Southern Belle operator blames Eastport for stopping trips

THE skipper of the Great Yarmouth pleasure boat, Southern Belle, says a lack of support by port operator EastPort and Network Rail are key reasons for him stopping his trips from Stonecutters' Quay.

Steve 'Tug' Wilson, 55, spent �150,000 restoring the former pleasure steamer to realise his dream of reviving the resort's pleasure boat tradition, which had vanished more than a decade earlier with the departure of the Golden Galleon.

On the day of his first sailing to Reedham across Breydon Water in July 2006, he unveiled plans to eventually expand the service to include sea trips to Scroby Sands and Southwold.

However, after a poor season last summer, during which he noticed a two-thirds drop in passenger numbers, he has decided to leave the Southern Belle at its mooring and not start trips again at Easter.

Instead, he will focus his business on the two boats he operates in Suffolk at Oulton Broad and Snape Maltings.

Mr Wilson, of Ferry Hill, Gorleston, said: 'The Southern Belle has not made money since we started and last year saw a big loss. The problem is that it costs twice as much to run one boat in Yarmouth as two boats in Suffolk.'

The increased cost of insurance that came from operating in a port was compounded by EastPort's decision to levy a passenger tax – it was the only place on the Broads where such a tax had to be paid, he added.

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The former Merchant Navy man also criticised EastPort for scuppering potentially profitable evening cruises across Breydon Water by refusing to open Breydon bridge in the evening.

He said: 'There would be tremendous demand for evening cruises to take in pubs in Reedham and the Berney Arms, We have found similar trips at Oulton Broad successful, but EastPort has ruled out the possibility here by insisting we are back by 9pm.'

Mr Wilson, who has lived close to the Broads all his life, said he had also run into problems with Network Rail over their swing bridges at Reedham and Somerleyton.

He said: 'There have been several occasions when our passengers have become stuck on the wrong side of the bridges when they break down, and we have also failed in our efforts to get Network Rail to reliably open the Reedham bridge on time. Sometimes we have been kept waiting 50 minutes, and when you are trying to run a service, that completely throws the schedule out.'

Longer trips he had introduced from Yarmouth to Oulton Broad had to be aborted last summer when the Somerleyton bridge was out of action for months.

Mr Wilson said if he could persuade people to start working with him he would not rule out relaunching his Yarmouth service next year.

EastPort chief executive Eddie Freeman insisted the port had tried to help the business wherever possible. He said Mr Wilson had been advised Breydon Bridge would be lifted for the Southern Belle within the hours of 6am and 10pm seven days a week.

He added that a 'nominal passenger toll' had been charged, consistent with other ports, and there had been no communication from Mr Wilson on the subject since it was set last year.

A spokesman for Network Rail said that owing to some works on the bridges last year there were restricted openings, but these had now been lifted.

She said: 'Somerleyton swing bridge is more than 100 years old and, despite its age, is a very complex piece of machinery. The improvement works we are doing on this will help us keep this vital transport link running for years to come.'