lot of commonsense, foresight and forethought. There’s a fair amount of responsibility and a lot to consider, especially during the peak season.’ Of particular importance to the safe passage of the ferry across the busy channel are other vessels entering or leaving the harbour. The present rule regarding the ferry’s Right of Way over craft up to 50m in length was introduced in recent years by Poole Harbour Commissioners. But although this makes a captain’s job a little easier, constant vigilance is crucial. Steve explains, ‘If there’s a flood tide you’re looking out past channel buoy to see what’s coming in. Conversely, if it’s an ebb tide you’re looking as far as you can past North Haven to see what’s coming round the corner. Ultimately, if you think there’s going to be a close call, you’ve got sound signals. We have two powerful air horns. In fog, we sound one long blast followed by two short blasts. In normal visibility if you’re not sure of somebody’s intentions, then it’s five short blasts.’ The ferry company is rightfully proud of its excellent safety record. In 2012 there were no serious safety incidents with other vessels.
Although extreme weather conditions rarely prevent the ferry from operating, duty captains have to take into account states of the tide and wind direction. Steve points out that a strong south-westerly can blow the ferry to one side making alignment with the slipway and lowering the prow difficult. ‘Also, an easterly or south-easterly with a big swell coming through the harbour entrance can make it difficult to land the ferry at South Haven because of water being pushed up the slipway,’ he explains. ‘Most skippers prefer a westerly or south-westerly to an easterly in any shape or form. A northerly or north-easterly is fine because you’re protected by the harbour.’
When Brittany Ferries Barfleur or Cotentin are about to enter the harbour mouth, Poole Harbour Commissioners require Bramble Bush Bay to wait at South Haven, unless an emergency should dictate otherwise, in order that these large vessels may use the deepest part of the nominally 17m deep channel towards the north side.

The 320m wide harbour entrance as seen from the air. Bramble Bush Bay is waiting at South Haven for the large incoming ship to pass through.

The loading of vehicles onto Bramble Bush Bay may appear to be random, but it isn’t. Of the four vehicle lanes one is wider in order to accommodate buses, coaches and trucks. Wide vehicles side by side are avoided for safety reasons and to allow occupants to stretch their legs during a crossing if they wish to do so. Emergency vehicles, including bomb disposal units, take priority and if the duty captain has been notified in advance by radio, he will wait for them to arrive.
Bramble Bush Bay has a minimum crew of two, a duty captain and an engine attendant who at quiet times will also collect tickets on the vehicle deck, direct vehicles and open and close the gates. At peak times during summer three or more additional staff perform these duties. The company currently employs 27 permanent staff, some of which are part-time, and up to eight part-time seasonal staff. Neil McCheyne is the General Manager in overall charge of the day to day running of the company, assisted by Operations Manager Nick Purchase and Admin Manager Sue Marsh who are based in the Shell Bay offices.
For the many thousands of people who use the ferry every year, the short journey across the harbour mouth may be all too brief. But making the trip regularly is not just everyday work for Steve Sabine. ‘The best part of the job is that the control cabin is my office,’ he admits. ‘I have one of the best jobs in the world that is food for the soul. I’m responsible for 48 cars, 500 people and maybe eight crew members on a ferry crossing a small stretch of water in one of the most beautiful locations on the south coast of England. And how lucky is that!’

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