The workers who make Larne harbour run like clockwork
The opening of the A8 dual carriageway has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for Larne. And at the heart of the town is the harbour. Una Brankin meets the workers who make the port run like clockwork
Among the salty sea dogs and burly truckers frequenting the Port of Larne, two glamourous local women ensure that the P&O-owned harbour runs like clockwork. Laura Gilmour and Lisa Lamont oversee an extremely well-organised operation, which makes sailing to Scotland a hassle-free pleasure — especially compared to the continually annoying process of flying.
And with seven sailings per day and two busy ferries to manage, the two Larne ladies have their work cut out for them. Port manager Laura started off with P&O on work experience almost 30 years ago. Now one of only three female harbour bosses in the UK, she’s responsible for operations and customer service.
“Sometimes I think I prefer the male-dominated environment to working with lots of other females, although sometimes men can be just as sensitive as women,” laughs Laura.
“I have worked with most of my male colleagues for some time, which has allowed us to get to know one another, and I believe this makes the interaction more easy-going and relaxed and allows trust to build, which is really important in all relationships.
“My male colleagues have always shown me great support throughout my career — and I wouldn’t change it.”
Married to Thomas, a sales manager for an oil company, Laura is a radiant presence in the passenger port terminal, a relaxed environment with a very good cafe (great cappuccino; delicious home-made wheaten bread) and a quirky little shop, selling kitschy presents, from Irish blessings to Rubik’s cubes.
She has seen many changes at the port over the last three decades — and a few celebrities passing through.
“Robbie Coltrane came in an open-top car, just on a visit, and we’ve had Dolly Parton and Nathan Carter coming in on their tour buses,” she says.
“I enjoy working with all our customers and we do get some unusual requests.
“We had one couple recently who wanted to be married by the captain - it didn't happen in the end - and a team from The One Show on rickshaws for Children In Need, who had to keep going while onboard, as part of their challenge. We had good fun with the presenters, Alex Jones and Matt Baker.
"We also have funerals coming through quite regularly. We liaise with the undertakers for the transfer of the coffin and organise for arrangements for relatives to follow the hearse. We keep them separate from the rest of the passengers coming through, to allow them privacy - it can be hectic in bike racing season, for example, but we have a very efficient check-in and loading system, so things tend to run very smoothly."
Laura's colleague Lisa Lamont (33) is in charge of load control at the port, working often overnight - from her own well-heated hut on the quay. She lives locally with her husband, Ian, an aircraft engineer with Bombardier Aerospace, and their eight year-old son, Cameron.
"I thought I was hearing things one day when the supervisor called through to say there was a lion coming through in a van," Lisa recalls. "I asked to see it - it was huge. It was so amazing to see one close-up. It was in a cage and it growled at me.
"It was going to a zoo for breeding. We've had all sorts of animals, including giraffes."
Lisa first started with P&O at 19, as the only female in the freight department.
"I think it's interesting that the majority of things in all our homes have - as part of their journey - probably travelled on a P&O ferry: the food in your cupboard, the sofa you sit on, the paint on your walls; the compost on your plants," she says.
"When people think of a ferry service, it's usually associated with car passengers and holiday travel, and the commercial freight side doesn't really feature. But that's a huge part of it and no two shipping loads are the same."
The P&O ferry route has become increasingly convenient since the opening of the A8 dual carriageway, which has greatly improved the connectivity of Larne to Belfast. It's now really easy to head from Belfast down the A8 to Larne in just 20 minutes.
At two hours, the speed of the crossing between Larne and Cairnryan is impressive. It's the shortest possible sea route to the mainland and at seven sailings per day, that's more than any other route across the Irish Sea.
The late Amy Winehouse once travelled on a ferry from Larne and asked to go up on the bridge to see the controls and the captain in action. (It looks like a mini-space station, but with lots of natural light pouring in and, of course, has the most stunning views).
Ship's master Donald Thornton was at the helm during my visit onboard P&O's very comfortable Causeway European last week. He was quick to dispel the notion that he would have the power to marry passengers.
"That's a myth - we're more likely to be involved in the scattering of ashes," says Donald, a Scot who has been with P&O for 17 years. "We have done that, but there has to be a P&O or Royal Navy connection before it can be allowed."
Along with the chief engineer and other senior staff, Donald works two weeks on, two weeks off and has his own spacious en-suite cabin on board.
P&O staff also have a private games room and gym. Passenger facilities include a mini cinema and - crucially - wi-fi that works.
For a very reasonable £3 pass, passengers can spend up to 90 minutes surfing the web during the crossing, with the option to stop and restart the service, conveniently saving minutes for another time. Payment can be made online using a credit or debit card or with cash at the on-board information desk.
"We know it's important for all our passengers, whether travelling for business or leisure, that they're able to go online and stay connected throughout their journey," says Neal Mernock, sector director, Irish Sea at P&O Ferries.
"We have worked hard to guarantee that the wi-fi service we have installed is of the highest quality, ensuring a reliable and unbroken service for passengers sailing between Larne and Cairnryan."
Spotlessly clean - with no nasty whiffs, or drafts, in evidence anywhere - the passenger level on the Causeway European has a comfortable restaurant and relaxation area, a gift shop full of goodies from cosmetics to jewellery, and a separate Route Masters lounge for the truckers.
Extra peace and quiet can be had in the Club Lounge, which seats up to 90 passengers. It's well worth the £12 upgrade for the complimentary newspapers, magazines, soft drinks, teas and coffees. There's a decent menu of snacks and delicious light meals, and if you don't have wheels on board, you can have wine or a glass of bubbles for £8.
Sockets abound for passengers who need to catch up on work and use their laptops, tablets and mobile phones and wi-fi is free for Club Lounge passengers. (Club Lounge tickets booked in advance cost £12 per person while tickets purchased on board cost £14 per person).
Technology has also transformed life for the 100-odd who work at the harbour. Port controller Trevor Wright and his colleague Jimmy Dodds operate the shipping version of air traffic control on the ground, monitoring all that's going in and out of the port across a bank of screens.
From their panoramic windows, on a clear day they can see the Mull of Kintyre, 30 miles away.
"We very, very rarely have to cancel a sailing and we've never had a collision," says Trevor. "A lost minke whale appeared in the lough one day but we got one of the local fishermen to shoo him back out to sea. We're all in this together and we've become a wee family here over the years. P&O Ferries is a vital stakeholder in the local community; they provide employment and training, as well as being the best gateway for travellers to Scotland and beyond. It's a brilliant place to work."
Olympic flame and Dolly Parton among a sea of passengers
■ P&O’s Larne-Cairnryan ferry, the European Highlander, carried the Olympic Flame across the Irish Sea from Northern Ireland to Scotland in 2012
■ European Highlander has made more than 13,000 crossings over the years — covering a distance of over 9,000 nautical miles and consuming 196,397 tonnes of fuel
■ Sister ship European Causeway is 156 metres long — bigger than the Glasgow Tower
■ Several famous faces have sailed on European Highlander over the years. They include musicians Dolly Parton, Cher, Rhianna, Will Young, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Status Quo, Public Enemy and former Doctor Who actor Matt Smith
■ In 2000, the ship was named at a ceremony in Larne Harbour by Penelope Harding, wife of Tim Harding, a retired board director of P&O
■ P&O recently asked passengers what they wanted from our Irish Sea ships. As a result, £20m has been invested, with European Causeway getting a makeover in 2013
■ European Causeway entered service in 2000, replacing the Pride of Rathlin. Specifically designed for the Cairnryan-to-Larne route, she has not operated elsewhere and has only been taken out of service if she needs a refit
■ The ship now features more comfortable seating area, refurbished restaurants, a new menu and an all-new Club Lounge for those who want a little extra luxury on board
■ There’s also an improved timetable, with up to seven sailings a day