A voyage on the Express Olympia (ex-Viking 4, Earl Granville) in 2003

Back in 2003 the ferry routes from Piraeus to the islands of the Aegean remained largely in the hands of second hand tonnage from northern Europe and Japan. Car carrying fast ferries were just starting to establish themselves and the first of the century’s purpose-built conventional ships such as the Blue Star Ithaki and Knossos Palace had barely scratched the surface of the vast fleet of older ships.

The dominant operator remained Hellas Ferries, formed in 1999 as a merger of myriad smaller and family-owned companies but badly scarred by the Express Samina disaster of 2000. Alongside a substantial collection of Russian-built Flying Dolphin hydrofoils was a rag-tag conventional fleet which included a fascinating assortment of tonnage mostly originally built for Scandinavian and UK service. Included in their number was the 1973-built Express Olympia which could be found that summer operating the island hopping route from Piraeus to Samos via Paros and Naxos.

Hellas Ferries’ Express Olympia (ex-Earl Granville) and Express Adonis (ex-Earl Harold) on adjacent berths in Piraeus, July 2003.

When Hellas Ferries was formed the foundation stone had been Agapitos Express Ferries, whose fleet of eight ships had come to prominence in the second half of the 1990s after the Agapitos family’s passenger shipping operations had split in two (the other part, Agapitos Lines, would also become part of Hellas Ferries in due course). With Agapitos Express the Express Olympia had latterly formed part of a crack three-ship operation on the flagship route from Piraeus down to Santorini (via Paros, Naxos and Ios). The arrival after the turn of the century of faster, purpose-built Blue Star ships and wider deployment of fast ferries would ultimately destroy this market for slower and older conventional ships but, in the late 1990s, the Express Olympia was scheduled to make six round trips each week in summer including the most prestigious 2200 departures from the mainland on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. By 2003 however Hellas Ferries had got to grips somewhat with their unwieldy fleet and consolidation of schedules and ships saw the Express Olympia transferred instead to the less busy route from Piraeus to Samos.

An official Viking Line portrait of the brand new Viking 4.

The Express Olympia was one of nine near sisters built at the Meyer shipyard in Papenburg, West Germany and conceived for Viking Line in the late 1960s as an evolution of the design for Nordlandfahre’s Vikingfjord of 1969. The family of ships became famous as the ‘Papenburgers’ with, eventually, six vessels delivered to Viking Line and three more for Mexican domestic service with the operator which later became Sematur. The Swedish-registered Viking 4 was owned by Viking Line participant Rederi AB Sally and saw service across the shorter Stockholm/Kapellskar-Mariehamn-Turku/Naantali routes but also saw some use on the overnight Capital Cities Stockholm-Helsinki service.

The Viking Line fleet depicted in 1974, the soon-to-be delivered Viking 5 completing the group’s set of six Papenburgers. The near sisters would remain in service together only until early 1976 when the Apollo and Viking 3 were sold.
Viking 4 cutaway and cabin plan.

After a relatively brief career with her original owners in 1980 the ship was acquired by Sealink UK where she became the Earl Granville for service between Portsmouth and the Channel Islands. Re-engined and refitted before a 1981 entry into service, she was given an even more substantial rebuild in Denmark in early 1985 after Sealink’s new owners Sea Containers re-arranged their Western Channel operations. Now operating in tandem with the Earl William she was refitted for luxury, and expensive, overnight sailings to and from the Channel Islands under the ‘Starliner’ name whilst also, in summer, making round trips from Portsmouth to Cherbourg every other day.

Sealink’s Channel Island Fleet, 1981
The Earl Granville arriving at Portsmouth in 1984. The larger windows forward on the lower of the three passenger decks indicate an area where cabins had been stripped out in favour of a reclining seat lounge prior to the ship entering Sealink service. This was reversed and cabins re-installed in the ship’s Starliner refit just four years later.
Starliner, 1985.
Onboard Starliner – the images are on the ‘Granville’.
Brochure for the new 1985 Cherbourg services.

The new operation floundered in the face of competition from Channel Island Ferries and Sealink were eventually forced out of the direct mainland to Channel Islands business in 1987 but the ‘Granville’ remained locally, operating primarily Portsmouth-Cherbourg (with some extensions to Guernsey) until 1989. Excluded from the sale when Sealink was acquired by Stena in 1990, that summer she provided cover on her old route for Sea Containers’ new Hoverspeed Great Britain which enjoyed a delayed and difficult first season between Portsmouth and Cherbourg.

At Portsmouth in SBF livery.
Cherbourg-based services, 1987.
The Express Olympia just after purchase by Agapitos in late 1990; her Sealink name is still in place aft of the bridge and, notwithstanding the Greek flag at the stern, the red duster is still flying from the forward mast.
In service with Agapitos Express in 1999, operating a three ship Piraeus-Santorini service alongside former Sealink fleetmates the Express Santorini (ex-Chartres) and Express Apollon (ex-Senlac).

In December 1990 the ship was acquired by Agapitos Lines and renamed Express Olympia, passing to Agapitos Express when the family company shortly thereafter was split in two. After seven years with Viking Line and a decade in use around the UK this third, and final, part of her career would prove the longest.

In July 2003, her penultimate summer, I joined the ship for a round trip from Piraeus to Samos and back. The Express Olympia retained in large part the look of the extensive Starliner refit given to her in 1985 including facility names and artwork – but age was beginning to take its toll on the ship whose cosmetic condition was mixed and whose often harrassed-looking crew seemed to struggle with the busy loads of tourists and locals eager to reach their destination. Below are a series of pictures from that 2003 sailing, when it was evident, even then, that perhaps the ship would not remain in service for too much longer.

Earl Granville post-Starliner refit plan with the new facility names.
The ship retained this look and the names remained in place for the rest of her career.
1987 deckplan
Entering the ship astern, passengers were directed up to what had been the Restaurant Deck. Aft was the St Aubin’s Lounge, fitted with large numbers of comfortable seats and named after the small port in Jersey.
Another view of the St Aubin’s Lounge – in Greek service a snack bar had been installed which latterly bore the Everest name.
St Aubin’s Lounge, starboard side – what had been Section ‘A’ for Sealink passengers travelling with a seat reservation. The door in the background leads forward into the Lily Langtry Lounge.
On the Express Olympia the forward bulkhead of the lounge retained this print of the harbour and fort at St Aubin. Note the brown sign also still in place to the left bearing the saloon name – this style of signage was common to ships which received major refits in the early-to-mid Sealink British Ferries era.
Moving forward, amidships on the Restaurant Deck was what was still clearly named the Lily Langtry Lounge. Langtry, born in Jersey in 1853, was a well-known socialite, actress and mistress to Albert, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).
Lily Langtry herself, surveying the scene. The blue and gold No Smoking sign on the right dates from the Sealink British Ferries era.
The Langtry lounge had originally been the ship’s cafeteria but was converted into a high capacity seating area by Sealink before becoming a general lounge following the Starliner refit. Later, in 1987, the area was again fitted with more reclining seats, in which guise it remained until the end. This is the view on the starboard side looking aft.
The aft section of the Lily Langtry Lounge led onto the main staircase heading down to the cabin deck and reception area.
Lily Langtry bar counter, at the forward end of the saloon on the starboard side.
The central area of the lounge was left as general seating after the 1987 refit.
More pictures of Langtry in the central area.
More reclining seating on the lounge’s port side.
Access forward was via the port side where a further small seating area (pictured) led onto the forward lobby.
Forward lobby on the port side with the Carteret Restaurant on the left and stairs leading up to the main bar and down to the cabin deck.
The forward section of this deck had always been the ship’s main restaurant. It acted as a smörgåsbord in Viking Line service, becoming the self-service cafeteria in the early Sealink days before, in 1985, being refitted as the up-scale Carteret Restaurant. In the initial conception of the Starliner service, all meals were included in the fare.
All of the signage visible in this image dates back to the Sealink British Ferries era.
Port side of the Carteret Restaurant on the Express Olympia, where it was again in use as a self service restaurant. The de Carteret family colonised the Channel Island of Sark where they ruled as Seigneurs of the island.
The decor in this area again retained its Starliner-era look, including framed prints taken from John Mollo’s illustrations for the 1966 book, ‘Knights of the Middle Ages’. Mollo would later find fame as the lead costume designer for the Star Wars films.
Depicted here is Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford.
The forward section of the restaurant in July 2003.
The same area in its original guise on the Viking 4 in 1973.
A view of the central section showing how what had been a buffet counter had been converted into a self-service servery area with cash register to the right (image courtesy Richard Seville).
Moving up to the Boat Deck, forward on this level was the ship’s main bar which retained signage identifying it as the Belvedere Bar. This is the forward lobby looking across to port with the bar on the right hand side.
A general view of the Belvedere Bar as it was in 2003. This saloon had been more significantly refurbished for Greek service than other parts of the ship.
Bar counter.
The same area on board the ship in its original guise as the Viking 4.
Forward corner of the bar on board the Express Olympia.
BR-era signage remained in some corners.
Another BR sign.
Although the ship was substantially larger than earlier, 1960s-built Scandinavian car ferries, the general arrangement remained compact and retained in places the tight curved staircases to access the cabin areas which were so common on the previous generation.
Car deck door with myriad vintage signage.
In a few places the Sealink British Ferries logo could also be found.
Heading back upstairs.
The main cabin deck was below the Restaurant Deck but, in Greek service, a waiter service restaurant was installed here in place of what had been the Duty Free Seashop.
The main shop as it had been in Sealink British Ferries service.
The Express Olympia’s waiter service restaurant, seen in 1999 (image courtesy Richard Seville).
Cabin Deck corridor.
The 1985 refit had left the ship with very high quality cabin accommodation, as seen in this SBF publicity image (note the SBF-branded crockery).
In contrast, this Viking Line image shows the original decor of the ship’s standard cabins.
Moving upstairs and outside, this view shows the ship’s prominent dummy and actual funnels.
Painted over Swedish/Finnish sign near the gate leading to the bridge: Tillträde för obehöriga förbjudet / Asiattomilta pääsy kielletty (Access for unauthorised persons prohibited).
The Express Olympia featured large areas of outside deck seating, much of it covered by rudimentary deck shelters.
These areas supplemented the ship’s capacity although on one infamous occasion an inspection found the ship had almost double her certified capacity on board, an incident which directly led to the introduction of computerised ticketing for Greek domestic ferries.
Heading aft, this view amidships shows the deck bar on the right hand side.
More seating, with the deck bar in the background.
Aft on the deck below, outside the St Aubin’s Lounge.
The ship’s funnel seen as the Express Olympia left Piraeus bound for Samos.
The upper deck the following day.

After the summer of 2004 the Express Olympia, only 31 years old but in deteriorating condition, was no longer required by Hellas Ferries. Early the following year, just after her owners had rebranded themselves as Hellenic Seaways, the ship was disposed of as the company further downsized in the face of excess capacity and increasing competition. Whereas other ships sold in this period, such as the former Hengist and Horsa, would see many years of further service, for the Express Olympia there was no future. Sold for scrapping in India under the name Express O, she sailed on her long final voyage to Alang in June 2005. She was the only one of the nine Papenburgers to be deployed in Greek domestic service and was the second to be scrapped (although the former Viking 1 had sunk in 1999).

A little more than fifteen years later and today only three of this celebrated series of ships still exist with only one, the current St Damian (ex-Viking 3), in regular service. Regrettably the end came for the Express Olympia sooner than most but, in her three distinct careers, she encountered a little bit of fame, endured several brushes with disaster and remains warmly remembered by those who had the chance to sail in her.

The Express Olympia back on her berth in Piraeus.
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