Home Alone on the Isle of Man

SOK and I arrived safely on the Isle of Man on Monday afternoon, but without Mark. It’s the first time I’ve been “Home Alone” in SOK, but I’ve muddled through OK ­čśë

Mark should be arriving this evening on an Easyjet flight from Gatwick, having travelled down to Sussex yesterday for his auntie’s funeral. It’s at times like these that you realise how precious life is and how you really do need to make the most of every moment. We couldn’t put our ferry booking to the Isle of Man back (more on ferries later in this post) so the decision was reluctantly taken that I would take SOK over to the Isle of Man as planned and Mark would go down to the funeral without me. Of course, I do feel guilty at not being there, but I don’t think his wonderful auntie would have wanted us to cancel the ferry and have Mark miss out on the TT…. Live while you can…

SOK is well again by the way; we took him up to Marquis in Preston during our two weeks at home. They took the bottom fridge vent off the back of the van, rummaged around, did a lot of testing, and decided that a 20A fuse behind the fridge had gone but that everything seemed OK – so just one of those things.

Who’d have guessed. We didn’t even know that there WAS a 20A fuse hidden away behind the fridge. There’s no mention of it in the instruction book. We’d checked the 30A fridge fuse in the fuse box (innocent fools that we are), not suspecting for a moment that Pedro (as we call the generic bloke in the Benimar factory in Spain) might have pulled a fast one and hidden another fuse somewhere….

Getting back to my journey to the Isle of Man, the ferries are run by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. It’s a monopoly, which means that they have pricing power. Now, the Isle of Man TT is a major event. We’ll have more to say about the event itself in due course, but for now, let’s just say that demand for ferry crossings at this time of year is huge, and Steam Packet inflate their prices accordingly.

Normally, bookings for the summer season open sometime in October of the previous year (I booked SOK’s ticket for this trip in October 2017), but Steam Packet put special arrangements in place for the TT, releasing a TT schedule for the 2-3 week period around the event and taking bookings / deposits a year in advance. It does all sell out way in advance too.

For example, this year, the TT runs for two weeks from this Saturday (the first week being for practice and the second week for the actual racing). The 2018 TT sailing schedule starts today (Wednesday) and runs until the day after the final race i.e. it covers the period in which most visitors for the TT are going to need to travel. Here’s the rub: prices during that period are extortionate. There’s a reason you’ll often hear Steam-Packet referred to as Steam-Racket!

Last time we came over for the TT (in 2016), Mark was still working. I brought Kampington (our previous motorhome) over a couple of days before the start of the TT pricing and took him back just after it ended; a return ticket cost ┬ú250. Mark came over to join me during the TT pricing period and paid the same amount – for a motorbike. There’s a slight difference in size between a motorhome and a motorbike! So the moral of the story is: if at all possible, travel outside the TT pricing dates.

The check-in at Liverpool was fun. Steam Packet’s current terminal is at the Pier Head, which is right in the city centre, next to the landmark Liver Building. Traffic this time around was fine but last time I spent a good half an hour stuck in traffic within sight of the Liver Building. Luckily I had left plenty of time for the journey.

Steam Packet have a tiny postage stamp of land at the Pier Head, which does make catching a ferry a bit of a palaver. It’s a bit of a motorhome manoevring test…. First up is a narrow entrance lane with kerbs either side, which leads into a 180 degree turn around a very small roundabout. From there you reach two small check-in booths, after which it’s another 180 degree turn and down a steep ramp to a sliver of concrete to park on until loading begins (assuming that, like me, you’re one of the first to arrive. I suspect that by the time check-in finishes, they’re queued up right the way up the ramp and round to the check-in booths).

Somewhat unhelpfully, motorbikes had been parked / abandoned at strange angles┬áright round the perimeter of the small roundabout on Monday, such that even SOK (who is only 6 metres long) had to do a bit of a shuffle to get round. On chatting to one of the staff, I did mention that the roundabout was tight in a van and that the bikes parked round it really didn’t help. Apparently they often have to take “big vans” a different way round the docks to get them in (“ah, but by the time they realise, they’ll be in that narrow entrance lane with vehicles behind them”, I thought). The bikes weren’t Steam Packet’s fault: Monday was the very day that the 2019 TT sailings were to be released, so apparently bikers had been showing up from 5am onwards, abandoning their bikes wherever they could, and queuing up waiting for the office to open. Now there’s dedication / desperation for you!

The bookings for the 2019 TT will no doubt all have gone by the time the 2018 TT finishes so these guys aren’t completely insane if they need to secure specific crossing dates during that expensive but popular TT pricing period: you snooze you lose. I’ve had no trouble getting bookings a day or two either side of the TT window, but then again both times I’ve made a note in my diary and booked straight away in October when those dates are released.

There is talk of a brand new terminal at Liverpool on a site half a mile upriver. That would be a vast improvement on the current arrangements, if it happens.

There was, needless to say, a bit of a problem with our booking on check-in: our booking was for two adults and a van. SOK had shown up missing an adult. I explained about the funeral and that Mark WOULD still be there for the second leg of our ticket across to Ireland. Hmmmm. There were lots of very pleasant staff standing around in high-vis jackets, but unfortunately none of them knew which button to press on the computer to take Mark off Monday’s crossing without cancelling him off the later one as well. In retrospect, I could have solved the problem more quickly by accosting a random passing pedestrian and persuading him to become an ersatz Mark for the ten minutes or so it’d take to accompany SOK through check-in (no ID was requested so any male would have done). Eventually, instructions were received and a button was pressed. They think it’ll all be OK, but I’ve emailed Steam Packet reservations to check (no point trying to ring them: apparently all the ‘phone lines went down on Monday, unable to cope with the deluge of callers trying to get through and book for 2019; I don’t fancy my chances of getting through by ‘phone any time soon).

The crossing itself was smooth on the Manannan, a 96m catamaran which takes 2 hours 45 minutes to cross from Liverpool to Douglas on the Isle of Man. Steam Packet also operate the Ben-my-Chree, which is a 125m traditional ferry and is MUCH slower. “Ben my Chree” means “girl of my heart” in Manx and is a name that has been carried by a succession of Steam Packet ships, the first an iron paddle-steamer built in 1845. Manannan is a sea god known to Celtic peoples around the Irish Sea and associated with the Isle of Man. There’s a fabulous museum in Peel that I definitely want to revisit this trip that has plenty of information about Manannan in it, so we’ll come back to him at a later date.

On arrival, I drove straight up to Ramsey. One thing I noticed is that there are no bikes around – yet . Give it a couple of days and those ferries will be fully laden with bikes. By this time next week, the place will be transformed. Here’s the very empty Ramsey AFC ground. It’ll be packed full of tents before long:

My main task in Ramsey on Monday afternoon was to nip into the town hall for a motorhome parking permit. For the princely sum of ┬ú20, we can spend 3 nights in any 7 at Mooragh Park down on the front (for the whole summer; this isn’t just a TT thing). It has fresh water and emptying facilities and is a short walk from the town centre.┬áThere’s nothing not to like┬á­čśÇ

Ooh I do like to be beside the seeeeeaside…. ooh I do like to be beside the seeeeeaaaa….┬á (as a point of reference, you can see the same white building in both photos, above and below)

SOK’s got a nice spot at the far end, which is closest to the sea. It’s nice to wake up to the sound of waves on a pebbly beach. I’ve counted 11 vans here so far; there’s room for a plenty more.

So there we have it. SOK and I have arrived on the Isle of Man, Mark will be here this evening, and normal Dossing activities (with┬áthe usual regular blog updates) will recommence first thing tomorrow morning. At last! I know it’s less than three weeks since we arrived home from our last trip, but it feels a lot longer than that. It’s good to get back to normal life again!

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