THE SENLAC STORY
PART ONE: Sealink's Senlac 1973-1987
matt@hhvferry.com
The final of three car ferries ordered by the British Railways Board from the Brest Naval Dockyard under very favourable terms, the Senlac was delivered in 1973 for the Newhaven-Dieppe service. Although completed to the account of the BRB and manned by a British crew, the ship was technically owned under the terms of the British/French joint agreement (37/56ths French Railways (SNCF); 19/56ths BRB). She arrived at Newhaven for the first time 5 April 1973, entering regular service on 2 May where she operated in tandem with the French-crewed Villandry and Valencay of 1965 and replaced the veteran Falaise.

Given the rather longer nature of the crossing for which she had been designed and bearing in mind the considerations of the French, the ship featured a number of significant internal differences compared to her earlier sisters Hengist and Horsa. This principally affected the shopping and restaurant arrangements: where amidships on the lower passenger decks the H ships had an innovative and unproven self-service walk-around supermarket, Senlac was completed with a shopping arcade with a variety of counter service outlets selling duty free and other goods. On the deck above, the separate cafeteria and waiter-service restaurant were completely redesigned into effectively one single area with moveable dividers to split the space if/when it was necessary.

Externally there was little difference between the ships apart from the livery detail: where
Hengist and Horsa had the BR double arrow on their flame red funnels, Senlac, in line with her route fleetmates, had the Joint Service flag painted onto a buff background. The naming of the ship was a matter of some controversy for a time and the ship was known as 'CF3' (her yard number) until eventually the Senlac name was settled on. Senlac Hill was the location of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and was therefore deemed to cover both English and French interests, although it has been reported that the French were not entirely happy with the choice (despite the French victory in the battle!) and that they would have preferred the name Warenne.

The Battle of Hastings theme was reflected in a the main artworks on board: the feature panel of Franta Belsky's three deck high mural in the forward stairwell depicted three soldiers wearing chain mail and armed with spears and shields, with arrows raining down on them. In the cafeteria meanwhile a series of large bas-relief stylised scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the battle were installed.
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Below: Senlac under construction in the dry dock at the Brest Naval Shipyard.
Below: After sale to the French, the ship received SNCF funnel colours in 1985 and for 1986, prior to the charter to B&I, revised Sealink Dieppe Ferries markings were applied to the hull.
Click here to continue to the Senlac story Part Two: A Greek Battlefield
Senlac proved to be a successful ship at Newhaven, yet the nature of the route through much of its recent history has been one of instability. Replacing the converted passenger steamer Falaise (which subsequently saw further car ferry service to the Channel Islands) the ship's large freight and passenger capacity soon made her the dominant vessel on the route. Profitability however was hard to come by and with BR taking only 1/3rd of the profits, the economic case for their continued involvement was a matter of some debate by the early 1980s; this was exacerbated by repeated strike action on the French side. Eventually in early 1982 an announcement was made that the route would be left to the French alone and that Senlac would be sold.

The ship was soon sitting strikebound in Newhaven and the action spread to most other Sealink UK ports until, over a month later, the issue was settled. A renegotiated agreement came into force under which the French would move the
Chartres from Dover to replace both of the V ships of which one (the Valencay) would be retained as a back-up.

Under this new arrangement, the
Senlac continued until Sealink UK's privatisation in June 1984. In October of the same year, the new owners Sea Containers indicated that they too would seek to withdraw from their share of the route and this time the move was carried through: Senlac was sold to SNCF who now assumed total control of the Newhaven-Dieppe service from 1 February 1985. A swift indication of this was the disappearance of the Joint Service flag on the ships' funnels, to be replaced by the standard SNCF logo on a red background. Senlac's port of registry changed from London to Dieppe.

The French now had full control of the route's destiny, but the first season under the new arrangements was not entirely successful and in 1986 SNCF established Dieppe Ferries as a separate entity to steer the crossing back to profitability - or else. Late in the same year it was announced that both
Senlac and the then third vessel Chantilly would be replaced by the chartered Stena Nautica. The latter ship was renamed Versailles and entered service in April 1987 alongside Chartres. Senlac saw further periods of cover at Dieppe before a summer charter to B&I Line for what was then their joint service with Sealink British Ferries between Fishguard and Rosslare. Operating in tandem with SBF's own St Brendan, a happy summer was spent on the Irish Sea but B&I did not follow through a mooted interest in purchasing the ship and Senlac was returned to SNCF in September 1987 whereupon she retired to lay up in Calais. A final period operating from Dieppe to Newhaven followed (in lieu of the damaged Versailles) before the ship was finally sold to Ventouris Sea Lines in November 1987.
Below: The finished article - an official BR portrait of Senlac as she was when brand new.
Below: Senlac underway from Newhaven in the early 1980s.
Below: Senlac berthed at the compact old terminal at Dieppe. Slightly less than a decade after the ship left the route, a new berth was provided at a new harbour at the mouth of the river. Berthing there is much less of a challenge for the present-day ships, but the days when the ferries berthed in the heart of town are perhaps now viewed as the Newhaven-Dieppe route's golden age.
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e-mail: matt@hhvferry.com