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Entering service in March 1990, the Fantasia made a massive impression on Cross-Channel traffic and brought Sealink up to and beyond the standards set by Townsend Thoresen/P&O with their 'Chunnel Beating' Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais of 1987. Although the P&O sisters were faster, had slightly larger passenger and freight capacities and were purpose-built, the interior design of Fantasia outclassed the conservative and old-fashioned arrangements of her  competitors. The ship and her sister set new standards for the 1990s and all operators subsequently had rethinks on the interiors of their ships. The Pride  of Dover and Pride of Calais themselves were upgraded in the early 1990s with much (although by no means all) of the original and extensive rows of fixed seating replaced in the less than five year old vessels.

Fantasia had begun her operational life in 1980, named Scandinavia, as the one of a trio of three modern 'Challenger class' ro-ro vessels for the Swedish company Rederi AB Nordö. Together with her sisters, Ariadne (later Fiesta) and Zenobia, the ships were built at the Kockums yard in Malmö, taking advantage of Swedish government aid on offer for ships ordered domestically by Swedish shipowners. They were designed for routes from Greece to Syria as  part of the Greece-Syria Express Line although in the event they operated initially for UMEF from Yugoslavia to Tartous in Syria. Constructed to a  particularly high specification with accommodation for over 100 drivers and featuring massive twin freight decks, the Challenger class were a notably innovative design in their own right.

The early loss of the
Zenobia, which sank outside Larnaca harbour in Cyprus in June 1980, precipitated the end of this service and in 1982 the two remaining ships were disposed of to the Bulgarian company SOMAT, the Scandinavia being renamed Tzarevetz. In this trade the sisters were used initially on operations from Bulgaria to the Middle East under the Medlink banner, although later years saw a variety of charter work being undertaken, including a spell running in  the Adriatic from Greece to Italy. 1987 saw the Tzarevetz pressed into service between Malmö and Travemünde for Nordö-Link, associated company of her original owners.

In October 1988, the two ships passed to Sealink British Ferries (SBF) as part of a "swap sale" deal, the Bulgarians receiving in part exchange the somewhat smaller SBF freighters
Seafreight Freeway and Seafreight Highway (which in turn later passed to DSB/Scandlines as the Ask and Urd respectively). The Tzarevetz was renamed Fiesta and immediately sent on charter to OT Africa Line for service to Nigeria. This seemingly was not a success, with her crew  resigning after only a couple of trips due to fear of piracy off Lagos, the ship retiring to lay up in the Fal. However, Sealink were not really interested in charter work and their big plan was to convert the pair for passenger service, although there was much debate within the company as to which routes they would be best suited. Once Dover-Calais was settled upon, the long-term view was that the two ships (one of which would transfer to French pool partners SNCF) would form Sealink's contribution, after the Channel Tunnel opened, to a proposed amalgamated service with P&O who would bring their own  'Chunnelbeaters' with them.

After a period of intense negotiations, the conversion contract was awarded to the Lloyd Werft yard in Bremerhaven and the
Fiesta entered the dockyard in late June 1989. During the rebuilding process, it was decided that the ships should swap names, Fantasia becoming the lead, British ship with the name Fiesta being assumed by the second vessel which was to go to SNCF. This change was reputedly due to possible unfortunate translations of the word 'Fantasia'  into French. For shipyard purposes, the two ships continued to be referred to under their original names for the avoidance of any confusion.

The conversion of these two vessels was massive, and included the fitting of exceptionally large side sponsons to aid stability (possibly with the loss of  the
Zenobia in mind). The main passenger deck was actually largely fitted into the original superstructure, the excess height of the two original freight decks (designed to carry stacked containers) being reduced by painstakingly lowering the level of the upper deck, thus reducing the height of the main deck  with the new passenger level fitted above in the space thus saved. Capacity for 1,800 passengers and 723 cars was specified although in operation the freight capacity was found to be rather lower than expected. Interior design of the passenger spaces had been left in the hands of the American land-based architects Warren Platner Associates who created a series of unique, bright spaces quite unlike anything previously seen on a cross-Channel ferry. [continued below]
Above: The Zenobia (centre), Ariadne and Scandinavia under construction at Kockums in Malmö.
Above: The brand-new Scandinavia seen just after delivery to Rederi AB Nordö.
Above: The Tzarevetz in Medlink colours from a modern postcard.
Above: A view of the Fantasia under conversion at Lloyd Werft. Picture courtesy Roy Thornton Collection
Above and below: The brand new Fantasia just after being delivered to Sealink in February 1990.
Above: The Fantasia at Dover during her first season. (Image by Mark Dyball from an original postcard)
With her rebuilding complete, the Fantasia left Bremerhaven for trials in mid-February and arrived at Dover, via Calais on 8 March 1990. By this stage, SBF and their new flagship had become the property of Stena Line after a drawn-out and hostile take-over from previous owners Sea Containers. The Fantasia entered service on freight-only runs on 11 March before starting to take limited numbers of passengers on 17 March. The public reaction was particularly positive but alas the ship faced a series of significant challenges during that debut season.

Initially the major problems related to the deployment of the local fleet: rather predictably, the
Fiesta had encountered a manning dispute with the local unions which had delayed her entry into service. Having arrived in Calais in mid May, the Fiesta waited for all of June until the start of July before the  dispute was resolved. In the interim period, her French fleetmatein the four-ship Sealink service, the Côte d'Azur, had also become involved and by early June was sitting strikebound on berth 3 in Calais. With the Fiesta blocking her usual berth (Berth 5), the Fantasia was forced to run an amended schedule to fit in between P&O sailings from the adjacent Berth 6. Things were hardly helped by the disappearance of the Fantasia on a pre-planned week-long dry docking  back at Bremerhaven for various modifications and with only the St Christopher running from the regular Dover-Calais fleet, things reached a crisispoint such that the Earl William was hurried out of lay-up to cover at Folkestone to enable the St Anselm to revert to Dover. 20 June saw Calais entirely blocked by the striking French crews and, whilst P&O ran their larger ships to Zeebrugge and Sealink sailed whatever would fit into Boulogne, the too-large Fantasia was left unemployed until being sent on a series of afternoon non-landing mini-cruises along the Channel. On 25 June the ship was dry docked again, this  time in Tilbury and by the time she returned things were about to get back to normal: the SNAT dispute was resolved and the Fantasia and her sister eventually were able to settle down into regular service.

In October 1990, Stena announced their intentions for their new subsidiary. For the 1991 Summer season, significant sums were to be invested in upgrading  their Dover fleet: replacing the
St Christopher (renamed Stena Antrim) was newcomer Stena Invicta, a large and stylish former Danish Railways ferry which  was in the event somewhat brutally and unsympathetically converted by Stena for Dover services. An additional ship, Stena Challenger, was also to be  introduced, primarily catering for freight. As part of the same package of announcements, it was disclosed that the Fantasia would be renamed the Stena Fantasia whilst the company trading name was from then on to be Sealink Stena Line.

There then followed over an extended period stretching to the end of 1991 a series of problems and incidents, mostly relating to the
Fantasia's lack of manoeuvrability but also signs of what would be some long-standing recurring problems with the ship's rudders, starting with a quick two day dry-docking in Dunkerque in October 1990 for attention to the latter.

The ship then suffered bow visor problems at Calais on 2 December and these were such that her overhaul at A&P Appledore in North Shields was brought forward to minimise later disruptions; the ship returned just after Christmas under her new name. The problems continued however and on 8 January 1991 the 'Fantasia' required more repairs for a hole in the stern on the starboard side after a bad-weather induced collision at Dover. This was perhaps the most  notorious incident involving the ship: she was entering harbour in the late afternoon and, despite the help of tugs, became pinned against the mooring quay for her linkspan. With the weather remaining inclement, there she remained until things calmed down, some eight hours later. This time the repairs were carried out in Rotterdam and the opportunity was taken at this time to adjust the ship's stern to enable her to berth stern-in as well as the usual bow-in at Calais -  when the bow visor had jammed shut the previous December, the
Fantasia had been forced to return to Dover as her stern had not been compatible with the berths at the French port. The Stena Fantasia returned to service in February.

The 1991 season turned out to be disastrous for Sealink Stena and major cutbacks were announced as part of 'Operation Benchmark'. The direct impact on Dover was that the
Stena Challenger was to be withdrawn, although this decision was later amended and she was deployed alongside the train ferry Nord Pas-de-Calais on sailings to Dunkerque. Investment was not entirely stopped however and the Stena Fantasia sailed for a substantial refit at the Cityvarvet yard in Gothenburg, perhaps not coincidentally home of Stena's central headquarters. The contract for work on both the 'Fantasia' and Fiesta was worth £11m. The ship arrived in Sweden on 6 November and returned to Dover in early December. Much work was carried out technically to resolve the manoeuvrability  issues which had afflicted the sisters since their entry into service, as well as to provide additional speed to enable an extra daily round crossing to be  fitted in when needed. Changes were meanwhile made to the public spaces: at this stage the ship lost her Rock Box disco which became a video arcade, the adjacent Quiet Lounge was converted into Business Class with part partitioned off as a small conference room, whilst the lower level of the Motorists' Haven was appropriated for use as a Brasserie (starboard side) with the bar a Bistro. The ship also re-emerged without her distinctive personalised livery, looking distinctly glum in standard Sealink Stena colours. The impression seemed to be that Stena, who had been critical of the Fantasia and Fiesta during the acrimonious takeover of SBF, had brought the errant newcomer firmly into line during her stay under their noses in Gothenburg: in came the corporate identity, but little-used discotheques and flamboyant non-standard liveries were most definitely out! [continued below]
1992 was a season of consolidation for Sealink and appears to have been relatively successful, at Dover at least. For 1993, the company's trading name was inverted, becoming Stena Sealink Line.

The 'Fantasia's month-long £1m 1993/94 refit was carried out back at the yard of her conversion, Lloyd Werft in Bremerhaven. Fairly extensive internal alterations were carried out, particularly in the self-service restaurant where the original free-flow servery was removed in favour of a large McDonalds and a counter-service ED's (later Rudi's) Diner. Forward, the Bistro & Brasserie name and fittings were abandoned after just two years and the whole two-level space  became the Globetrotter Lounge with snacks served from the bar counter. The McDonald's was a 'first' for the Channel, and only the second on a ferry anywhere, after the
Silja Europa had entered service with one the previous year. At her refit in Le Havre the Fiesta received a new bar installed beneath  the ship's dome. Although apparently it was the intention to carry out the same work on the Stena Fantasia, in the event this was never done.

For 1994, the
Stena Challenger returned from two years operating primarily to Dunkerque to provide a permanent fifth ship on the Calais run (in previous years, the Chartres had provided Summer support with Dover Western Docks to Calais train connected services, but these had now ceased with the opening of  the Channel Tunnel). Stena were now providing a similar number of ships and crossings as rivals P&O; but with the Tunnel now taking a large share of the  market, the Dover ferry companies were entering a time of overcapacity, low margins and meagre profits.

Stena's long-standing French partners SNAT (formerly SNCF and operators of sister
Fiesta) announced in July 1995 that they were to leave the Sealink pool and set up a new independent operation from the start of 1996, to be called Seafrance. To counter this, and to bring the Stena fleet up to strength after the loss of the French ships, it was subsequently announced that the Stena Jutlandica from the company's flagship Gothenburg-Frederikshavn run would be transferred to Dover as the Stena Empereur for Summer 1996. A fast craft presence was also to be introduced in the form of the Stena Lynx II and, latterly,  the 'Lynx III'. At the same time, it was revealed that the company would in future trade simply as 'Stena Line', with the Sealink name dropped from 31 December 1995.

The fire in the Channel Tunnel in November 1996 provided a big and unexpected boost to the local ferry companies and extra sailings were laid on to cover the sudden increase in demand. This rather bucked the trend for Stena Line which by this stage was finding the competition difficult. Rather unexpectedly, Seafrance were making inroads particularly in the freight market with their dedicated freighter
Seafrance Nord Pas-de-Calais. Stena's ploy of cheap fares and a 'lively' on board atmosphere appealed by default to attract the bottom end of the Cross-Channel market, and the whole enterprise appeared to be propped up on Duty Free sales to a greater extent than even their competitors.

Thus Stena seemed set on a downward course and it was probably much to their relief that, after many years of discussions and investigations, permission was finally given on 19 November 1997 for P&O and Stena to merge their Short-Sea operations (essentially Newhaven and Dover), with the merger taking place with effect from 10 March 1998. Stena took 40% of the new company, to be called P&O Stena Line, with market leader P&O taking the balance. At Dover, the two Stena ships to carry forward to the new operation would be the 'Fantasia' and 'Empereur' where they would be joined by P&O's
Prides of Burgundy, Calais, Dover and Kent (they also ultimately later provided the Pride of Bruges) together with the three Zeebrugge European class freighters. The Stena Invicta was to be withdrawn and sold.
Above: The renamed Stena Fantasia on Calais berth 5 (prior to its rebuilding) in October 1991.
Above: The Stena Fantasia arriving at Calais on a very grey day in 1991, the last season before her livery was 'standardised'. (Picture courtesy Mark Leiper)
Below: The Stena Fantasia seen leaving Calais in 1992. This colour scheme was to last just one year with the further amending of the company's name to Stena Sealink Line for 1993. (Picture courtesy Mark Leiper)
Above and below: Two views of the Stena Fantasia at Calais in the 1993-1995 Stena Sealink livery. (Pictures courtesy Richard Seville (above) and Ferry Fantastic (below))
Above and below: The Stena Fantasia seen at Calais in the post-Sealink Stena Line livery adopted in 1996. (Pictures courtesy Mark Leiper)
Below: The Stena Fantasia and rival sister Seafrance Cézanne together at Calais after the breakup of the Sealink pool. (Picture courtesy Mark Leiper)
Above: Just after losing her distinctive original livery, the Stena Fantasia is seen at the Cityvarvet yard in Gothenburg where she received significant attention under the watchful eye of senior Stena management.