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Thinking about Ferries

Thoughts on the experience of travelling by ferry – at the mercy of the changeable sea.

Published onMay 20, 2021
Thinking about Ferries

Something that keeps coming up in this project is people’s experiences of, and love for, the ferry from Pembroke Dock. Participants have described the gentleness and patience of ferry staff waking them up when they’ve fallen asleep in their cars, and about how the whole experience feels like being held and cared for – unlike air travel, which some participants have likened to enduring some mysterious punishment. I can’t say that I disagree.

There’s no doubt that taking the ferry these days is a completely different experience than it was years ago – and I won’t go into the descriptions of group seasickness I’ve heard about – but it has always seemed to be a focal point in people’s lives, reuniting them with or separating them from their loved ones, bringing them to new lives or home again, carrying them through transitions and milestones both painful and joyful. People I speak to remember the ferryport with such crystalline clarity.

There’s another side to these ferries that I know about too, from the many stories shared by women who were brought by them from Ireland, where abortion was illegal until 2018, to the UK, where they could get the healthcare they needed.

The first time I took the ferry to Wales from Ireland was two years ago, to help canvas in the general election of all things. It was quite something to cross the Irish sea in a ship for the first time, and to feel the palpable emotions of the people around me, many of whom were doing something quite pivotal to their lives. When night fell and everyone curled up in blankets in the lounge, it really did feel like some kind of nursery, like we would be kept safe at this time of intense vulnerability.

Driving back to the port, we were assailed by furious wind and rain, and wondered if we would be stranded. In an era of predictable technology and timetables, the ferry retains something ancient and unpredictable – it is at the mercy of the changeable sea. A reminder that we are all at the mercy of the world, the climate, and how we take care of it. That crossing was thrilling and terrifying, and I was relieved to drive onto dry land again.

View of the Westman Islands from the ferry (photo Kathy D’Arcy)

Last week I took the ferry to the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland: a jagged cluster of volcanic rocks still visibly affected by a huge eruption on the 1970s when the whole population had to be evacuated overnight. Having listened to so many stories about ferries, I was ready for the feeling of safety and being minded that I felt the moment I was aboard, and for the sense of adventure that will never really leave me when I cross a body of water. It’s incredible to think of the people who navigated these waters over a thousand years ago – and to think also about the flotilla of local ships and boats which spent a hazardous night evacuating the main island, Heimaey, when a volcano unexpectedly erupted and buried part of the town in the 1970s. There’s a ferry from Iceland to Denmark, and one to the Faroe Islands too. I’m hoping – maybe idealistically – to somehow make my way by ferry and road to Pembroke Dock when it’s safe to do so, and to explore for myself all the places I’m being introduced to. I might even get the Pembroke Dock ferry back to Ireland, completing the circle.

Kathy D’Arcy
May 2021

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