St Columba Shipping & International Services Division
The £16mn order for St Columba was placed with Aalborg Vaerft A/S of Aalborg, Denmark in March 1975. She was specially designed for service between Holyhead, on the island of Anglesey, across the 57 nautical miles to Dun Laoghaire, located seven miles south of Dublin. To enter service in 1977, the new ship would replace two passenger-only "mailships", Cambria and Hibernia, and a car ferry.
Aalborg didn't waste any time with construction and in July 1976 yard number 214 was ready to take to the water for the first time. But as so often happens in these cases, the weather had different plans!
Thursday, 15th July saw a chartered Aer Lingus 737 fly from Dublin, via Heathrow, with a representative group of British and Irish guests to witness the launch of the new ship. The following day saw high winds, the direction of which caused the level of water in Lim Fjord, on which Aalborg stands, to drop. With the water level just four inches too low to safely take the ship the invited guests had to settle for the naming ceremony which went ahead with Mrs Joan Kirby, wife of British Rail's Shipping and International Services Division's general manager David Kirby, performing the honours. With suitable tidal conditions the St Columba finally took to the water on Saturday, 17th July with Mrs Kirby launching the vessel, unfortunately after the departure of the guests for London and Dublin on their pre-arranged charter flight.
Sea trials were carried out in the Kattegat over the weekend of 18th March, 1977 and at 0500hrs on Saturday 2nd April, the St Columba sailed from Aalborg for Holyhead under the command of Capt Len Evans. On the following day the St Columba arrived at Dover's Western Docks where minor engine adjustments were carried out. The next morning, the St Columba was on her way again and at 1400hrs on Tuesday 5th April she arrived at her new home port to be given a rapturous welcome by more than 5,000 people crowding every vantage point to see the new ship.
Speaking of the St Columba's performance on passage to Holyhead Capt Evans said, "Although the weather conditions on the delivery voyage did not exceed Force 7, the ship behaved admirably, and her sea keeping qualities lived up to our best expectations." This was of course further confirmed after she went into service and during subsequent winters.
The new ship dominated the scene at Holyhead. She was a much needed breath of fresh air to the service which, since the withdrawal of the Hibernia on 3rd October, 1976 and the Cambria on 7th September, 1975, was operated by a variety of stop-gap steam turbine car ferries, including the Duke of Lancaster, the Duke of Rothesay, the Duke of Argyll, the Caledonian Princess, the Avalon and the Dover. On Tuesday 19th April the St Columba had a trial run around Holyhead Bay and on Sunday 24th April she was open to the public at Holyhead, an event which attracted 1704 visitors.
This was a time of celebration for all connected with the link and on Wednesday 27th April the St Columba undertook her inaugural voyage to Dun Laoghaire with members of the Irish Government, British Rail Board, tour operators, journalists and other VIPs onboard. There were two sets of officers on board; Capt Len Evans, and Capt John Peters as masters, the latter taking her out of Holyhead. Walter Lloyd-Williams and Lewis Pritchard as mates. Trevor Salmon and Dai Davies as second mates and Tudor Jones and Glynne Pritchard as third mates. That evening, guests attended a Dinner at the Royal Marine Hotel, addressed by An Taoiseach (Irish Premier) Mr Liam Cosgrave T.D. The Chairman of British Rail, Mr Peter Parker offered a toast to the new ship: "The St Columba as a symbol of strengthened ties between the people of Ireland, the people of Britain and the people of Europe."
Taking up commercial service on Monday 2nd May the St Columba was an overnight success on the route. With a capacity for 2,400 passengers, 335 cars or 36 artics (or a mixture of the two) nothing quite like the ship had ever been seen before on the Irish Sea. Little wonder was it that after just over one year in operation the St Columba had carried her one millionth passengers.