Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: Floating Bridge No. 6

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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O hear us when we cry to Thee

For those in Peril on the floating bridge.

Floating Bridge No. 6 is a floating bridge1 chain ferry to operate between Cowes and East Cowes, transporting pedestrians and vehicles across the River Medina. Although it looks nice, it is largely useless. Although it has not actually sunk at time of writing, it has broken down on numerous occasions, broken World Health Organisation and Maritime and Coastguard Agency regulations, collided with numerous yachts, broken car bumpers and exhausts, 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 the sixth council-run bridge 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 which 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 the floating bridge. As this area has very strong river and tidal currents, chain guidance is considered essential for safe crossing at Cowes, 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 highly built on there is not room for a road ramp to achieve such a height in a convenient location unless it is built a distance out of town, where it is unlikely it would 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 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 of a tunnel replacement for the Floating Bridge would be £150 million.

Before Entering Service

The controversy began when the Isle of Wight Council announced that they would replace the existing - and perfectly working - Floating Bridge with one that would be built in Wales2, rather than with one built on the Island, such as Wight Shipyard who had successfully built high speed ferries Red Jet 6 (2016) and Red Jet 7 (2018) as well as recent Thames Clipper ships in 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 2017. Floating Bridge 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.

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 named RRS Sir David Attenborough3 instead, although automatic yellow submarines the ship carries are called Boaty McBoatface.

Predictably the runaway popular 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 concerning the floating bridge's name since, with the decision not so much swept under the carpet but sunk without trace.

Since the vessel has come into service and its unreliability has become apparent, it has become unpopularly 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 substantial delivery of the East Cowes Project Masterplan, adopted in 2006 and subsequent planning permission in October 2007.
  • 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 was dredged by an additional 1.5 metres to allow a greater depth. This was not done, although work was carried out on works 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 (which seems incredibly optimistic) and 'around twice the carrying capacity of previous vessel, Floating Bridge No. 5'. Which seems an odd definition of 'twice', as 20 is not twice 15, however average car size has increased since Floating Bridge No. 5 was launched.

SpecificationFloating Bridge No 5Floating Bridge No 6
Length of prows (ramps raised)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

The council ought to bridge that gap

And sell this bloody thing for scrap.


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

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

  • 13 May 2017 – Floating Bridge 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 – Floating bridge 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 - Runs aground a third time.
  • 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 – First time ferry 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.
  • 11 December 2017 – Service resumes as part of an extended trial.
  • 30 December 2017 – Sloping shouldered report claims the problems were caused by the crew not being familiar with the vessel.
  • 2 January 2018 – BBC film crew travel to the Island to film some stock shots of the floating bridge. Amusingly as soon as they start filming, the bridge struggles to dock without colliding into everything.
  • 2 February 2018 – Broken prow chain, ferry taken out of service.
  • 14 April 2018 – Council leader Dave Stewart praised the ferry whose design he had authorised, saying 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 no longer is 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 – floating bridge out of service for more 'improvements'. Well, surely they can't make it any worse…?
  • 1 August 2018 – Councillor Ian Ward announces he wants to provide Cowes Week's visitors '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 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 slipway while the ship's ramps are covered in 'shoes' to reduce the noise and vibration problems when the ship docks each side.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 sold off and replaced is handed in to the Isle of Wight Council. This campaign demands the council either sell, scrap or give the bridge to Lake Windermere4 and build a smaller 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 Burness Corlett Three Quays.
  • 15 March 2019 – Floating Bridge out of service due to 'combination of wind direction and low tide'. A spokesperson declares that Brexit will be fixed before the Floating Bridge...
  • 21 March 2019 – Floating Bridge 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 September's accident 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 – the East Cowes councillor announces that the Local Enterprise Partnership's summary report on the bridge was a 'catastrophic failure' that 'cannot represent any kind of perspective on which policy or future actions are based.' Councillor Karl Love announced, '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.' Yet the report states it only received 14 responses to its consultation from the Isle of Wight, grouping the hundreds of responses from members of public on the Isle of Wight 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.

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 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.

November 2018 Report

In November 2018 it is revealed that to date the floating bridge has cost £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£500,000
Contingency£100,000
Replacement Launch Costs (2017-2018)£439,281
Operative Employment costs£114,000
Other operating incurred costs£33,000
Savings in Floating Bridge 6 out of service-£47,000
Total:£6,473,717

The Isle of Wight Council report also said,

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

Declining Vehicle Numbers

One of the aims of Floating Bridge 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 has dropped 53% since Floating Bridge 5 operated on the route. Although exact numbers were not recorded as before Floating Bridge 6 came into service foot passengers were not ticketed, it is believed foot passenger numbers have fallen 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 5 operated. In 2016/17, Floating Bridge 5 was in service between August and January 2017, with Floating Bridge 6 not entering service until May, and so a dip in numbers was to be expected then. 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

Independent councillor Karl Love commented on the report by saying,

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 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 6.

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