P&O ferry gets the message
P & O European Ferries' Pride of Bilbao runs a three-day service between Portsmouth in the UK and the northern Spanish city of Bilbao.
Around Portsmouth the giant former Baltic ferry is affectionately known as ''the block of flats.'' But, as well as being the largest UK ferry, the vessel is also one of the most advanced.
According to Ocean Voice, the vessel's buff exterior conceals facilities on a par with those of many a cruise ship.
And the effort devoted to pampering the passenger is matched by a degree of operational sophistication seldom seen in this type of vessel.
A long-distance ferry relies on a shore-based infrastructure to provide the back-up it needs to keep to schedule.
As such, the vessel needs to be in touch with the shore almost constantly.
Pride of Bilbao's lifeline is a Marinet system that links its on-board, Wang VS mini-computer network with a similar network at the company's Portsmouth head office.
The connection is made via Inmarsat-A or cellular phone, depending on the ship's position.
Outside of cellular coverage, the vessel is totally reliant on sattelite communications.
But, when it is within range of an appropriate cellular network, a crew member simply switches over from satellite operation.
Andrew Smith, of P&O's computer services department, was part of the team that built the innovative link between the two systems.
''We set it up initially to save money,'' he said.
''Before we had the Marinet, most of the communication with the ship was by phone or fax - and with the amount of communication we need to do, that was costing a lot.'' Pride of Bilbao now calls into the Portsmouth office at three, pre-arranged times every day.
When it does so, all the ''messages'' waiting to be sent from the ship to the office and vice-versa are compressed and then exchanged simultaneously.