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THE HORSA STORY: PART ONE - THE UK YEARS
matt@hhvferry.com
Folkestone was rather late entering the car ferry era. Neighbouring Dover had been equipped with car ramps at the Eastern Docks since 1953 and had been seen its first purpose-built drive-on car ferry as early as 1949. Some twenty years later, Folkestone finally saw new ships and linkspans of its own. The ships were the splendid Hengist and Horsa of 1972, then the largest ships on the Channel and the first with the 'Sealink' trading name on their hulls. Although usually associated with Folkestone-Boulogne, the two ships spent most of their early years also operating to/from the ports of Dover, Calais and Oostende. By the 1980s though, they were definitely Folkestone vessels; however Dover and Calais had assumed superiority over Folkestone and Boulogne for Sealink generally, and the Channel Tunnel cast a long cloud over the future of the ships and their route.

Despite this uncertainty, an expensive and thorough post-privatisation refit saw the ships emerge with the facilities with which to compete (see the
Hengist page for more details on this and on some projected future uses that lay behind the ships' original design). This investment (and the need of Sealink's new owner to have a route that tied in with the operations of his Orient Express train) may have saved the service from closure in the years before 1990. That year saw what some interpreted as a vote of confidence in its future with the transfer of former company flagship St Anselm from Dover after replacement by the new Fantasia. In turn, the Horsa was moved away from the Dover Strait for the first time, with Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire summer services to be operated. This didn't last for long however, and after Sealink was taken over by Stena the St Anselm (by now Stena Cambria) exchanged places with the renamed Stena Horsa as the twins were re-united for one final season on the Folkestone route. The writing was very much on the wall however, and with Stena keen to both save money and focus traffic on the ultra-competitive Dover-Calais service, Folkestone lost its Boulogne link after 148 years, Stena Horsa making the final crossing on 31 December 1991.
Although the route was operated by Hoverspeed until 2000, and a variety of freight operators attempted to provide a service until 2001, this was the time that the port of Folkestone really lost its heartbeat. Boulogne lingered a little longer with the P&O Dover route, but this too closed in 1993 before the new startup Speedferries entered Dover-Boulogne trade in 2004.
ABOVE: Hengist and Horsa fitting out in Brest in early 1972.
ABOVE: Seen from the departing Hengist, the Horsa continues her fitting out in Brest.
ABOVE: A sunset view of Horsa approaching her berth at Boulogne from a contemporary postcard. In the background one of P&O Normandy Ferries' sisters nf Tiger or Panther can be seen arriving from Dover.
ABOVE: An official Sealink portrait of the Horsa, this was the image which appeared on early postcards for sale on board. At this stage, the ship still has the grey-coloured outside decks which became green at a fairly early point in her career.
ABOVE: Horsa heading astern into the single linkspan at Folkestone. At a relatively early stage in their careers, the Brest-built sisters received enlarged lettering for their names on the hull and it is after this minor amendment that the ship is seen here.
ABOVE: Pre-empting the privatisation of Sealink came the launch of the new all-white company livery in mid-1984. The Horsa and her sister were amongst the first to gain the colours and amongst the few to receive them in their original format, with light blue decks and before the latter addition of 'British Ferries' branding.
ABOVE: For 1985 'Sealink' became 'Sealink British Ferries' and, presumably after negative experience involved in the maintenance of the light blue paintwork, the outside decks became a rather darker blue. Here is the Horsa storming across the channel for her official SBF portrait. This view is clearly taken before the 1986 major refit as the ship retains her aft docking bridge.
ABOVE: Another overhead view of Horsa in 1985.
ABOVE: The Horsa alongside at Boulogne in 1988 or 1989.
Click here to continue to the Horsa Story: Part Two
ABOVE: The Horsa dressed (almost) overall at Boulogne in the early years, possibly on the occasion of the opening of the port's third linkspan at berth 16. (Picture courtesy Roy Thornton Collection)
ABOVE: The Horsa undergoing lifeboat training at Calais Berth 2 in 1984 in the new livery, with the St Anselm forward of her still adorned in the old colours. Calais-Folkestone sailings ceased in June 1984 when services to the French port were centralised on Dover. From then on, appearances of either Hengist or Horsa at Calais would be unusual.