Cowes Floating Bridge
Cowes Floating Bridge (or Chain Ferry). Floating Bridge No 6, pictured, was first brought into service in May 2017.
|Transit type||Chain ferry|
|Carries||Up to 20 cars|
|Operator||Isle of Wight Council|
Floating Bridge Company
|Travel time||2-3 minutes|
|Frequency||Continuous while open|
|No. of vessels||1 (No. 6)|
The Cowes Floating Bridge is a vehicular chain ferry which crosses the River Medina on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. The ferry crosses the tidal river from East Cowes to Cowes. The first floating bridge between East Cowes and Cowes was established in 1859 and is one of the few remaining that has not been replaced by a physical bridge. The service is owned and operated by the Isle of Wight Council, who have run it since 1901. Prior to ownership by the local authority the service was run by The Floating Bridge Company and The Steam Packet Company (Red Funnel). The ferry currently used is named No. 6, the sixth to be owned by the Isle of Wight Council, and ninth in total. It was built in 2017 and can carry up to 20 cars. The Cowes floating bridge remains the only way to cross the River Medina between the towns without taking a ten-mile trip via Newport. The current vessel was built in 2017 and upon completion was installed on 14 May 2017. However, after a string of technical issues the service was suspended by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and a passenger-only replacement service provided by a small launch. After several months of service suspension and intermittent operation, full service finally resumed early in 2018.
Before any kind of floating bridge existed, a rowing boat ferry operated between Cowes and East Cowes transporting pedestrians only. This service was owned and operated by the Roberton family from 1720 to 1859. From 1842 carriages and animals could be transported across using a pontoon which was winched across under horse power. In 1859 the Floating Bridge Company was formed and bought the ferry rights. From 24 November 1859 the first steamboat was used, built on the River Itchen in Southampton. In 1868 the ferry was bought by The Steam Packet Company (which now trades as Red Funnel), and bought a new ferry for the service in 1882. This was used regularly until 1896 when it was used only as a spare when a new ferry was purchased.
The route was first taken over by the local authority in 1909, when the Cowes and East Cowes Urban District Councils took over their operation. With this, a new ferry was bought and started the system of naming vessels still used today, by numbering them in order of acquisition, the first being named Bridge No.1. These newer bridges were significantly different from past designs, with Bridge No.1 featuring power ramps and electric lighting and was built from steel. In 1925 Bridge No.2 was built, being the last steam powered ship. It was larger than any that had previously operated the route at over 100 ft long (30 m), with a capacity for eight cars. This was later sold on for use at Sandbanks when Bridge No.3 was built and arrived in 1936, being the first diesel-electric powered vessel. Bridge No.4 entered service in 1952 with a capacity for 12 cars. This was used regularly until 1975 when the current Bridge No.5 arrived with a capacity of up to 20 cars. From 1982 there were no reserve vessels in place for the route, leaving Bridge No.5 as the sole ferry operated. In 1988 a direct bus service was created between Ryde and Cowes which involved the bus travelling over on the floating bridge. Small buses had to be used to guarantee space on the crossing, however the service was withdrawn by 1990.
In 2006 the Isle of Wight Council considered converting the floating bridge to only transport vehicles across the River Medina, setting up a launch for pedestrians with a charge of 50p. Prior to this the last time a foot passenger charge was in operation was until 1992, when the vehicle tolls were raised from 75p to £1.25 to compensate for any lost income. While this initially resulted in a slump in crossings from 300,000 to less than 210,000 in 1993, as the diversion travelling via Newport became more congested the popularity of the floating bridge began to rise again. The argument was put forward that by taking out passenger compartments the overall capacity of the ferry could be increased by up to 30 per cent. Following this it was hoped that the service could become profitable, as it has historically always made a loss. However, the idea of introducing a charge was very unpopular with local residents, councillors and businesses and the threat receded.
Earlier vessels included stairs to give passengers access to roofs covering the vehicle deck, a feature not present on Bridge No. 5. After 40 years of operation Bridge No. 5 made its last journey on 3 January 2017, and is currently laid up awaiting sale in Gosport.
Occasionally the idea of replacing the chain ferry with a swing bridge or tunnel is brought up, however this has yet to materialise into a serious debate.
The ferry operates daily, normally for around 18 hours a day between 05:00 to 00:30, although starts slightly later on Sundays. There are regular crossings at around every 10–15 minutes, with no formal timetable. Public transport connections are available on both sides by Southern Vectis bus route 1 in Cowes and routes 4 and 5 in East Cowes linking to Newport and Ryde. Annually, the floating bridge transports around 1.5 million pedestrians and 400,000 vehicles. At certain times of the year the ferry is unable to operate as it goes through an annual refit. During this time a foot passenger ferry is operated, however the only alternative for vehicles is to travel along the River Medina and cross at Newport.
The tidal nature of the River Medina can periodically restrict operations of the floating bridge during times very low tides. In September 2007 exceptionally low tides caused by a full moon resulted in the river being too shallow for the bridge to operate. Similarly in 2003 the ferry was left stranded on the banks of the East Cowes side of the river as the tide decreased due to difficulties with a vehicle disembarking the vessel, leaving it grounded. It was then unable to move until the next high tide later that day.
Due to the Isle of Wight Council Budget Cuts in 2010, the Isle of Wight Council began considering charging 50p each way for pedestrians, cyclists, car passengers, and pillions on the floating bridge. In January 2011, the East Cowes Town Council passed a resolution about the floating bridge and residents have been calling for a public consultation on the floating bridge regarding a financial barrier to cross the 70 metres (lowest tide) to 140 metres (highest tide) could affect the local economies of the two interdependent towns. The River Medina traditionally has not been bridged with a fixed-link bridge in order to allow yachts and barges carrying goods to pass up river to the rest of the island. The last charge for pedestrians ended in 1992 and was 10p (which in 2011 is equivalent to 16p). As of September 2016, pedestrian and bicycle charges were 70p for a return using a Saver Card, or £1 for a return using the ticket machines, although under 18s still remain as free.
The current vessel Floating Bridge No.6 was built by Welsh boat builders Mainstay Marine. It has an expected lifespan of 40 years and around twice the carrying capacity of previous vessel, Floating Bridge No.5. It was attached to the Isle of Wight on 3 May 2017. Despite delays, the vessel's maiden voyage took place ten days later on 13 May 2017. The following day, the vessel broke down due to a power outage, forcing passengers to wade through the River Medina to disembark the ferry. Further problems were caused by the angle of the slipway causing cars to scrape bumpers when loading and unloading from the East Cowes side. On 15 May 2017, the Maritime Coastguard Agency suspended the service, citing "training issues". The temporary pedestrian launch which had been used after the previous vessel's retirement and the new vessel's installation was re-instated, but vehicles were once again forced to take the 10-mile round trip through Newport. After several months of suspension and intermittent operation, full service resumed in early 2018.
In March 2017, the Isle of Wight Council, who operate the floating bridge stated it was open to suggestions from residents for a new name for the vessel after originally registering it as Floating Bridge No.6. Despite council officials ruling out "Floaty McFloatface" as a name, a petition was later created to name the vessel Floaty McFloatface, attracting over 2,000 signatures and even caused the council to rescind on its decision to veto the name. Alternate name suggestions included Błyskawica, after the Polish warship that defended the towns of Cowes and East Cowes from a Nazi bombing raid during the Second World War. However, the Council later stated it was postponing the naming of the vessel until some point after local elections took place later in the month.
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