Remembering Cowes Express

This is quoted from someone called Guy, posting on the Ships Nostalgia website here.  It outlines the situation from someone’s experiences working at Cowes Express.  Cowes Express were a short-lived Red Funnel competitor in the early 1990s.

I remember approaching the OFT and the Monopolies and mergers commission back in late 1991, to try to prevent ABP from shutting us out of the port of Southampton (where they were the landlords)

We had, in a short period of time(and despite overcoming many technical and cash flow difficulties) finally taken over 50% of foot passenger traffic from ABPs in-house ferry company Red Funnel on the Cowes to Southampton route.

This was in early 1992 , just before our annual season tickets went on sale and hence the real prospect of a large cash input- I arrived for my duty aboard Wight King at Town Quay just as admiralty court officials were “nailing a writ to the mast” -actually sticking an arrest order with sticky tape to the GRP radar mast.

Basically ABP were claiming unpaid landing dues for the use of their terminal at Town Quay. We had to share this berth with the Hythe Ferry who made more trips per day than us. I do not have the exact figures ,but Hythe Ferries had to pay in the order of £15,000 pa and Cowes Express (who just happened to be competitors of Red Funnel) had to pay approx £500,000 per year!! We had decided to withhold full payment of these landing dues pending legal review and had been corresponding with APBs legal department for some time.

Anyway we managed to lift the arrest and resume service within about 48 hours but the damage to our credibility had been done. Some may say that this was the last nail in the coffin due to a fundamentally flawed management but I always felt we could have survived – especially with the incredible support of employees, many of whom (myself included) continued working without pay to try to save the company!

Now without the hoped for cash input from the sale of season tickets, we struggled with cash flow trying to buy bunkers and spare parts and pay salaries while our directors tried to set up new finances. Sadly in Spring 1992 the service stopped for the last time and Red funnel could resume their monopoly on the Cowes – Southampton route again.

Around 2 years later the OFT produced their report (instigated at our request) highlighting the unfair practices and naming Cowes Express- but it was all too little too late.

I have nothing against the good people of Red Funnel especially those serving aboard- but however modern and sophisticated they may be now- try to remember back to 1989 when the last high speed ferry left Cowes at 1900 and you were lucky to get more than 1 car ferry after that and the state of the art technology were 1960s vintage hydrofoils that did not operate when visibility was less than a quarter of a mile or at busy times during Cowes week.

I must not look back with bitterness- because Cowes Express was one of the best companies I ever worked for in all aspects- its just a shame that we couldn’t stand up to big business interests.

I would be happy to hear more from anyone who remembers or was part of Cowes Express and apologies if some of my memories have suffered with the passing of time- but the essence of the tale is 100% correct and valid.

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