A visit to the Masarrah (ex-St Columba, Stena Hibernia, Express Aphrodite)

Completed in 1977, the St Columba/Stena Hibernia became something of a legend on Irish Sea services through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Finally ousted by the arrival of the first of Stena’s HSS fast ferries, she was sold for further service exactly twenty years after she had arrived, heading for Greece as the Express Aphrodite. There the vessel seemed set to become a Greek institution, perhaps lasting as long as her former Sealink cousins, the famed Milos Express (Vortigern) or Apollo Express (Senlac).

The Express Aphrodite in 2005.

The Express Aphrodite in 2005.

Alas her triumphant reign on the Piraeus – Syros – Tinos – Mykonos schedule was to end earlier than many could have imagined. She latterly operated other routes for her subsequent Greek owners, Hellas Ferries/Hellenic Seaways, but was withdrawn at the end of the 2005 season, much earlier than her age and condition merited. Technical problems with the Express Santorini saw her unexpectedly return to service as cover in the Summer of 2006 but she was finally sold to Namma Lines of Saudi Arabia later that year. The ship had the bad luck to end up in the hands of HSW when they felt they no longer needed ships of this kind and, following the embarrassing bad experience of selling the Panagia Ekatontapiliani and Express Penelope to rival Greek operators who promptly put them into service against their former owners, were unwilling to sell to the many willing local buyers.

Earlier this year Richard Seville tracked the ship down in Safaga and here recounts his reunion with a ship which many believe should still be operating in Southern Europe.

The Masarrah at Perama in April 2007 undergoing refit prior to departure for her new career. Picture courtesy Nikos Thrylos.

The Masarrah at Perama in April 2007 undergoing refit prior to departure for her new career. Picture courtesy Nikos Thrylos.

As the Masarrah of Namma Lines, the former St Columba and Stena Hibernia is following several of her Sealink predecessors, and a number of her Irish Sea competitors, in spending her twilight years serving the pilgrim trade across the Red Sea. After essentially three incarnations under Sealink and later Stena, she was sold to Greek interests in 1997 and went on to spend a decade as a mainstay of Aegean island services. Somewhat prematurely withdrawn in 2006, she passed to the then rapidly expanding Namma Lines and after refit at Perama, entered service from both Suez and Safaga in Egypt to the Saudi port of Dhiba.

In April 2009, I was able to pay a visit to the Masarrah during a turnaround period in Safaga, and her extremely welcoming Egyptian crew showed me around from top to bottom. On board, given the unfavourable reputation of these routes, maintenance standards were surprisingly good and although rather worn in places, the interior was also relatively clean and tidy. In essence, little has changed since her final Irish Sea days although her new owners have gone to the trouble of renaming all the facilities with locally relevant names as well as removing most of the references to Stena Line which had continued to remain throughout her Greek service.

Key changes include the conversion of the Irish Bar into a Reception Lounge, the fitting of reclining seats in the former Pantry and duty-free shop, and the creation of a crew restaurant in the former pizzeria. I was treated with great hospitality throughout my time on board, given drinks and introduced to almost all the numerous crew as well as visiting officials. Preparations were underway for a midnight departure to Dhiba, and that evening I watched as conservatively dressed passengers loaded onto both the Masarrah and her fleetmate the, the former Superferry, which was lying alongside her. Lasting memories of the visit include a tide of blood running across the galley floor as lunch was being prepared, animatedly chatting with Egyptian officials with a faded promotional poster of Ireland as a backdrop and the tremendous hospitality shown by her crew who were astonishingly tolerant of an eccentric English enthusiast! Here we present a selection of on-board views of this much loved favourite.

The car deck.

The car deck.

Reception in the Irish Bar...

Reception in the Irish Bar...

...which is otherwise unchanged.

...which is otherwise unchanged.

The former pizzeria is now a new crew mess.

The former pizzeria is now a new crew mess.

Forward on Deck 5, this area was the Show Bar as the Stena Hibernia and First Class on the Express Aphrodite.

Forward on Deck 5, this area was the Show Bar as the Stena Hibernia and First Class on the Express Aphrodite.

Moving up to Deck 6, the former self-service restaurant, The Pantry, has now become a reclining seat lounge.

Moving up to Deck 6, the former self-service restaurant, The Pantry, has now become a reclining seat lounge.

Aft of the former Pantry, the shop has also had seating installed. This area originally housed the ship's rather avant-guarde discotheque.

Aft of the former Pantry, the shop has also had seating installed. This area originally housed the ship's rather avant-guarde discotheque.

The old crew mess is virtually unchanged since the ship was built.

The old crew mess is virtually unchanged since the ship was built.

The aft lobby on Deck 7 still retains Hellas Ferries branding...

The aft lobby on Deck 7 still retains Hellas Ferries branding...

...whilst elsewhere reminders remain of even earlier times in the ship's career.

...whilst elsewhere reminders remain of even earlier times in the ship's career.

Masarrah pictures © and courtesy Richard Seville.

30 Comments

  • By Erik Johansson, July 17, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    I read this with great interest! Thank you.
    Erik Johansson
    Sweden

  • By Tom shilliam, July 29, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    I remember this ship so well!Used to travel to Ireland once a year to see family. Were booked for Hss sailing in 1996 but it was not ready so along came the Stena Hibernia although I recall it was called Stena Adventurer in its last year with Stena?

  • By Kieron Willans, July 30, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Although I now live in Plymouth I remember vividly 2 trips to/from Ireland on this ship, the first in 1979 as the St Columba and another trip when she was the Hibernia sometime in the 1990s. Great to see it is still active albeit thousands of miles away.

  • By paul spencer, August 9, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    I worked on the st columba for ten years,1979-1989.She was the best ship i ever worked on.It’s great to see the pictures as she is today.I would love to travel on her one more time.

  • By Frank Delahunty, August 31, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    Sailed on the old girl for 13 years as Electrical Officer, 1984/1997, a fine well built ship.

  • By Jim, December 10, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    Grade 2 rating on the Hibernia/Adventurer 1995-1998, primarily working the wobblies shift in the shops. Great days. Some of the happiest days of my working life. Picture of the mess brought memories flooding back!!!!
    Get my maritime fix by going on cruises now and I’m sure I saw the old girl in Piraeus in 2003.

  • By Jim, December 10, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    Service years SHOULD read 1995-1997. Apologies for the typo!!

  • By PHILTALLANT, December 18, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    USED TO TRAVEL ON HER IN THE 90S AND HER BACKUP STENA CAMBRIA IM DELIGHTED TO HAVE SEEN HER HOPEFULLY SHE WILL 1 DAY RETURN HOME TO DUNLAOGHAIRE AND WILL SAIL FOR MANY YEARS TO COME PHIL

  • By PHILTALLANT, December 18, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    MISS YOU BIG TIME YOU AND CAMBRIA PHIL TALLANT SALLYNOGGIN DUNLAOGHAIRE CO.DUBLIN

  • By kevin osullivan, March 22, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    as a truck driver i travelled on the
    st columba from dublin to hollyhead
    loads of times in the late 70s early 80s
    looking at her now brings back many great
    memories and good laughs with other drivers
    and the crew great to see she’s still going.

  • By tom didcott, April 4, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    Hi
    I spent 11 days aboard the ferry Express Aphrodite when she was sailing from Piraeus in the late 1990’s under the Agabitos flag. I photographed, thanks to Mr Agabitos,the complete ship from stem to stern and keel to funnel, some 1500 photographs. I am building the model at scale 1:50 in wood and use the photos to construct the interior as it was then.

  • By Phil O Neill, July 22, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    I worked on the Hibernia in the 90,s.They had started to put on bands in the Summer.I believe our band Spice were the first band to play on board.Paul,Vinny,Declan,Fergie and myself,Dave the D.J.Ray kicking up a strop with the Holyhead customs officer for stopping him because he had long hair.Not being official members of the crew we could go and buy duty free and have a “few” on board,meeting the different touring bands as they came to Ireland by ferry,the chap in the Irish bar who played the shamrock shaped keyboard which he made himself.Good times
    Thanks for reminding me of this.
    Phil.

  • By Tony Collins, August 15, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    Stena Hibernia was a favourite of mine when I used to go to Ireland on business. I travelled on her many times. I was aboard her just two weeks before the famous roll-over business. My confidence in her was enhanced by the incident. I seem to recall that she didn’t generally roll much at all, but she would pitch. There were a few side facing seats which seemed to co-incide with the fulcrum, they were a blessing if you had partaken too much of the restaurant open buffet at the forward end. She was a proper ship shaped ship, in comparison to her travelling aboard the HSS was like travelling in a motorway service station. I missed her when she was withdrawn.

  • By Robbie irwin, October 17, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Hi folks

    Does any one know if she is still sailing as i plan to go to see her and take dome new photos for the site.

  • By Administrator, October 17, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Hi Robbie.

    Her owner’s website (http://www.nammashipping.com) doesn’t reveal much about scheduling but her AIS is working and indicates regular service out of Jeddah – http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/shipdetails.aspx?MMSI=403268000

    Matt

  • By Brian, October 27, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    i worked on herin the stores from 77 to her end, great ship.

  • By Tony Luckwill, November 28, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

    Travelled on St Columba many times between DL & HH!

    Is it possible her current owners would give her away for use as a permanent exhibition in Dun Laoghaire, rather than scrapping her?

  • By bob williams, February 8, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    I worked on the ferry in 1984 showing the films
    for each crossing week on week off.I met my wife to be when she was going to Crufts dog show with here dogs. It was a great ship

  • By aidan, May 1, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    interesting page, i was on this a few times as st columba. It was the first time i was ever on a ferry in 1981 as a 9 year old, it was a night crossing to holyhead, for some reason it seemed to take a very long time. Its funny that the ship is now run by namma lines, in that everything in ireland is now owned by nama

  • By anne connick, June 15, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    worked on her 1995 till the bitter end will never get over her being taken from holyhead phil o neil i remember your band spice

  • By AWJ58, January 9, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    Anyone know if she is still working now?
    Be nice to see an updated photo of her.

  • By Aubrey Scully, January 16, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

    Sailed on her many times in the late 70s / early 80s for the annual family trip home to Ireland, and also sailed on her a couple of times in the 90s as both the Hibernia and Stena Adventurer.

    Top ship – great to know she’s still around.

  • By Robbie Irwin, February 1, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    Is she in service ? And where from as will go and
    take pics for the site. Was on her every summer as a child.
    Great ship
    Regards
    Rob Irwin Nottingham
    Rob@ ikoncivils .co.uk

  • By Aubrey Scully, February 10, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

    Looks like she’s still in service. I’d heard she’d suffered an engine room fire so severe that it had weakened her structure to the point where she couldn’t be used as a passenger vessel any more. I’ve since checked her status on Fleetmon (www.fleetmon.com) a few times over the last month or so and after weeks of inactivity moored up at Jeddah, she now seems to be sailing again between Jeddah and Sawakin (Sudan).

  • By mr mark curran [deaf], July 7, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    i was routes from dun laoghaire to holyhead in 1976 first time old ship hibernia but last day in 1976 withdrawn too sad and i saw wow new ship mv st columba sealink in 1977 august nice mv st columba bulid in denmark in 1976 mv st columba and hibernia and stena adventurer last day in 1996 withdrawn too sad cry say goodbye with from belfast in 1997 last day good happy with mv st columba over 20 years i used from dun laoghaire to holyhead as well happy me ok thanks photo from mark curran [deaf] dublin ireland

  • By Petrina Lynch, September 6, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    Love these pics. Worked on her from 1989 til she finished in holyhead. Best years ever! Anne Connick get in touch on facebook please you’ll find me as petrina Cadman

  • By Peter Houghton, February 14, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

    WORKED ON HER FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS IN THE EIGHTIES, GREAT MEMORIES AND MOSTLY GOOD TIMES, GREAT TO SEE SHE IS STILL SAILING

  • By Stephen Callaghan, November 21, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

    Travelled on her as a kid 1978 on a 3 day tour of Wales with St.Michaels school we slept in the “Disco” but there was no music ! I had the princely sum of 3 pounds to spend on that trip.

    Great memories eating lunch in Dun Loaghaire while looking at her moored a real ship she was

  • By Tony Collins, January 26, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

    I often used to cross HolyHead to Dun Laoghaire and many times travelled the “Hibs” she was my favourite ship on that crossing. The smaller HS ferries unable to cope with the winter weather and the HSS was like travelling in a motorway service area. My habit was to travel over on the 2.00pm sailing (about) on a Monday and return on the late Thursday evening sailing which dumped us in Holyhead around haft past midnight. I could then drive to my home in the midlands and be home in bed by about 4.00am. I was on the ship about two weeks before she “rolled” in January 1993. My faith in the ship was enhanced by her perfomance on that occasion. The logitudinal bulkhead (for want of a better expression) I think saved her. The faster ships made the crossings quicker and more convenient timewise, but they were never “proper” ships. Hibs used to pitch but not roll too much after my meal in the forward restaurant, if the crossing was rough I knew exactly which seat to choose in the video lounge as being the closest to the fulcrum.

  • By John Kelly, August 21, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    Huge nostalgia looking at this article. Use to go to Wales every year as a family and sail from our home town of Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead. The St. Columba was always our favourite ship to sail on, much preferred it to other ships such as the St. David. My dad worked for Sealink all his life, he loved travelling on the ships and he had the best sea-legs of anybody I have ever seen – the ship could be pitching around all over the place and there would not be a bother on him! Very very happy memories of both him and this ship. Great to see that it’s still going strong – would love to see it again some day and show it to my own kids.

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