Published: 06:00, 18 August 2020
| Updated: 09:33, 18 August 2020
If you have been waiting to take the ferry from Sheppey to Southend you have missed the boat.
Dave Wilcock, the owner of Island Cruises, scuppered further trips after upping anchor and sailing his 145-seater boat 150 miles to Poole at the weekend.
In a surprise Facebook message he told dejected customers: "Unfortunately due to the Covid-19 outbreak I have taken the decision to move the Spirit of Sheppey around the coast to Dorset.
"Although our evening cruises are very popular, our main daily cruises and trips are not as popular as we would have hoped for coming out of the pandemic. The boat is therefore running at a loss.
"To ensure our survival we have decided to join forces with an established company in Poole for the time being to run a service off Bournemouth Pier."
The Spirit of Sheppey was built in 1974 and originally plied her trade as the blue-coloured Dorset Belle from Bournemouth Pier. But in 2011 she was sold off.
When retired cop Mr Wilcock, 55, bought her in 2018 for a reported £190,000 she was red, based in Wales and called the Dame Shirley. He renamed her the Spirit of Sheppey. During this year's refit in January she was painted blue again.
Mr Wilcock said: "She has operated successfully for a number of years off Poole Pier and we hope she will continue to do so."
But he added: "We are actively looking for a new smaller vessel to replace the Spirit of Sheppey in the short term.
"We have a few lovely boats in our sights with bags of character which will be more suited to operate from Queenborough. We expect normal service to resume soon with a replacement boat."
As soon as the news leaked out Richard Bain, who runs rival ferry firm Jetstream Tours from Strood, announced he was looking to fill the gap.
It was his boat the Jacob Marley which Mr Wilcock used for his pilot trip in 2017 to test the waters.
Mr Bain said: "The Jacob Marley is very well suited for both piers and we are keen to provide a cost-effective and reliable passenger service from Kent to Southend.
"Whilst Covid has provided us all with some challenges, Jetstream Tours hope that routes from Queenborough can be established relatively quickly to provide an alternative regular crossing for leisure users on the Lower Thames."
His boat has recently undergone an extensive refit and has been awarded a higher level passenger certificate to enable all-year round operations to Southend and the Redsand Towers."
The Spirit of Sheppey has almost been a jinxed ship.
Mr Wilcock must be one of the most unluckiest men afloat as he fought all the odds to restart a ferry service from Sheppey to Southend Pier.
The pilot trip to Southend Pier in 2017 sold out and suggested the service would be viable.
But then a string of mishaps led many passengers to lose confidence. A May 2018 start had to be postponed when the arrival of the boat was delayed by horrific storms.
Bad weather, red tape and engine breakdowns all followed leading to numerous disappointments. Just when Mr Wilcock thought everything was sorted and he was looking forward to a record-breaking run this year the coronavirus pandemic put paid to his plans.
When he restarted socially-distanced trips customers complained of glitches booking tickets on the company’s website.
A switch back to Dorset may have already been on the cards as Mr Wilcock returned the boat to its original blue during a refit and re-introduced the Dorset Belle logo.
He said: "I am not a superstitious chap but people say it is unlucky to rename a ship. She is to get her original name back and has been painted in the original colours she had when she left the slipway. I am hoping our luck will begin to change. It has been horrendous up to now.
"When we were able to restart trips to Southend the first week sold out. The second was fair and then bookings began to dry up."
"This was going to be our year after two years of setbacks. The boat is in a terrific condition and sailed through her annual inspection. April was sold out and then we had the Covid-19 lockdown.
"When we were able to restart trips to Southend the first week sold out. The second was fair and then bookings began to dry up.
"It costs £77 an hour to run the boat. I couldn't survive on just sunset cruises and trips to see the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery. I needed customers for the day as well. A friend in Poole had the opposite problem. He had customers but his boat was too small.
"This way I am keeping the boat in work and will reassess what happens in October."
He stressed: "I have gone into survival mode but I am not turning my back on Sheppey. We still have our office in Blue Town and more plans for later in the year."