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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Worst maintained ships
What is wrong with P&O?
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.
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.