Britons throng French ferries to beat ash cloud

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Hundreds of exhausted British tourists descended on the French Channel port of Le Havre on Tuesday seeking to escape the continent and sail home aboard crowded ferries.

Six days after a cloud of volcanic ash swept south from Iceland and put Europe's airports out of action, Le Havre's maritime terminal is facing triple the normal number of passengers arriving by train, bus and hire car.

Waiting for their turn to board, the travellers wandered the streets of the Normandy port, dragging heavy luggage behind them.

For Penny Dickman and her family, the ferry journey will be the last stage of a gruelling overland voyage from the southern German city of Munich, 850 kilometres (530 miles) away, to her home near the British city of Portsmouth.

Trapped in Bavaria when European airspace was closed to protect passenger jets from the effects of the ash, they waited four days before deciding to take the train across two countries to Le Havre.

"We were hoping that the situation would resolve itself but finally we had to reserve ferry tickets on the Internet and take the train to Paris and then on to Le Havre," she told AFP at the harbour.

Penny's airline Easyjet paid for the first two nights in her Munich hotel, but after that the family had to fall back on its own resources. "They said it was a natural phenomenon that wasn't covered," she explained.

Jesus Esposito, a Spanish accordionist living in Liverpool, needed to get back to his British hometown to play an important concert with his band.

"We managed to hire a car in Santander where we were on holiday and come up overnight to Le Havre," he said, clearly delighted to have made it this far and still hopeful that he will be able to join rehearsals on Wednesday.

David Hogan and Andreas Lang needed to get 14 British students from Liverpool University back from an exchange visit in the Spanish city of Almeria. When their flight was cancelled, they hired a minibus.

The cost came to 4,000 euros (5,383 dollars) and, while the two professors expect the university's insurers will pay them back, many other travellers returning from holiday will be faced with hefty bills.

Jane Clements was not very impressed with her tour operator. She partnered with another family to travel back from Malaga for a cost of 2,500 euros between five people and has little hope of being reimbursed.

"There was no information, no insurance," she complained.

Along with the car hire firms and the railways, the ferry companies are rubbing their hands at this early boost to their fortunes.

"Traffic has gone up threefold since Thursday, and is running at the same level as in the summer high season," said Christophe Santoni, managing director of French ferry operator LD Lines.

His firm is carrying home 1,800 passengers per day from Le Havre and 1,200 from nearby Dieppe. "It's going well, the logistics are up to it, the sun is shining and people are happy to be going home," he smiled.

© 2010 AFP

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