Grime, chips, tea and fresh air. There’s nowt fancy about ferries, and that’s why I love them – The Guardian

On a trip to the Isle of Man, I marvelled once again at the joy of being aboard a boat, which I’d take over flying or the Channel tunnel any time
I love ferries. Give me a ferry over a flight any day of the week, and I’d rather take a ferry than the Channel tunnel every time. All that burrowing along under the sea with no sea to look at: what’s that all about? I need the thrill of the land fading astern and new land coming to the fore. Down below, in the tunnel, it’s rubbish – nothing to look at apart from your watch telling you when the 35-minute crossing is over. Crossing? Even the word sounds wrong for something that goes under the sea rather than over it.
No, ferries are my thing. They’re never scrupulously clean or particularly tidy; they’re too functional for that. And I’ve never been on a ferry that didn’t look as if it had seen better days. But they present themselves as rather pleasingly worn in, rather than worn out. And best of all, they’re never fancy. I’m against fanciness in all things. I know there have been attempts to fancify ferries, or parts of them, with business-class areas and whatnot, but to no avail. They’re never going to feel very exclusive.
I boarded the Douglas ferry last week, the one from Liverpool, alongside another motorcyclist called Tony. As usual, I marvelled at the sight and smell of the grime on the car deck. Ferries, like garden centres, doctor’s surgeries and bike shops, have a smell that is all their own. Upstairs, the scent mingles in your nostrils with notes of chips, tea, beer, cleaning fluids and fresh sea air. The voyage can begin.
My new friend Tony kindly invited me to be his guest in the business lounge. Knowing the Isle of Man is home to a tax-efficient high roller or two, I was half expecting fine champagne, ingenious canapés or even a hot tub. But, this being a ferry, there was no such thing, and I was only too happy to partake of Tony’s company, complimentary triangles of quartered sandwiches and little bowls of crisps.
No, there’s nowt fancy on ferries. They are classless places, for all sorts. This is something you can take in at your leisure, as ships are the only mode of transit I can think of on which you can take a proper stroll. There’s always the same mixed crowd: retirees spending the kids’ inheritance on meticulously planned road trips; worn out young families on budget holidays; the regulars, such as truck drivers, plying their trades; and booze cruisers on the lash, whatever the time or the weather. And, whatever the weather, there is always someone being – or at least looking – ill. All human life is here, and it feels like we’re all in the same boat, as well as on the same boat. All in the same boat, that is, unless you’re sailing with P&O Ferries (which doesn’t operate this route), in which case the crew members might well be paid a good deal less than the least well-paid person on the passenger list.
Suddenly, without warning, the ship shudders and slows and the spell is broken. The voyage is over. People stand up, gather their things and stride purposely away. Everyone seems to have more of an idea of what to do than me. To be honest, this is what my life feels like most of the time. I’m all fingers and thumbs and mislaid things, with not a clue about the best way to get to my motorbike on the grimy deck.
Eventually I find it, climb aboard and join the queue rattling down the ramp as we all head off to get on with the rest of our lives.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist