To Sifnos and back

July 2007
We arrived in Piraeus on board the Theofilos of NEL Lines, all the way from Mytilene, up in the distant north Aegean. Our ship was originally TT Lines Nils Holgersson, direct predecessor of the ship of the same name which went on to become Brittany Ferries’ Val de Loire and is now the current King of Scandinavia. She remains a rather fun overnight ferry, but the highlight was the arrival in Piraeus that morning – dozens of cruise ships and ferries all lined up against the rising sun – a truly spectacular sight. Attention was immediately caught however by a pair of ferries lying next to each other – the Agios Georgios (ex-Hengist) and the Romilda (ex-Free Enterprise VIII).

To our chagrin we later found that the Okeanis (ex-Free Enterprise I) had called into Piraeus main port the previous day, surely her first call in years, supposedly before she sailed to Crete to begin a season day cruises. In the event, we found the ship a week later laid up again in Perama and the only movement she has made since then is to sail into Elefsis Bay where she remains laid up.

The Theofilos arrives in Piraeus

The Theofilos arrives in Piraeus


Agios Georgios & Romilda

Agios Georgios & Romilda


We’d been working on the not unreasonable assumption that the Theofilos would get onto her berth late but as it turned out she was actually rather early and we found ourselves disembarking at about 7.10am. That opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities – we’d intended on spending the day poking around the shipyards of Elefsis and Salamis prior to sailing out to Milos in the early evening on board the Vitsentzos Kornaros (ex-Viking Viscount/Pride of Winchester) of LANE Lines. Instead, a quick hop onto the port bendy bus followed by a lung-busting gallop to our friends at the Poseidon Travel agency saw us grab tickets for the Agios Georgios’ departure at 7.25am and sprint round to her berth. The knot-in-stomach feeling you get when you have a ticket, can see the ship’s stern door 400 metres away but know it could shut at any minute is a sort of recurring Piraeus nightmare – so far our luck has held.

On this occasion we shouldn’t have worried: Piraeus rush hour is when you can soon establish which operators are “in” and which are “out”. Understanding this inside/outside dichotomy is informative to understanding how the Greek ferry scene hangs together. Suffice to say, if you are Blue Star Ferries or Hellenic Seaways you are “in”. If you are, for example, the new Kallisti Ferries, you are most definitely “out”. And if you are Ventouris Sea Lines, you’re somewhere in between.

HSW & Blue Star ships – the insiders get the best berths

HSW & Blue Star ships – the insiders get the best berths


The Agios Georgios and VSL then fall into the “tolerated” category– as in you’re fine but don’t ideas above your station; and know your place. Which, when leaving Piraeus, is after all the Blue Star or HSW ships that want to leave at a similar time have already left. So the Agios Georgios strained at her ropes for a good 20 minutes as the Blue Star ferries sailed all the way out of the inner harbour (they get the best berths, right next to the railway station), past us and out.
We’re away at last! Farewell to the Romilda!

We’re away at last! Farewell to the Romilda!


Finally allowed to cast off, we headed out of the port, passing by both of HSW’s admirable modern sisters, the Nissos Mykonos and the brand new Nissos Chios. The Agios Georgios’ schedule for our sailing was Piraeus-Serifos-Sifnos-Kimolos-Milos. This was the route for many years operated by Lindos Lines and their famed Milos Express (ex-Vortigern), and you can still find this ship on plenty of postcards on her namesake island. In 1999, Lindos were absorbed into Hellas Ferries – the ‘V’ lasted with them until 2003. The attitude of locals on this chain of islands towards Hellas Ferries/Hellenic Seaways was somewhat strained – the real test of a ferry operator for the islanders is what happens in the Winter when the fast ferries can’t run – in this case, HSW latterly took to putting what were deemed “substandard” ships on the route, the poor old Express Adonis (ex-Ailsa Princess) being a particular figure of hate by some accounts. In later years, HSW abandoned the route altogether.

It was this resentment that VSL tapped into when they first deployed the Agios Georgios on the Milos run back in 2005. VSL have a murky past which doubtless makes anyone wary of “relying” on them, but compared to HSW they have reliably operated the lifeline since HSW abandoned the islands from 2006. The glorious Summer of 2005 was a magical one for anyone trying to catch a glimpse of genuine Greek ferry competition as once it was – the Express Aphrodite (ex-St Columba) and Agios Georgios left Piraeus at virtually identical times in the morning and would play island hopscotch with each other, racing all the way to Milos and back, the leader determined not to let the other overtake.

All of which was great fun, but not so good for the Agios Georgios’ engines, which really suffered for a while. Since then, and with a new crankshaft, things have been a little easier and although the core schedule is basically the same, she isn’t pushed nearly so hard which has to be a boost to her longevity.

The Nissos Mykonos

The Nissos Mykonos

The Theofilos

The Theofilos

The first leg to Serifos took a good three or four hours, so plenty of time to have a look around. The ship was pretty well packed – backpackers sprawled across the outside decks where the deck bar area had been completely refurbished before the Summer season. Islanders as ever stayed in the air conditioned interior, mostly asleep with the curtains firmly drawn….
On board the Agios Georgios

On board the Agios Georgios

One of the upper side promenade decks

One of the upper side promenade decks

The upper lobby with the Belsky mural on the right

The upper lobby with the Belsky mural on the right

The aft covered deck space was attractively refurbished in 2006/07

The aft covered deck space was attractively refurbished in 2006/07

The mural on the forward stairwell from Deck 5 ('B' deck in Sealink days).

The mural on the forward stairwell from Deck 5 ('B' deck in Sealink days).

English and French… but the warning wasn’t needed on a Sunny day like this

English and French… but the warning wasn’t needed on a Sunny day like this


The second port of call was Sifnos, a stunning location where the ferries sail between the rocky headland and into the port located between two sheer cliff faces. Some 25 years ago, the Kimolos (ex-Free Enterprise I) ran aground here quite spectacularly, although the damage was mostly to smaller boats in the harbour.
Arriving at Sifnos

Arriving at Sifnos

Next up: Kimolos itself, the little island next to Milos for whom the ex-FE I was named when she was running for Ventouris Ferries.
Kimolos

Kimolos

A little close to the rocks at Kimolos

A little close to the rocks at Kimolos

To Milos!

To Milos!

The great thing about staying on these ships all the way to the final island is that they get gradually quieter and quieter. From Sifnos onwards, the ship became something of a private yacht. I spent half an hour enjoying a drink in the forward bar (once the VSOE lounge).
The forward bar (formerly the VSOE Lounge)

The forward bar (formerly the VSOE Lounge)

At last, we arrived in Milos! By this time it was about 3.30pm. In harbour were the EasyCruise One and the Highspeed 1 which we’d seen earlier in Piraeus and had overtaken us en-route. In between the last two calls, we’d been wondering which island we actually wanted to stay on overnight and Serifos was the preferred option. How to get there…. well the Agios Georgios went back there at 4pm!

So just time for a quick dash off the ship, nip into the quayside ticket agency, and back on board again. This time we splashed out and upgraded to First Class – up in the former Wessex Bar above the VSOE. One of the real pleasures of Greek ferry travel is turning the tables on crew members who look at you, in their eyes yet another bedraggled backpacker, and try and usher you straight out onto deck. One flash of the first class ticket is never enough in these circumstances – they check and double check as if they can’t quite believe their eyes before letting you pass.

EasyCruise One at Milos

EasyCruise One at Milos

Disembarking in Milos before re-embarking again

Disembarking in Milos before re-embarking again

The First Class Bar

The First Class Bar

Out on deck one more time

Out on deck one more time

Final disembarkation at Sifnos

Final disembarkation at Sifnos

The beach at Sifnos in the late afternoon

The beach at Sifnos in the late afternoon

After getting off the ship in Sifnos, we had to find somewhere to stay – that was soon sorted with a room from a nice elderly lady sourced from the tourist office; the room incidentally had on the wall a nice framed photograph of the Express Pegasus on her maiden arrival in Sifnos back in 2000 when she had teamed up with the Express Milos in Hellas Ferries’ first year.

Finally there was some relaxation time – dinner was had at one of the beachside restaurants and a post-dinner stroll to the port followed in the hope of getting pictures of the last arrivals of the day, the Romilda and the Speedrunner II. The latter was headed to Milos before coming back and onward to Piraeus but day turned into night before the late-running ex-Stena Pegasus finally rounded the headland.

The Romilda at Sifnos

The Romilda at Sifnos

Sifnos Sunset

Sifnos Sunset

The Speedrunner II

The Speedrunner II


The following day we had a nice long lie in before wandering down to the portside area for some breakfast – a simple croissant and a cup of coffee sufficed, but it wasn’t too long before it was time to get the rucksacks on again and head back down to the ferry port. This time it would be a quick lunchtime hop to Milos, a stop for some afternoon tea there before getting the Romilda back to Piraeus. To get to Milos, the handy connection was provided by the Speedrunner I (ex-Hoverspeed Great Britain) and she arrived and left bang on time – something that would later prove challenging to the Romilda. The ‘HGB’ was pleasantly filled on this short 50 minute leg and hasn’t changed very much since she has been in Greece, still retaining a model of herself in Seacat colours with an explanation of the Hales Trophy win.
A peaceful morning in Sifnos…

A peaceful morning in Sifnos…

…interrupted by the arrival of the Speedrunner I

…interrupted by the arrival of the Speedrunner I

Speedrunner I

Speedrunner I

Speedrunner I

Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

There still just isn’t something quite right about seeing this flapping around on a Greek island ferry.

There still just isn’t something quite right about seeing this flapping around on a Greek island ferry.

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

On board the Speedrunner I

The Speedrunner I leaving Milos

The Speedrunner I leaving Milos

The ship promptly arrived in Milos, unloaded and quickly reloaded before disappearing into a characteristic cloud of exhaust fumes. We had only one job before dinner… purchase tickets for the Romilda back to Piraeus. This wasn’t as easy as might be imagined: some times ticket agents care just that little bit too much about their customer’s welfare! The agency adjacent to the berths in Milos (not affiliated to any company in particular) was convinced we were just simple tourists who needed a favour doing when we asked for tickets for her sailing – we were politely told, “no, is no good, dirty, bad ship. The Agios Georgios is faster, cleaner”. All of which was true and, in fact, quite a persuasive argument – although the A.G. was scheduled to depart Milos a little later she would get into Piraeus somewhat earlier, mostly but not entirely due to her more direct routing. We persevered however and eventually and somewhat reluctantly were sold our tickets.

Just after lunch a booming horn indicated the arrival of the Agios Georgios which arrived on her morning sail from Piraeus, backed onto the berth and sat there for her half hour turn around. She then left again as swiftly as she had arrived. There was still no sign of the Romilda which was scheduled to have left 20 minutes earlier. Finally, about an hour later than timetabled, she hurried round the headland, her great belches of smoke giving even the Speedrunner I a run for her money.

The Agios Georgios at Milos

The Agios Georgios at Milos

The late-running Romilda arrives at Milos

The late-running Romilda arrives at Milos

The long wait of the Romilda’s passengers in the Milos ‘cattle pens’ is over!

The long wait of the Romilda’s passengers in the Milos ‘cattle pens’ is over!

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

The builder's plate

The builder's plate

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

The upper car deck

The upper car deck

On board the Romilda

On board the Romilda

Farewell to Milos…

Farewell to Milos…

Slow but steady progress

Slow but steady progress


The Romilda really is a slow old thing nowadays (or is run slowly), and was noticeably taking a little longer than the Agios Georgios had between the same island pairs the previous day. Most passengers crowded either on the outside decks, or laid flat out on the sofa seating inside. And woe betide anyone who decided they might need to use the toilet facilities in passage. Suffice to say, it was possible, but only if you really were desperate.

The best thing to do was settle down with a book in a quiet corner (preferably out of the way of funnel smuts) or have a snooze. If the heat became too much, it was time to head inside and snuggle down in one of the reclining seats on the upper deck. Time soon passed, and the sun was setting as we arrived at Kythnos.

Sunset from the Romilda

Sunset from the Romilda

Sunset from the Romilda

Sunset from the Romilda

Kythnos

Kythnos


Somewhat inevitably, the Romilda lost more time en route to Piraeus and it was well past midnight before we finally disembarked; just before getting off, I did a quick tour to grab images of those places which had been too busy to photograph mid-crossing. The upper deck lounge (latterly Club Class with P&O) remained resolutely locked – this seems to be the near-permanent situation and in the past couple of years they’ve also locked off the aft outside deck on this level.
A final look around

A final look around

The upper bar

The upper bar

The main lounge, forward

The main lounge, forward

Adjacent, the main bar is still 'The Peninsular Bar'

Adjacent, the main bar is still 'The Peninsular Bar'

Postscript
As of February 2009 the Romilda and Agios Georgios remain operating for GA Ferries and Ventouris Sea Lines respectively.
The Speedrunner I was sold by Aegean Speed Lines in early 2008 and spent that year’s Summer running day cruises out of Rethimnon in Crete under the name Sea Runner; ASL continued operations with the Speedrunner II operating alone.

2 Comments

  • By Neil Tierney, February 1, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    love seeing the pictures of Romilda. As a child and teenager i regularly sailed between Larne and Cairnryan on the Free Enterprise 4 and the Pride of Ailsa and Rathlin. Seeing the photos is great even if the ship is in a sorry state. To me it is a classic ship and i love it. Excellent !!!!

  • By Administrator, February 13, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    Thanks Neil.

    Yes she is a bit of a mess – in my experience GA Ferries ships tend to be more like that than some other operators. But like you say she is a classic, and one of only two of the eight which are still easily accessible to people from the UK, so worth sailing on if possible!

    Matt

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