Category: Year in review

That Was The Year That Was – 2012

2012 was an exciting year of travel with a first, but most definitely not last, ferry-centric trip to Japan where a whole new world of ships and shipping culture was revealed to us. The Japanese experience was, taken as a whole, the most memorable event of the year: after more than nine years of deliberation and 28 months of planning it went almost completely without a hitch and the Japanese were unfailingly helpful, polite and tolerant towards this small band of Europeans who had come to sail on their ships for no other reason than their being there.

Home waters were not neglected and plenty of European ferries were road tested this year; the ongoing economic gloom in Greek and Italian and Moroccan waters are perhaps the greatest concerns for the immediate future and one wonders just where things will end – with long-established operators withdrawing virtually overnight how many of 2012’s ships will make it to the starting line of the 2013 summer season?

In total, 84 ships were sailed on or visited this year, of which two were museum ships and one a floating bar. 27 nights were spent at sea and the average age of the 84 ships was 22 years old compared to 23 in 2011.

Based purely on subjective feelings on those 84 vessels, here are some bests and worsts of the year.

The Piana at Bastia.

The Piana at Bastia.


Best new ferry
Of recently-delivered ships sailed on for the first time this year, the Ishikari is a fine and modern Japanese coastal cruise liner, the Spirit of France solves a few of the issues identified with the Spirit of Britain and the Blue Star Patmos is a superb Aegean ferry, lavishly finished and, sadly, possibly the last purpose-built Greek ferry for a generation. The best new ship of the year, however, has to be the Piana of CMN. She endured a tortuously late delivery, is little to look at from the outside and even managed to lose the tip of her bulbous bow in January. Onboard, however, she is a wonder, the latest work of the specialist French interior designers, AIA. AIA’s recent output had been weaker, hamstrung by smaller budgets and less imaginative briefs than they had been accustomed to in the era of the Danielle Casanova, Mont St Michel, Pont-Aven and Seafrance Berlioz. The 2009-built Armorique failed to impress and the firm themselves virtually disowned the conversion of the Seafrance Moliere. On the Piana it is as if pent-up frustration has been unleashed and the ship is a beauty, and, in some respects, is possible to see where they might had gone with the Armorique had the money and corporate imagination been there.
Piana.

Piana.

Mercandia IV

Mercandia IV


Best conversion
The fifteen Sunderland-built Superflexes can be found across the globe, serving routes both mainstream and marginal, with all sorts of conversions having been made to better suit them to their current service. I can’t think of any which could ever be called even vaguely luxurious, however, until the Stena-owned Mercandia IV (ex-Superflex November) was refitted for her role as fourth ship on the joint operation with Scandlines between Helsingborg and Helsingør. The ship has been outfitted in the same style as the three larger purpose-built vessels, which itself is a derivation from the designs for Stena’s longer routes. The result is a ship which looks like no Superflex before.

In Italy, Moby-owned TOREMAR have made moves to improve the offering on their ships and the Oglasa for Elban service was changed beyond recognition. As with the Mercandia IV, the redesign has taken cues from the parent entity and where Moby have long been affiliated with Looney Tunes cartoon characters, on the Oglasa, Andy Capp makes an appearance in on-board signage. Crazy or genius?

Andy Capp on the Oglasa.

Andy Capp on the Oglasa.

Penelope A (ex-Horsa)

Penelope A (ex-Horsa)


Best classic ferry
28 of this year’s ships were more than a quarter of a century old, the most aged being the Italian train ferry the Iginia, still in regular operation between Messina and Villa San Giovanni. Whilst some classics were to be found in fairly poor condition, others such as the Agios Georgios, Stena Danica or the Kriti II were in pretty good shape all things considered.

Stena Scanrail: it's fairly safe to assume that a ship fitted with builder's ashtrays as well as a builder's plate hails from another era.

Stena Scanrail: it's fairly safe to assume that a ship fitted with builder's ashtrays as well as a builder's plate hails from another era.

All of the above and more were worthy of consideration but, in the year of their 40th birthdays, the former Hengist and Horsa win out as 2012’s best oldies. Sailings on the Agios Georgios and Penelope A in September reconfirmed that these veteran Channel ferries remained excellent performers in their second careers. The Penelope A’s four decades of service have now been equally split, save for the aberration of the 1990 summer at Holyhead, between the Folkestone period (1972 to 1991) and twenty years operating out of Rafina (1992 to 2012). The news in December that she had been withdrawn due to the financial woes of her owners Agoudimos Lines was, if not surprising, a warning of the fate which awaits many of the Greek coastal fleet in times when the Greek government cannot be relied upon to pay the subsidies shipowners rely upon to serve the islands.

Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist) at Serifos.

Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist) at Serifos.

Favourite crossing
Frederikshavn to Gothenburg sailings on the Stena Danica and the Stena Scanrail were real highlights, as was the day-long transit with the Ferry Azalia from Tsuruga to Niigata and overnight on the Kitakami from Tomakomai to Sendai. However, the two night sailing between Venice and Patras with ANEK Lines’ Kriti II in August was really special, on an elderly ferry which was subsequently withdrawn. Departure from Venice through the Canale della Giudecca was spectacular and the sail down the Croatian coast, to Igoumenitsa, Corfu and finally the old port of Patras was memorable. ANEK’s occasionally average service standards were not an issue on this sailing and even the food was pretty good. One cannot imagine quite the same experience will be enjoyed aboard the replacement Italian ro-paxes which have now been deployed on the route.

The Kriti II leaving Venice in August.

The Kriti II leaving Venice.

Best food
The lasagne on the Superspeed 2 and the buffet on the Hamlet were excellent, our ability to nearly cause a fire whilst self-cooking waffles on the latter notwithstanding. The Steam Packet’s Manannan amazingly conjured up an excellent plate of pasta. Best of all, however, was “Le Piana” restaurant aboard CMN’s new flagship. Locally-sourced and beautifully presented, this company consistently serves up the best food on any Mediterranean ferries.

Dinner on the Piana.

Dinner on the Piana in July.

Dover in June.

Dover in June.

The weather
2012 was supposedly the wettest summer in Britain for 100 years and yet almost every time I ventured to sea this year the sun was shining. When the weather did turn, however, it went wild with a vengeance. Heading out on a day trip in the worst typhoon Japan had seen in 53 years was perhaps ill-advised, leaving us stranded for the night on the island of Shodoshima. Happily the good people at Kokusai Ferry kindly took us under their wing and arranged a stay in a splendid local hotel and onward travel which got us back on track the next day.

2nd April - a perfect sunny day in Takamatsu.

2nd April - a perfect sunny day in Takamatsu.

3rd April - typhoon in Shodoshima.

3rd April - typhoon in Shodoshima.

Kokusai Maru No 32 trying and failing to berth at Shodoshima.

Kokusai Maru No 32 ('Giraffe Ferry') trying and failing to berth at Shodoshima.

Worst ferry
I can struggle to think of any redeeming features of the Isle of Man Steam Packet’s Ben-my-Chree. She may be a reliable freighter but the experience for the general passenger is woeful with poorly thought-out and dreary saloons. When Bornholmstraffiken ordered a subsequent pair of this off-the-shelf design they instructed the best in the business to try and bring some dignity to the passenger spaces but even Steen Friis Hansen could improve things only marginally. Absent any such guiding hand, the Ben-my-Chree remains a real stinker.

Worst crossing
Grandi Navi Veloci’s Splendid, sailing between Genoa and Olbia in June, was late, dirty and had the rudest crew members I’ve seen in years, with some in the cafeteria hurling abuse at passengers and another in one of the bars who took my money and then tried not to provide the paid-for drinks. The ship was a great advertisement for the competing services of Moby and Tirrenia.

Splendid?

Splendid?

Pride of Burgundy, January.

Pride of Burgundy, January.


Worst maintained ships
What is wrong with P&O?

Pride of York, June.

Pride of York, June.

Pride of Kent, October.

Pride of Kent, October.

Most decrepit ferries
A distinction can be made between poor general deck maintenance and the pits of on-board decrepitude that befalls some Southern European ferries when some passenger spaces fall into disuse. As with the Seatrade in 2011, venturing into certain areas of the Theofilos and Ile de Beaute made one wonder just how things had got into this state.

Theofilos's indoor swimming pool.

Theofilos's indoor swimming pool.

One of Ile de Beaute's abandoned toilet blocks.

Inside one of the Ile de Beaute's abandoned toilet blocks.

The Eurovoyager at Oostende, 2008.

The Eurovoyager at Oostende, 2008.


So. Farewell then.
Quite a few familiar ships have headed to the scrapyards in the past twelve months, including the Eurovoyager (ex-Prins Albert), the Scotia Prince (ex-Stena Olympica), the Manxman and the Rosalia. I will, however, perhaps most remember the passing of the two British ferry flagships from my childhood: Sealink’s St Nicholas (ex-Prinsessan Birgitta, later Normandy) and P&O’s ‘Chunnel Beater’ Pride of Dover. The latter headed for the scrap yard in the same year as representatives of the two previous generations of Townsend ferries: the former Free Enterprise V, and the Spirit of Free Enterprise.

To me, the 1979 Spirit class showed Townsend Thoresen at their very best, the sheer arrogant brutality and originality of their design in many ways epitomising TT in their peak years. Somehow the Pride of Dover and her sister lacked a similar dynamism but perhaps this was partly through choice: entering service under a post-Herald cloud, the flamboyance and aggressiveness that defined TT had now suddenly to switch to an era in which P&O European Ferries were a sober and reassuring cross-Channel choice. Externally, by adding length but not height to the Spirit class, they were always too squat to claim either conventional attractiveness or the eye-catching brutalism of their predecessors. The ‘Dover’ looked her best with a P&O full blue hull; she was not helped when P&O adopted the current “pants pulled down” livery.

On board, the pair really were scaled-up Spirits and whilst they expanded on the successes of that class and proved formidable freight movers over more than two decades, even when delivered their interiors were disappointing. In 1987 Shippax memorably published an image of one of the Pride of Dover’s old-fashioned seating lounges, contrasting it unfavourably with other recent ferries. To avoid embarrassing her owners in front of the industry they did not name the ship but the point was harshly reinforced within a couple of years when Sealink’s Fantasia and Fiesta were delivered, which prompted the first of a couple of significant refurbishments. Despite these modifications, few of the original passenger saloons ever really achieved coherence or attractiveness.

Nonetheless, with their scale and reliability and with the express operation P&O were able to subsequently pioneer, the two ships helped to show how the ferry industry could survive in a post-Tunnel era and the demise of the Pride of Dover without any chance of a second career is regrettable.

I will miss the Normandy rather more, even though by the time I got to know her she was well past her best (some would say the ship was in decay from the moment she was handed over to Sealink in 1983). There was nothing old-fashioned or miserly about Sessan’s final ferries; from the lavish dining saloons to the vast tiered show lounges, these beautifully-appointed jumbo ferries had a significant influence, even if the operator who ordered them had been subsumed into Stena before they fully entered service. Almost unthinkably the Kronprinsessan Victoria (now Stena Europe) has gone on to become Stena’s longest-serving passenger ship; but her sister passed from operator to operator over the years, never really being looked after by anyone, least of all her neglectful final owners who abandoned the ship to the ravages of the Singaporean climate, making her demise sadly inevitable.

That Was The Year That Was – 2011

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If, as I do, you attribute to passenger ferries some of the characteristics of human beings, the cycle of life can be unsettling and, occasionally, brutal. How did those jumbo ferries with which I grew up suddenly become middle-aged? Why are the outside decks of the cutting-edge Norsea caked in years of rust? What calamity has befallen the shiny, new Fiesta that has caused her to go for scrap?

In the times of plenty, old favourites would head south for long and, hopefully, fruitful careers. Today, with the Greek economy in particular in ruins, no home can be found for them there. Instead, the scrap yard beckons all too soon and the production line of replacement new ships has all but dried up. Those which did appear in 2011 often seemed to be more dysfunctional than historic.

The veterans which survive often seem to be clinging on, just one unpaid subsidy away from the end. Happily, if you look in the right hidden corners, more than a few remain, shyly eking out a living at the margins of the ferry industry. 2010 was spent saying farewell to some quite well known, doomed, elderly ships; the ferry year of 2011, perhaps more than ever before, was focussed on the marginal, the half-forgotten, the never-remembered.

Based purely on subjective feelings on the 66 ships sailed on or visited in 2011, here are some of the bests and worsts of the year.

Like a trip through space: Abel Matutes

Like a trip through space: Abel Matutes

Best new ferry
The well documented difficulties of the Spirit of Britain somewhat preclude her from taking this title and the only other 2011 newbuild sailed upon was the functional but somewhat derivative Stena Transporter. New to me this year, however, were Balearia’s 2010-built Abel Matutes and SF Alhucemas. Like the Martin i Soler two years ago, these Spanish-built ferries capture a suitably stylish sense of adventure with hints of practical luxury. The Abel Matutes is a large ro-pax whilst the ‘Alhucemas’ is more like a smaller version of the Martin i Soler. Although neither is perfect, they represent an appropriately modern vanguard for the Spanish ferry industry in the second decade of this century.

Stena Superfast VII leaving Belfast

Stena Superfast VII leaving Belfast


Best conversion
The lack of a particularly vintage crop of new vessels leaves the Stena Superfasts as the most impressive ferries newly sampled this year. Whereas in their previous incarnations the pair were comfortable and pleasant overnight ships the new-found, peculiar genius of Figura has seen them transformed into something quite special. Alongside the new port in Cairnryan they form the centrepiece of a determined attempt to wrest back Stena’s lost dominance on the North Channel – a project which deserves to succeed, if nothing else than for its breathtaking boldness. One does wonder if (or over how long a period) the revamped operation can possibly repay all the investment.

On the down side, see also ‘Worst food’ below.

The Rosella at Mariehamn

The Rosella at Mariehamn


Worst conversion
I found the work done by Viking Line to the Rosella somewhat underwhelming. The surviving bits of the ship’s original interiors are clearly much smarter than the new – it’s that bit too apparent that the designers were working to a strict budget. The conversion of former cabins on Deck 4 to public toilets by the expediency of removing the bunks and adding a “W.C.” sign outside the en-suite sums this one up.

The veteran Maria Maddalena at Ponza.

The veteran Maria Maddalena at Ponza.


Best classic ferry

The Maria Maddalena was built in 1955 as the Ærøskøbing for Danish domestic service between her namesake hometown and Svendborg. Sold after just four years, she has spent the past half century in Italian coastal service, and now serves the remote island of Ponza for SNAP. This little ship is a remarkable survivor and, on board, retains more than could be expected of her original outfit, from the wooden planked vehicle deck to the vintage bridge.

Favourite crossing
When boarding the Ionian King for a departure from Brindisi to Corfu, Igoumenitsa and Zante in August the ship was surprisingly busy. Having planned to sleep, in line with Brindisi tradition, beneath the stars we found that we were able to negotiate a quite beneficial ‘cash only’ price for a cabin at the purser’s desk. This turned out to be a quite swish Japanese original, complete with shoji screens and Shin Nihonkai blankets. By the time we finally awoke the following morning, with our intermediate ports of call long behind us, we found the ship virtually and delightfully deserted for the eight hour leg to the so-called party island. Further exploration of this big and beautiful overnight ferry reconfirmed my previous thoughts: that the Ionian King and Ionian Queen were truly the finest ferries on the southern Adriatic. Sadly, within weeks, the ‘King’ had left Europe and returned to Japan for operation as a neo-cruise ship between Shanghai and Nagasaki. This sailing was the perfect way to say goodbye.

Leaving Zante on the Ionian Star. Even the rusty hulk of the long laid-up Odysseas Elytis must be better than this.

Leaving Zante on the Ionian Star. Even the rusty hulk of the long laid-up Odysseas Elytis must be better than this.

Worst crossing

The very next sailing after the Ionian King was Tyrogalas’ Ionian Star from Zante to Kyllini. In contrast, this ship was filled to the brim to the degree that many motorists retreated to their cars whilst for many of the rest of us the only ‘seats’ to be found were the stairs leading up from the car decks. An unpleasant experience.

Spirit of Britain: before and after

Spirit of Britain: before and after

Worst maintained ship
The generally decrepit Seatrade of Ventouris Ferries was probably the most unsettling ferry sailed on this year. However, the disgraceful decline of the outside decks on P&O’s brand new Spirit of Britain between my first sailing in January and most recent in October outdo even the most lackadaisical of Greek operators. Despite the ship’s widely-reported operational problems, there can be few excuses for this lack of basic maintenance.

Special mention should also be made of the small but stinky brown deposit left on the wall by the lavatory of our otherwise clean bathroom aboard Polferries’ Scandinavia. Whoops.

Not so Taste-y: Stena Superfast VIII

Not so Taste-y: Stena Superfast VIII

Worst food
No self service. Just fast food. In a box. Even the menu in the Plus Lounge on the Stena Superfasts has been dumbed down. A big, big shame.

Elsewhere, the Marrakech was predictably dismal whilst both of the ships of St Peter Line struggled badly to produce much edible on the smörgåsbord front.

Stena Lagan: dessert selection

Stena Lagan: dessert selection

Best food
It might seem unlikely, but the restaurant on board the Stena Lagan conjured up the most memorable ferry meal of the year on a December sailing between Belfast and Birkenhead. Moderately priced and perfectly formed, one can only hope that this hidden treat isn’t brought into line with the rest of the Stena fleet anytime soon. Honourable mentions also to the Scandinavia and to the Pride of Rotterdam.

The Bore

The Bore


Biggest disappointment
On a hot July evening we found ourselves one of three parties overnighting on the Bore, now in static use in Turku. The lack of ventilation, musty cabins and more than occasional power cuts made for a memorable, if not particularly comfortable, stay. Much remained to be done but, in the ship’s defence, her owners admitted that one of the reasons it was so difficult to book a stay on board was that they had yet to complete all the work they wanted to before having the full, formal launch.

Seafrance Rodin

Seafrance Rodin


So. Farewell then.
I have always felt an affinity for Seafrance; for here, Wightlink apart, were the last true inheritors to the Sealink tradition – including the strikes, the sometimes off-hand (or worse) service and even some of the ships. It contradicts received wisdom to call them a success, but on the surface they were: who, following the end of Sealink in 1996, would have imagined it would be Seafrance rather than Stena that, at their peak, would accommodate as much as 45% of Dover-Calais freight.

However, the whole project was built on financial sand and the end has come as violently for the company as it has for the two ships upon which it was founded: just after the Seafrance Renoir and Seafrance Cezanne headed for the beaches of Turkey, Seafrance stopped sailing. I travelled on the ‘Moliere’ days before the end; unlike deadly crossings earlier in the year on the ‘Rodin’ and ‘Berlioz’, here everything was open, the restaurant served decent food and, if you let yourself day dream just a little, maybe there was a future after all. It was not to be.

Unlike Seafrance and their early ships I cannot say I have great memories of the Romilda (ex-Free Enterprise VIII) but I feel I should at least make mention of her demise. She always seemed to appear on the horizon about thirty minutes beyond which queuing in one of the quayside cattle pens stopped being bearable; arrivals were always just after hoteliers and barkeeps had gone to bed; and the ship was always just that fraction more dilapidated than can be endearing. But still, this was a ship with a heart and when both sailed on routes through the western Cyclades, there was the happy opportunity to compare the Romilda to her longstanding rival, through both British and Greek careers, the Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist). Her familiar presence in Piraeus will be missed.

The Romilda, July 2008.

The Romilda, July 2008.

That Was The Year That Was – 2010

The Vis (ex-Sydfyn) at Ubli in July. The ship has since been withdrawn from service.

The Vis (ex-Sydfyn) at Ubli in July. The ship has since been withdrawn from service.

In ferry terms, 2010 will perhaps be remembered as a year in which dozens of classic ships from Southern Europe were despatched for scrap. Over twenty ships on which I had sailed headed to the breakers during the past twelve months including some of my absolute favourites such as the former Senlac (Apollon), Mette Mols (Istra) and Svea (Ancona).

On the other hand there were relatively few significant new ferries introduced in 2010, as delivery rates slowed and shipyard orderbooks thinned out – the new Stena Hollandica and her sister proved to be the real highlight of the year in this respect. 2011 promises a little more and the arrival of P&O’s Spirit of Britain this month offers a first chance to see if that company can finally offer anything innovative, followed (definitely maybe) by LD Lines’ Norman Leader.

On a personal level, 75 ships were sailed on and two visited in port, whilst 33 nights were spent at sea. In an effort to make a final farewell to some of those doomed classics, the average age of ships sampled in 2010 was 22 years old compared to 17 in 2009 – and indeed nine of the 2010 ships have subsequently been withdrawn.

Based purely on subjective feelings on those 77 vessels, here are some bests and worsts of the year.

The Stena Hollandica at Hoek in November.

The Stena Hollandica at Hoek van Holland in November.

Best new ferry
Looking at ships delivered in 2009 or 2010 and new to me this year only one vessel really stands out – the new Stena Hollandica on the Harwich-Hoek route. Her sheer size marks her out but she also gives a useful indication of where Stena see the future – a ferry version of “the vision thing” from one of the industry’s leading operators with the deepest pockets. Relatively luxurious and expensively-finished accommodation above huge and flexible freight decks seems to be the answer for an operation which, as with many of Stena’s legacy routes, still has a strong passenger element.

There was not really much competition on the new ferry front – other recently-delivered ships sailed on in the past twelve months were Norfolkline’s Humber Viking (an interesting and efficient ro-ro), Wight Ryder I and II (awful), Minoan’s Cruise Europa (dysfunctional), Nova Ferries’ Phedra (pleasant enough) and Jadrolinija’s Jadran (generic).

The Habib leaving Genoa.

The Habib leaving Genoa.


Best classic ferry and favourite crossing
Four of us travelled between Tunis and Genoa on Tunisia Ferries’ 1978-built Habib in July and, looking back on the year, all agreed that the sailing on this ship was the highlight. Although it still seems uncertain, it is to be hoped that this beautiful ship of state will continue sailing in future years – despite her age, she seems in reliable mechanical condition and her largely original 1970s interiors with dozens of pieces of bespoke artwork are quite remarkable. The Habib is one of the all-time classic car ferries.

The oldest ship sailed on in 2010 was the local Lisbon ferry the Eborense of Transtejo e Soflusa, built in 1954 – whilst she is not and has no need to be a Habib, she is certainly a delightful little ship and, happily, looks set to be retained despite the delivery of new vessels.

The cross-river Lisbon ferry Eborense.

The cross-river Lisbon ferry Eborense.

A rainy day in Gdynia.

A rainy day in Gdynia.


Worst crossing
There was something indescribably horrific about sailing on the Stena Baltica (ex-Koningin Beatrix) between Karlskrona and Gdynia on a wet day crossing in June. This ship received a major conversion to drive-through loading with twin freight decks and a complete refurbishment of the passenger lounges just before Stena’s new enlightenment with regard to interior design. The new freight arrangements seemed to work well enough, but ten hours staring at shiny plastic laminate flooring, wipe-down surfaces and jarring decor would be enough to drive anyone to distraction, never mind the forgettable food and the depressing weather. Wherever she ends up next, hopefully the Stena Baltica will get some urgent attention to revive her passenger spaces which, whilst originally slightly spartan in places, were at least previously coherent and pleasant.

The Sveti Stefan II at Bar in Montenegro.

The Sveti Stefan II at Bar in Montenegro.

Worst maintained ship
No doubting the winner of this one – Montenegro Lines’ Sveti Stefan II (ex-Prinz Hamlet, Nieborow). Bruce has written a bit more about what was a rather sad and run-down vessel in a piece in which the pictures speak for themselves.

Not far behind in this particular race were Blu Navy’s Primrose (ex-Princesse Marie-Christine), Le Rif (ex-Galloway Princess) of Moroccan operator IMTC and P&O’s soon to be withdrawn Pride of Calais. The most dismal single passenger space I saw on a ship operating for a mainstream operator however was another ship near the end of her P&O career: on the Pride of Bilbao what was once the Flash Disco, later a ro-ro lounge, was in use as a smokers’ area with giant ashtrays, ripped sofa seating and fag ash ground into the carpet. Not a pretty sight.

P&O's premier cruise ferry.

P&O's premier cruise ferry.

Best food
At the heart of any great ferry trip lies a decent meal and one operator stood out above all others in 2010 – Unity Line’s Polonia and Skania both provided memorable fare in the restaurants on their route between Swinoujscie and Ystad.

On the downside the Polonia also offered the most unpleasant crew member of the year – a ‘bouncer’ at the entrance to the forward lounge whose main aim in life was to bar entry to anyone who had any luggage with them – including small rucksacks and handbags. Since one cannot get access to the restaurant without passing through this lounge, it was no surprise to find that we were the only diners. As the forward bar stayed empty, all the other passengers could be found cooped up in the rather unluxurious self-service.

Unity Line food - fish soup (Skania)...

Unity Line food - fish soup (Skania)...

... the lamb (Skania)...

... the lamb (Skania)...

... and apple pie for dessert (Polonia).

... and apple pie for dessert (Polonia).

Elsewhere on the food front, the kitchens on Tunisia Ferries’ Carthage rustled up a superb couscous served with lamb, the lunchtime smörgÃ¥sbord on Scandlines’ Hamlet was low in cost and high in quality, SNCM’s Napoleon Bonaparte offered an unexpectedly good buffet whilst the excellent food in the restaurant of Fastnet Line’s Julia almost made up for the somewhat run-down nature of the rest of the ship.

Lunch on the Carthage.

Lunch on the Carthage.

Worst food
Alas, the Sveti Stefan II strikes again; in her restaurant all the main courses arrived still box-shaped.

The restaurant on the Sveti Stefan II.

The restaurant on the Sveti Stefan II.

Forward stairwell on the Eritokritos T.

Forward stairwell on the Eritokritos T.


Best Jap
Former Japanese ferries in Southern Europe continue to receive, perhaps not unsuprisingly, scant attention from north European enthusiasts, but there are some very interesting vessels worthy of attention. In the past couple of years I have mentioned two superbly-converted ships – the Ariadne and the Elyros – but in many respects even more engaging are those which retain elements of their original Japanese design. Japanese ferries have evolved a quite distinct look both inside and out compared to their European counterparts and the Eritokritos T (which has now sailed for scrap) and her sister the Lato showed how intriguing and attractive surviving elements of this can be in the passenger spaces.

That said, although both the Erotokritos T and the Lato had some interesting bits and pieces, probably the most impressive Japanese-built ferry of 2010 was Agoudimos Lines’ Ionian King. Whilst obviously very similar to her sister (Endeavor’s Ionian Queen), this ship has been slightly more impressively reconditioned. A trip on either vessel is to be recommended – they are probably the best ships sailing out of Southern Adriatic Italian ports today. If budgets permit, travelling in one of the super-luxury ‘Emperor’ suites would be the best way to travel.

The Lido deck on the Ionian King.

The Lido deck on the Ionian King.

Lastly, NEL Line’s chartered European Express (ex-Takachiho Maru) wins the award for most laudable onboard signage.

On board the European Express.

On board the European Express.

That Was The Year That Was – 2009

The Sorolla at Ibiza, May 2009.

The Sorolla at Ibiza, May 2009.


For the devotee of classic ferries, particularly classic British ferries, it has to be said 2009 has been a sad time with the scrappers claiming amongst others the Georgios Express (Roi Baudouin) and Sara 3 (St Edmund). The former was perhaps the most beautiful car ferry ever to sail from the UK whilst the latter hid her delights inside, representing the apex of the interior designs devised by Ward & Austin for Sealink in the 1960s and 1970s. Her interlocking QE2-style lobby spaces in particular were an inspired design solution. Also lost was the Kapetan Alexandros A (ex-Doric Ferry), a 47-year old veteran with which I had become very familiar in the past few years and which was the last survivor of a class of, originally, freight ships of advanced design introduced by ASN.
Farewell to the St Edmund.

Farewell to the St Edmund.


It has not all been sad however and in newly-introduced ships such as the Elyros, Martin I Soler and Cruise Roma/Barcelona, stylish new passenger ferries are carrying on the traditions of generations past. Whilst, inevitably, they struggle to achieve the sleek external looks of the Roi Baudouin, internally they achieve great things within the framework their basic design specification allows.

On a personal level in 2009, 59 ships were sailed on, 26 nights were spent at sea, and one camera died (later resuscitated). I was told to stop taking pictures on board just once, a record low for recent years. That ship was Baleària’s Martin I Soler. Pointing out the company’s “Un Mar de Foto” competition, which stipulates that “Photographs should be taken on board Baleària ships” was the ideal response.

Based purely on subjective feelings on those 59 ships, here are some bests and worsts of the year.

Best new ferry
Despite that one arsey crew member, the Martin I Soler, just about, was my favourite new ferry. All the 2008 or 2009 built ships which were new to me this year seemed to have some weaknesses. The Cruise Barcelona is perhaps a little too stark in places, the Baltic Princess rather over the top (although operating as primarily a minicruiser, this is perhaps considered appropriate). The interior and exterior of the ‘MIS’ are attractive within a modern framework and the ship has become a big success running from Majorca and Ibiza to Valencia. The forward saloon’s twin deck picture windows however make that lounge a sun trap and virtually uninhabitable when the ship is running directly into the sun – which she does on her daytime crossings to the mainland. Still, she was a ship I grew to like a lot during the five or six hours spent aboard.

Martin I Soler - lobby

Martin I Soler - lobby

Best classic ferry
Last year I placed the Ancona in this spot, and this year I was most enamoured with another ship sailing from Split, the Istra of Jadrolinija (ex-Mette Mols, 1966). Mostly unchanged from new, she has been sailing for Jadrolinija for 28 years now and, like the locals who have protested about her imminent withdrawal, I find this little ferry beautiful and adorable. A round trip on her from Split to Stari Grad was the perfect farewell; for now however she remains in service and I cling to the hope that she may survive for one more year.

The Istra, bound for Stari Grad. What's not to like?

The Istra, bound for Stari Grad. What's not to like?

Biggest disappointment
There has been plenty said about how she is perfectly suited to the demands of her route and how she will make Brittany Ferries money but the Armorique was still not quite what I had hoped for or expected. Does everything have to be wipe-downable? Was it really necessary to drive home that “this is a ship built to a budget” message by even dispensing with individually-tailored facility names? ‘Le Restaurant’, ‘Le Bar’? Please.
Whilst I respect their right to get an appropriate return on their investments, they also need to protect their brand. You’re Brittany Ferries, not P&O or Seafrance (at least not yet). Passengers expect certain things and whilst the Armorique delivers to a degree, as a whole she falls beneath the standards of ro-pax luxury set by earlier fleetmates. Not good.

It's Okay, but It's Not Right.

It's Okay, but It's Not Right.

Biggest surprise
Years spent tinkering to little acclaim on the interiors of Stena ferries had primed one to expect the worst from interior designers Figura. Their most recent work, on the Stenas Voyager, Adventurer, Nordica, Caledonia and Navigator therefore came as something of a bolt from the blue. It’s almost like they are over-compensating for a decade or more of Spike’s Sports Bar – parts of the Navigator are so Scando-trendy you half suspect she has been lined up for a later transfer to the Kattegat. Wall prints of the archipelago near Gothenburg; that stairwell-dominating tribute to famous Scandinavian chairs; and little vitrines full of expensively-acquired keynote Scandinavian designer trinketry sourced from the ‘Stena Plus Scandinavian Design collection’ – at least that’s what the museum-like explanatory labels said. And who wouldn’t be wowed by a Pinzke/Bergström designer cheese grater in a glass display case?

'Rocking Horse' by Playsam on the Stena Navigator. In case the kiddies get the wrong idea, it is placed out of reach and firmly glued down. This is art for goodness sake!

'Rocking Horse' by Playsam on the Stena Navigator. In case the kiddies get the wrong idea, it is placed out of reach and firmly glued down. This is art for goodness sake!

Best conversion
Last year it was the Ariadne, this year it is her rival-cum fleetmate-cum replacement, the Elyros of ANEK’s Piraeus-Chania route. One of my pet ferry enthusiast hates is people taking a random foreign ship and saying how good she would be for service on some local route with which the writer is familiar (usually something like the Silja Europa for the Isle of Man) but the Elyros instead of the Armorique out of Plymouth would really motivate one to make a series of day trips to Roscoff, regardless of what BF might say. She is, quite simply, a beauty.

Thalassa Lounge, aft on the Elyros.

Thalassa Lounge, aft on the Elyros.

Worst conversion
It took the best part of three years to rebuild her and finally the Mega Express Five entered service this April. She has all the relevant bits and pieces squeezed in, yet in design this is a cut ‘n’ paste job from previous Corsica Ferries ships and as a whole she just didn’t seem to have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ might be. She has a series of vast box shaped rooms with the same old furniture stuffed in any old how. Where the original Mega Express and her sister had some sort of creative hand holding things steady, and the ‘Three’, ‘Four’ and ‘Smega’ retained to a greater or lesser extent attractive facets of their original designs, the ‘Five’ is a disappointing mess. Tourship should take a trip to Chania and see how it can be done.

She's big but not beautiful: the Mega Express Five at Bastia.

She's big, but not beautiful: the Mega Express Five at Bastia.

Best food
Now onto the important stuff; after much pondering I narrowed it down to three ships – Pont Aven, Maersk Dover and Girolata. The ‘Dover’s Sunday lunch in the restaurant was superb indeed, but the French ships seemed to have something else. If only because Brittany Ferries’ Lamb Gargantua is almost passé now, I’ll plump for the Girolata. Was it a terrible social faux pas, when served fish soup in a tall glass, but with a spoon, to ‘drink’ rather than ‘eat’? Possibly so, but it was worth it. A triumph.

Worst food
The pasta on the Excellent might have been OK had it been hot. The pasta might have been hot had there been more than one person serving a queue of about 500 passengers. All might still have been saved had the reheating microwaves not all been broken. Alas, it was not to be. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

An Excellent ship. Shame about the food.

An Excellent ship. Shame about the food.

Favourite crossing
Finnmaid – 27 hours from Helsinki to Travemünde in April. The crew might be able to give you a long list about why the ‘Star’ class are impractical in one minor way or another but there was something indefinably magical about this long crossing on a deluxe ro-pax.

Worst maintained ship
I was not in a particularly positive frame of mind when I boarded the Sharden in July – SNAV’s codeshare with Tirrenia meant I had been bumped off one of SNAV’s ex-Olau sisters and onto the state operator whose new ships I would normally choose to avoid. Inside she was OK but outside there was little evidence of any deck maintenance since she had been delivered in 2005. A poor performance, even by Tirrenia standards.

Sharden-freude? A little, perhaps.

Sharden-freude? A little, perhaps.

Worst crossing
Perhaps not the faults of the ships themselves as such, but making a round trip to Tinos, out on the Superferry II (ex-Prince Laurent) and back on the Penelope A (ex-Horsa) on a day when thousands of pilgrims were sailing to and from the island was a bad move. Although I ultimately found a peaceful haven on the Penelope’s always-open bridge wing, given it was raining things weren’t ideal. Just watching her load hundreds of foot passengers was a revelation – crowds gathered first at the two main staircases aft on the car deck, then hundreds decided to bypass this by moving forward to the stairwells in the centre casings usually used by motorists; the really experienced grannies then scrambled up the ramps to the car deck mezzanines to try and beat the crush at a higher level. Good to see the ships still earning their keep, but sometimes it can be just too busy.

Passenger pandemonium on the Penelope A.

Passenger pandemonium on the Penelope A.

That was the year that was

The Scania of SSC at Heltermaa, January 2008

The Scania of SSC at Heltermaa, January 2008

It’s been another memorable year of ferrying – here are some high and low-lights from a year which saw the demise of Speedferries, the end of the Finnjet, Black Watch, Caledonian Princess and (we think) St George, the further growth of LD Lines and Tallink and, perhaps, the final end of the Europa I, one of Europe’s few remaining British-built international car ferries.

Off the top of my head, the latter point reduces the total to just four of note – the Pride of York (ex-Norsea), Ibn Batouta (ex-St Christopher), Le Rif (ex-Galloway Princess) and Kapetan Alexandros A (ex-Doric Ferry). Make it six if you count the operational HH Ferries Superflexes.

Farewell to Speed Ferries

Farewell to Speed Ferries

The Á la carte restaurant on Tallink's Star

The Á la carte restaurant on Tallink's Star


Best new ferry
I can only assess ships which I’ve sailed on this year but based on that Tallink’s Star is the consummate new delivery of the past 24 months. Stylish and efficient, her introduction together with the Viking XPRS swept away any need for separate fast ferries on Tallin-Helsinki. But she is more than just fast – she is big, stylish and beautiful. Tallink have their detractors, (my main suggestion to them would be to keep the Tallink brand away from Silja as much as possible because it seems to only do harm there amongst Finns and Swedes) but you have to admire them when they produce newbuilds of this standard.

The Star's Sunset Bar

The Star's Sunset Bar

The Dubrovnik (ex-Connacht/Duchesse Anne) and the Ancona at Split

The Dubrovnik (ex-Connacht/Duchesse Anne) and the Ancona at Split


Best classic ferry
I think the Ancona of SEM/Blue Lines will win this every year. The ironic thing is that she was pretty much anachronistic when delivered, with sub-optimal vehicle decks and slightly old-fashioned passenger spaces. Yet perhaps her biggest strength has been the almost old-fashioned quality of her build, which sets her apart from many of her 1960s contemporaries. A good compare and contrast is with her fleetmate the Split 1700 – same year, same designers but a world away in style. SEM seem to know it and the Ancona is their undoubted flagship, a ferry every enthusiast should try and sail on at least once if they can.
Sunset in Split, from the Ancona

Sunset in Split, from the Ancona

The Ariadne at Piraeus.

The Ariadne at Piraeus.


Best Jap
We tend to be slightly dismissive of Japanese ferry conversions, but I think the reality is that the dismissal should be on the conversion, not the Japanese. Pre-conversion they are incredibly fascinating ships to sail on but since almost all of the ships that come to Europe sail into the hands of the Greek shipyards, their charm is obliterated (see amongst others Prevelis, GA’s Marina, Rodanthi etc etc). Done well however and things can be different – so the best for me this year was ANEK/HSW’s Ariadne, which is virtually a newbuild and the epitome of modern Greek shipboard design. The Ionian Queen of Endeavor was also pretty good. For an unchanged Japanese original, check out Jadrolinija’s Lubenice or Brestova.
On  board Jadrolinija's Lubenice

On board Jadrolinija's Lubenice

Dinnertime on the Ariadne.

Dinnertime on the Ariadne.


Best food
Theoretically ferry food has come on leaps and bounds over the years, but some operators just don’t seem to have cottoned on. SNCM’s Napoleon Bonaparte was a good (bad?) example, which makes an interesting counterpoint to their main rivals Corsica Ferries where I’ve always found the food pretty good – the buffet on the Mega Smeralda (ex-Color Festival/Svea) in particular was excellent.

Other good meals were had on the Mariella, Seafrance Berlioz and breakfast on the Oleander. The to-order pancakes on SSC never disappoint (the Ofelia being good this year) but for an overall experience the Ariadne again proved hard to beat. Prices for the waiter service were literally about 20 Eurocents more than the self-service yet the experience was unbeatable and rounded off by the waiter delivering complimentary rounds of Ouzo. Now I’m not a big fan but didn’t want to appear ungrateful so downed it, at which point he promptly filled the glass up again, and again. So that ended up being a very long night…

Room for one more? Squeezing them all in on the Duchess M.

Room for one more? Squeezing them all in on the Duchess M.


Worst ferry
It seems a little harsh but there are always going to be some howlers. The Duchess M (ex-Breizh Izel) of Marlines was dirty, overcrowded and miserable. The interior passenger spaces were restricted to an upstairs bar and a downstairs self-service and when the latter wasn’t open you weren’t allowed in. Passengers without a cabin had a truly miserable time and since the cabins were fairly grotty that’s saying something.

However I’ll forgive that ship a little simply due to her age. To me even worse was the much more modern Blue Star Ithaki. Ill-advised by guidebooks such as Frewin Poffley’s Greek Island Hopping, backpackers subject themselves unnecessarily to hours of torment on ships that are too small for the operations they are used on – or perhaps more pointedly, the loads they take. It was a case of find a seat and cling to it for the entire voyage. Painful, miserable and, since it’s an everyday occurrance, unforgivable.

The Boughaz and Banasa at Algeciras, May 2008. The latter remains probably the best ferry on the Straits of Gibralter, but on our sailing the catering standards were notably inferior to the former.

The Boughaz and Banasa at Algeciras, May 2008. The latter remains probably the best ferry on the Strait of Gibralter, but on our sailing the catering standards were notably inferior to the former.


Worst food
I’ll usually eat pretty much anything but the Red Star I (ex-Thoresen’s Viking III) was truly awful. And, after a superb meal in the restaurant on COMARIT’s Boughaz in 2007, the Banasa in 2008 plumbed the depths, including plastic plates, knives and forks. And food come to that.
What was particularly galling was that the freight drivers had full service and a full menu in their section, served by the same staff, from the same galley. Since we were pretty much the only non drivers on board it wouldn’t have been hard to go that bit further.

The Penelope A

The Penelope A


Biggest Disappointment
It’s doesn’t feel right saying it but Agoudimos Lines’ Penelope A (ex-Horsa) was in pretty squalid condition this Summer. The new furnishings given to the ship last year in the forward two bars were already ripped and worn. Since it took 20 years for the previous fittings installed by Sealink to fall into similar disrepair I think we can draw some conclusions. The 2007 refit was carried out primarily by the ship’s crew during the Winter and it doesn’t appear to have been of the highest quality, the best intentions of the crew notwithstanding. The company and the ship still have a loyal following on the Rafina-Andros-Tinos-Mykonos run but the competition is stiff and often superior. The Horsa’s sister, the Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist) in contrast is in superb condition so it shouldn’t be too difficult if Agoudimos had the intent.

So that’s it – hopefully 2009 will offer as much variety and fun as 2008. Things have shut down a little for the Winter, which gives scope to write up a few voyages from last year. Starting, perhaps, with the Ancona herself.

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