|The Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais were the ferries that the Fantasia and Fiesta were supposed to challenge. Introduced in 1987, the P&O ships had been ordered by Townsend Thoresen and in the case of the ‘Dover’ actually entered service under that brand, but both were soon swept up to become the flagships of the new sobre, reliable, post-Herald P&O European Ferries.
As long as one excludes the huge leap in sheer size they represented over the predecessor ‘Spirit’ class of just eight years before, it has to be argued that in many respects the two ‘Prides’ were evolutionary rather than innovative ships. That capacity jump aside, they retained many of the basic principles the Spirit of Free Enterprise had introduced, simply on a vaster scale. In terms of their passenger spaces, the two 'Prides' were surprisingly austere in places – a cursory glance at a general arrangement plan without actually seeing the interiors themselves reveals a complete dominance of rows and rows of fixed seating. The actual implementation of this was not quite as undesirable as it sounds, with much of the seating being of the more informal low-backed type rather than the rigid and anti-social high-backed seats around fixed rectangular tables favoured by state-owned concerns such as Sealink in the 1970s or more particularly SNCM right through the subsequent decade. Sealink in that era however were set apart by matching the capacity gained by high-volume fixed seating with elements of higher-end design in some of the bars, restaurants and lobby spaces. On the Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais, just as on the 'Spirit' class, the formal restaurant and a small section of the main bar alone represented such a break with the rest of the ship’s quite utilitarian styling. The restaurant on the 1987 sisters though, quite notoriously and cruelly, was fitted with windows looking directly onto the ship’s lifeboats with any view so blocked.
None of this is to say that the 'Prides' were outfitted to a low standard – their sheer size ensured that a channel crossing felt more spacious and one could more easily evade the crowds. They employed subtle light pastel shades to good effect and use was made in places of mahogany and brass, creating a subdued and relaxed atmosphere perfectly suited to the mass transit Dover-Calais operations had become. Even then however, and somewhat surprisingly in retrospect, this reality was rather more removed from the later promotion (“why sail across when you can cruise across”) than, for example, Sealink’s operation down the coast at Folkestone, where the kitsch but genuinely innovative Orient Express Lounges on Hengist and Horsa had already been installed.
This then was the key competition that the Fantasia and Fiesta faced when they entered service. Although, along with their P&O rivals, the 'F' class had been billed as “Chunnel Beaters”, the initial key comparison had to be with the P&O 'Prides'. As passenger ships, it seems undeniable that the Sealink sisters represented every bit as much a leap of the imagination as the 'Prides' had been a leap in capacity. Fundamentally challenging the assumed basics of Cross-Channel ferry interior design, the Fantasia and Fiesta provided the desired capacity increase but went beyond that to provide ships that intrigued the public and were genuinely ‘luxurious’ compared to what had gone before.
In operational terms, however, the Fantasia and Fiesta were let down by their hulls and machinery not being custom-designed for short-sea, high-intensity operations. The P&O ships’ ability to swallow vaster quantities of passengers and vehicles and transport them more reliably and more quickly made them more important units, a comparison rather simplified when the Fantasia and the 'Prides' were in the same fleet from 1998 to 2003. On a technical level, the 'Dover' and 'Calais' set a standard which was ?not significantly exceeded until the arrival of the new Seafrance and Maersk ships after the turn of the century. However, after 1990, and overlooking the unfortunate false start represented by the Pride of Burgundy in 1993, the interiors of no newbuild or significant conversion for Dover operations would fail to take note of the lessons from the Sealink sisters.
The weaknesses of the 'Prides' interiors when compared to the 'F' sisters were fairly speedily resolved in a series of early-90s refurbishments which, whilst unable to significantly alter the at times awkward general arrangement, did add a degree of freshness to the spaces themselves in what P&O termed the “renaissance” of the pair. Conversely, the Fantasia and Fiesta’s relative operational weaknesses were not so easily solved. Their temperamental machinery was a continuing source of problems which were addressed but never entirely satisfactorily resolved, particularly in the case of the Fantasia.
The winners can only be judged in terms of those still standing. By 2005, the Pride of Dover and Pride of Calais were still front line P&O workhorses as they sped towards their twentieth years with no sign or massive requirement for replacement. The Fantasia meanwhile was gone and the Fiesta relegated to a primarily freight-only role. The Sealink ships may have won the battle of concepts, but P&O and their flagship Prides truly won the war.