Earlier this year we spent two weeks road tripping our way around Spain. We rode nearly 2,500 miles and enjoyed exploring Spain’s mountains, deserts and rural villages. In the interests of seeing as much of Spain as we could in our annual leave allowance, we started our road trip to Spain by using Bike Shuttle to get the bikes from to Toulouse as quickly as possible (yes, I know that’s France…). But in order that we could avoid a circular route and squeeze in as many new-to-us places as we could, we ended our tour by making use of the popular Brittany Ferries route from Bilbao to Portsmouth.
The Bilbao to Portsmouth ferry is an almost 24-hour crossing over the Bay of Biscay from Bilbao in the north of Spain, to Portsmouth in the south of England. We had hoped for time to explore Bilbao but we had just about enough time for a meal before heading to the port, where we didn’t have to wait long before we were ushered onto the boat. I have to admit I’m not a fan of riding on ferries, even with my slightly-more-gnarly-than-road-tyres the surface is super smooth and metallic, and it’s almost impossible to understand the gestures and shouts of the crew on where they actually want you to put the bike.
We were in amongst a large contingent of bikes and were squeezed in so tightly that we couldn’t open our panniers to get stuff out without shifting the bikes from side to side and helping each other out. While I know that the operator wants to get as many of us on as possible, I can’t see them parking cars so close together that you couldn’t open the boot…
They don’t allow you to strap down your own bike, either. This made me very nervous as I’d heard lots of horror stories of side stands bending or even breaking thanks to overtightened ratchet straps. And it turned out that it wasn’t all smooth, as the deck hands clearly felt we weren’t squeezed in enough and moved LincsGeek’s bike and lent it against another, damaging his enough to warrant a claim on Brittany Ferries’ insurance. We’re glad we took the advice of another biker and took photos of our bikes before we left for the upper decks, there was no arguing about the damage and a cheque to cover the cost was issued without question.
Anyway, we were oblivious to that throughout the crossing, so I’ll return to the story. We’d booked our tickets ahead of time, including a cabin so we could get some rest. Having done a bit of research we actually booked a four berth because we felt like we’d need the space, and we are very glad we did, as it would have been a bit of a squeeze for us and our stuff in a two-berth cabin. We had two sets of bunk beds, a surprisingly larger than expected bathroom, and a bit of storage in the form of a cupboard with hanging space and a small desk/dresser.
One thing that I knew would help pass the time we had on the ferry was a spot of whale watching. This particular crossing from Bilbao to Portsmouth is supposed to be great for seeing whales and dolphins, and Brittany Ferries and ORCA have been working in partnership for over 20 years conducting surveys in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay, which includes having a couple of trained ORCA Wildlife Officers on board to conduct surveys and speak with passengers on the range of marine wildlife in UK & European waters. We went to the introductory presentation just as the ship left Bilbao to learn more and then headed up on deck to see what we could see – I was fortunate enough to spot a couple of Orca from the deck during early evening. It wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular as our Whale Watching trip with Eagle Wing over in Canada, but it was special none-the-less.
There are a number of places to eat on board, including a table-service restaurant, a canteen style counter, a grab-and-go cold food shop, and a bar (or two). We had planned to eat around 7.30pm, a few hours into our crossing, but I’ll be honest and say that by then we were in no fit state to eat anything; the rocking and the swell of the open sea got to us bad! We retired to bed to sleep it off, and were thankful that we’d booked a cabin, and a decent sized one at that, as it meant we could just stay horizonal and move with the boat, giving our bodies the best chance to catch up. Long story very short, it worked, we got some sleep, and by morning we were in a much better place and we could get up and about again. We’re sure that if we’d have remembered our sea sickness pills it would have been fine, but you live and learn.
Having not eaten the previous evening we went all in and got the cooked breakfast in the restaurant the following morning. It wasn’t the cheapest option on the ferry but it was actually pretty decent, it was certainly fresh, and included cereal, pastries, as well as our traditional cooked plate. And if nothing else, we had a decent spot to sit and while away the morning on board.
By the time we finished breakfast we were close to home and we could sit on the deck and watch England get closer and closer. The final part of the journey into Portsmouth harbour and through the Naval base, so we did a bit of frigate spotting before hearing the call to head back to the bikes. I’ll be honest, we did not pay enough attention when we left the deck to know which floor our bikes were on, but we found a couple of familiar looking bikers and followed them to our steeds. Unfortunately, it was at this point we discovered the damage to LincsGeek’s GS, and so we had to wait for others to leave the deck and speak to a member of staff before we could leave. When we eventually found someone who could help us, who turned out to be one of the guys off the ferry rather than on it, and who took a lot of time to find, he nodded his head, completed a form, and thankfully everything fell into place from there.
Overall our Brittany Ferries Bilbao to Portsmouth experience was rather mixed. It was okay enough, got the job done, but we feel rough thanks to the sea swell, and did have the issue of the damage on the bike. We would use it again, but will always favour other modes of transport for such long journeys.
Having done the almost-24 hour journey on the Brittany Ferries route from Bilbao to Portsmouth, I thought I’d offer up a few tips for other motorcyclists thinking of doing the same route (and for us to remember next time…).
Tips for Motorcycles and Ferries
Have your passport and tickets somewhere accessible when you leave your final destination as you will need them on arrival at the port. I have a very handy handlebar bag where I keep my wallet and passport, and have a couple of bulldog clips on my screen to hold boarding cards and other paperwork so it’s always right in front of me.
Leave your bike in gear, put it on the side stand, and lock the steering. Check whether or not you are meant to secure your bike or if the ferry company insist on doing it for you. For Brittany Ferries they will not allow bikers to strap their bikes down, but on other ferries we’ve used it has been our responsibility.
Pack a small overnight bag specifically for the ferry and either have it in your top box or strap it to your pillion seat so you don’t need to get into your panniers once you’re on the ferry. I had packed a specific overnight bag so I could quickly grab everything, but it was in my pannier which was a right pain to open and close due to the lack of space between bikes.
You don’t need much in that overnight bag; a change of clothes and shoes so you don’t have to stay in your bike jeans and boots for the crossing, something to wear in bed, some money, personal care items, and any bits and bobs you want for entertainment such as an iPad and headphones. We had bedding and towels provided in our cabin so did not need to worry about those things. The doors to the car decks are locked throughout the crossing so once you’ve left it, you can’t go back.
Take snacks and a refillable water bottle, everything on board is expensive.
Take photos of your bike in situ before you leave the parking deck it in case of any damage when you return. This really sped up the process for us as we had proof the new damage was done on board, and meant that once we found the right person, we were sorted and on our way in no time at all.
Make a note of the deck name/number before you leave your bike so you know where to find it at the end of your crossing. Easy done!
Take sea sickness pills before you depart. Don’t be like us and forget because it ruins the journey!
Go to the introductory talk on whale watching (which for us was almost as soon as the ferry left port), as they give you loads of info, and then join the team on deck to see what might be out there. The two Wildlife Officers on our ferry had binoculars and identification guides, and as you know, we did spot Orca from the deck.
The free WIFI on board is very slow and pretty rubbish for anything other than the odd text-only tweet or iMessage to a friend, so make sure you download books, films, music and other content before you go – just as you would on a plane.
Be sure to switch off data roaming as the on-board mobile network will cost you a fortune, even just to send texts. Thankfully we did know this ahead of time and so didn’t get any surprised bills.
Be kind and don’t start your engines until you’re actually told you can drive/ride away. They’re noisy and the decks quickly become full of fumes. That includes you, car drivers – especially if you’re on a deck with bikers who really don’t want to breathe in your exhaust for 20 minutes before there’s any chance of fresh air.
Relax and be patient – everyone will get on, everyone will get off again, there is no rush.
Don’t forget if you’re crossing a border while on the ferry you will need to go through immigration and passport control almost as soon as you’re off the boat; keep your passport handy. When you get to the booth, turn off your engine and take off your helmet as a matter of course; sometimes Officers will say there is no need at the time, but it is polite to at least start the process.
Have you done the Bilbao to Portsmouth route or another long ferry crossing with your motorbike? What hints and tips would you add to help other bikers?