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).
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 She latterly operated other routes for her subsequent Greek owners, Hellas Ferries/Hellenic Seaways, but was withdrawn at the end of the 2005 season, much earlier than her age and condition merited.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.
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 Somewhat prematurely withdrawn in 2006, she passed to the then rapidly expanding Namma Lines and after refit at Perama, entered service from both Suez and Safaga in Egypt to the Saudi port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.
Masarrah pictures Â© and courtesy Richard Seville.