Published: 29th March 2015
A link to the days when British Rail bought ships and operated shipping services was broken on March 26 when the Isle of Wight ferry ‘St Helen’ made her last domestic sailing.
She has been retired after 32 years service on the Fishbourne-Portsmouth route now operated by Wightlink and was their oldest ship. The company itself has just been sold by its Australian owners to Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Limited for an undisclosed sum.
Wightlink say that the ‘St. Helen’ has sailed to and from the Isle of Wight 104,832 times covering 733,824 miles or 29 times around the world finishing up on Thursday 26 March on the 10:30 service from Portsmouth and 11:30 from Fishbourne.
St Helen was the final ship built in Leith by Henry Robb Shipbuilders and Engineers and was delivered to British Rail’s Sealink in November 1983. She cost a reported £4.5 million and was named on 8 December 1983 and after the ceremonials were completed some pupils and staff from St Helen’s Primary School in Ryde were among the first to travel to Portsmouth on her. The final sailings carried a group from the same school with at least one former pupil and teacher who were on board 32 years ago.
Former crew members were invited and travelled on the last sailings with traditional sea shanties sung by the Guith Shantymen.
Steward Anni Ruecroft from Shanklin said; “When I joined the company, my first ship was St Helen and she’s been very special to me ever since. Crossing the Solent on Wightlink ferries often brings back wonderful memories of school visits, landmark trips to the mainland and many other important times in your life. I’m sure many people will want to join us on board to say farewell,” she says.
Wightlink gave away free foot passenger tickets to the first 50 people who registered their interest in being on the farewell sailings. The St Helen will soon be plying from Sardinia to Italy alongside another British Rail ordered and operated IOW ferry, the St. Catherine as a passenger ferry.
The ship suffered a mezzanine car deck failure on July 14 2014 depositing some cars and passengers on the lower deck, an incident being investigated by the Marine and Coastguard Agency. There were four casualties as a result, two with head injuries and two suspected spinal injuries.
Wightlink said at the time that The St Helen car ferry, the 930pm sailing from Portsmouth Gunwharf with 181 passengers and 11 crew on board, arrived at Fishbourne at 45 minutes later. As part of the usual disembarkation process, after vehicles on the lower deck had left the ship, the starboard forward mezzanine deck with nine cars on board was lowered. When it was a short distance from the deck below, it dropped a few feet and made contact with the lower deck.
The last independent engineering survey of the ship, including its mezzanine decks, took place in May 2014 during her annual refit.
This ship was ordered by the Southern Railway in 1937 and built by Wm Denny & Bros at Dumbarton, Scotland. Ashe weighed 566 tonnes to operate between Portsmouth and Ryde. Before WW2 broke out, she worked a year-round service until being relegated to high season work when more modern ships were introduced.
Finally withdrawn in 1969 she spent September 11-15 that year on charter at Tower Pier London on short cruises before returning to a ‘mud berth’ at Binfield, Isle of Wight and renamed Ryde Queen being used as a clubhouse and more recently a disco and cub.
She was fire damaged and repaired in 1977 but fell into disuse after ownership changes and the ship is still ‘beached’ with some hope of being restored, but it will be a huge job.
In 2008, the Paddle Steamer Ryde Trust was established to take charge of renewed attempts to save the ship but the berth owners went into administration the following year and vessel passed to receivers. The Trust continued to try and purchase the ship without success over the next few years.
Why the preservationists efforts? Because the ship was the last Paddle Steamer running between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and saw WW2 service. It will be a big expensive job though as her condition has deteriorated over the last decade.