The selection of watercraft used over the years has been a lot more stable than that of the bus scene over the past 7 years, although that is most certainly not to say that standards haven't been improved. We shall start this looking first towards the boats that have covered the service due to breakdowns over the past 7 years, which have remarkably been very few and far between in retrospect.
Firstly, the Plymouth Sound. This fine vessel has only very recently left the fleet after many loyal years of services, outliving its younger sister, the Plymouth Sound 2. Quite obviously Plymouth Sound is much bigger than the standard ferry used on the service, the Northern Belle, and hence at high tide, cannot moor at the usual Plymouth terminus at Admirals Hard, and therefore docks instead in the Royal William Yard. A pleasurable boat to ride on for a change, but surprisingly, not as comfortable as the Northern Belle, and of course, less convenient.
The boat more commonly used as the stand in vessel in times of need was the Silver Crest. A much smaller boat, this was more suited to the task when she was required. Again nice to have for a change, but not a boat you'd want to have on the service all the time, due to smaller capacity.
The infamous Tamar Belle gets used each winter when the Northern Belle is sent away for her annual refit, and therefore I've got to know this boat very well. Yes it was all too easy to get excited with its open top deck and Union Jack decals, but very soon the novelty wears off, and you realise that the seats are shockingly uncomfortable, and that the open stern allows the freezing cold winter air into the cabin, and soon its not so much fun. Couple this with the racket that ensued when she was re-engined with a Ford power unit in 2007, and the story gets even worse.
Thankfully though, what Tamar Belle made you realise was what a wonderful boat the grand old lady of 86 years of age, the Northern Belle, really is. The elation that sweeps over every regular traveler when the Northern Belle returns from her annual refit is simply brilliant. There is no better boat for the job, and quite possibly never will be thanks to new regulations in boat building. The Northern Belle, sitting low in the water, was far more stable than the Tamar Belle, and hence was able to battle through harsh weather far more capably, meaning the service could run more consistently and definitely. The seating, when I started was 3 piece wooden benches, then 1 piece wooden benches, and now we have the luxury of leather seating. Even better, after the 2010 re-fit, the final blemish of the Northern was overcome, she was fitted with a rear door, and HEATING! Quite frankly, in harsher months it was colder on the Northern Belle than it was outside, thanks to it of course radiating the cold through the hull from the Tamar, but now with heat bellowing through, what more could you want! Lets not forget of course her beating heart, one of the best engines ever created, the Gardner 6LXB. During the FDC era, my whole journey to school was 6LXB powered, with of course the VRs and Leyland Olympians being powered with a Gardner 6LXB, and then stepping onto the Northern, powered in the same way, you always knew it would get you there - economically to!
The look of amazement when you were able to tell people that you traveled to school on a ferry was really quite exciting. Even today, people are still shocked that I commute across water, to reach school in another county, and although the novelty of commuting in such an unusual fashion does unfortunately, eventually, wear thin, the reaction of others most certainly does not. Undoubtedly this will be a case of you don't realise what you've got until its gone. I've had some brilliant times on the Northern Belle, and the Tamar Belle for that matter. Being able to float, gently across a beautiful river, in the shadow of the Royal William Yard, looking out to Drake's Island and into Plymouth Sound will unquestionably be missed, how could you possibly ask for a more pleasurable everyday journey.
Climbing Duck Steps in Cawsand, to wait for the bus, looking out to the Mew Stone and the breakwater, when at 07:42, a Bristol VR rounds Cawsand Fort, boarding, taking my favorite top deck front seat, the VR departs, and winds its way to Fourlanesend, passing by my old place of education, Fourlanesend Primary School. We can then look out over Millbrook and out to Dartmoor, and at surrounding farmland. The VR then winds its way down through Millbrook, with exhaust note echoing loudly against the walls of Pete's Garage. Through Anderton we tackle some very narrow roads and tight corners, with the nearside dome knocking against trees, we navigate round Millbrook Lake and the estuary. The VR then struggles to climb once again as we head towards the junction to turn for Cremyll, once passed this point we can now gaze over the Tamar, looking right out to the Royal Albert Bridge, and Tamar Bridge, looking right over the whole of Plymouth. The VR swings itself into Cremyll, and its then just a short wait before the Northern Belle docks. We cross peacefully in the wake of the Royal William Yard and dock into Admiral's Hard. A 20 minute walk follows, not quite so beautiful, walking up through Stonehouse and past the Citroen Garage, a place that's been surprisingly interesting to walk past over the years, seeing all the latest models as soon as they arrive. We then track down past the howling coming from the PDSA, usually with various raging dogs outside as well chomping at the bit to chase after you, we pass by Princess Yachts, in which we can smell some surprisingly satisfying composites, as we then cross and walk through the Devonport playing fields, and then enter through the Watergate once more, to start another day at DHSB. What a satisfying way to get to school, day in, day out. Another element of going to DHSB I will sorely miss...