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We have been a Part of Island Life for over 160 years. 

Barge unloading at Fishbourne in 1926

From as early as 1796, ferries have been operating across the Solent, linking the Isle of Wight to the mainland. In the early nineteenth century, the poor road systems encouraged people to travel by sea between Lymington, a beautiful port in the New Forest area, and Portsmouth. Originally, steam ferries operated a circular route around Lymington, Yarmouth, Cowes, Ryde and Portsmouth. Then the rail companies themselves became involved in the operation of the ferries, with individual routes appearing between Lymington and Yarmouth and Portsmouth and Ryde.

MV Cuthred

Ownership of the ferries eventually passed from the British Railways Board to Sealink UK Limited. In 1984, when Sealink UK Limited was de-nationalised, the operating name became Sealink British Ferries. This company was subsequently bought by the Bermudan based Sea Containers Limited. In 1990 Stena Line bought Sealink British Ferries, but the Isle of Wight Ferries remained with Sea Containers, who renamed the company Wightlink.  

In June 1995, Wightlink was the subject of a management buy-in and became a private company until 2005, when it was acquired by the Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund.  The company has gone a long way from its early pioneering days of steam travel. Now we operate a fleet of eight car and passenger ferries from Lymington to Yarmouth and Portsmouth to Fishbourne, along with three high-speed FastCat catamarans between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier.

Every year, we carry over 5 million passengers, over 1.2 million cars and almost 200,000  coaches and freight vehicles on our three routes to the Island. With eleven ships in the fleet and a revenue of some £51 million a year, we are one of the biggest domestic ferry operators in the UK.

Chronological History

The Lord of the Manor in Ashey sets up the earliest recorded ferry service from the Isle of Wight, controlling the boats which crossed to Portsmouth from the fishing village of “Ride”.

A daily rota of fishermen are required to make a crossing to Portsmouth and back; failure to do so results in a fine! Sailings are as frequent as every two hours in the summer. A special type of sailing boat, the “Ryde Wherry” later replaces the fishing boats.

The first purpose built Isle of Wight ferry enters regular service. “The Packet” was a large sailing boat, which makes the crossing between Portsmouth to Ryde seafront twice a day.

Two return trips each day are run between Bugle Inn, Ryde and the Quebec Tavern, Portsmouth.

A bill is promoted to build a pier at Ryde and becomes law in 1812. The foundation stone is laid in June 1813 and the pier is opened in 1814.

The first steamship service to the island commences. ‘Britannia’ operates between Portsmouth and Ryde, making two trips a day. However this service is later withdrawn, as she is an unsuitable vessel for the eastern Solent.

Ryde Pier is lengthened and enlarged so it can accommodate new ships.

5th April 1825
Steam returns to Ryde. PS “Union” enters service and operates between Portsmouth and Ryde, which carries wheeled vehicles and livestock, two months later she is followed by “Arrow”. The “Lord Yarborough” is the third ship to be introduced onto this route and enters service in 1826. A fourth ship “Earl Spencer” enters service in 1833. All steamers are owned by the “Portsmouth & Ryde Steam Packet Company”.

5th April 1830
A ferry service between Lymington and Yarmouth commences. Using the wooden steamer Glasgow, she sails to Cowes and Portsmouth from Yarmouth. With no rail connections, ship is the easiest way to move cargo and people! The Mayflower joins the route in 1874 and in 1888, the service was sold to the railway company ‘London & South Western’.

As many as 10 sailings a day are operated during the summer between Portsmouth and Ryde. The Victoria Pier in Old Portsmouth is opened during May.

The Albert Pier is opened and stretches some 1,200 ft into Portsmouth Harbour allowing the Steamers to embark and disembark passengers.

The first direct railway line opens when the London Brighton & South Coast Railway linked Portsmouth with London via Hove. Passengers can now be moved by omnibus between Portsmouth Station and Victoria Pier for onward travel to the Isle of Wight. Also during this year the Lymington-built Price Albert joins the fleet and operates between Portsmouth & Ryde.

Competition begins! “The Portsea, Portsmouth, Gosport and Isle of Wight New Steam Packet Company” begins with three ships; Prince of Wales, Princess Royal and Her Majesty. 1851 ends, and the two companies merge.

1st January 1852
The Port of Portsmouth and Ryde United Steam Packet Company Ltd commence service.

1st July 1861
Clarence Pier is opened to the public. Steamers to and from the Island call in and soon take a large amount of traffic. Up to seven boats run the link.

1st November 1863
Another pier is built in Ryde. Victoria Pier is built by a new company running a service to Stokes Bay near Gosport in competition with the Portsmouth link. Money runs out with the pier stretching only 970 feet out into Spithead instead of 2,420ft. Sadly, the tide retreats up to 2,000 feet, so at low tide the original pier is used. Victoria Pier is later demolished.

31st March 1880
The railways take over. The Ryde service is bought by the London & South West and the London, Brighton and South Coast railway companies for £38,000. The former operator purchases the Lymington service too. Up to 13 sailings a day are made between Portsmouth and Ryde, with five on Sundays.

The Ryde service under the Railway Companies thrives. Up to 26 daily sailings are made and six modern steamers are in service.

742 cars had been shipped between Portsmouth and the George Street slipway in Ryde, but then the First World War cuts this back, to as few as 48 cars by 1918. 845,000 people use the Portsmouth to Ryde Pier service.

World War One. Four of the six steamers are requisitioned as minesweepers.

The Southern Railway take over all railway and ferry services in South East England as part of the governments massive transport scheme. 1.3 million people are carried on the Ryde Pier service in this year and the ships colours change. The black hull with white upper works stay, but the white funnel with black buff is replaced with a yellow funnel and black buff. Traffic picks up again on the Ryde tow boat service and 1163 cars are carried.

Southern Railway’s first steamer takes to the Ryde link. She is named after a place and not a member of the royal family, Shanklin is joined by the Merstone and Portsdown in 1931.
Ryde towboat service carries 1356 cars.

Last full year of towboat operation between Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Esplanade. Service carries 1,718 cars.

Towboat service moves to Fishbourne Creek, with the building of a westward facing slipway and road reaching Fishbourne Lane. Total cars carried reaches almost 4,000.

21 June 1927
First purpose built car ferry for any Isle of Wight service is launched. William Denny & Bros in Dumbarton, Scotland, builds M.V Fishbourne at a price of £12,700. She carries up to 18 cars and measures 131 feet by 25 feet, 8 feet deep and operates with two diesel engines that manage a service speed of 8 knots. Crossing time is 55 minutes from the slipway adjacent to the Still & West public house in Old Portsmouth, to the Fishbourne slipway. The ship is double ended in design, with loading ramps at both “ends” which lower directly onto the slipways. Passenger accommodation is below the car deck. Foot passengers are not carried.

23rd July 1927
M.V Fishbourne begins service between Portsmouth and Fishbourne making two return crossings daily.

21st June 1928
A sister vessel is added to the route. From the same builders, but slightly larger and more refined M.V Wootton takes up service days later, increasing the capacity further on a route which is becoming very popular.

12th March 1930
The Island’s largest purpose built ships take to the water in Scotland. The paddle steamers Whippingham and Southsea are 253ft long (the same as the current Saint class vessels) and carry 1,183 passengers. They are mainly used on summer excursions and cruises with a service speed of 16½ knots.

14th June 1930
The General Manager of Southern Railway’s Isle of Wight services reports that increased traffic on the route warrants a further vessel. At a cost of £17,500 M.V Hilsea takes up service.

The three ships on the service are finding it hard going to meet the demands of the new service. The summer weekends see 15 round trips between them.

P.S Sandown is built. Slightly smaller than the previous two ships, but largely designed for the day-to-day run to Ryde Pier.

Sister ship P.S Ryde enters service. (She will be the Isle of Wight’s last paddle steamer in service, withdrawing on 13th September 1969. She will end her days laid up on the River Medina, Isle of Wight after serving as a nightclub through the 1970’s).
The Fishbourne-Portsmouth service carries 24,000 cars.

1st May 1938
After one hundred odd years, a change to the Lymington service. Paddle steamers Solent and Freshwater are the latest in a long line on this popular route, also pulling towboats across with cars and livestock. The main Island berth is Yarmouth Pier. But on 1st May 1938 the revolutionary car ferry Lymington enters service. A much-improved version to the Fishbourne boats, she carries 17 cars and 516 passengers at 10 knots, making the crossing in 30 minutes. Slipways are built at Lymington Pier and Yarmouth, next to the castle. Lymington is revolutionary because of her propulsion. No propellers or rudder, but two ‘Voith Schneider’ units, pointing downwards from the hull with five fins that rotate on the unit. The fins can have their pitch altered giving thrust in any direction. She could turn on her own length. (So successful is this method of propulsion, that it will still be used by the Isle of Wight car ferries in the year 2003).

Both Fishbourne and Wootton are occupied on military service as mine sweepers. Both vessels are involved with the Dunkirk evacuations. Although they reach the French shoreline, they are not used to carry personnel back to Britain.

1st September 1948
Nationalisation. The big four railway companies and their shipping divisions are amalgamated to form British Railways. Their first ships are two motor vessels ordered by the Southern Railway in 1946 for the Ryde Pier service. Brading and Southsea are built by the famous William Denny Bros. of Dumbarton, and are 60 metres long and very broad at 13 metres wide. They are 837 gross tonnes and carry over 1,000 passengers in two classes. Their crossing speed is 14½ knots and they are the first Isle of Wight ships to carry RADAR. Another car ferry is added at Lymington. Powered by diesel but using paddle wheels, the Farringford is another unique ship. Carrying 36 cars and 600 passengers in accommodation above the car deck, she is of a much-improved design.

Sister motor vessel Shanklin joins the fleet. A slightly improved version of the earlier twins, she replaces the paddler of the same name.

The Portsmouth to Ryde service is in its heyday. On the August Bank holiday, over 60,000 people use the route in that one day. Since the end of the war, queues on a Saturday regularly stretch the whole length of Ryde Pier and reached up Union Street. With three diesel ships and three paddle steamers, the ships simply could not cope. Fishermen would tout for trade off the side of the promenade deck for passengers!

Freshwater replaces the paddler of the same name at Lymington. The car ferry is a much-improved version of Lymington carrying 26 cars and 520 passengers.

After plenty of investment in the Lymington-Yarmouth service, it was time to overhaul the Fishbourne operation. The three pioneering ferries could no longer cope with demand. Bookings for passage needed to be made months in advance to guarantee a place. At a cost of £1 million, a new wider slipway and terminal is built further inside the Camber Docks away from the harbour entrance, opposite the current Wightlink head office building in Broad Street. At Fishbourne, a new wider slipway is built facing seaward. A large marshalling area is created on the old slipway approach road. Two new twin ferries are constructed by Philips of Dartmouth to operate on the service. The M.V Camber Queen and M.V Fishbourne II double the routes capacity, carrying 34 cars and 165 passengers. They cross in 45 minutes at a service speed of 10½ knots. Both ships weigh in at 293 gross tonnes and enter service in July and August 1961. An hourly service is maintained and for the first time, foot passengers are carried.

The beginning of the 24-hour operation. Sailings from the new Broad Street slipway to Fishbourne are at 00.00, 02.00, 04.00 and 06.00, with odd hour departures from Fishbourne.

Winter 1963
Due to the severe winter, Wootton Creek freezes and both ferries have to cross from Portsmouth to Yarmouth for a few days at the end of January. The crossing time was 2 hours!

1963 season
The Fishbourne service carries 54,919 cars.

Numbers continue to increase. 59,982 cars are carried and the spare Yarmouth ferry M.V Lymington is brought in to help with demand.

Southsea, Brading and Shanklin receive extensive overhauls. They return with an extra funnel ‘spar’ deck and are totally one-class vessels, with completely new modern interiors. Their tonnage increases to 986 and 937 respectively.
Demand jumps. 273,566 cars and 24,000 freight vehicles use the Fishbourne service this year.

Summer 1968
High-speed experiments. Using Hovermarine HM2 side walled hovercraft (mostly catamaran with a hovercraft skirt at the bow and stern) are used on the route. A year earlier, hovercraft ran from Portsmouth to Cowes as part of British Rail’s ‘Seaspeed’ hovercraft operation. (This operates up until 1971/2, when due to the unreliability of craft the experiments end).

June 1969
The two 1961 vessels cannot cope, so British Rail orders a third ferry for the service. This time, the ship is much bigger and of a different design compared to any previous Isle of Wight car ferry. Passenger accommodation is located above the car deck for the first time, extending over the entire width of the vehicle deck. Built by Richards of Lowestoft at a cost of £275,000 - M.V Cuthred could carry 48 cars and 400 passengers. Whilst her service speed is similar to that of the Camber Queen and Fishbourne she differs in her design, taking the quality of service on offer to a much higher level. A gross tonnage of 750 makes her the Island’s largest car ferry.

13th September 1969
The Isle of Wight’s last steam powered ship retires. Ryde sails from Ryde Pier at 19:18 for Portsmouth and over 150 years of history ends. She becomes a nightclub venue off the River Medina in Binfield on the Island. (She is still there to this day).

British Rail names their shipping division ‘Sealink’. All vessels have this name added to their hulls this year.

27th July 1973
A fourth car ferry is added to the service. A much-improved version of Cuthred, the new vessel is one of three identical ships. At 61 metres long and 15 metres wide, the £1.8million C-Class vessel M.V Caedmon is a far superior vessel to the existing ships. She carries 52 cars and 756 passengers in much improved accommodation and is 761 gross tonnes. A service speed of 11 knots makes her turn-round times easier. Her two sisters Cenwulf and Cenred enter service at Yarmouth.

At their annual refits, all C-Class vessels are fitted with hoistable mezzanine decks, increasing their capacity from 48 and 52 to 72 and 76 cars respectively. The service continues to grow and remains the largest carrier of vehicles across the Solent, providing the only 24-hour service.

June 1979
Despite a four-ship shuttle service and 24-hour operation, the current Fishbourne service is unable to cope. The Broad Street terminal had been outstripped by the number of vehicles using the route with cars streaming into Broad Street itself. As in the late 1950’s, bookings are needed months in advance to guarantee you a crossing. With Cuthred and Caedmon the maximum has been reached in terms of the size of vessel able to use the berth. Portsmouth City Council finds the answer with the £2million purchase of the old Gunwharf Road power station. They lease the land back to Sealink, who then build a new ferry terminal on the site of the old dock complex. The agreement between Sealink and the City Council paves the way for a complete revolution of the service.

Shanklin is withdrawn and sold from the Ryde link. Being the least mechanically sound out of the three diesel ships the remaining two vessels are worked harder to cover. (She’s sold to the Waverley Trust as their Prince Ivanhoe but strikes rocks off the welsh coast in 1982 and is lost). The catamaran Highland Seabird is chartered from Western Ferries in Scotland and is used as an experiment on the Ryde service.

20th February 1982
The last sailing from the Broad Street slipway and the terminal is closed. The next day, the Portsmouth car ferry operates from the new Gunwharf Road terminal for the first time. All four ships have had to have their prows altered for linkspan operation. The terminal building is still being constructed and does not open until 1983.

August 1982
The wind of change continues. Construction of the Fishbourne linkspan begins. 78,000 cubic metres of material are removed from Wootton Creek to widen and deepen the main channel in readiness for the fourth generation of vessel.

Winter 1982
Problems at Ryde. Due to the withdrawal of Shanklin a spare car ferry is needed when the two diesels are away at refit. The 620-passenger capacity Freshwater is drafted in from Lymington, but is far from ideal. At peak times, passengers had to squeeze into the small lounges and stand on the open car deck. The solution is to load two redundant Southern Vectis single deck buses at Fishbourne for passengers to sit in!

Summer 1983
Another high-speed experiment. The side walled hovercraft Ryde Rapid makes daily crossings between Ryde Pier and Clarence Pier in Southsea. Successful, but only on calm days!

3rd July 1983
The revolution is complete. The biggest ferry ever to serve the Isle of Wight enters service. At a cost of £5million, the 2,036 gross tonne M.V St. Catherine causes a sensation. Local press described the 1961 ships as looking like “toys” next to her. At 77 metres long and 17 metres wide, she becomes the first ferry to carry over 100 cars, totalling 142 and 1,000 passengers. Gone is the two propeller double-ended design for the asymmetric three-propeller layout with a bridge mounted forward. Passenger accommodation is over two decks above the car deck, with two bar areas and plenty of deck space. Passengers are also asked to leave their vehicles for the first time during the crossing. Another improvement is the crossing time. With a service speed of 12½ knots a 35-minute crossing can be maintained. Fishbourne and Camber Queen are duly withdrawn and Caedmon is transferred to join her sisters at Lymington replacing the Freshwater.

28th November 1983
The second super ferry M.V St. Helen enters service; taking the title for the largest Isle of Wight ferry in history from her sister, by weighing in at 2,983 gross tonnes.

1st July 1984
Sealink UK Ltd is privatised. Sold to Sea Containers for £66 million. The two Ryde Pier diesels are the only ships in the fleet to service the whole of nationalisation! That winter a new livery is applied to the ships, using more white with a dark blue funnel and a gold ‘admiral’ motif as logo. During 1985 the company became ‘Sealink British Ferries’.

29th March 1986
Modernisation at Ryde. Replacements for Brading and Southsea had been sought for some time, but the government decides that Sealink’s new owners should decide if conventional or high-speed vessels are needed. The answer comes from Tasmania in the shape of the 470 passenger Our Lady Patricia. Named after one of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s daughter’s, she crosses the Solent at 29½ knots, making Ryde in 15 minutes. She is joined by a sister, Our Lady Pamela in July, replacing the 38-year-old Southsea. A 20-minute frequency is maintained during the summer months.

23rd March 1987
The service receives its third super ferry, further cementing the routes No.1 position. M.V St. Cecilia is the first English built Sealink ferry since 1961. Almost identical to her earlier sisters, she weighs in at 2,968 gross tonnes. The last of the old double ended, slipway-loading ships Cuthred is withdrawn from service.

11th September 1988
Southsea makes her last Ryde Pier to Portsmouth crossing, retiring after 40 years service and spending the last two years on a cruising programme. In 1989 she is moved from Portsmouth to Falmouth but remains in the Sealink fleet. (She will be sold in 1991, but after various different locations, will be back in Portsmouth in 2003, further up the harbour awaiting restoration by enthusiasts!).

16th July 1990
A fourth Saint class joins the fleet. Costing £7.5million the M.V St. Faith is the first Isle of Wight ferry to weigh more than 3,000 gross tonnes. The 3,009 gross tonne ship is built in England by the same yard that built “St. Cecilia”.

Sealink becomes Wightlink, Isle of Wight Ferries after Sea Containers sell off Sealink British Ferries to Stena Line (whilst retaining the Isle of Wight services). A new livery is introduced for all vessels.

Local harbour commissioners quash plans for new 75 metre by 15 metre vessels for the Lymington service. The new ships would be of similar design to the Fishbourne ‘Saints’ but with a bridge at either end. The three 1973 built ships were sent for extensive overhauls that winter to extend their working lives.

Sea Containers sell Wightlink to a management buy in led by Michael Aiken and financed by venture capitalists CinVen.

1999 - Enter the ‘FastCat’
To increase the awareness of the Ryde service, a distinctive new yellow and white stripped livery was applied to the Our Lady Patricia and Our Lady Pamela and the route is now ran under the ‘FastCat’ banner.

12th August 2000
Built in Singapore in 1996, two catamarans are purchased for the Ryde service. With water jet propulsion and the first Isle of Wight vessels fitted with stabilisers, they are a giant leap forward in high-speed comfort for any of the Island services. Also fitted with TV’s and a café bar for the service, they cruise at 34 knots. Passengers are allowed to roam around the inside of the vessels for the first time since the introduction of high speed vessels and in fact are the only craft serving the Island where this is possible. FastCat Shanklin and FastCat Ryde share the route with 1986 built craft, all operating in the distinctive yellow and white ‘FastCat’ livery.

July 2001
Demand is beginning to outstrip the four Saint class vessels and further capacity is needed. The introduction of a Polish built £11.5million vessel is made. At 5,300 gross tonnes, she is by far the largest ferry ever to serve the Island. 86 metres long, 18 metres wide and capable of carrying over 180 cars and 770 passengers, she is a vast improvement on the already highly popular Saint Class. M.V. St. Clare is of double-ended design, as were the routes pioneering vessels. Operating at 13½ knots, passengers enjoy the most superior facilities of any ship operating to the Island.

The capacity to run a FIVE ship service for the first time, enabling Wightlink to meet the demand for crossings from even more tourists, Island residents plus their friends and relatives and businesses so important to the economy of the Isle of Wight. Over a million cars use the Portsmouth-Fishbourne and Lymington-Yarmouth services.

Wightlink is acquired by the Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund, a wholesale fund which makes long-term investments in infrastructure and related assets in European OECD Countries.

Wightlink announces the order of two new ferries for the Lymington - Yarmouth route. An option for a third is soon confirmed with the shipyard in Croatia.

Wight Light, Wight Sky and Wight Sun are launched in Croatia. Wightlink reveales plans for new catamarans which will operate the Portsmouth - Ryde service and enlargements to the Portsmouth - Fishbourne car ferries. These programmes, along with associated shore works the new Lymington ships and new IT systems brings the investment to nearly £57 million.

Wight Light, Wight Sky and Wight Sun begin operation on the Lymington-Yarmouth route in early Spring.  Terminal redevelopments are undertaken at Fishbourne to increase the marshalling area, along with a new terminal building being built. 

Wight Ryder I & II arrive in the Solent after being purpose built in the Philippines, and after the shoreworks were completed at both Portsmouth Harbour & Ryde Pier, both new catamarans came into service on 29 September, offering customers a more robust and reliable service. 

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