THE past decade has seen a revolution in ferry travel from the UK with fast craft taking over a large slice of the market previously served by large roll-on, roll-off vessels.
The first generation of fast ferries however left a lot to be desired. Early craft such as Hoverspeed Great Britain, launched in 1990 on the Portsmouth to Cherbourg route, had the reputation for being technically unreliable.
In the intervening years, operators have added features such as computerised ride control that have vastly improved the stability of the craft.
Today fast ferries operate on numerous routes from the UK, often without a traditional ferry back-up. On routes where there is an alternative service, such as P&O European Ferries' service from Stranraer to Larne, passengers usually choose the fast route.
Fast ferries operate between 35 and 38 knots depending on the size of the vessel and generally halve the crossing time of a conventional ferry.
On the Liverpool-Dublin route operated by Sea Containers, the fast ferry - introduced in March 1998 - has shaved 2hrs 30mins off the journey time, bringing it down to 3hrs 45mins.
This has attracted increasing numbers of passengers - 199,877 travelled on the SuperSeaCat from June to December last year, compared with the 105,638 who took the conventional ferry, the Lady of Mann, when it plied the route from June to December 1997.
Stena Line operates three HSS fast ferries from the UK and said the craft are favoured over conventional ferries. "People like the speed because they can spend more time in their destination. We find that once people have travelled on a fast ferry, they come back, even if they have to pay a premium," said a company spokeswoman.
Fares on fast craft are higher than on conventional ferries. A car plus four passengers on the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire HSS service costs £249, while the traditional ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, a similar route, costs £209.
Despite technological advances and improvements in ride stability, operators agree fast craft best suit routes where the journey time is under 4hrs.
This is partly due to the motion of the craft, but mainly because passengers would get bored on long crossings - fast ferries do not have the space for entertainment facilities.
Most fast ferries only have enough room for a self-service restaurant, bar and small shop.
Exceptions are the HSS, which runs to a children's play area, and Irish Ferries' new Dublin Swift SeaCat which has live entertainment on all crossings.
Fast ferries are also affected by bad weather. Most cannot operate if the significant wave height is above 3.5m; for the HSS the restriction is 4m, added to which, big seas make for an uncomfortable ride.
However, it is unusual for conditions to halt sailings completely. Channel Island operator Condor Ferries said the ro-ro ship on charter to the company filled in for its fast craft on only five trips last winter. For the same period, Stena quotes 97% reliability on its Stranraer-Belfast and Harwich-Hook of Holland routes, while Hoverspeed said it completed 98% of its sailings on its routes to France and Belgium.
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