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Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Friday, 1 October 2010 08:43 UK
End of Pride of Bilbao's 17 years sailing to Spain
Pride of Bilbao
Pride of Bilbao has sailed between Portsmouth and Spain since 2003

For 17 years the familiar navy blue and white Pride of Bilbao ferry was a regular sight off Portsmouth.

It towered on the skyline as it slipped along the Solent between Southsea and the Isle of Wight.

The Pride of Bilbao was withdrawn from service when P&O pulled out of the twice-weekly route to northern Spain.

It marked not only the end for the ship, but also a business central to the south coast economy for 45 years.

The 37,500-tonne ferry was built in 1986 and was named Olympia, sailing for the Viking Line.

In 1993 it was chartered to P&O for use between Portsmouth and northern Spain and re-named the Pride of Bilbao.

Stormy crossings

Crew and passengers alike have memories of the crossing, which takes about 24 hours.

Pride of Bilbao
Pride of Bilbao arrived from its last journey from Spain on 28 October

The sedate arrival and departures from Portsmouth contrast with the conditions the vessel faced in the open seas of the Bay of Biscay.

Chris Brown from Fleet, Hampshire recalled a trip in 1993.

He said: "On one crossing the sea was so rough going through the Bay of Biscay, my grandfather was the only person in the restaurant for dinner, the rest of us were outside in the fresh air, not feeling 100%."

For the crew, who could spend three weeks out of five on board, there are also a wealth of memories.

Mark Wood was a retail manager onboard from 1994-99. He described it as "a lifestyle where you truly meet many, many people who became like a family onboard."

He added: "There were great times getting to know regular passengers - they saw us as part of their holidays over the years."

However, the stormy Bay of Biscay also posed problem for them. He recalled: "I remember having to lock down all the retail areas - packing the shelving out with blankets and cartons of cigarettes.

"A bottle of drink would jump out of the shelving - creating havoc throughout!"

Dolphin watchers

Unusually for a car ferry, Pride of Bilbao also attracted wildlife lovers. The journey is one of the best in the world for seeing dolphins and whales.

Pride of Bilbao
The ferry has a special observatory for watching whales and dolphins

"Dolphin cruises" were marketed with experts on board giving talks on the 20 different species of dolphins and whales which live in the Bay of Biscay and could regularly be spotted alongside the boat.

Scientists fitted sensors on the ferry to measure sea surface temperature, chlorophyll production and salinity to monitor conditions for the dolphins.

End of era

While the competition from low cost airlines was a factor in closing the route, the volcanic ash cloud crisis earlier this year brought the ferry into its own.

The Pride of Bilbao was packed with 1,200 stranded holiday makers who needed repatriating when flights were grounded.

However, since 2004 Pride of Bilbao has been the last remaining P&O ship sailing out of Portsmouth.

Previously the company had also run routes to France. In 1987 it took over the old Townsend Torensen ferry company which had moved from Southampton in 1985.

The closure or transfer of P&O's cross-channel routes and scaling down its operations in Portsmouth led to the loss of 800 jobs.

The ferry company blamed competition from low cost airlines, high fuel prices and cheap ferry deals at Dover which had put pressure on the Spanish route and other crossings of the western channel.

Brian Rees of P&O said: "We just can't make the sums add up."

He added: "It's a desperately sad day - there is a very tight-knit ship's company. Unlike the short crossings, you really get to know the customers."

Following the withdrawal of Pride of Bilbao, the route is being taken over by Brittany Ferries. The crew will be redeployed to ships sailing out of Liverpool and Hull.

P&O axes Spanish ferry service
15 Jan 10 |  Hampshire
City ferry port to be demolished
24 Nov 09 |  Hampshire

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