After a career spanning more than 30 years, Italian master mariner Tullio Socchi feels very much at home on the Irish Sea as captain of Stena Lagan, running between Birkenhead and Belfast. As he explained to Russell Plummer, the vessel has undergone three changes of operator since he joined her in 2008.
When did you first go to sea?
In 1978, while I was at Nautical College in my home city Trieste, as part of training, students had the choice of spending some time at sea in either bulk carriers or oil tankers. I chose bulkers and joined Sagittarius, a 26,401gt vessel built in 1963 and then sailing worldwide for Genoa company Sidermar Spa.
What was your first command?
This was the seismic research vessel OGS Explorer, operated by NW Geophysical and surveying for major oil companies, including BP and Shell. We later went to Antarctica for the Italian Government, sailing from New Zealand to the Ross Sea.
How did you come into the ferry industry?
There has been a strong Italian connection with the routes from the Mersey to Belfast with the different operators using a succession of ships built at the Visentini yard in Donada, going back to the days of Norse Merchant Ferries and then Norfolkline. Friends working with them encouraged me to come to Britain in 1997, although it was quite a change from deep-sea journeys to serve on a ferry.
Was it hard to climb the promotional ladder?
Opportunities were limited on the Irish Sea services, so I gave cruise ships a try, working with Renaissance Cruises aboard their small high-quality vessels. The operation relied heavily on Americans coming to Europe, and the market collapsed after the 11 September atrocity in 2001. When Renaissance went out of business, I returned to the Irish Sea and the first Lagan Viking, which later became Liverpool Viking and moved to the Dublin route.
What challenges does the Irish Sea bring?
Like most ferry routes Birkenhead-Belfast can be affected by the weather but in strong north-westerly winds we sail to the east of the Isle of Man, which offers some shelter. Stena Lagan has a good hull design and, with effective weather forecasting, there are not too many problems.
How beneficial was the move to Birkenhead?
I have pilotage for the Mersey, Dublin and Belfast, and obviously all three are different. When we used Brocklebank Dock at Bootle, Liverpool, going through the Langton Lock into the Mersey could be a headache, with tides missed at busy periods and schedules affected. Since the move to the Twelve Quays river berth at Birkenhead in 2002 it has been a lot easier. Belfast is more straightforward and, after arriving at Victoria Terminal 2, discharge of cars is completed in around half an hour.
Do you have the ideal ship for the route?
The vessel I first knew as Lagan Viking for Norfolkline, then Lagan Seaways for DFDS and now Stena Lagan, has proved her worth, and we are often running close to our freight capacity. Passenger levels are also encouraging, with Stena Lagan having the advantage of a dedicated upper deck for cars.
What is your work pattern?
I work four-weeks on/four-weeks off and usually go home to Trieste at the end of each duty period. When I first joined the ship we had a single duty master who was responsible for all arrivals and departures which, in bad weather, could be very tiring. Now I am supported by a Night Master and Captain Krzysztof Gadomski from Poland is currently in this role.
Has Stena’s take-over brought changes?
The Belfast route has received a shot in the arm from Stena Line. The take-over was very smooth and quiet and a big advantage is being part of a proper ferry company. Already they are giving opportunities for greater shipboard management, and plans for Sterna Lagan include an upgrade of the restaurant and lounge areas.