An army of Leinster rugby fans set sail from deep in Munster territory yesterday on the inaugural voyage of the first direct ferry link between Ireland and Spain.

The fans, who are travelling to watch the European Rugby Champions Cup final in Bilbao on Saturday, helped ensure that the first sailing of the new Brittany Ferries’ service from Cork to Santander, just west of Bilbao on Spain’s northern coast, was sold out.

Also on board were several million euro worth of supercars, and their drivers, including Grafton Barbers supremo Hugh McAllister, his dad Hugh Sr, and Niall Russell, who were able to relax on board after staff at the Port of Cork’s Ringaskiddy terminal expertly loaded their Lamborghinis, McClarens, Bentleys, and BMW M4s onto the MV Connemara.

They are heading to Spain for a 3,000km, 10-day fundraising tour for childrens’ charity the Bubblegum Club.

“It just made sense to be on the maiden voyage,” said Mr McAllister. “It’s great value for money, the lads were great with the loading, they were very efficient, and everything ran smoothly.”

Mr Crowley said the original plan was to travel to Spain via the UK. “But then we heard about the launch of this ferry service we thought, that’s the way to go,” he said.

“The ferry is absolutely gorgeous. It’s spotless. And the port staff were very professional and helpful, loading a couple of million euro worth of cars.”

The ferry link has been a strategic goal of the Port of Cork for almost 14 years.

The 186m long, 120-cabin MV Connemara will offer two overnight sailings a week — leaving Cork on Wednesdays and Fridays, arriving in Spain 26 hours later, and returning from Santander on Sundays and Thursdays. It has capacity for up to 400 car passengers, 80-100 cars, and 100 trailers.

The vessel will also deliver an additional weekly return-sailing from Cork to Roscoff, boosting capacity on the existing line to France.

Hugh Bruton, general manager of Brittany Ferries Ireland, said they were delighted to see the customer demand for the new service.

The Port of Cork company’s commercial manager, Captain Michael McCarthy, said they hope it will prove popular with both outbound and inbound tourists, and with the haulage industry, especially against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty.

The service will cut some 1,200km off the road journey for hauliers who currently sail from Rosslare via the UK landbridge to France or Spain.

Mr McCarthy said by using this ferry, hauliers could save around €1 per kilometre on fuel — a €1,200 saving per trip per truck.

Port of Cork company chairman John Mullins said as well as the tourism and tonnage boost, the ferry terminal is now being used for four turnarounds a week, creating jobs locally.

The MV Connemara follows the successful économie model established by Brittany Ferries on services from the UK to France and Spain.

Passengers can expect a comfortable but no-frills service, with a small shop, café-bar, and passenger lounges. The ship also has several pet-friendly cabins.

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