By NEIL SEARS
Massive: The new £157million boat, Spirit of Britain, berths into Dover for the first time and dwarfs the old ship, Pride of Calais
Dover today played host to the largest passenger ferry that the Calais route has ever seen.
P&O's new Spirit of Britain made its sister ships small when it took to the waters off the Kent coast for the first time.
At 700 feet long and almost 100 feet wide, it is as big as a ferry can be for current port restrictions and can carry more than 1,000 cars as well as 2,000 passengers.
Huge capacity: The boat can carry 2,000 passengers and 1,000 cars
The older model - represented in our photograph by the Pride of Calais in the foreground - was just 500 feet long, 90 wide, and has space for only 550 cars.
As the new ship, built at a cost of £157million, has three vehicle decks instead of two, its increase in freight capacity is even more impressive. It can take up to 180 articulated lorries at once, compared to just 85 on the old ship.
Riding high: Experts predicted the end of the ferry in 1994 when Eurotunnel was opened, but this proves that people still love the mode of transport
And the creation of the new ship for P&O Ferries is a graphic demonstration of how this oldest of modes of transport to the continent has survived and flourished in spite of fierce competition.
Disaster was predicted for the ferries when the tunnel from Folkestone to France opened in 1994, offering a quick and seamless rail trip under the Channel. Then increasingly cheap air fares arrived, and the seafarers faced battle on a second front.
Smart: The interior of the huge boat is smartly decked out and the Dover-Calais trip will cost as little as £30 per person
And the bonus for consumers is that with so much competition, prices to cross the Channel remain much lower than in previous decades - as little as £30 per person, with the fare for the car included.
P&O currently has six ferries plying the Dover-Calais route.
A spokesman for the company, Brian Rees, said today: 'In the 1990s there were predictions that every ferry service on the south coast would close - but it never happened.
Ready and waiting: If cars were to line up nose to tail there would be 2.33 miles worth of space for parking in all
Big appetite: The canteen of the Spirit of Britain caters to the masses - the ship can hold 180 articulated lorries, which is a lot of hungry truckers
'There's a bit of romance about getting on the ferry. It's part and parcel of your holiday. You can change your money and do a bit of shopping.
'The tunnel is ruthlessly efficient, but you need to break your journey somewhere anyway and have a bit to eat if you're driving to most places on the continent.
'And there's a whole new market for us at the moment because of the stress and hassle of flying.
'In contrast, you can load up your car with the kids and their toys, turn up at Dover half an hour before departure, and off you go.'
popular: Millions of passengers continue to the take to the seas at the beginning and end of their continental holidays, while container lorries in their thousands queue up to go aboard
Mr Rees added: 'The amount of freight has grown enormously over the last 25 years - most of it going by sea.
'The volume going by ferry now is phenomenal. It used to be a quarter of our business, now it's half, in spite of the recession.'
Mr Rees added that changing family sizes and travel patterns meant the number of passengers catered for on the new ferry remained the same as on the old - 2,000 - but with many more spaces for cars needed.
'When the Pride of Calais was built, cars going on board would have contained families of four or five, he said. 'Now it's much more often families of two or three, along with lots of single people and couples. It's vehicle space we need.'
While the Spirit of Britain, built in Finland, is a record for the Dover-Calais route, there are larger passenger ships on the seas, some notable cruise liners in particular.
But for the Continental route, the size of the ferry was limited not only by the size of the ports, but also by the need for the ship to be able to turn around within 45 minutes, unaided.
The largest ocean-going ships might take half a day to turn around, and need the assistance of tugs.
source: dailymail [endtext]