Harland & Wolff Proposes to Build and Operate Cargo and Passenger Ferries

UK Scilly ferry
Plans seek to replace the Scillonian III which was built in 1977 (Isles of Scilly Steamship Group)

Published Aug 31, 2023 3:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilding group based in Northern Ireland, is proposing to build and operate three ferries to the remote Isles of Scilly archipelago off the southwest coast of England near the entrance to the English Channel. While the ferry service is a vital link for the islands, the plan is not without controversy as it would place them in competition with the long-stand operator and seeks government financing.

The Isles of Scilly Steamship Group has operated the ferry service for over 100 years reporting that its current ferry, Scillonian III (1,255 gross tons) carries over 110,000 passengers a year. It provides an essential service for both islands and the seasonal tourist trade. In addition, the company operates a cargo ship, Gry Maritha (590 gross tons), and an inter-island launch. The company reports that every year 15,000 tonnes of cargo are shipped to and from the Isles of Scilly.

The current operator proposed in 2019 to replace its vessels. The passenger ferry, which was built at what is today Harland & Wolff’s Appledore shipyard, is now 46 years old, while the cargo ship is 42 years old and the inter-island vessel 32 years old. They recognize the vessels are coming to the end of their service life, already suffering from “reliability challenges” and are increasingly costly to maintain and operate.

The Council from the Isles of Scilly submitted a proposal to the UK Government aligned with the National Shipbuilding Strategy. They received a tentative £48 million (approximately $61 million) “leveling-up” grant designed to support the shipbuilding in the UK but over the past nearly two years have been unable to gain the necessary government approval for the business plan. They submitted two proposals which both have been rejected.


Isles of Scilly proposed its new ferry design for the Scillonian IV (Isles of Scilly Steamship Group)


Frustrated by the delays and what they said were changes to the terms of the government grants, the shipping company in April 2023 announced plans to proceed with a privately-funded shipbuilding program valued at £42 million. They proposed a new 236-foot ferry able to carry 600 passengers an increase of 115 from the current Scillonian III. It would have comfortable seating, a coffee shop, and a retail area as well as an improved design including anti-roll fins. The Isle of Scilly Steamship Group said the vessel would provide a more comfortable trip, be faster, and be more economical to operate as well as meet new environmental standards. 

The company also proposed a new 148-foot cargo ship. It would have more space for cargo including chilled and frozen goods, versus the older ship as well as a crane with an eight-tonne lift capacity and a small area for passengers. The inter-island vessel is an aluminum catamaran design. They said discussions were ongoing with several shipyards and said the new ships would enter service by March 2026.

Harland & Wolff says it has been working on its designs for three years and would provide ships that are both economical to operate and designed for the harsh conditions, especially in the winter months. “One of the key differentiating features of the proposed vessels would be the provision of a set of enhanced on-board facilities and amenities rather than simply being a replacement of the existing vessels,” H&W said announcing its plans. 


Harland & Wolff seeks to launch its own service to the Isles of Scilly with a passenger ferry and cargo ship (H&W)


They are saying they could have the two ferries in service to operate between Penzance, England to the Isle of Scilly by the spring of 2025 either running “alongside the incumbent or on a stand-alone basis.” They are proposing an initial five-year operations period with an option for a further five years.

They said they are also already working with local councils and government and would seek to apply for a license to operate the ferry route. In addition, they would support their partners in applying for the allocated leveling-up funding from the government.

Speaking with the BBC, islanders welcomed the news of the possible new ferry service. Local officials however are questioning the economic viability of the plan and if the route could support two competing operators.

This is the latest in a series of steps Harland & Wolff is taking to revitalize its operations. They were part of a winning consortium to build vessels for the Royal Navy and have also reported several refurbishment and dry docking contracts. The yard built and recently delivered their first vessels, barges for the Thames, while they are also expanding the fabrication business and seeking opportunities in sectors such as offshore energy.