"King Albert still owes me 17 francs"

Today it is 20 years ago to the day that the ferry link between the port of Ostend and the U.K. was stopped. Many of those involved with the state-owned ferry service still look back upon that spell with grief in their hearts, but also cherish the good memories. Our colleague Sabine Vandeputte looked up former employees to hear their stories. "Marriages came to an end together with the ferry service."
Luc Antoine, Eddy Lannoo, Jean-François Berden, Freddy Thijs

The company behind the ferry service, the RMT (Regie voor Maritiem Transport) was created in November 1971 with the demise coming in February 1997.

The ships were nicknamed "maalboten" by the Ostend locals, a word derived from the English word mail, as it originally transported mail to and from the English coast, a tradition that went back as far as 1846.

In fact, the publicly-owned shipping company was over 150 years old when the service was suspended. Many of those affected by the decision still get tears in their eyes when talking about it.

Its heydays were in the sixties, when Ostend was often packed with British travellers, day-trippers or others. The ships received names such as Prince Albert and Marie-Christine.

The wrong start

When the end of the RMT was announced on TV 20 years ago, this came as a shock, of course, to those involved, but not as a complete surprise. Things hadn't been looking very good for some time.

Luc Antoine: "The company had started with a historic debt burden in the bag (from its predecessor) and never got a fair chance, really." Jean-François Berden adds that "a poor management" was definitely part of the problem and is talking of far too many directors: "Could it be that they were anticipating a bankruptcy and trying to save their skin?"

A "Sabena at sea"

The construction of the last ferry, called "Prins Filip" after the present King Filip, was the symbol of the demise: the ship cost an arm and a leg - 4 billion Belgian francs or some 100 million euros - and was a prestigious project to give the RMT back its grandeur.

"It was the wrong choice. That budget would allow you to build two normal ships." A switch was made from Dover to Ramsgate, but this was of no avail. The RMT failed to deal with increasing competition. The Prins Filip is now still being used between Calais and Dover.

Some 1,700 employees lost their job. Due to the similarities with the former Belgian airline Sabena - also a long-time Belgian status symbol that disappeared and that involved a huge loss of jobs - some call it the Sabena at sea. (continue reading below the photo)

From the sea to prison or the Immigration Department

Some 300 people found employment with a smaller, private company called Transeurope Ferries - which would eventually also get bankrupt in 2013. Those with a long-term contract were offered a job elsewhere by the Belgian state.

"They asked for our preferences, but in fact this was not really taken into account", former employees say. Claudine Nayaert was transferred to the Immigration Department. Adriën Barbé: "They also provided counselling to help us deal with the new situation. Some had to become a prison guard and couldn't cope. I also know about marriages that came to an end as a result."

"Kong Albert still owes me 17 francs"

Claudine Nayaert still has good memories of the time when she was working for the RMT, but underlines that it was hard work. "I still remember that at one time, I was responsible for incoming calls and reservations. One day, they had started a promotion for 99 francs (2.5 euros, red). But they forgot that all the reservations would be coming through me..." 

Arne Pyson: "We only had two chefs on board for 1,700 passengers. And one person for the dishes... doing everything by hand."

"By the way, (the now retired) King Albert (at that time still Prince Albert) still owes me 17 francs. I had served him fried sole in his luxury cabin one night. But he still wanted a drink and the bill had been closed. So I paid it for him."