The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - August 11, 2016

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Earlier this week I went on a ferry for the first time since 1987. Embarking on another holiday – I’m rivalling Judith Chalmers this summer – Mrs Canavan and I drove to Stranraer to catch the boat to Belfast, en route to our final destination of Donegal (where, incidentally, we spent a week watching the rain hammer against the window of our rented cottage, while playing Scrabble and pretending we were having a good time).

The ferry trip was very different to my previous experience in the 1980s.

Back then, when I was a young nipper with my family, we sailed from Plymouth to France on a boat that had around 35 chairs for the 250 passengers on board and no amenities other than a vending machine containing Mars Bars and some crisps – plain – that had gone out of date the previous April. We were on the boat for eight hours and my lasting memory is of not being able to use any of the sinks in the toilet because each was full of vomit. It was a lovely trip.

But, by gum, ferries these days are very different.

For starters the one we went on had a jolly exciting name, The SuperSpeed 7, or something, which conjured up images of being securely strapped into a seat and perhaps having to sign a consent form or two before hurtling across the waves at eye-watering, breakneck speed. It was something of a slight disappointment therefore, when it limped out of the harbour like a pensioner with a torn hamstring.

Inside it was luxurious, less ferry, more cruise liner, and had all sorts of attractions on various floors.

On level 10, for example (which you could reach by a lift no less), was a doorway with a sign upon it saying ‘Nordic Aqua Spa’. Sat at the reception desk was a young-looking Scottish girl, leafing through the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.

I asked her what a Nordic Aqua Spa was.

Initially she seemed slightly annoyed I’d interrupted her – mainly because she was halfway through a fascinating article about why Benedict Cumberbatch refuses to eat dairy products after noon – but then, possibly because I was the first customer she’d ever had (I mean who in their right mind would have a spa session on a two-hour ferry?), she got very chatty and explained what services were available.

These included ‘a wee head massage’ (the mind boggles), a sauna and a jacuzzi. Unfortunately I’d left my Speedos in the car so reluctantly declined and continued my exploration.

On level seven were three restaurants – including one solely for truckers which I was actually asked to leave by a member of staff (the first time, I can safely say, I’ve been thrown out of an establishment for not driving a HGV) – while on the top floor I stumbled upon The Sun Terrace, which sounded splendid but was perhaps ambitious for a ferry which departs from Scotland.

Perched on a bench in an area wide open to the elements, I sat shivering for three minutes in the bitter, biting wind before retreating inside when I realised my nose and ears had started to turn a strange off-blue colour and I was bearing an uncanny resemblance to Captain Scott in his final moments.

There was also a casino, a kiddies playground, a photo booth, a coffee house and a cinema – and that was only the half of the boat I had time to explore.

I’m already looking forward to the return journey – there’s more to do on the boat than there is in the whole of Donegal.

My sister’s much better than a new sat nav

As ever, my ferry trip didn’t pass without a spot of drama.

I recently purchased a new car, which has a very fancy sat nav built into the dashboard. I confidently typed ‘Stranraer’ as my destination and began to follow the directions.

My sister, who’d done the journey before, told me it was simple – after leaving the M6 all I had to do was stay on the A75. The sat nav, however, took me a different way and, trustingly, I followed.

It took me on a road that started out as a dual carriageway but then, within a few miles, turned into the kind of boggy single-track dirt road that even a reckless farmer on a heavy-duty tractor might dismiss as too uneven and turn back. However, I persevered, got past the worst and then, about 20 miles from Stranraer, saw a sign in the distance saying ROAD CLOSED.

There was a workman standing by it. “Hi there,” I said. “I’m not from round here but I’m heading to Stranraer to catch the ferry.”

He grimaced and shook his head, as if I’d told him a close family member had just died: “Only way is to go back the way you’ve come, head south 40 miles, and join the A75.”

I confess that at this point I may have uttered an expletive.

The upshot is that I spent the next two hours driving like Stirling Moss in his prime and arrived at the ferry terminal at 11.06, six minutes after check-in had closed for the half-past 11 ferry.

Fortunately, the two staff members in the throes of shutting the gate were very understanding and let me through.

A close shave if ever there was one and a lesson that maps – and your sister’s advice – will always trump technology.