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Part Two continued: C.T.M.A. Vacancier
Cap-aux-Meules - Chandler
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Top: The C.T.M.A. Vacancier at Cap-aux-Meules.
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We spent the rest of the day exploring the islands. They are strikingly beautiful, reminiscent in some places of Denmark and the area around Skagen, and can be covered fairly speedily with a car. By late afternoon however we were back in Cap-aux-Meules for our evening departure on the C.T.M.A. Vacancier. Built as one of the world’s largest day ferries, this ship has since 1982 been well known as one of Europe’s most travelled overnight ships. She started her career with Viking Line (SF Line), emerging from the J.J. Sietas yard in Hamburg as the Aurella in 1973. When the ship entered service, Stockholm-Turku operations had barely begun and Viking Line would not connect Stockholm and Helsinki until 1974; instead the ship was built specifically to run out of what was then still Viking Line’s main Finnish port of Naantali, across to ?land and Kapellskär. By 1981 later generations of Viking Line ferries had replaced the ship (most specifically the Turella and Diana II) and early the following year she was sold to Irish Continental Line, becoming the Saint Patrick II, perpetuating the name of the company’s pioneer ship, the Saint Patrick of 1973 which went to ICL associate Belfast Car Ferries upon her arrival. With her upper vehicle deck converted to an additional level of cabin accommodation, the Saint Patrick II operated the main routes between Ireland and France for her owners whilst also frequently being chartered out for Winter work, seeing service with companies such as Stena, DFDS, Sealink, P&O and Tallink in the 1980s and 1990s. After 1996 ICL (by then operating as Irish Ferries) made the decision to reduce their French operations to a single ship, and in 1998 brought in the Normandy (ex-St Nicholas/Prinsessan Birgitta) to replace the Saint Killian II (ex-Stena Scandinavica) which had carried on alone through 1997. Laid up in Le Havre, the Saint Patrick II was berthed for a period adjacent to her then Irish Ferries and future C.T.M.A. fleetmate the Isle of Inishturk/Madeleine. Eventually, the ‘Patrick’ was chartered and then later sold to Hellenic Mediterranean Lines, entering service with HML in time for the 1998 Brindisi-Patras Summer season. She was named once again after a notably successful early pioneer, becoming the Egnatia II; the original Egnatia of 1960 was by that stage laid up awaiting scrapping. The ship appeared to be fairly successful, but after two years with HML, she was chartered out for one of the several failed attempts to successfully link Sète and Palma de Mallorca, operated by a new company trading as BalearExpress, the Egnatia II being renamed Ville de Sète. This lasted for just the Summer of 2000 and for 2001 she went to Swansea-Cork Ferries running as the City of Cork in a notably grimy state. When this finished, she returned to her owners in Greece, from where the ship was purchased out of lay-up by C.T.M.A.
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As the City of Cork, the ship did quite a bit of damage to a previously satisfactory reputation for respectable maintenance. One doubts that she could have accumulated such decay under the care of HML so it seems that after her time with the Greeks she fell into a cycle of poor maintenance with no fixed operator and no permanent loving crew. In any event, her departure to Canada for use on what was promoted (and is priced) as a cruise operation was met with a degree of cynicism on the European side of the Atlantic. We were told that C.T.M.A have spent substantial amounts on upgrading her for her Summer schedules of Cap-aux-Meules - Chandler - Quebec - Montreal cruises, but when one gets on board there is little immediate structural evidence of where all this money has gone: the main passenger decks (Decks 6 and 7) are to a great degree unchanged not only from her ICL days but in most places from the ship’s original Viking Line incarnation.

The difference in presentation from the
City of Cork era though is massive. Those dirty Irish Ferries carpets, (the type with the repeating shamrocks and IF logos) have been thoroughly shampooed; the furniture has been cleaned from top to bottom, but in few places has it been replaced or re-upholstered. The cabins sparkle as best cabins twenty or thirty years old can do. The C.T.M.A. Vacancier is an object lesson in how to revive an elderly ship from a period of neglect. She also proves that a bit of elbow grease can be just as effective as the rip-it-out and start again approach that many European operators might have employed. In fact, the end result is probably even better than a thorough refit: she has retained those stylish original elements which would doubtless otherwise have been lost but is pretty spick and span throughout her passenger areas. This is one ship which is totally unafraid to show her age in style, but this hardly descends into decrepitude; and in this way the ship reflects the sober maturity of so many of her passengers. This ship is the Saga Rose or the Birger Jarl of Canadian cruise ferrying, a success partly because she flaunts her traditionality rather than uncomfortably hiding it behind an ill-fitted modernisation programme.
Click above for a C.T.M.A. Vacancier deckplan
Although most passengers board the ship over a starboard-side gangway direct into the main lobby, we went aboard early via the main vehicle deck; this would later receive a number of unaccompanied trailers, most of them bearing the C.T.M.A. name, for transit presumably to Quebec or Montreal. Our car would be driven on board later by crew and the subsequent morning we would find it patiently waiting for us with the keys in the door on the quayside at Chandler. Beneath the car deck, a level of cabins remains, although these are now entirely given over for crew use and were more than a little derelict in places. Moving upwards, what was originally the separate upper vehicle deck retains its full complement of cabins as installed by ICL; this area and the cabins themselves are the same style as in the stretched area of the ship’s former operating partner Saint Killian II.

Deck 6 starts astern with the main Show Bar, just forward of one of the lower levels of the classic tiers of outside decks. Once the Crystal Lounge with ICG, this area is fairly subdued with a central dance floor at the after end and the bar counter forward. A nice detail has been to put the additional low sofas fitted by HML on small pedestals to better match them to the height of the original tables. To starboard, ahead but adjacent of the bar, is a small separate annex, retaining the cool red leather seating of its original outfit. From ICL to Swansea Cork Ferries this was fitted out as an Irish Bar with much of the inevitable associated beer-promotional clutter lining the walls. This has all been cleared away now to reveal the wood-effect laminates which gleam once more. Over to port, what was once the ship’s rather grim video games area (and before that a cinema) has been rescued and restored to serve as a small gymnasium, with a modestly-stocked library adjacent.
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Above: An elevated view of the C.T.M.A. Vacancier. Click for larger image
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Above: The C.T.M.A. Vacancier's passenger demographics call for a ready and plentiful supply of wheelchairs...
Above: The vehicle deck.
Above: Hidden away in one of the hatches leading down from the car deck to the engine room is this builder's plate.
Above & below: Beneath the car decks, the former passenger cabins have now been given over to crew use but, in some areas, were in use for storage or have become derelict.
Above: The bridge, now with fully enclosed bridge wings. This is just about the only place on board that clear reference is made to the ship's former identity with plans noting her name as Egnatia II and an early Irish Ferries deckplan of the Saint Patrick II.
Above & below: The main aft bar on Deck 6 with its aft dance floor. After the line dancing was over, live entertainment was on offer here later in the evening of modest quality. Upon boarding, free cocktails are dispensed from a table near the main entrance.
Above: The bar counter in the immaculately maintained aft bar.
Above & below: Adjacent to the main bar (forward on the starboard side as shown above) is this small annex with comfortable red leather chairs and sofa seating. This was referred to in some cases by Irish Ferries as the Club Lounge.
Above & below: Over to port, C.T.M.A. have installed a small gymnasium and equally modest library.
Below: C.T.M.A. have done a very thorough job of removing the myriad of conflicting layers of signage and brandings that the ship has received over the years. This sign in the Deck 6 toilets was the only evidence of any of the ship's former operators to be found in the passenger areas.