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The Realm of Vortigern
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Vortigern the Ferry
Robert Vermaat
 

As a historian, I sure do appreciate the irony of history, and I simply love it when history repeats itself. The following story contains both elements, a sure treat!

MS Vortigern in her earlier BR livery, without the Sealink colors.
MS Vortigern in her earlier BR livery, without the Sealink colors. Click the image to enlarge.

Name
It happened at the beginning of the eighties. The Vortigern was one of the 3 British-flagged ferries that sailed for Sealink to Oostende from Folkestone and Dover Western. The other two were named the Hengist and the Horsa. Lovely, or what? In a private correspondence, Matthew Murtland told me the reason for the names:

"The use of the name "Vortigern" was a choice made by the ship's original owners, the British Railways Board (the BRB), when she was built in 1969. Shipping companies usually have generic naming policies for their fleets, and the BRB in the 1960s decided to standardize the variety of naming styles previously used by the former regional railways. The theme they settled on was the names of people and places connected with the so-called "Dark Ages". They also tied these in with the areas that the ships would serve. Hence the Hengist, Horsa and Vortigern operated from Dover and Folkestone in Kent, whilst the Senlac, which operated from Newhaven in Sussex, acquired the name of the hill of the Battle of Hastings. This naming policy lasted across the BRB/Sealink UK fleet until the mid-1970s, with names such as Caedmon, Cenred, Cenwulf, Cuthred, Darnia, Earl Godwin, Earl Harold, Earl William and Avalon appearing on new ships until the company then reverted to the names of Saints for their new vessels."

Frankly though, I am convinced the person or persons responsible for choosing the names could not in their wildest dreams imagine what would happen, on some day before the port of Oostende.

MS Vortigern in rough seas.
MS Vortigern in her Sealink colors. Click the image to enlarge.

MS Vortigern
First though, something about the ship itself. Built 1969 as the British Rail train/vehicle ferry for Dover and Folkestone, Vortigern usually sailed as train ferry in winter (to Dunkerque), and car ferry in Summer. Later she became more associated with Folkestone-Boulogne, but sailed to Oostende as well.

The Vortigern was something of an odd thing, with railway lines on her main deck. As a car ferry the Vortigern was nothing special in terms of passenger or vehicle decks. The Vortigern had a single central car deck casing, unlike the seemingly unique arrangement of her long-time running partners, Hengist and Horsa, with their twin funnel casings. However, Vortigern was designed with the additional capability to carry railway wagons and coaches for use as a train ferry, usually during the winter quiet season, and the combination of these with train-carrying abilities was a first. Vortigern was supposed to be the first of a flotilla of Sealink ships with this 'multi purpose' role, but in the event only the three were built. All other ships did not have any capacity or provision for the carriage of railway wagons or carriages. The Vortigern, Chartres and Saint Eloi represented the ultimate evolution of the British concept of this type of ship. However, although this had not been part of their original plan when she was built, she became almost exclusively a car ferry, with her aft upper deck garage (for the carriage of cars when in use as a train ferry) converted to another passenger lounge. This involved significantly stronger hull construction for the greater weight that these loads involved, and this was important in the incident below.

As the last purpose-built British train ferry, however, the Vortigern can claim a small slice of history. Not unlike her name-giver, I'd say. It was not the invading Saxons, but the Channel Tunnel, though not ready for years after her withdrawal, that cast a dark enough shadow over her career. And like the ill-fated king, she came up against Hengist, one whose faith seemed as likely intertwined on the seas as in history.

The Oostende Incident
Now to the incident. It happened early in the morning (5.42am to be precise!) on the 4th March 1982. The Vortigern was sailing to Oostende, when she came to grief with her partner on the line. She had to wait for the Hengist leaving the port but instead of waiting at the binnenstroombank (which is the waiting area just in front of the port) she slowly sailed towards the entrance. It is unclear why - was the captain too much in a hurry to offload his passengers? The Oostende port control saw that the Vortigern was getting too close so they ordered the ferry to go back to the buitenstroombank. But it was already too late. The captain reacted too slowly and due to a strong current he stranded on the breakwater next to the port entrance. The passengers on-board had to disembark using the lifeboats. After having waited for 4 days for a very high tide she eventually was freed from her ignominous position upon the breakwater. It is believed that the stresses lying with the bows in the air would have caused on the ship's hull would have seen most ships break their backs. As it was, the Vortigern's strengthened hull for train ferry service meant that she was able to survive. Nonetheless, repairs took nearly two months and cost over 1m.

Her bow rising from the surf, the Vortigern has to await help.

The Vortigern, stranded for 4 days on the breakwater before the Belgian port of Oostende.

Click on the images to enlarge.

A Belgian Rescue helicopter hovers over the stranded Vortigern

Now what does that remind you of? No website about the Vortigern noticed the irony of it, but that still seems clear: again, Vortigern pulled the short straw when confronted by Hengist! And because of a self-inflicted lack of judgement at that.. Fortunately, the incident did not mean the end for the Vortigern. The Hengist, however, had a couple more notable incidents in her Sealink career. In April 1987, not long after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, she sank a French trawler as she swang upon departure from Boulogne. Three members of the trawler crew were killed. Six months later, on the night of the 'Great Storm' that hit southern England, the Hengist was forced to put to sea where the waves almost capsized her. Losing electrical power, the ship drifted helplessly onto the beach where she was badly damaged and holed. She remained beached for nearly a week, and repairs took well into the next January to complete.

MS Vortigern during the mid-1980s in her later Sealink colors.
MS Vortigern during the mid-1980s in her later Sealink colors. Click the image to enlarge.

In 1988, the Vortigern was sold to Lindos Lines in Greece as the Milos Express. In late 1999, the operation was acquired by the new Hellas Ferries, the name being adjusted to Express Milos. In September of 2004, her active life ended as the 35-year rule caught up with her. A sale to turkey did not take shape and she was sold for scrapping to India in October 2004.

Vortigern as she is today, named the Express Milos.
Vortigern as she is today, named the Express Milos. Click the image to enlarge.

Hengist remained on the Dover Strait, in later years specifically on Folkestone-Boulogne, right until the bitter end. With her route closed at the end of 1991, there was little prospect of further use within the Sealink Stena group, and whilst relief work at Holyhead, Fishguard and Stranraer followed, the inevitable sale to Greece eventually happened. Her new owners, GA Ferries, were another branch of the Agoudimos family that had bought sister Horsa. Service with them, as the Romilda, was not to last long and sale to Ventouris followed, the ship becoming Express Apollo 2. Ventouris bankruptcy saw the ship laid up for 1996 until becoming Agapitos Lines' Panagia Ekatontapyliani where she remained until 1999. Then, the Hellas Ferries takeover (when the former Hengist was further renamed Express Artemis), meant that Hengist, Horsa and Vortigern were reunited again..

Ships' Details

Name:
Built:
Dimensions:
Brt/ Nrt/ Dwt:
Machines:
Speed:
Capacity:
Rail:
MS Vortigern.
1969 at Swan Hunter ship yard, England.
114,61 x 19,23 x 4,1 m.
4,797/ 2,144/ 908.
Twin 16-cyl, Crossley-Pielstick diesel., 14,300 bhp.
19,5. knots
1000 passengers, 48 huts
4 tracks, total 366 meters.

Ship's History

Delivered 1st of juli 1968 to British Rail, (Sealink), London, England.
31 july 1969: Start on the route Dover - Boulogne. In winter on the route Dover - Dunkerque.
18 july 1984: Sold by Sealink U.K. to Sea Containers Ltd, Bermuda. The company changed its name to Sealink British Ferries U.K.
1986: On the route Fishguard - Rosslare.
1988: Sold off to Lindos Line, Pireus, Greece. Changed name to Milos Express.
December 1999: Sold to Minoan Flying Dolphins, Pireus, Greece.
January 2000: Changed name to Express Milos, Hellas Ferries.
October 2004: Decommissioned because of the 35-year rule and sold for scrap to India.

Plan of the Vortigern

These deck plans come from the Folkestone-Boulogne guide that you used to get on board, this one either 1984 or possibly 1985.

Click on the images to enlarge.

I would like to thank Matthew Murtland for his time in answering my questions and providing great detail, and Ron and his brother for the pictures, and the Port of Oostende for permission to use them.

B&W images Ron V.L.2000 All rights reserved. Do NOT copy without permission.

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved