Saga Sapphire Probably The Biggest Passenger Liner To Pass Pentland Firth
19th May 2014
Biggest passenger ship passes through Pentland Firth's narrow Inner Sound, in between Caithness's Canisbay shoreline and Stroma Island.
The 37,300 tonne, 200 metre (655 feet) long cruise liner Saga Sapphire has become the largest passenger ship at least in decades, if not ever, to navigate the Pentland Firth's Inner Sound.
That was when the British-owned, but Malta-registered, ship sailed through the 1.5 mile-wide sea-channel, between Caithness's North Coast and Stroma, the county's only island, on the morning of May 15th, 2014, during a 'round Britain' cruise.
The mighty vessel was carrying 589 holidaying passengers, largely of 'over 50s' that Saga Cruises specialises in catering for, and had a crew of 419 on board.
The twelve-deck cruise-ship, launched back in 1981 as Europa, may arguably be said to be the largest passenger ship in history to have sailed though the narrow strait, with its average depth of 30 metres; her 'christened' name is steeped in Pentland Firth sea-lore.
Her only rival as 'biggest' would be Cunard White Star's 34,183 tonne green-hulled Caronia. The Clydebank-built Caronia, launched by Princess Elizabeth in 1947, was marginally longer at 218 metres (715 feet), but had a smaller gross tonnage (i.e. carrying capacity). She sailed through the Inner Sound during a round-Britain cruise over 50 years ago.
Saga Sapphire, is one of a handful of cruise-ships operated by the British travel and insurance firm of Folkestone, Kent, which caters annually for several million customers; ironically the company's Saga Pearl II called at Scrabster on the same day.
But two previous passenger vessels, also named Europa, were once impressive sights passing through the Firth's main 2.5 miles-wide shipping channel between Stroma's North End and the Orkney island of Swona, in the heyday of transatlantic luxury passenger liners, before the supremacy of long-range passenger airliners rendered obsolete such scheduled sea-passages.
The 'first' Europa was a technologically-advanced fast 'ocean greyhound' when she was launched for the North German Lloyd line in 1928.
There was a major use of steel-plate welding, partially replacing traditional 'rivets', an early below-waterline 'bulbous bow', while four powerful stream turbines gave this oil-fired 50,000 tonne, 283 metres (934 feet) long 'giant of the seas' an impressive speed of 27.5 knots (over 31 miles per hour) from her four propellers.
The oil-fired steamer's maiden voyage in 1930, saw Europa cross from Bremerhaven to New York in just under 5 days at a average speed of almost 28 knots, winning the coveted 'Blue Riband' for the quickest scheduled transatlantic crossing.
Plans by Adolf Hitler to use Europa in 1940 as a key troop-ship in his 'Operation Sea Lion' invasion of the UK, were abandoned when the legendary success of 'The Few', the RAF pilots of the Battle of Britain, prevented Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe air-force from gaining command of the skies over Britain.
The giant Europa survived World War II intact and, after a few voyages carrying thousands of US servicemen home at the War's end, she was refitted and renamed as Liberte, becoming the flagship of the French America Line; in this role she featured in two major Hollywood movies, but her regular from Cherbourg to New York, with calls at Southampton, was now far from the Pentland Firth.
But the late 1950s, just before she was decommissioned, Liberte made a nostalgic East-bound trip through the Pentland Firth while on a summer 'round Britain' cruise.
In the post-war era, the white-painted sleek Swedish America liners continued to ply regularly from Gothenburg (Goteborg) to New York via the Pentland Firth, latterly mainly doing summer weekly scheduled transatlantic crossings, while sailing on cruises to warmer climes in winter. One of those became the second German big ship named Europa.
At this time from 1953 onwards, when air services were biting into this previously-profitable sea- trade, the Swedish flagship was the impressive 21,000 tonne, 600 feet long, Kungsholm.
Twelve years later, she was replaced by a new Clydebank-built ship of the same name.
And in 1965, Kungsholm was sold to West German owners and renamed, becoming the second major Europa, as the flagship of North German Lloyd, which merged with the Hamburg America Line in 1970.
But next year (1971), Hapag Lloyd, as the new shipping line was called, abandoned scheduled transatlantic services, utilising its Europa on a cruise-only role from then for the next decade.
Ten years later in 1981 the company launched her replacement, from Bremen's Vulkan shipyard, as its new flagship Europa.
This then brand-new cruise-liner remained as Germany's Europa until 1999, when she was sold on.
This was the self-same vessel that made the Inner Sound passage as Saga Sapphire in May 2014.
All major ships are recommended to use the Pentland Firth's deeper and wider Outer Sound, but this is not compulsory.
The Inner Sound is used as a 'short-cut' by trawlers and other fishing vessels, while some coasters and smaller oil-products tankers also regularly navigate the narrow strait.
The Saga Sapphire gave cruise passengers a reasonably close-up view of the coast from Noss Head northwards, including the Stacks of Duncansby, the Shell Beach and John O'Groats and on past Stroma, Canisbay Kirk, Gills Bay and Mey, before rounding Dunnet Head.
She then headed across the Firth from Thurso Bay to let holidaymakers see Hoy's impressive St John's Head, at 335 metres ( 1,128 feet) the UK's highest vertical sea-cliff, and the Old Man of Hoy sea-stack.
There are anticipated to be some restrictions on the use of part of the Inner Sound when MeyGen Ltd starts to deploy its electricity-generating tidal turbines there, with a published planned start next year (2015) ; those are designed to have a clearance of 8 metres of water downwards from the sea-surface at low ebbs.
Certain constraints on Inner Sound transiting shipping are expected to continue to apply once the MeyGen Ltd marine energy generators become operational. It intends to install a 'demonstration array' of between 4 to 6 turbines by the end of 2016, while it has all necessary consents for 86 MW of generating capacity.
This is just under one quarter of the 396 MW capacity that is covered by its 2010 Crown Estate lease of part of the Inner Sound sea-bed, and which MeyGen Ltd' wants to see installed there by the early 2020s.
Saga Sapphire has undergone at least three major refits since her 1981 launch, the latest extensive upgrade taking place in Italy between November 2011 and March 2012 , before she joined the Saga Cruises fleet with her current name.
On May 16th, 2014, Saga Sapphire's same cruise was temporarily halted off the Isle of Mull while staff carried out to repairs to, and testing of, electrical equipment in her main switch-room following a minor fire there, as she lay at anchor off Tobermory. Emergency generators were switched on to provide continued electricity supply to the majestic ship until the above was successfully completed.
Saga Sapphire at Isle of Mull