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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: Floating Bridge No. 6

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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Floating Bridge No.6
The council ought to bridge that gap
And sell this bloody thing for scrap.

- Lauri Say, 'All Together on the Floating Bridge'

Floating Bridge No. 6 is a floating bridge1 chain ferry that operates between Cowes and East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, transporting pedestrians and vehicles across the River Medina. Although it looks nice, it is largely useless. It has not actually sunk at time of writing, but it has broken down on numerous occasions, broken World Health Organisation and Maritime and Coastguard Agency regulations, broken car bumpers and exhausts, collided with numerous yachts, run aground regularly, been blamed for the collapse of local businesses and so can certainly be classed as a metaphorical shipwreck.

Floating Bridge No. 6 was built to replace the Isle of Wight-built Floating Bridge No. 5 which had been in service since 1975. It is the ninth floating bridge on the route, which has been operating without issue since 1859, but is called Floating Bridge No. 6 as the first three bridges were operated by private companies. When it works, Floating Bridge No. 6 is operated by the Isle of Wight Council. Unlike crossings on the old bridge, which were free for pedestrians and cyclists, a fee is charged for all passengers and vehicles.

Why is a Floating Bridge Needed?

East Cowes, one of the three vehicle ferry ports on the Isle of Wight, is a town that only has road access along one road. The only other way for a car to get into and out of East Cowes is by crossing the River Medina to Cowes on a floating bridge chain ferry. As this area has very strong river and tidal currents, chain guidance is considered essential for safe crossing, despite the potential risk of the chains snagging the heavy yacht traffic.

Consideration was given to building a conventional bridge with a clearance of 200 ft to allow craft to pass underneath. However, as both Cowes and East Cowes are built-up areas, there is not room for a road ramp to achieve such a height unless it is built a distance out of town, where it is unlikely to be of much use to pedestrians. In 2015 it was projected that acquiring the land and building such a bridge would cost at least £65 million. A swing bridge or other opening bridge would also cost too much and, as river users would have priority, would spend most of its time closed to road traffic and so be of little benefit. Building a tunnel beneath the river between the two towns was also considered; however, based on the 2011 Hindhead Tunnel, it was estimated that the cost would be £150 million. In comparison, a budget of £3.5 million was agreed for a new floating bridge.

Before Entering Service

The controversy began when the Isle of Wight Council announced that they would replace the existing - and perfectly working - Floating Bridge No. 5 with one that would be built in Wales2, rather than with one built on the Island, such as by Wight Shipyard who had successfully built high speed ferries Red Jet 6 (2016) and Red Jet 7 (2018) as well as Thames Clipper ships for London. The old floating bridge was removed from service in January 2017 and the council announced the new one would not enter service until May that year. Floating Bridge No. 5 was put up for sale and, after a lack of interest, it was announced that it would be turned into razor blades. Although a pedestrian launch was used to ferry pedestrians across the Medina, vehicles had no choice but to make a 12-mile detour via the Island's most congested point at Newport to get from Cowes to East Cowes.

It should be noted that in the May 2017 elections the Island Independents lost control of the Isle of Wight Council, having held it since 2013, and the Conservatives regained a majority. This change in council coincided with the period that Floating Bridge No. 6 came into service.

Name and Shame

In March 2017, hoping to generate a sense of pride and interest in the new vessel, the Isle of Wight Council announced a competition to name the new ship. This was not the first time that a public competition had been held to name a ship. In 2016 there had been a nationwide public vote to name a £200m polar research ship. The overwhelming choice, Boaty McBoatface, was overruled and the ship was named RRS3   Sir David Attenborough instead, although the automatic yellow submarines the ship carries are called Boaty McBoatface.

Predictably, the runaway choice of name for Floating Bridge No 6 was Floaty McFloatface, with Blyskawica a second choice. The Isle of Wight Council at first announced it would veto that name, then rescinded the veto following an outcry, and then announced they would postpone announcing the final decision for at least a month. They have not made any announcements about the floating bridge's name since, with the decision not so much swept under the carpet as sunk without trace.

Since the vessel has come into service and its unreliability has become apparent, it has become (un)popularly known as Floaty McFloatfarce.

Vehicle Specification

A number of requirements were listed for the new Floating Bridge:

  • Provide direct pedestrian access between the two town centres of East and West Cowes, to ensure their future vitality and competitiveness in a global tourism market.

  • Allow for continued river access upstream for commercial and private vessels with an air draft of up to 200 ft and maintain the existing water draft of up to a minimum of 1.3m.

  • Improve reliability in operation.

  • Minimise congestion on the local road network, particularly where this negatively impacts the economic potential of town centres.

  • Ensure affordable fares for a population that experiences high levels of deprivation.

  • Safeguard and enhance the value for money of the delivery of the East Cowes Project Masterplan.

  • Enhance environmental sustainability, through reduced operational energy requirements and carbon emissions.

Burness Corlett Three Quays were appointed as the Naval Architects tasked with designing the bridge. In preparation for the bridge coming into service it was advised that a 30-metre section of the River Medina be dredged to allow an additional 1.5 metres of depth. This was not done, although work was carried out on the chain pits, chains and both slipways in preparation for the new vessel's arrival.

Floating Bridge No. 6 was built to have an expected lifespan of 40 years like its predecessor (which, considering it broke down within 24 hours of becoming operational seems incredibly optimistic) and 'around twice the carrying capacity of previous vessel, Floating Bridge No. 5'. This seems an odd definition of 'twice', as the (theoretical) maximum number of passengers is still 400, for safety reasons, and 20 is not twice 15, but average car size had increased since Floating Bridge No. 5 was launched.

SpecificationFloating Bridge No 5Floating Bridge No 6
Length of prows (ramps raised4)34.4 metres37.4 metres
Length of Hull26.7 metres29.7 metres
Vehicle Deck Breadth12.8 metres14 metres
Depth moulded2.59 metres2.65 metres
Hull weight234 tonnes262 tonnes
Car capacity1520
Passenger Capacity (no vehicles)400400

'Be a complete, disastrous laughing stock' was not one of the official requirements, which is a shame as that would have been the only requirement that could reliably be met.

Service Record Timeline

O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in Peril on the floating bridge.

Please note that this list does not include the numerous yachts that the floating bridge has collided with or snagged with the chain, nor the cars that have had damaged bumpers and exhausts disembarking from the vessel.

  • 13 May, 2017 – Floating Bridge No. 6 launched.

  • 14 May, 2017 – Broke down. Photographs in the News show adult passengers wading from the middle of the river carrying their children on piggyback.

  • 15 May, 2017 – Service suspended by order of the Maritime and Coastguards Agency.

  • 5 June, 2017 – Service allowed to resume.

  • 7 June, 2017 – Floating bridge runs aground.

  • 9 June, 2017 – Floating bridge runs aground again.

  • 9 June, 2017 – The Isle of Wight Council announces that it has cleared the silt build-up that caused the floating bridge to ground and that therefore it wouldn't ever run aground again.

  • 10 June, 2017 – Floating bridge runs aground again.

  • 12 June, 2017 – Service suspended due to 'wind'.

  • 13 June to 3 July, 2017 – No service able to be provided during low tide due to high likelihood of running aground.

  • 30 June, 2017 – Breaks down due to electrical fault.

  • 21 July, 2017 – Withdrawn from service at night due to noise levels being 'well above World Health Organisation guidelines'.

  • 4 September, 2017 – Withdrawn from service indefinitely until the builders have fixed problems.

  • 26 October, 2017 – A Freedom of Information Request reveals that 12 people had successfully claimed compensation for damage to their cars caused by using the floating bridge.

  • 11 December, 2017 – Service resumes as part of an extended trial.

  • 30 December, 2017 – The Isle of Wight Council's report claims the problems were caused by the crew not being familiar with the vessel and had absolutely nothing to do with the Isle of Wight Council.

  • 2 January, 2018 – BBC film crew travel to the Island to film some stock shots of the floating bridge. As soon as they start filming, the bridge struggles to dock without crashing into everything.

  • 2 February, 2018 – Taken out of service due to broken prow chain.

  • 14 April, 2018 – Council leader Dave Stewart, who had authorised the design of the ferry, said it was providing 'nearly a good and reliable service'. The ferry promptly runs aground again. By now the floating bridge's grounding is such a common occurrence that it is no longer considered news.

  • 30 April, 2018 – The Isle of Wight Council announce that they cannot berth the floating bridge without crashing it into a wall.

  • 15-16 July, 2018 – Out of service for 'improvements'. (Well, surely they couldn't make it any worse..?)

  • 1 August, 2018 – Councillor Ian Ward announces he wants to provide visitors with 'a good floating bridge service during the period of Cowes Week'. This is considered a snub to Islanders, who want a good floating bridge service all year round.

  • 8 August, 2018 – Out of service due to grounding.

  • 9 August, 2018 – Out of service due to prow lifting mechanism failure.

  • 11 August, 2018 – Only allowed to operate during Cowes Week when accompanied by two 'Safety Boats'.

  • 13 August, 2018 – It is announced that the floating bridge will need to be assisted by a barge during strong ebb tides for the foreseeable future. Hiring a barge to push the bridge against the tide costs £192 an hour.

  • 4 September, 2018 – Out of service to allow matting to be placed on the slipways while the ferry's ramps are covered in 'shoes' to reduce the noise and vibration problems when the ferry docks.

  • 11 September, 2018 – The Isle of Wight Council announce that the floating bridge is 'a reliable craft as it stands'. Islanders, though pleased that the floating bridge has reliably mastered the ability to stand still, would prefer a reliably moving floating bridge.

  • 26 September, 2018 – Pulled from service for 24 hours following an accident in which a member of staff fell unconscious below deck in the engine room. Paramedics, the Bembridge Coastguard Rescue Team, Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service, Isle of Wight Ambulance and East Cowes firefighters were called and the man was airlifted to Southampton General Hospital. No further details were released at that time.

  • 25 October, 2018 – Out of service following a snapped prow cable.

  • 7 November, 2018 – Out of service due to high tide. It is revealed in a Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) report that the floating bridge's failure to date has cost £6.4 million.

  • 12 November, 2018 - A petition calling for the floating bridge to be replaced is handed in to the Isle of Wight Council. This campaign demands the Council scrap it, sell it or give the bridge to Lake Windermere5 and build a replacement to the older bridge's specification.

  • 6 December, 2018 – The corner of one of the shoes, which the Isle of Wight Council spent £8,106 on in September, is crudely cut off in a bodge-job aimed at preventing the prow from hitting the railings and chain anchor point.

  • 8 February, 2019 – The Isle of Wight Council announces an intention to pursue legal action against the bridge's designers.

  • 15 March, 2019 – Out of service due to a 'combination of wind direction and low tide'. The East Cowes Councillor declares that Brexit will be fixed before the Floating Bridge.

  • 21 March, 2019 – Out of service due to trials focussing on maintaining a minimum depth water over the vessel's chains at all states of the tide.

  • 3 April, 2019 – Following a Freedom of Information request regarding the accident on 26 September, the Isle of Wight Council's report of the incident is released. It states that the risk assessments were inadequate and 'failed to identify or control' 'significant hazards'. It was revealed that there had been a leak and, on being informed that it would take at least three hours for an engineer to call, the ferry was kept running which 'exacerbated the problem'.

  • 13 April, 2019 – East Cowes Councillor Karl Love describes the LEP report on the bridge to be a 'catastrophic failure' that 'cannot represent any kind of perspective on which policy or future actions are based... We submitted several hundred pages demonstrating that the floating bridge has hurt the economy and that the Council appears to have provided deceptive information to the LEP in their business case.' The report states it only received 14 responses to its consultation from the Isle of Wight, grouping the many hundreds of responses from members of public together and summarily dismissing them with the words 'one response was received from a stakeholder group'.

  • 3 May, 2019 – Out of service due to repairs to south-east prow hinge.

  • 9 May, 2019 – Out of service due to 'mechanical problems'.

  • 12 June, 2019 – A new Floating Bridge Service Charter is published. In this the Council stated it would 'operate a high-quality service focussing on passengers' requirements irrespective of nationality, gender, race, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, social and psychophysical characteristics', but without mentioning the passengers' need to get to the other side of the river. To be fair, one of the charter's aims was to 'protect the environment' and by being a floating bridge that doesn't actually move, there can be no denying that in one way the ferry has been environmentally beneficial. However, for each crossing cancelled, up to 20 cars have driven an additional 12 miles.

  • 8 July, 2019 – Isle of Wight Council announces the floating bridge will be out of service for a week from this date to have its chains replaced. The Council then announced they had accidentally given the wrong dates and it actually wasn't out of service that day. They later clarified the bridge would be out of service from 9 July. No resumption of service date was initially given, with estimates ranging from three to five days. The new chains are expected to last three years.

  • 10 September, 2019 - Broke down. Notice stated that the ferry would be out of service for a week due to prow and hinge assembly needing repair.

  • 18 September, 2019 – While the floating bridge is still out of service, the East Cowes Councillor calls for the bridge to be scrapped.

  • 20 September, 2019 – Additional repairs needed to the ferry's prow and hinge mechanism on both the Cowes and East Cowes sides to prevent the problem from recurring. The Council Leader's response to the East Cowes Counsellor is: 'When I say to people it is good and reliable, I do believe it is good and reliable. If people say to me, "yes, but it breaks down," I say, "so does the 'Red Jet". People need to understand we, as an administration, inherited the floating bridge the previous administration had ordered. We are about to embark on some major roadworks though Newport. Now our goal is to make sure that the floating bridge is available so people can use it. We have got it, we have paid for it and now we have to make it run.'

  • 26 September, 2019 – Former Isle of Wight Council Leader Debbie Andre, Leader of the Isle of Wight Independents, replied to the Council Leader's comments by saying: 'The Independents were responsible for accessing and securing the funding to replace the floating bridge, and not involved in the procurement, design or building of the vessel that was delivered. This was carried out by a project board that included stakeholders and senior council officers, but not any councillors... councillors are not, nor should they be, involved in operational matters. The Conservatives took delivery of the vessel and brought it into service without completing full trials. Then they blamed public pressure as the reason they did not complete necessary trials and tests. It needs to be asked why yet more money is being poured into modifications when the design is so obviously not fit for purpose.' Floating Bridge users look on in envy as blame regularly goes back and forth and wish that one day the floating bridge will be able to do the same.

  • 30 September, 2019 - Back in service. The main road between the towns of Newport and Cowes is dug up in a controversial scheme to remove a roundabout, with disruption expected until December 2020. With the main road to Cowes out of action, concern over the consequences should the floating bridge break down are high. Residents wonder, if they were to put the current Isle of Wight Council on one side of the Medina and the former Isle of Wight Council on the other, whether the resulting hot air shouted between the two would part the seas like in that old Charlton Heston film.

  • 1 October, 2019 – Proposals are announced that paying for tickets on the Floating Bridge itself will become cashless, using contactless card payments rather than physical money. Onshore ticket machines either side of the Medina will still allow tickets to be bought with money. (Cashless payments are already allowed, but in keeping with the spirit of the floating bridge this doesn't really work due to connectivity problems - discrepancies between cash takings and sales recorded range from an excess of £2,538.81 to a loss of £368.33.)

  • 11 October, 2019 – Floating Bridge runs aground due to 'high winds' in the early afternoon but is back in service by mid-evening.

Floating Bridge No. 6 is far, far noisier than its predecessor. The sound can best be described as like a blue whale in labour with the only available midwife being a wailing banshee assisted by the heavily-chained ghosts of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge, only much, much worse.

January 2018 Report

The January 2018 official report stated:

It remains impossible to assess whether Floating Bridge 6 will achieve all of the required outcomes provided to the Naval Architects that designed the vessel, until such time as the council has resolved the two principal issues in relation to the clearance over the chains at an ebb tide and the noise of the vessel... the report itself presents a number of findings in an open and transparent way - so that the local community, local interest groups and the wider Island are all able to understand how a new vessel, costing over £3.7 million pounds of public money to build, has failed to provide the service expected.

Since then the ferry operated for 89.5% of schedule in September 2018, 79.4% in October 2018 and 88.0% in July 2019. A new low occurred in September 2019 when it only met 33.3% of its scheduled service.

November 2018 Report

In November 2018 it was revealed that between May 2017 and September 2018 the floating bridge had cost more than £6.4 million:

ItemCost
Superstructure (construction, fit out)£3,031,249
Professional Fees (naval architect etc)£328,764
Superstructure (contract variations)£431,412
Ticketing£160,282
Slipways£683,149
Slipway design£49,029
Chain survey, works, fees£114,603
Noise mitigation works£31,441
Project Manager£65,000
Other expenditure£205,307
Known additional works£169,200
Extended Warranty£65,000
Remedial options design work (ongoing)£500,000
Contingency (for ongoing work)£100,000
Replacement Launch Costs (2017-2018)£439,281
Operative Employment costs£114,000
Other operating incurred costs£33,000
Savings in Floating Bridge No. 6 out of service-£47,000
Total:£6,473,717

The report also stated:

Some observers have said the design of the bridge means it will never be able to operate to its full specification.

October 2019

A Freedom of Information request in October 2019 revealed that the 'new, more efficient Floating Bridge' had, between October 2018 and September 2019, resulted in costs of £149,115.33 for hiring MV Seaclear as pushboat barge to assist during crossings against the tide, plus £181,189 to hire a passenger launch when the bridge was out of action, as well as £110,760 on chain depth surveys.

Unlike the previous floating bridge, which made a steady annual profit, Floating Bridge No. 6 cost the Isle of Wight Council money that could have been used for other vital services.

Year2015/162016/172017/182018/19
Income£709,148£730,505£419,888£738,514
Costs£588,696£766,893£967,879£1,039,807
Profit/Loss£120,452 Profit£36,388 Loss£547,991 Loss£301,293 Loss

Declining Vehicle Numbers

One of the aims of Floating Bridge No. 6 was to 'double passenger capacity'. However, although the ferry is much larger than its predecessor, it has been revealed that the number of vehicles carried dropped 53% in 2017/18 compared to 2015/16. Although exact numbers were not recorded as pedestrians and cyclists were not ticketed before Floating Bridge No. 6 came into service, it is estimated that foot passenger numbers fell by over 40% in the same period.

The following table shows the number of cars carried on the route between August to July each year. 2015/16 was the last full year in which Floating Bridge No. 5 operated. In 2016/17, Floating Bridge No. 5 was in service between August and January 2017, and Floating Bridge No. 6 did not enter service until May, so a dip in numbers was to be expected. However, even fewer vehicles used the ferry in its first full year of service, 2017/18, than in the year when there wasn't a ferry for half the year.

Year2015/162016/172017/18
Vehicles253,618145,226118,762

Councillor Karl Love commented:

It's disgraceful. People don't have the confidence to use the floating bridge - they don't trust it. It's affected tourism, investment and the community's ability to interact.
1In the UK chain ferries are commonly called 'floating bridges' but should not be confused with pontoon bridges, where a bridge is built to float on a series of boat-like pontoons that rise and lower with the tide.2By Welsh boat builders Mainstay Marine.3Royal Research Ship.4The total length including the hull in the water as well as the ramps, which rise either side like a drawbridge when the vessel is in motion. These rest at a forward-pointing angle rather than vertically.5The Lake Windermere Floating Bridge Mallard was built in 1990 and is due to be replaced in 2020. It is a similar size to Floating Bridge No. 6.

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