With fares from Southampton to Lisbon starting at £23 including meals, and an extra £6 for a car, its popularity is no surprise.
The MS Eagle introductory brochure covered all bases by calling her “the new cruise liner car ferry” and, operating a Southampton-Lisbon-Tangier service, she sailed direct to Portugal, one of the most fashionable holiday destinations of the time, until the 1974 revolution put a temporary stop to tourism. The recessionary aftermath of the OPEC oil crisis in 1973 did little to help, fuel costs increased dramatically.
Algeciras in Southern Spain was later added to the schedule. The ship’s hull lines were designed by ferry specialists Knud E Hansen, and supposedly optimised for the Bay of Biscay though she had a rather bad reputation for not handling the bay in much comfort. According to rumours at the time, the builders had shortened the hull by a few metres and this didn’t result in a comfortable ‘cruise’ as many of her regulars will tell you. The total journey time to Lisbon was 42 hours.
Some passenger recollections from the time tell the story well, Sheilah Cardno recollected, “I almost went down with the Eagle in September 1974, when she was hit by a freak wave in the Bay of Biscay. A tough old tub, she managed to right herself – bulkhead of 1st. class cabins dented in, engine room flooded as water poured down funnel, captain injured when he was thrown across the wheel house – we limped back to Falmouth to dry her out”.
A lady called Kate Baxter wrote: “I was on the Eagle in the spring of 1973. Got caught in a hurricane. Massive amounts of damage and everything tied in the corners of the lounge. I fell down the stairs and broke my foot. I still have newspaper cuttings and a few pictures of the damaged vehicles on the quay in Lisbon. Frozen peas and green paint I remember. Never been so terrified in my whole life”.
Despite that, the low fares and direct route to Lisbon was a huge advantage. A press report at the time said, “The passenger accommodation was rather intriguingly finished, much use being made of bold colours and vinyl wall coverings, with the Red Room Lounge Bar and the lime-green Panoramic Lounge particularly notable although the choice of a quite distracting paisley orange and green colour scheme in the ten cabins deluxe was maybe regrettable”. Lime green décor and a rough sea doesn’t sound a good combination. The best accommodation, a suite cost the ‘bank breaking’ sum of £60 or £90 return, and don’t forget that included your meals, if you happened to be hungry! An edition of ‘Shipping World & Shipbuilder’ not unreasonably described the cabin décor as ‘startling’.
The other interesting rumour of the months following the revolution was that certain high-profile people, who the new regime felt should not leave Portugal, found it much easier to board the Eagle than to try to fly out of Lisbon airport. Appropriate documentation seemed less of a problem if you knew the ‘right people’ at the quayside.
Despite all this, it would seem to prove that if you offer a good route at a reasonable price, people will put up with a lot.
With much attention these days being given to environmentally friendly travel, you could speculate that a modern and presumably economic car ferry serving the UK to Lisbon route might be an extremely attractive proposition. Longer stay visitors like to have their own cars, it saves the cost of car rentals. Also, no limits on how much baggage you can bring for a long stay. The Algarve is only a couple of hours drive away, and in fact Southern Spain is closer to Lisbon than Santander.