Ships that Passed in the Night


Simultaneous departure from Bergen for Stavanger 1 and Sandnæs during the inter-company rivalry of the late 1920s.



Bergen, a sunny morning in late July 1974. The young Englishman, sated following his first ever Norwegian buffet breakfast, explores the quays along the northern shore of Vågen, from Tyskebryggen at the inner end (opposite the wooden buildings that once housed the city’s merchants) to outermost Skoltegrunnskaien, whence departs Bergenske’s Leda on her service to Newcastle. He has to admit to feeling slightly cheated: perhaps he has come here several years too late? Where are all the ships that provide local services to the fjordside and island communities? Surely Norway has not already gone the way of Scotland’s Western and Northern Isles, where car ferries crossing the shortest possible stretches of water have replaced the combined passenger and cargo inter-island ships? She has, though, and what is more, alongside the quays on the far, southern side of Vågen are a couple of the squat, ugly catamarans that are now killing off most of the remaining conventional local shipping services.


But what is this vision in green and white up ahead at Bradbenken, not far from where Bergenske’s Polarlys, southbound from Kirkenes, and destined to be the Englishman’s home for the next six days and seven nights, is scheduled to berth at lunchtime? The green hull strikes the visitor as slightly bizarre. After all, in Britain most respectable passenger ships wear staid black hulls, apart from those owned by British Rail, which over the past four or five years seems to have acquired a vast quantity of mid-blue paint at a discount price and slapped it on everything it owns that moves, in the name of corporate identity (a term which probably did not exist in 1974). But hull colour apart, this is a singularly well-proportioned motorship, pretty, almost.


The vessel appears to be deserted. There is nobody on watch at the gangway. Now, in Britain, one does not normally venture up a gangway unless one has a ticket for the vessel to which it provides access. Accustomed to years of hearing purser Vic Taylor’s Bristolian burr over Balmoral’s crackling tannoy exhorting ‘Your attention please, your attention please! Upper deck for landing at Ilfracombe, and have all your tickets ready!’, the young visitor is in two minds about committing what might possibly be an act of minor trespass. This country, though, compared with Britain, seems to him very relaxed and informal indeed – friendly even. The previous evening, while travelling from Oslo to Bergen, he was invited to enjoy a cab ride on the electric train operating the branch service from Voss to Granvin. The train and the branch line are, alas, no longer.


Curiosity gets the better of him.


He limits his exploration to the deck spaces. Everywhere is clean, neat, and orderly. It is hard to believe that this lovingly cared-for creature is barely one year younger than the frayed-around-the-edges Balmoral, and that she operates throughout the whole year, and not just in summer, on a service covering a shade under a hundred nautical miles every night. Somewhat more if one includes the round trip she makes from Stavanger to Sandnes during the day immediately after her overnight run south from Bergen, and before she prepares to return to the latter city the following evening.


For this is Sandnes, the last of the Nattrute ships, and her service is destined to become part of history from 1 September that year.


The Englishman takes a couple of rather poor photographs (the slide film, he later discovers, is defective, with blue horizontal lines running across the upper part of each slide). Then he discreetly slips ashore to continue his exploration of the city and to savour the wild bilberries that grow in the woodland park on the upper slopes of Fløyen.


He is ashamed to say that he does not even recall watching Sandnes sail, one hour before Polarlys, that evening. Perhaps he is too busy exploring his new temporary home, and wondering what opportunities will present themselves during the voyage for him to get to know the attractive young lady teacher from Birmingham, bound for Svolvær, whom he had ben talking with to in the rain on the quayside earlier that evening . . .