Devon Life celebrates 40 years of sailing from Plymouth with Brittany Ferries
PUBLISHED: 14:05 16 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:38 20 February 2013
The Captain, the Purser and the Chef - we meet some of the people behind the West Country's premier cruise ferry company
The Captain, the Purser and the Chef
As Brittany Ferries celebrates 40 years of sailing from Plymouth, we meet some of the people behind the West Countrys premier cruise ferry company
Words: Gillian Thornton
Skies may have been grey and the weather cold, but when a freighter named Kerisnel sailed into Plymouth Sound on New Years Day 1973, there was warmth and optimism in the air. Named after a small Breton village famous for its cauliflowers, the Kerisnel was the first vessel operated by Armement Bretagne-Angleterre-Irlande (BAI), a brand-new company set up by Breton farmer Alexis Gourvennec.
With Britain newly entered into the Common Market, Alexis and a group of fellow farmers saw their cross-Channel neighbours as an exciting new outlet for their cauliflowers and artichokes, but existing shipping companies didnt share their enthusiasm. So Alex bought his own freighter, the first in a fleet which was to become the leading maritime carrier in the western and central Channel. And not just for cauliflowers.
Forty years on, Brittany Ferries carries over 2 million British holidaymakers every year to France and Spain, operating a fleet of seven luxury cruise ferries, a high-speed ferry, and a freighter on nine routes between the UK, France, Spain and Ireland. But some aspects of the business havent changed. The companys shareholders are still mainly Breton farmers and the ships still sail under the French flag, forming an integral part of the tourism infrastructure of western France.
But Brittany Ferries has also had a huge impact on Plymouth and the West Country, bringing French holidaymakers to Devon and Cornwall, and boosting the local economy through the creation of jobs and the purchase of goods and services. Today almost 140 staff are based permanently in Plymouth, working in departments as varied as port operations and payroll, marketing and management, customer service andreservations.
Erwan Le Bourdonnec, the Captain
Many different personnel work together to deliver a high-quality experience to passengers, their various roles largely conducted out of the public eye. Its all a question of teamwork and nowhere is that more apparent than on board ship, where everyone answers to the Captain.
Many senior captains have their own ship, working a regular route with a familiar crew, but Erwan le Bourdonnec likes the variety of sailing different ships on different routes and goes wherever he is needed. So one week he may be doing Plymouth to Roscoff or Santander, the next week Portsmouth to Cherbourg or Caen.
Whichever route he is on, Erwans ship will be his home for seven days. Even when the ship is in port, hell spend time making final checks in his office and liaising with key members of his team, but when its time to weigh anchor, Erwan will be up on the bridge.
I hold a Pilotage Exemption Certificate, which enables my ship to enter harbour without taking on a pilot, so I always have to manoeuvre the ship into and out of port myself, he explains as he shows me the reinforced glass floor in the wings of the bridge. Here the captain can operate the controls whilst keeping a close eye straight down at the quayside.
I have a Chief Officer to stand in for me at the helm so I dont spend the entire crossing on the bridge, but I do have to take control in fog and bad weather. Also reporting to me is the Chief Engineer whos in charge below deck, and the Purser or Commissaire who looks after the wellbeing of the passengers, but its the Captain who has ultimate responsibility for the ship, crew and passengers throughout the crossing.
Breton born and bred, Erwan travelled the world with the French merchant navy before joining Brittany Ferries nearly 25 years ago. In the UK, on-board personnel are either on deck or in the engine room, but the French system allows them to do both, and Erwan has enjoyed a variety of positions above and below decks, giving him a great all-round view of the operation.
Hes captained most of the current fleet at one time or another, working one week on and one week off, but admits to a soft spot for sailing the larger ships on the longer routes. My perfect crossing would be to Santander on a sunny day with whales and dolphins swimming close by, but there is always lots going on during the shorter routes too, so I dont really mind where I go. I just love being at sea!
Ronan Craff, the Purser
Every Captain works closely with the ships Purser whose prime responsibility is to guarantee the provision of high-quality services to the passengers.
We have to define the workforce needed to operate the ship, based on forecasts of passengers provided by the computer on shore, explains Ronan Craff, Purser of the Cap Finistre. We then create a reference document for all functions related to the hotel side of the operation the restaurants, shops and supplies and make sure that everything runs smoothly.
After working as a chef in France and the United States, Ronan felt ready for a change and joined Brittany Ferries in 1986 as a seasonal waiter, quickly moving up through the ranks to Restaurant Manager before changing direction and training as a Purser. This vital role means directing a team of between 20-120 people, depending on the size of the ship, plus all the crew required for each individual crossing.
The purser needs to have a good working relationship with all the heads of department including the Hotel Manager, the Restaurant Manager, the Steward and Head Chef, he explains. We all live together for seven days, sometimes working in difficult conditions, so its essential that the staff work harmoniously together.
Like the Captain, the Pursers job begins before the ship leaves port, determining crew numbers and supplies, making sure that cleaning staff have left the cabins spotless, that the shops and kitchens have the right stocks, and that heads of departments have been briefed.
Safety is paramount and each Purser will liaise with the Second Captain over organising a weekly evacuation drill at sea, making sure, of course, to warn passengers first that this isnt a real emergency. Fortunately medical emergencies are rare, but every ship has a qualified nurse on board to deal with slips, strains or an unwelcome bout of seasickness, but Ronan is in contact with a specialised medical centre in France who can arrange for passengers to be taken to hospital by helicopter if necessary.
The Purser isnt only responsible for human passengers either. Cap Finistre, for instance, has 14 cabins for passengers with dogs as well as 12 kennels on the top deck. Dogs can be exercised on a designated section of covered deck with a handy on-site caf, so that both two- and four-legged passengers can enjoy their creature comforts.
Yvon Rivoallan, the Catering Manager
Catering is a hugely important part of the Brittany Ferries cruise experience as regular passengers will know. Depending on the vessel and crossing, passengers can choose from self-service restaurants, stylish piano bars and gastronomic dining. The company is renowned for the high standard of its catering, especially on the long crossings where there is time to relax over fine food and wine and just enjoy those sea views. Brittany Ferries buffet tables are the stuff of which holiday memories are made; vast spreads laden with fresh seafood and starters or mouth-watering, calorific desserts.
In charge of this intricate operation is Catering Manager Yvon Rivoallan who is based at the companys headquarters in Roscoff. A trained chef, Yvon worked in restaurant kitchens all over France before joining Brittany Ferries in 1984 as Chef de Cuisine on board ship. Now he liaises between sea and shore, devising and delivering meals to every ship in the companys fleet.
Once weve arrived at the recipes, I have to select, test, buy and make an inventory of all the ingredients which will go into each individual dish at each of the different outlets, he explains. Im also responsible for choosing, sourcing and purchasing all the hotel items involved with catering such as crockery, glassware and table linen.
Yvon devises new menus twice a year, not just for passengers but for crew meals too. In the restaurants, menus are adapted to the time of year, the number of passengers and even the weather, whilst in the cafs, the menu changes with the time of day breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. Meanwhile the self-service restaurants offer a different choice of hot dishes every day of the week.
Before the start of each new season, I send details of the individual dishes their precise ingredients and cooking techniques to colleagues on board ship so we can be sure that all the kitchens are operating to the same high standards, says Yvon who is also responsible for recruiting chefs and pastry chefs.
He frequently travels on board ship so he can keep in close touch with catering staff and work with them on producing next seasons menus. Were always watching current trends, both in France and Great Britain, so we can provide our clients with excellent food at affordable prices whichever style of dining they choose.
The ptisserie selection is legendary but few passengers stop to wonder how these scrumptious confections arrive on their plates. Most dishes are prepared at sea in the ships kitchens, but each Brittany Ferries patisserie is hand-made in Roscoff by a highly skilled team led by Serge Hinault. He runs the hot lab where patisseries are made and baked, and the cold lab where the cakes and desserts are rapidly deep-frozen, ready to be defrosted and finished off on board ship.
Everything is made to traditional recipes that are agreed each season with Yvon Rivoallan, explains Serge. In peak season, the lab is operational 7 days a week with a team of 8 staff. For the rest of the year, a 6-man team works a 5-day week, each team member producing 65 large ptisseries per day. We now produce a choice of around 25 desserts, batch-baking on average two different patisseries per day.
Today, for instance, were making Dacquois Pistache in the morning, and in the afternoon, Royal Chocolat a rich chocolate slice that is one of our most popular desserts. Passengers eat around 55,000 portions a year! Its one of the most intricate to produce too with several different stages including a crispy chocolate layer and a chocolate mousse.
The pastry chefs are trained to do each stage of every dessert, but inevitably some chefs are more skilled at certain jobs than others, and Serge tries to work with his teams individual strengths. He also sends them on rotation to attend courses with top chefs such as Alain Ducasse. New desserts are added to the teams repertoire each year, and at the end of the season, each ship in the Brittany Ferries fleet gives feedback on the popularity of each dish and the menu is modified accordingly.
The vast fridges and larder in the ptisserie department are piled high with ingredients, but just imagine Yvon Rivoallans shopping list. Every year he buys 1,000 pallets of fruit and vegetables and 260 tonnes of meat; 1,700 pallets of bread and pastries, and 80 tonnes of fish fillets. Then there are 1.4 million eggs, 270,000 bottles of orange juice, and nearly 4,000 pallets of assorted drinks.
So next time you embark from Plymouth to France or Spain with Brittany Ferries, spare a thought for the team of people working behind the scenes to give you a quality experience. And remember that it all started on a bleak New Years Day with cauliflowers