A group of British nationals managed to secure places aboard HMS Albion after the navy stepped in to help repatriate stranded civilians.
The warship was dispatched to the northern Spanish port of Santander to collect troops on their way back from Afghanistan.
Nearly 300 lucky passengers were bussed down from Madrid and given berths on the boat alongside 500 soldiers returning from combat duty.
“Obviously we have limited capacity, big as we are, but the primary focus is to get the troops back from Afghanistan in this case, and, as I say, we are using all our spare capacity to assist the Foreign Office,” said Geoff Wintle, HMS Albion spokesman.
“It is a very difficult situation. The best advice that we are giving people is that they should try to make their way to northern France, where there are more ships and there are naval ships helping out as well, where there is a lot of capacity returning from northern France back to the UK,” said British Embassy spokesman Robbie Bullock.
As the ship set sail for Portsmouth, those left behind on the docks criticised the government for not doing more to help them.
“I think if you asked anybody here they would all say the same, they feel let down, hugely disappointed, when the government is saying that they are doing all they can to get us home,” said Chris from West Sussex. “Here is a classic example when we could have said, yes, well done Gordon Brown etc, you have done a really good job but in actual fact we feel really let down at the minute.”
Meanwhile a brand new luxury liner, the Celebrity Eclipse, has also been drafted in to help the rescue effort. It is due to arrive at the Spanish port of Bilbao on Tuesday night.