St Columba Sealink British Ferries
Sealink UK Ltd was privatised in July 1984. In what was described as the "Sale of the Century" the company, comprising 37 ships, 10 harbours and 24 routes, was sold to US-based Sea Containers for the low sum of £66 million.
Major, and much needed, investment was promised by company president Mr James B. Sherwood and for Holyhead larger ferries were promised. In the meantime, in February 1985, the new Sealink British Ferries entered into an agreement with rivals B+I Line to rationalise sailings on the Irish Sea.
The agreement provided for co-operation between the two companies and the elimination of sailing duplication on the Holyhead and Fishguard routes to Ireland. Outwardly, this brought to an end the tradition of a second summer ship for Sealink at Holyhead - the extra sailings being covered by B+I. During overhaul periods arrangements were put in place for B+I to deputise while the Sealink ships were in drydock. By and large the move was not a popular one, especially with crews. The January 1986 overhaul relief programme was to fall apart due to industrial unrest - B+I crews demanded the same conditions as their St Columba colleagues for the period they were to operate from Dun Laoghaire.
Strike action followed, B+I's Leinster was prevented from crossing Dublin Bay to Dun Laoghaire and sailings were suspended for 3 days while the St Columba underwent a 24 hour drydocking in Govan to renew her passenger certificates. The relationship between the two companies was further strained in April 1987 when Sealink introduced the freight ship Stena Sailer to supplement sailings the of St Columba. B+I cried foul and by the end of the year the partnership was at an end. It was business as usual and competition returned to Holyhead.
Having returned to service after her Govan visit the St Columba was finally stood down for a £80,000 major refurbishment early in April 1986. When she returned to Holyhead from Bremerhaven a bright new look was unveiled to the travelling public. By far, the ship boasted the highest standards yet to be seen on an Irish Sea ferry.
Covering for the St Columba’s annual overhaul in April 1989 was the Saint Eloi. The French-flagged ship was in appalling condition forcing the cancellation of her first round trip to Dún Laoghaire. Having been thoroughly cleaned complaints about her spartan accommodation flooded in and on one passage 16 protesting passengers occupied the Master’s cabin. When the St Columba returned on 27th April there was a collective sigh of relief across the whole route.
In January 1990 a fire broke out aft in the St Columba's engine room on her outward sailing to Holyhead. With the ship disabled one hour off the Welsh coast and with winds reaching gale force, a distress call was sent out by Senior Master Capt John Bakewell. By the time the rescue services arrived the crew had managed to bring the blaze under control. The whole event, during which B&I Line's Leinster stood by, was marked by the absence of panic onboard, and a situation which was potentially extremely negative in fact drew commendations for the manner in which it was handled.