At the far end of the Beaufort wind scale lies meteorological hell. Storm force 10, violent storm 11. Captain Tudor Roberts, master of the Stena Nordica, is fairly phlegmatic about weather conditions such as these — basically he's seen it all.
"It's a challenge - but not dangerous," he says. "The main problem in heavy seas," explains the genial Welshman, "is berthing in the dock and making sure you don't damage anything."
Yes, you really don’t want to collide with anything when you weigh several thousand tonnes, as sadly Captain Francesco Schettino, master of the Costa Concordia, found out to his cost.
Even a small collision, what might be a mere fender bender in a car — hitting one of harbour stanchions for instance — could run into millions of pounds worth of damage for the ferry company.
In the Irish Sea, conditions are regularly quite bad, but days when the Stena ferry doesn’t put to sea are exceedingly rare, which is extraordinary in an area where a force 8 gale means it's turned out nice again.
“From a personal point of view, and from the passengers’ point of view I have to say prefer calm seas,” says Captain Roberts. “We do one week on the ship, one week off. If you’re continually buffeted by force 8 gales or force 9s, it can get uncomfortable.”
The weather, as a topic of conversation, is one that’s rarely far away in seafaring circles.
“In days gone by, when weather forecasts weren’t as sophisticated as they are now, you might be unclear as to how conditions were at the other end. So if you arrived at Dublin Port and the weather had turned harsh, all you could do was heave to, and wait for the weather to abate.”
In other words, turn the bow of the ship into the wind and ride it out.
Although conditions such as those are uncomfortable for the passengers, the weather makes small difference to the running of the ship these days.
A modern vessel like the Stena Nordica is equipped with the latest technology, so although berthing at the far side might be affected by winds, no weather restrictions ever prevent the boat leaving harbour. It doesn't matter what Francis Beaufort says. The Navan man’s eponymous Beaufort Scale may be reading force 9 (severe gale), with waves up to 30 feet high - the Stena boat can put to sea.
With all its modern equipment, the bridge of the Stena Nordica bears little resemblance to ships of old. In fact the nerve centre is more like a huge hotel lobby furnished with a Playstation at one end. Closer inspection, however, reveals some familiar furniture that even Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea would recognise.
A huge floor mounted compass sits behind the control panel (it is, in fact, a gyro compass) there’s a chart table, and a wheel, taken by the bosun in and out of port.
Although the atmosphere on deck is relaxed, caution is the watchword - literally.
Our matronly progress out of Dublin Bay continues at some 9 knots per hour with the utmost care. The rain and spray which previously snuffed out Howth Head has entirely lifted and it’s now a lovely evening with only a slight swell running.
Passing Dublin Bay Buoy and we're into deep waters. Then the telephone calls begin. The first call of many is to the Dublin Coastguard - where we're bound, how many people are on board, and whether we'll be home for tea.
Once out into the open sea, with Lambay Island fast disappearing on our port side, we soon reach our cruising speed of just over 20 knots. The captain calls for the stabilisers to be deployed - although the wind is around a force 6 and is hitting the Stena broad-side on.
We're now well out of Dublin port, and the Wicklow Hills are the only part of Ireland still visible. The bridge has cleared of most of its personnel, their work done.
Despite the sophisticated radar machine, a lookout is always employed. “Even in these days of radar etc, smaller craft such as tugs, fishing boats or pleasure craft might not have the latest radar identification equipment.” Today’s lookout calls, “HSS 1 point to starboard.”
The captain acknowledges this fresh information about a high speed ferry and has a look through his binoculars as the craft passes about a mile to our right.
The Second Officer now monitors the weather channel, as well as communications between nearby craft, while sipping a coffee. Strong coffee seems to go hand in hand with standing on the bridge contemplating the sea, a displacement activity which has now made the position of Mate famous throughout the world.
I refer of course to Starbuck, the coffee-drinking First Officer on board Captain Ahab’s Pequod in Moby Dick. Yes, it’s where Starbuck’s coffee chain gets its name.
The weather has worsened slightly. The wind is backing and a granite sky is now mirrored in the heaving, sullen sea.
In the distance the snarling shore of Anglesey is visible – a signal for the full bridge complement to return to the bridge.
Despite the sophisticated equipment on board, including an ECIS which gives all the latest information on your progress through the choppy conditions of the Irish Sea, when it comes to docking, it's back to basics.
The captain does it with a mixture of experience and visual judgement.
You might imagine that docking ferries would and berth with using the GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite.
But when it comes to docking, that's when skill is required - and it's all done by the captain and his officers - reversing the engines and crabbing into the berth.
Captain Tudor Roberts is from a seafaring family in Holyhead — the name Tudor is apparently quite common hereabouts because the Tudor royal family originally came from this neck of the woods. However, the Stena captain is quick to point out that he had no royal blood. No blue blood, but definitely the sea is in his blood. In his spare time Captain Roberts’ main hobby is, yes, sailing.
“I race a 19 foot Squib. It’s a terrific boat,” he says. Somehow, you can’t help feeling that the Stena Nordica, approximately 40 times longer than the Squib, is in totally capable hands.
The comfort of the cruise
Having not travelled by ferry back to Ireland in a long time, I was more than a little surprised at how relaxing it can be. One of the main advantages today is of course the ability to avoid airports, and not having to hire a car at the other end. There is no restriction on luggage — basically you can take what you want.
Airports today can, in case you haven’t flown lately, can be extremely unpleasant places. The first pressure point is making sure you have your boarding card - if you’ve forgotten it you’ll be asked to stump up an exorbitant fee to get one at the check-in desk and if you’ve made a mistake in your booking (name wrong/time wrong) you’ll have to buy a new ticket at an even more exorbitant price.
Having cleared that hurdle you’ll have to queue to get through security. If you’ve not remembered to unload that antique knife that your grandfather gave you, or that precious bottle opener you bought as a souvenir in Co. Clare, you’ll forfeit that — along with any drinks you’ve brought with you.
The next trial is the queue for the plane. If the check-in staff find that your bag is too big, even by an inch, you’ll pay another large fee for that.
Then it’s the mad scramble for seats, unless you’ve paid for priority boarding.
At the far end, it’s more queuing for the bus to take you to the car hire zone — at Dublin Airport this is particularly draining experience. Then the queue for the hire car itself which can be lengthy.
With a ferry, there are security checks, but they are not full body searches, and there is no restriction on bringing drinks, musical instruments, tools of your trade etc.
You queue for the ferry, but of course you’re in your own space, and there is no restriction on how much luggage you can bring.
Once on board, Stena’s ships are so enormous that you’re bound to find a quiet corner somewhere — and free Wi-Fi is available throughout the ship.
You can update to Stena Plus — basically first class — for a further £16. This gives you luxury seating, free snacks, drinks, beverages. Alternatively, you could go the full luxurious hog and get yourself a cabin from £20.