Dover to Zeebrugge was the route my parents chose for our first holiday on the Continent. My family always had an urge to travel, but little spare cash to allow it. But a day trip from Ramsgate to Calais on a hovercraft
in 1967 had whetted our appetite and that winter my Dad and I spent a lot of time in the garage building a tent trailer based on the sub-frame from a scrapped Mini. It weighed a ton, worked well and when we finished it to match our white Mini Countryman it looked terrific. The next two summers the family holidays were camping through the Lake District and Scotland, testing our new tent trailer and our willingness to travel. By August 1970 we were ready to cross the Channel for a two week trip.
These were not times of flexible working hours and more vacation time than you can use. My Dad had just a fortnight for his holiday, and was determined to make the most of it. So we left home straight after he finished work on the Friday evening and drove to Dover
for the midnight sailing, arrived in Zeebrugge just after 4
, and hit the road straight away. I remember a much needed snooze break somewhere near the Belgium-Luxembourg border! Crossing at night is not the best for enjoying the view, but it is fun watching the lights of the distant shore getting ever larger and closer, and wondering exactly which dot corresponds to where you are eventually going to dock. But one of the downsides of crossing in a ro-ro ferry is that you always need to be back in your car by the time the boat docks and you can never be on deck to watch your final arrival.
Two weeks later, after having a great time visiting 8 countries we returned to Zeebrugge for the journey home, this time enjoying a daylight crossing which allowed us plenty of time to take in the white cliffs of Dover. These services were operated by Townsend Car Ferries (soon to become Townsend Thoresen), whose boats all had "Free Enterprise" in their names.
17 years later, in 1987, the MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized as it left Zeebrugge harbour bound for Dover resulting in the death of 193 passengers and crew, by far the worst accident of the modern era on the cross-Channel ferries. As so often the accident was caused by a combination of events. The direct reason was that the bow loading doors remained open while the ship was under way allowing water to flood into the vehicle deck and destabilise the vessel. But underlying all this was that the cross-Channel ferries had become a very competitive business, and the operators had been pushing the limits to make their services as efficient as possible. By then I had been living in Canada for 8 years, but the news of the accident still hit hard.