Mega Express Four

In early February 2021 it was confirmed that Irish Ferries were chartering the Mega Express Four from Corsica/Sardinia Ferries for a two month period to provide refit cover on their Irish Sea services. An established northern ferry European operator chartering a vessel from a southern European operator is rare indeed but with the pool of suitable ships seemingly sparse Irish Ferries have secured for themselves an interesting ship which was very significant when newly-built and which has been more widely-travelled than almost any other ferry in Europe.

Mega Express Four leaving Bastia.

The ship was originally the Superfast II, delivered in 1995 and the second of a pair of vessels built for Superfast, a new ferry operator established by the Panagopoulos family, former owners of Royal Cruise Line. Together with her sister the Superfast I she revolutionised cross-Adriatic services with a high service speed reducing passage times from Ancona to Patras to under 24 hours enabling fixed scheduling and requiring only one night at sea. Painted red and with distinctive wing-tipped funnels the vessels, and their operator, enjoyed a carefully crafted public image and the service proved very profitable throughout the late 1990s during which time a further ten Superfast ships were ordered both to improve on the original pair and to expand operations elsewhere.

The Superfast II at Patras in July 2003. The Superfast XI can be seen in the background.

By the summer of 2001 Superfast’s Adriatic service reached its peak number of ships with six vessels in service and two more on order. The arrival of the final pair in 2002 (Superfast XI and XII) allowed the second generation sisters Superfast III and IV to be sold to Spirit of Tasmania, the state-owned entity which operates services from Melbourne in Victoria to Devonport in Tasmania. There they were renamed Spirit of Tasmania II and Spirit of Tasmania I, providing a new standard with daily departures from either end. Having seen the success of that pair of ships the company investigated acquiring an additional vessel to open a new service direct from Sydney to Devonport and, in connection with this, the Superfast II was purchased in 2003, becoming the Spirit of Tasmania III.

A publicity image of the Spirit of Tasmania III in Sydney.

Despite starting out with high expectations the Sydney to Davenport route was unable to prove its viability and after just three years the Spirit of Tasmania was sold on again, this time to Corsica Ferries who continued to build up their high-speed conventional fleet as they sought to overcome entrenched competition in their core Corsican market from state-owned SNCM. Renamed Mega Express Four, after a brief spell in service late in 2006 with only minor modifications the ship was sent to Greece for a significant rebuilding which, amongst other changes, added passenger accommodation at the stern.

The Mega Express Four reversing onto her berth at Bastia following an overnight sailing from Toulon.

Before stepping on board the Mega Express Four there are a couple of things to point out about Corsica Ferries.

Firstly, they are a very, very successful company, having grown from nothing to dominate their core market of passenger and car crossings between France and Corsica (despatching the incumbent, state-owned SNCM along the way and seeing off attempts by other private sector operators – in particular Moby Lines – to carve out a meaningful presence).

Secondly, when they buy ships they tend to redecorate them in a particular style – and that style has essentially not changed for more than 30 years. The company’s ships all have a particular look, a template which has been resolutely stuck to for decade after decade as new ships (including fast craft) have been built or purchased and converted. The Corsica Ferries aesthetic is singular, very retro and very distinctive.

To illustrate the point, here is a page from their 1987 brochure. Some of the same colour schemes, carpet patterns, even chair designs are common between the Mega Express Four and this image.

Corsica Ferries 1987 brochure.
Unloading at Toulon.

Here, then is the Mega Express Four. She is no longer quite the greyhound she was as built, nor is her freight capacity any longer game-changing. But she is a comfortable and reliable ship operating for a company which works their ships with quite ruthlessly busy schedules through the summer but which usually gives them plenty of maintenance time outside that period.

A full quayside awaiting a summer sailing from Nice.
The Mega Express Four at Toulon showing the separate passenger gangway at the stern which leads directly to the reception area created in a section of the former upper vehicle deck.
Deckplan photograph.
The layout of the ship’s vehicle decks can be seen here including the ramp to the upper deck. As built the ship could load over two levels forward and aft.
Corsica Ferries extended the superstructure over the stern whilst a rogue wave in Tasmanian service destroyed the upper forward door which was permanently plated over.
Her bow visor, though rarely used, is still intact.
A view of the main vehicle deck; to left of the centre casing is the ramp up to the upper deck (just out of sight), to the right the one down to the two lower holds which accommodate cars only.
The lower hold ramp.
Foot passengers emerge directly at the ship’s reception desk on Deck 5. This was added, together with a small number of new cabins and reclining seat lounges, on the aft part of the upper vehicle deck during her major rebuild in early 2007.
Reception area artwork – the ship looks somewhat like one of the Sunderland-built Superflexes.
One level above the reception area on Deck 6.
Mega IV mosaic by the Cypriot artist Sotos Constantinou Gonios.
One further deck up to Deck 7 and we emerge into the original accommodation aft and to starboard at what is now the Riviera Lounge. This area is essentially unchanged from when the ship was built, when it was the Casablanca Bar, including the bar counter and most of the furniture.
Just to the left this space also bears ‘Deck 7 Lounge’ branding – the name it had in Tasmanian service.
The seating area just aft of the bar features a small piano.
At the stern on the port side this lounge area is typical of saloons added by Corsica Ferries when adding additional space on other members of its fleet being box-shaped but enlivened by the colour scheme.
Slightly further forward there is an abrupt transition to overall blue furnishings.
Another view looking aft.
Looking across to the small boutique.
Further forward again is another original space, the Corsica Cafe (once the Calypso Bar). Here the refurbishment has been rather more complete than on the starboard side.
Another view of the Corsica Cafe.
Forward again on the port side is what is now Yellow’s self service. In its original Corsica Ferries incarnation it operated on a ‘buffet à volonté’ (all-you-can-eat) basis. In Tasmania this was Elements Restaurant.
Yellow’s seating area. The space visible behind the bulkhead in the background was, in the Superfast days, partitioned off for freight driver use.
Back around on the starboard side, this arcade, which runs forward from the Riviera Lounge, provides the primary means of accessing the forward half of the ship.
Forward again, behind the windows and blinds on right is the a la carte restaurant. This area has subsequently seen its original Superfast flooring, as pictured, carpeted over.
The a la carte Dolce Vita restaurant. Originally the Ambrosia Restaurant, with Spirit of Tasmania this space served as the Longitude Cafe.
Moving forward again, the next block of accommodation was essentially bulldozed during the Mega Four conversion. Originally this area included the original reception desk, shop and reclining seat lounges. It now provides additional general seating in line with the previously seen ‘rectangular room, bright colours’ principle.
Forward again is the pizzeria/spaghetteria, now branded as Gusto. In the background to the left can be seen the entrance to the cabin areas showing how this space essentially also serves as a thoroughfare.
Gusto overall view and servery.
To either side of Gusto are the original promenade decks.
Time for a quick look in the cabin areas.
The Deck 7 cabins have these blue carpets. The same carpeting has appeared on Corsica Ferries ships since the mid-1980s.
Standard-fit four-berth Superfast cabin changed only by the addition of owners’ bedding and carpeting and removal of the telephone.
A slightly different colour scheme up on Deck 8.
Forward staircase at Deck 8 level.
At the stern on Deck 8 is the multi-function Pagoda area, added by Spirit of Tasmania with whom it was the Southern Cross Atrium. This was the location of the ship’s original swimming pool.
Pagoda general view looking forward.
Pagoda kiosk.
Aft again is the new lido area installed by Corsica Ferries.
Original Superfast seating area up on Deck 9 (these bench seats, common to all their Adriatic fleet, were popular with backpackers travelling on deck who could stretch out on them in sleeping bags).
Forward on Deck 10.
Funnel view. Having lost the original signature wing tips when sold by Superfast, it has now had what was left of its wings removed entirely.
Astern of the lido area is the circular staircase which is so prominent externally and helps to join up the three decks of accomodation. The design and concept of this were lifted entirely from the purpose-built Mega Express and Mega Express Two.
Staircase at the Deck 8 level.
Mega Express Four leaving Nice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *