The Spike Island visitor attraction in Cork Harbour plans to introduce a second ferry to more than double passenger capacity in a bid to cope with surging visitor numbers.

Expressions of interest have been invited from ferry service providers after it emerged that prospective visitors to ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’ were turned away on several weekends during the peak tourist season last summer because the current ferry service was at capacity.

A global search is now underway to identify a suitable vessel. It is expected that a vessel will have to be specially built to ensure it can navigate through the challenging shallow waters around the island and pass under the low-lying bridge at Haulbowline.

Spike Island manager John Crotty said industry sources said a recent search showed that there were only three such vessel types in the world at the moment, and none was available to provide the service in Cork Harbour.

Despite the difficulties, he said Cork County Council, which oversees the visitor attraction, is particularly anxious to introduce a second ferry as soon as possible to ensure that everyone who wants to visit Spike can.

“We were certainly hitting pinch points on several weekends last June, July and August and we had to turn people away — which is obviously far from ideal,” he said.

“There is no doubt that we need to increase ferry capacity, and a tender process is underway, expressions of interest are coming in, and we would hope to have a second ferry in place by next May.”

Doyle Shipping Group provides the current ferry service between Cobh and Spike Island using the Bryan J vessel, with capacity for 78 people.

It has two scheduled sailings daily from Cobh — at 12 noon and 2pm — but extra sailings have been added at peak times to cope with demand.

Despite the extra sailings, people have still been turned away, such is the volume of visitors.

Mr Crotty said they hope to more than double ferry capacity by adding a second vessel, with capacity for 120-122 passengers.

“That will bring our total ferry capacity to around 200 people a day,” he said.

The reaction since Spike Island was opened as a visitor attraction last year has been phenomenal, with 40,000 visitors making the trip since. Of those, 10,000 visited Spike last August alone.

Spike Island opened for weekends only on St Patrick’s weekend and already, 5,000 people have visited.

The attraction is now open seven days a week until the end of September, with six ferry sailings a day during June, July and August.

The visitor attraction has set a target of welcoming 100,000 visitors a year by 2020.

Mr Crotty said the county council has, in recent months, also submitted an application to Fáilte Ireland for some €7.5m in funding to deliver phase two of Spike Island’s development plan.

It is hoped the funding, if sanctioned, will fund the development of a museum, allow for the introduction of a road train to carry visitors around the island, and build a welcome centre on the pier where visitors first land.

There are ambitious plans in phase three to develop two high-profile multi-million projects on the island — a national military museum and a national aquarium in an on-site building which has been deemed suitable.

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