Into the future on the Celtic Horizon
On the face of it, the Celtic Link ferry company is a minnow swimming with sharks. Its one-ship operation shares the pier at Rosslare Harbour with some the biggest names in the business, Stena and Irish Ferries.
Celtic attempts to make a virtue of its relatively small base, welcoming visitors to the port with a cheery 'Hope you are travelling with us – for your wallet's sake!' prominently and cheekily billboarded on the approach to the terminal. Besides, as operations manager William O'Flaherty points out, there is real substance behind the company. A synergy springs from the combined strength of the O'Flaherty trawler fleet, trading out of Kilmore Quay under the name Saltees Fish, and the O'Leary family hauliers O'Leary International at Ramsgrange with their 200-plus trucks.
The two businesses were well known to each other since O'Leary lorries has for long brought O'Flaherty fish to eager seafood customers across the continent. The combination of transport know-how and seafaring expertise provides a good fit for a ferry operator.
Nevertheless, Celtic Link would never have come into being but for the fact that P&O – another of the 'Jaws' brigade – decided that it must pull out of its Co. Wexford base. The prospect of losing the link between its home base and Cherbourg in France prompted the local combination to take action.
P&O cited losses on the route but the new boys reckoned that they could make a go of things with a pared-back operation. They certainly had no problems persuading the banks to part with the money they needed to set up their own ready-made ferry firm by buying out the multinational shipping giant. Celtic Link was born.
Celtic Link operations manager William O'Flaherty reckons that the previous owners' view of the enterprise was skewed by their loyalty to Dublin port. When it came down to a choice between Rosslare and Dublin, P&O was always going to view the South East as expendable.
William comes from a long line of fishermen in Kilmore Quay. His five brothers remain very much involved in keeping the family fleet of 15 trawlers at sea, but he has long been attracted to bigger vessels.
Though he manned the fishing nets during holidays while he was a student, the course in marine engineering he took in Cork equipped him to head for horizons beyond the Celtic Sea. He graduated to spend some years minding engines in the merchant marine. His career included a stint on a ship that tramped from Chile via the Panama Canal through the Caribbean to Europe.
Then he took a job closer to home with Irish Ferries, below decks on the Rosslare to Wales run. A timely change of tack beckoned as his employers moved to lay off their Irish workers, to be replaced by a more cosmopolitan crew. Around the same time, P&O coincidentally declared its intention to up sticks.
'They were trying to get someone to take over the shop – and there were not too many takers,' he recalls. 'I'd say they thought we were mad.' The price of the deal agreed with the O'Flaherty-O'Leary combination was €9m, the money long since paid back by the turnover from the enterprise. 'The money side was no problem back then, not with two successful businesses backing it.'
The deal acquiring the business was concluded late in 2004 and the new owners were up and sailing in 2005. They had acquired 'The Diplomat' along the slots at the ports in Rosslare and Cherbourg. The ship was capable of carrying 112 passengers but the initial emphasis was on the freight side of the business, not least carrying the fish from Kilmore to the European mainland.
The move was also welcomed at the time by the Irish farming community, which was up in arms over the prospect of being left with no outlet for the export of live cattle. Livestock trucks remain part of the mix eight years later, though there are many other strings to the bow.
'The Diplomat' came with a Spanish crew. The Link later chartered 'The Norman Voyager', which served the Ireland-France route while the company's original vessel was diverted to Puerto Rico, of all places. For a fraught year, the Celtic Link office in Rosslare directed its course in the far-off Caribbean, plying its trade between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The phone bill was astronomical. Eventually, 'The Diplomat' was sold for scrap to an Indian steel company.
Its replacement, 'The Norman Voyager', made way at the pier in Rosslare for the sleek 'Celtic Horizon' during 2011, the new arrival coming complete with restaurants, shops and cinemas. It was built at the Visientini yard near Venice in 2005 and had been running between Sicily and mainland Italy until it was called by Celtic to the colder waters around Land's End.
The Link's marketing chief, Rory McCall, keenly points out that the 'Horizon' has cabins with up to six beds. He also makes play of the fact that the Link runs all year round on the same route, three times a week, while rivals Irish Ferries alternate between Cherbourg and Roscoff in Brittany.
Roscoff has the virtue of giving direct access to the parts of the French coast most popular with tourists, while Cherbourg is generally more amenable to freight traffic. William O'Flaherty notes that the nature of ferry business between the two countries varies very much with the season. June to August, the emphasis is on tourism, while the rest of the year the pendulum swings to freight. The overall balance is 60/40 in favour of the big lorries – 130 of which can be packed aboard 'Celtic Horizon'.
'The ship is suitable for both freight and passengers,' says the director of operations, who counted 80,000 passengers up the ramp during 2012. In the depths of winter, however, it would not be uncommon to have no more than 120 passengers on board, with 80 of those being truckers.
The summer run of families in cars and camper vans is mostly made up of Irish people heading abroad on holidays, or coming home from their continental vacations. The number of French seeking 'les vacances' on the Emerald Isle is stubbornly low, though Rory McCall did his best to boost the trade by offering a €1 St Patrick's Day special earlier this year. The ability to mix trucks and tourism remains key to the Celtic Link business.
While Celtic Link is a substantial employer, the vast bulk of the 70 people working on the 'Celtic Horizon' are foreign, a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and Latvian. Crew members occasionally venture from the dockside in Rosslare for a Monday evening pint but seldom make any further contribution to the local economy.
One of the ship's commanders is an Italian, while the other comes from Cork. The on-shore payroll extends to five staff in Cherbourg and a dozen in Rosslare. The company office is a modest low-rise block that once was occupied by customs, a stone's throw from the sea. Celtic Link has expanded to take over most of the building, just as CIE has contracted to require less office space.
'We are still a small company up against big operators with big pockets,' says executive William O'Flaherty. 'But I am very optimistic. We are growing year on year.'
He reveals that the firm has not ruled out the possibility of providing Irish Ferries and Stena with competition on the cross-Channel front, though there is nothing definite in the immediate pipeline. O'Flaherty suggests that there is room for a third force which does not have the distraction of a Dublin operation. He feels that otherwise the capital will always tend to attract the lion's share of investment and effort.
'Rosslare Port gets a bit of a bad press and it is not all justified,' he muses. 'No one goes into the terminal any more, so you would be foolish to spend money on it.'
The 40-year-old is intensely proud of the one ship in the current Celtic fleet, believing that it has the flexibility to keep the company competitive. The Italian-built vessel, which formerly sailed the Straits of Messina off Sicily, can carry 1,000 passengers. This may be short of its rival the 'Oscar Wilde', which has capacity for around 1,800, but is still a big improvement on the 112 limit in the old 'Diplomat'.
'Celtic Horizon' boasts five vehicle decks and twin German-made engines capable of generating 27,000 horsepower, enough to realise a top speed of 24 knots from the Rolls Royce propellers. The usual rate is a more sedate 18 knots, sufficient to bring everyone from port to port in a little over 17 hours.
The routine six journeys require more than a quarter of a million litres of heavy fuel oil a week. The ship measures 186 metres from stem to stern and almost 26 metres in the beam (that's from side to side, landlubbers), giving a gross 27,500 tonnage.
Compared to Cork or Dublin, Rosslare is rated an easy port to get in and out of. On the other hand, its exposed location can lead occasionally to ships having to wait at sea for up to three hours during winter storms.