Ferries and Cruises

In 1969 I visited Norway with my cousin and three friends. We went in my car and stayed in youth hostels. We had a great time.

In 1973 I went again, with two friends. We hitch-hiked and camped. We had a great time.

We heard about Hurtigruten, a ferry service that plies up and down the Norwegian coast, all the way from Bergen to Kirkenes, calling at many towns, large and small, all the way. We’d seen bits and pieces of the Norwegian coast, and been on a few short ferry crossings. We knew what wonderful views one gets from such ferries, and I’d had a good look at the map and knew that Hurtigruten would spend most of its time close enough to the coast to get stunning views.

I’ve been dreaming of a Hurtigruten trip even since. Well, I retired in 2007. In 2008 I finally realized my dream. It was a wonderful holiday. Three of us travelled together. We flew from Stansted to Tromsø on August 16th, then boarded Finnmarken in which we sailed (well, dieseled really) from Tromsø to Kirkenes, then back past Tromsø to Bergen. We spent an afternoon, a night, and a morning in Bergen, then flew back to Stansted on the 24th.

I took loads of photographs. The main purpose of the photographs is to help us remember our holiday – not the other way around! But some of the photographs are here.

That’s the background to this piece. But to get to the core of what I’m writing about: Hurtigruten isn’t like any ordinary ferry service. From its inception in 1893 it was envisaged as not only a service carrying people, mail, and goods from one local town to another, but also a tourist attraction. From the start, wealthy tourists had cabins, and were served good food in the dining room.

Hurtigruten ships have always been part ferry, part cruise liner in fact. The balance between the two has shifted over the years – quite noticeably in the four decades I’ve been conscious of Hurtigruten’s existence, I think (although obviously my knowledge of the service was much less until I actually travelled on it). Talking to Norwegians in small towns, it seems that there is some concern that Hurtigruten will become even more cruise liner and less ferry in the near future, possibly giving up calling at the smaller ports altogether.

Before this holiday, I was definitely thinking in terms of being on a coastal ferry that took me on a fantastic trip, rather than being on a cruise liner. But the fact is, I’ve been on a cruise on a cruise liner. It was a fantastic trip, the trip of a lifetime, and there were elements of the coastal ferry about it – but far more of the cruise.

Simply viewed as a hotel, it was far and away the most sumptuous hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and thought of in those terms it was very reasonably priced – with the trip of a lifetime thrown in. But I’m not really a sumptuous hotel kind of person. It was certainly very comfortable, and we were certainly very well fed. But normally I’m happy to be comfortable enough and well enough fed, and to save my money for something else. If they can make a profit treating folk like that at that price, couldn’t they make even more profit treating twice the number of people half as well for 60% of the price? But they’ve probably got their business model pretty well worked out – they’ve been running the service for 115 years.

We were in almost the cheapest cabins, very much the most numerous sort. There are a few a little cheaper, inside cabins without windows or portholes. And there are various more expensive cabins and suites. If you’re only travelling a short distance, you can travel without a cabin, but you can’t get a ticket for a long trip without a cabin. There weren’t many short hop passengers. Most of the passengers were on a cruise.

There weren’t many local passengers, but we delivered a lot of goods at many of the ports, fork lift trucks scurrying in and out of the cargo deck with pallets of stuff for the local supermarket or builders’ merchant. The service is clearly still important in local goods transport. It runs daily in each direction, eleven ships each taking eleven days to do the round trip. (So you meet another Hurtigruten ship twice a day, every day, one around nine in the morning, and one around nine at night. This means, if you do the whole round trip, you see everywhere in daylight in one direction or the other – in summer, anyway.)

Then there’s the issue of carbon footprint. Big ships use less fuel per tonne km than small ships, and big ships are the best transport there is in those terms. For goods transport, assuming your goods aren’t perishable and the extra time taken moving them isn’t an issue, that’s the end of the story. Taking coal or oil or steel or manufactured goods around the world, large ships are the transport of choice. (Fuel consumption per tonne km is also less if the ships go more slowly, which may be acceptable for some goods.)

But it’s not the same for passengers. You can cram passengers into a plane or a bus for a few hours in a way that would be quite unreasonable for days on a ship. A plane weighing 400 tonnes (at take off) might carry 420 passengers and use 140 tonnes of fuel to travel 13,000 km in 14 hours – that’s 77 mpg per passenger (good compared to a car with just the driver, but poor compared to a full car – and very poor compared to a full bus or train). Finnmarken, the ship we travelled in, weighs 15,000 tonnes (gross) and carries 1,000 passengers, and does about 42 mpg* per passenger. That’s taking no account of any goods carried – but I don’t think that’s a large part of the ship’s budget, either in financial terms or in tonnage. The cargo deck has about 1/8 the volume of the passenger accommodation.

Our trip involved flying 2,000 miles and travelling 2,150 miles in Finnmarken. So all in all, our holiday of a lifetime for three had a carbon footprint comparable to half a typical annual mileage in one car.

*Equivalent – it uses Heavy Fuel Oil, which is denser than petrol, diesel, or aviation fuel