Hospitality & Tourism

Welcome home: Duo's labour of love as the Dorset Belle returns restored to her full glory

The Dorset Belle back on her old stamping ground in Poole Bay. Picture: Dorset Biz News.

By Staff Reporter [email protected]

Published: April 16, 2021 | Updated: 17th April 2021

She’s back home – with her original skipper – and looking better than ever.

The Dorset Belle, one of the three Belles that were such a familiar sight criss-crossing Poole Bay, has returned for a full season of pleasure cruises.

And, if things go to plan, a lot more.

Ali Oliver and Dave Wilcock.

A labour of love for owner Dave Wilcock who has spent more than a third of a million pounds on first buying, and then fully restoring, the craft.

And also Ali Oliver, back behind the wheel.

He was just about the last person to see off the remaining two of the three original Belles – the Bournemouth Belle and the Dorset Belle – when the licence to operate from Bournemouth Pier was lost in 2011.

The Poole Belle had left her sisters five years earlier, in 2006, bound for the Forth in Scotland.

For Ali, then Maritime Operations Manager, the loss of the Belles marked the end of an era.

But now he’s back on the vessel that holds so many happy memories.

“Yes, it feels good and I’m very pleased to be working with Dave,” said Ali, 54, pictured, who has become a business partner with Dave in Dorset Belle Pleasure Cruises.

For Dave, a police officer for 30 years with Greater Manchester and then the Metropolitan Police before retiring in 2018, it was a case of love at first sight when he spotted the now restored Dorset Belle up for sale.

After leaving Bournemouth the boat, built in 1974, had ended up in Cardiff Bay as the Dame Shirley.

Named after the Cardiff-born singing superstar – who’s now aged 84 – the craft looked very different from her days in Dorset.

Gone was the distinctive blue and white to be replaced by a red hull with the Welsh flag emblazoned on each side.

“It’s fair to say she looked very different to how she does now,” said Dave, 55, a lifelong boat addict.

He paid £135,000 for the vessel and, after carrying out remedial work, began operating services from Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent under his company’s name, Island Cruises Ltd.

The boat had now been renamed the Spirit of Sheppey and retained her red colours.

Extensive work in January 2020 included stripping her down to the bare metal, rebuilding the engine, installing new decks and returning the craft to her traditional blue.

Dave reckons he’s now spent upwards of £340,000 on the renamed Dorset Belle – but he couldn’t be a prouder man.

“I love her, she’s fantastic,” he said.

“Her shape, her lines, she’s a real head-turner and so different from anything else operating,”

Now reunited with her original skipper, Ali – “If Carlsberg did boat skippers then they’d do Ali” says Dave, pictured – he brought the Dorset Belle back to Bournemouth for an initial six week season between lockdowns last year.

It proved to be a big success.

The 81 ft vessel is certified to take 142 passengers but is restricted to 60 during the current Covid restrictions.

Now the Dorset Belle has returned to her familiar stamping ground, initially offering 40-minute cruises around the bay from Bournemouth Pier, including a full commentary.

The Dorset Belle sails through Poole’s Twin Sails Bridge. Picture: Droning On.

From April 24, she’ll begin Bournemouth to Swanage day trips every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday including a three hour stop-over.

Tickets cost £15 adults, £10 children with under 5s free and are available to book at

Currently available for private hire, Dave is applying to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) for a Small Seagoing Passenger Ships Code,

If granted, it will allow the Dorset Belle to host events all-year round.

As for the response to the return of the familiar boat which holds so many memories for so many people, Dave said: “It’s been quite incredible.

“We’ve had people on the cliffs telling us how lovely it is to see her back in the bay.

“The reaction on social media has also been amazing.

“It’s fair to say that I’m one very proud man.”

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