St Columba Sealink UK Ltd
On 1st January 1979 the Shipping and International Services Division ceased to exist and its function, assets and staff were transferred to a new company wholly owned by the Board named Sealink UK Ltd.
On 5th March 1979 the St Columba ventured north to Glasgow for annual overhaul. The second largest passenger car ferry ever to sail so far up the Clyde at that time, she entered No. 3 Dry Dock of Clyde Dock Engineering Ltd. Later, she moved to nearby St Stephen's Basin before finally leaving the Clyde on 1st April and it was here that she turned Clydeside heads! Under the command of Captain Len Evans, she sailed out of the basin using her after bridge and bow rudder. The Clyde Pilot was impressed and as there was a very strong breeze he advised the Master to 'keep going'! And keep going he did, 17 miles stern first before swinging and proceeding ahead
One issue for the St Columba during her early years was the considerable amount of engine trouble experienced. This was to cause problems with relief vessels as none could approach her large capacity. Usually, in such circumstances some quite remarkable feats of engineering were accomplished to promptly return the ship to service.
Each summer, until 1985, a second ship was deployed at Holyhead to augment the St Columba's sailings to Dun Laoghaire. Such notable ships as Duke of Lancaster, Avalon and Lord Warden all partnered the crack ship until in 1981 a newcomer arrived in the camp - the St David, fresh from Harland & Wolff under the command of Capt. Idwal Pritchard.
It was soon realised that the St David was a more economical ship to operate the run during off-peak periods and so on 1st October 1981 the St Columba retired to the Refit Berth. Apart from a brief spell back in service three weeks later, covering for an engine-troubled St David, there the St Columba remained until being reactivated in December for the peak Christmas season.
As we have already seen the St Columba was a fine sea ship, but the Irish Sea can be an unkind place. Saturday 19th December 1981 saw the Irish Sea at its worst, this being the night the Penlee Lifeboat RNLB Solomon Browne was lost with her entire crew while going to the aid of the coaster Union Star in the western English Channel. For Capt Len Evans, Chief Officer Glynne Pritchard and 2nd officers David Farrell and Ken Jones on the St Columba it was a long first passage in their 24hrs on. With winds at Force 12 plus the ship was hove to off the Kish Tower for eight hours, conditions at Dun Laoghaire being impossible to even consider an attempt at berthing. She eventually got alongside at Dun Laoghaire at 0630hrs the following morning, 14 hours after leaving Holyhead.
© John Marsh
© Tony Jones
In December 1982 Capt Evans, unable to berth at Dun Laoghaire due to a south east gale Force 11-12, steamed slowly south from the Kish lighthouse. "In the vicinity of the Codling I found myself looking up at the sea from the bridge! Needless to say I did not stay down there for long, and was most surprised when a German ship called me up asking if I could assist him, because he, as the giving way vessel, was concerned not to alter course because his cargo of phosphates could ship. One touch on the St Columba's telegraphs and she was away like a scalded cat, much to the admiration and relief of the German."
Arriving at Dun Laoghaire in an easterly gale was not always easy. The late Capt John Bakewell recalled, "I used to come well up to the east and then swing towards the west so that the ship was lying at right angles to Carlisle Pier. We would slowly work her in so that the port side aft was alongside the knuckle. Two stern lines would be run out and when fast and tight, the bow thrust was used to push the bow to port. This worked nearly every time. If it didn't work the beauty was that you could abort the manoeuvre and steam out."
During March 1982 St Columba had her first, and for many years her only, spell of service away from the route for which she was built. While the St David maintained the Holyhead run the larger ship sailed south to Fishguard to cover for the annual overhaul of the Stena Normandica on the Rosslare route. Winter 1982 saw the conversion of the St Columba from a two class ship to one class and what was to be the first of a number of alterations to her comfortable accommodation. Now a large duty free shop took the place of the former 2nd class teabar. This complete, the St Columba returned to her rightful role as Holyhead's crack ship, the St David becoming very much the Sealink relief vessel.
Engine trouble struck the route on 4th August 1983 which, at the height of the summer season, caused significant disruption. Sailing on her starboard engine and with a crossing time of over five hours the St Columba struggled on alongside a pressured St David until a crew was dispatched to Calais to collect the French-flagged Villandry on charter from Sealink partners SNCF. The Frenchman arrived at Holyhead on 7th August where it took two days to store and clean her – she had previously been laid up at a coal berth! Meanwhile the disruption continued and even made national headlines in Ireland. Holyhead’s engineers excelled themselves working to return the St Columba to service on 11th August. The relief was palpable, but not for long for on the following morning the ‘Columba’s opposite Stork Werkspoor TM410 engine failed. The Villandry was hastily recalled and operated for a further three days while the problem was dealt with.