The date was December 9th, 1988. It was a fateful day, as it ultimately marked the end of Sunderland’s grand and treasured shipbuilding industry. On that day, a Superflex Kilo ferry was rolled out of the Pallion yard, the last ship ever to be constructed on the River Wear.
Britain had changed, and not to Sunderland’s benefit. The policies of the Thatcher government had deliberately gutted national industry with neoliberal economic policies, withdrawing state support and initiating mass privatisation. Mass unemployment ensured as many companies could no longer survive the austere environment.
These policies called time on Sunderland’s maritime industry and in the following weeks “Northeast Shipbuilders limited” based in the Pallion yard, closed its doors for the last time. But now 34 years on, what has happened to that final ship, that Superflex Ferry? Is it still in service? The answer is yes it is.
Now named the Mercandia I, this ferry, first began its career in Denmark, the first flag it was registered under. The Mercandia class ferries operate as a passenger service known as AS in the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden, many of its sister ships still do so today.
From here, the Mercandia went on a journey. It was sold upstream to Norway, before being sold back to a Danish company, before later becoming Croatian owned and then Italian, where it became a storage and cargo barge. It went through a variety of names, and since 2012 it has been known as Ersai 4, a name derived from a Chinese company, but now operating in Kazakhstan.
And as of today the ship continues to operate as a construction and energy extraction based vessel in Kazakhstan’s Caspian sea, far away from the River Wear which once created it. Few people may think much of a random ship, yet for us it is something special, because it is a legacy of Sunderland, the last of its kind.