Home again 'cross the sea
I am sailing, stormy waters
To be near you, to be free
As a certain band will tell you, British Sea Power was the foundational pillar of the British Empire. And, as the great, great Rod Stewart will tell you, nautical themes still have deep resonance in the British psyche even if its days as a naval power are long gone. The touching song excerpted above, Sailing, is regarded by many as an alternative national anthem of the United Kingdom.
I am 100% certain that you've heard of the now-infamous flight cancellations across much of Europe due to Icelandic volcanic explosions. That event in itself is an interesting commentary on how Mother Nature can disrupt commerce as already unprofitable carriers lose money hand over fist due to flight cancellations. There is even talk of American-style bailouts to help them recover from this situation which may continue indefinitely depending on the cooperation of certain Icelandic volcanoes. At the same time, the British nation wants to get home after doing business or holidaying on the Continent.
And so Prime Minister Gordon Brown has sent not just the HMS Albion previously en route to repatriate British troops from Afghanistan but two more vessels to help with rescue efforts. The flagship vessel HMS Ark Royal has been despatched, as has the largest warship, HMS Ocean. It may not be sending the troops off to show the foreigners who's boss in the Falklands, but it draws on the same sentiment of, well, sailing home (eventually) to evoke strong political imagery. Whoever said jingoism is dead?
Or maybe not. the Times of London reports on bellyaching, particularly from ferry companies, that this gesture was more token than effective:
It was dubbed “Gordon’s Armada” but the two Royal Navy warships ordered by the Prime Minister to evacuate holidaymakers from northern France ran into controversy last night. Thousands of stranded airline passengers began making their way to the Channel ports after Gordon Brown announced that HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean were being sent to rescue them. But last night the ships had still not docked as ferry companies condemned the operation as a “gesture” and insisted that there was no need for the Navy to get involved. The British Ambassador to Paris, Sir Peter Westmacott, described the plan as simply an “option” and said that those who reached Calais were sure of a ferry crossing after a short wait.In the meantime, my boss Professor Michael Cox is stranded in Paris. As he's baulked at being bilked by Eurostar charging exorbitant prices for a return trip, he's decided to stay there for now. Don't worry boss, the Queen's Navee will soon be upon yonder shores. Whether a trip on board an aircraft carrier suits you, I don't know! To be with you; to be free.
Ferry companies said that the warships would be better deployed to Spain, which is to be the hub of the effort to repatriate British tourists from around the world. HMS Albion was expected to arrive in Santander, northern Spain, this morning to collect about 300 servicemen and women who have been in Afghanistan. It might also carry some civilians.
Admiral Lord West of Spithead, the Security Minister, first suggested the Navy’s involvement after an emergency meeting at Downing Street on Sunday. Details were announced by the Prime Minister yesterday morning after a meeting of the Cobra emergency planning committee.
Mr Brown said the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the helicopter carrier Ocean would operate from the Channel ports. “I expect Ocean to be in the Channel today. I expect the Ark Royal to be moving towards the Channel later,” he said. Experts estimated that the Ark Royal could carry about 1,000 civilian passengers on each sailing and Ocean up to 2,000. With crossings taking approximately three hours and a further hour each end for boarding and disembarking, the ships could manage three crossings a day. This would equate to 9,000 of the 150,000 passengers being rescued daily.
Ministry of Defence commanders and civilian staff yesterday struggled to organise the first big civilian evacuation since Lebanon in 2006. South Coast ports, including the cruise ship terminal at Southampton, were asked if they could handle the warships.
Tim Fish, a maritime analyst at Jane’s Information Group, questioned the wisdom of using the warships. He said: “They are very large platforms but it does sound odd to use them as ferries. They are not comfortable by any means. They are not ferries so they will take longer to load and unload in port but they have a large enough capacity to get thousands of people on board for a quick trip across the Channel.”
Cross-Channel ferry companies also said they were coping with the additional passengers and had “plenty of spaces” to get holidaymakers home. William Gibbons, director of the Passenger Shipping Association, said: “I don’t think there is any shortage of capacity. I don’t think the navy ships will be of any use at the French Channel ports. This all seems to have been done rather hastily. We were not consulted. The Channel ports are no busier than on a typical summer’s day.”
Chris Jones, spokesman for Brittany Ferries, said: “We have plenty of spaces.” P&O Ferries said it had seen more than ten times as many daily bookings as are usual for this time of year. But the company has accommodated everyone wanting to travel from Calais to Dover. A spokesman said: “It might sound attractive to get in an aircraft carrier to take 1,000 people at a time, but we can carry five times that capacity. “The lion’s share of the repatriation will be done by professional ferry companies working all along the French coast, not by a well-meaning gesture from the Royal Navy.”