Panagia Tinou (most recently Agios Georgios, originally the Hengist of 1972).
Half sunk in Piraeus harbour, July 2016.
Panagia Tinou (most recently Agios Georgios, originally the Hengist of 1972).
Half sunk in Piraeus harbour, July 2016.
What, meanwhile, has become of the ‘Nordica”s sister, the first Stena Danica? The ship saw lengthy service after 1969 as the Lucy Maud Montgomery in Canada before disposal in 1999. The most recent images I can find of her are as the Lady Caribe I, laid up in Key West in the early 2000s. In late 2007 Shippax reported her sold to “Dominican buyers” but there the trail goes cold.
Piraeus, the city whose vast harbour serves as the port of Athens is, arguably, the greatest port in the world. To the enthusiast, the vast array of passenger ships of all types lined up right around the Great Harbour is captivating and almost astonishing. Yet the reality is that Piraeus can also be hot, dirty and, occasionally, somewhat seedy. To the foreign traveller it is a confusing mess of ticket offices, unknown ships and traffic – everyone else seems to know what they’re doing and where they’re going but to the unfamiliar it is almost impenetrable. I remember how once we encountered an exhausted young backpacker with a ticket for the departure, fifteen minutes hence, of the Panagia Ekatontapiliani in tears at the impossibility of finding her ship – although the vessel was clearly visible to us just a short walk away.
The mass of Greek domestic ferry operators has long been as confusing as its primary port. A rise and eventual fall seems almost inevitable for all but the very lucky few – some last a few months, some a few years and some decades, but history suggests that most will disappear eventually through merger, takeover, disaster, bankruptcy or just decline and disappearance. The nature of Piraeus, with its hundreds of ticket agencies and many abandoned office buildings means that memories of those ships and operators which have fallen by the wayside tend to linger. For example, nearly a decade after the 1995 collapse of Ventouris Sea Lines that company’s hoardings and the giant billboard images of their fleet of classic ex-UK car ferries could be seen on display near the berths from which they used to sail. And, as these pictures from last year show, with the numbers of individual operators much reduced from previous decades, many of the dozens of defunct ferry companies and their ships still make their presence felt whilst some of the modern hoardings of today’s operators will doubtless, in due course, become relics themselves.
A trip to the Greek islands hadn’t been part of the plan for 2010 – with interesting and untested ships to sail on across the rest of Southern Europe together with a whole host expected to be in their final seasons, the domestic Greek scene, for once, didn’t seem a priority. However, the cancellation of a short cruise on the Island Escape (ex-Scandinavia) in mid-November led to a quick search for alternatives and a five night trip to Greece, out of season, suddenly became very attractive.
Initial plans to focus on the more interesting ex-Japanese tonnage now in operation were partly scuppered by the recent collision with Piraeus’ Northern breakwater (and subsequent absence from service) of Hellenic Seaways’ Nissos Rodos (ex-Kiso) and by ANEK pulling their Lissos (ex-Ferry Hamanasu) from her sailings to the North Aegean. In the event however it turned out to be a remarkably successful short visit – in many ways, the aforementioned scheduling problems apart, the timing was completely fortuitous: each day was sunny and with none of the strong winds that often lead to Greek domestic cancellations. Meanwhile we just missed the 24 hour (later extended to 72 hours+) strike of Greek seafarers which commenced on Tuesday the 23rd – on the European Express from Chios we were one of the last overnight ships arriving into Piraeus that day, actually berthing an hour or so after the official start of the industrial action.
The most notable difference being in Piraeus and its surrounding areas in November compared to the peak season is the large number of normally operational ships laid up – both those in seasonal use (mostly fast craft and cruise ships) or those which happened to be out of service for their annual refits. In addition, there remain the ships of GA Ferries and SAOS, operators whose financial troubles have forced them largely out of business. Whilst the SAOS fleet is dispersed across the country, with only their Panagia Agiasou laid up in Piraeus outer harbour, the ships of GA’s passenger fleet can all be found locally – five in the inner harbour and three more adjacent to the ‘Agiasou’. Other than the fast craft Jet Ferry 1 all have recently been offered for sale by the harbour authority which, in one of the less attractive pitches to prospective purchasers, describes them as “dangerous and harmful”.
I will add more pictures from this trip in due course but for starters here are some of those GA ships and their long-term SAOS co-resident. For the record, the title of this entry is perhaps slightly misleading – the ships aren’t entirely abandoned and it seems that one ship in each of the two batches has at least one watchman on duty with the Rodanthi and Anthi Marina serving as their respective basecamps.
Thereafter, the ships have had interestingly varied careers, all three surviving into the new century before the ex-Surrey was scrapped in 2005. This vessel had in between times been converted to a passenger ferry by A K Ventouris, under whom, as the Anna V, she was mysteriously sunk by a bomb in Patras harbour. Repaired, she saw sparing further service as the Jupiter, being laid up for a prolonged period in Brindisi and then Elefsis before sailing for scrap as the Pit.
The Surrey’s earlier sister ships have both met slightly happier fates, although the future now looks uncertain in each case. The Somerset of 1966 became a livestock carrier but this picture from July last year shows her in a very poor condition. Her AIS is still on however and she is currently listed as sailing through Greek waters. On Ships Nostalgia (registration required) there is an astonishing picture of the ship, as the Afroditi, aground near Waterford in the 1980s with huge piles of hay on her after decks.
The Stafford (1967) was quite horrifically converted first into a Greek passenger/car ferry (named the Voyager and then the Monaco) and then into a cruise ship for operation out of Miami. She is seen here in her Voyager guise in the mid-1980s and, following her return to Greek waters, as the cruise ship Atlantis at Santorini in the early 2000s. Subsequently sold to American owners, the ship has been laid up for some time in Elefsis, latterly Elefsis Bay.
Despite this, she shares top billing on her owners’ enthusiastic website with the Casino Royale, originally HML’s famed second purpose-built car ferry the Castalia. A press release from January 2010 notes that the company is “currently evaluating port locations in East Asia and the United States for the establishment of its initial operations… Each vessel is anticipated to have a capacity of approximately 1,200 passengers and will offer the Companyâ€™s patrons a full entertainment experience. Upon completion of the intended renovations, the shipboard entertainment venues on the m/v Casino Royale will include a 100 seat full service gourmet restaurant, a 300 seat buffet restaurant, a casino, a sports bar, a VIP lounge, and a covered outdoor entertainment deck, while the m/v Island Breeze will offer a 100 seat full service gourmet restaurant, a 300 seat buffet restaurant, a casino, a sports bar, a high energy nightclub, a VIP lounge, and a 400 seat showroom. ”
Sticking with the website’s title ships, here is an unusual image of the Vortigern, near the end of her UK career, at Dieppe.
Lastly the Hengist and perhaps her most famous moment, the grounding off the Warren in 1987, was captured on video. Meanwhile, the ship’s current operators, Ventouris Sea Lines, at last have a proper website, complete with a good selection of on board images of the most carefully maintained veteran ferry sailing in Greek waters.
First up, Piraeus (and surrounding areas) in 1968.
Some extracts from a 1970s film which highlights some of the quayside structures, including the long gone passenger walkways.
In Piraeus port 1995, a cast of dozens of classic ships line up for the camera – this was before the demise of Ventouris Sea Lines later that year and the Apollo Express 2 is seen in operation, whilst the Milos Express (Vortigern) is seen just out of refit.
And lastly the brief but strangely mesmerising Classic ferries of Greece
At the end of the latter film comes footage of the Sappho (ex-Spero) and scenes aboard this ship feature heavily in these extracts from a 1970s film. It is readily apparent that her interiors were almost completely unchanged, right down to the large map of the North Sea adjacent to the information desk. Some more on board video can be found here (from about 3:25 in & turn the sound DOWN!).
The ship sank twice – the first time was during the Second World War when she was scuttled in Paradiso Bay, just north of Messina, the day before Sicily fell to the Allies in August 1943. She remained submerged for six and a half years before being raised, rebuilt and restored to service in 1953. Finally retired after a 59-year career, she was sold to the local authority in Messina and intended to become a maritime museum. Neglected and abandoned, she sank for a second and final time in 2006.
This link, from the Internet Archive, documents the ship’s career and dates to before her 2006 sinking but prophetically notes that “neglect, incompetence, disinterest and abandonment are pulling the Cariddi down again.”
A more complete history of this route, one of the outstanding ferry experiences in Europe, can be found here.
The website notes that the Wahine’s foremast has recently been placed in position as a monument on the rocks near to where survivors came ashore on the morning of the disaster.
The Sud Express was established in 1887 and ran through to Lisbon from Paris and Calais (later it was just Paris to Lisbon and later still Paris to Hendaye/Irun, change trains, and then Hendaye to Lisbon). Alas, itâ€™s not just a case of â€œanother one bites the dustâ€ â€“ this truly was the last of the great loco-hauled Grand European Expresses. The Sud outlasted the remnants of the (real) Orient Express by a couple of years. The Nord Express, the Train Bleu, the Peninsular Express, the Oberland Express etc all fell by the wayside long ago. The relevance of these long-distance luxury train connections to the ferry industry died out decades ago with the onset of mass air travel, but the train/ship/train link was before then vital for anyone who wanted to travel significant distances in Europe.
And just how useful would the Paris/Oostende-Oslo cars of the Nord Express (via the Nyborg-KorsÃ¸r and HelsingÃ¸r-Helsingborg train ferries) be today for ash-bound Continental shipowners wishing to get to the Shippax conference starting on the Color Magic on Tuesday…?
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Bridging the ferry-cruise ship divide (although back then for smaller ships it was still sometimes more real than imagined) proved a challenge. Different markets received different messages; for example, the 1988 brochure for the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (the luxury train) carried the following text in a one page summary about the ship’s services:
NOW THE MV ‘ORIENT EXPRESS’ STARTS WHERE THE TRAIN LEAVES OFF
The Orient Express passenger to Venice may now extend his journey not only to Istanbul, the train’s original destination, but far, far beyond.
The mv ‘Orient Express’ commissioned just two seasons ago sails from Venice every Saturday evening. With three bars, four restaurants, two pools, sun decks, a beauty salon, cinema and casino, dancing and cabaret, even a children’s playroom, the eight gleaming decks are dedicated to your convenience and pleasure.
Every cabin, from the simplest to the grandest, has air conditioning and en-suite shower and WC.
The Captain and Officers are British, the crew multi-lingual, the service – like the food – superb.
And the itinerary, whether you prefer simply to cruise, with excursions, for seven glorious nights or stop off for a week (or two, or three) at one of the ports and rejoin the ship on a later sailing, matches the ship herself.
The breath-holding squeeze at dawn between the vertical walls of the Corinth Canal; Piraeus and the Parthenon, the teeming pleasures of Istanbul; Kusadasi for the beaches of southern Turkey and the fabulous excavations at Ephesus; gentle, undiscovered Patmos to see, perhaps the cavern where St John the Divine wrote his Book of Revelations; Katakolon for Olympia and back, of course, to Venice.
Entirely missing from that account of the ship’s operations was the ‘F’ word, which presumably might not have entirely been what VSOE passengers had in mind as a continuation of their journey, other post-train options in the brochure including the 5 star Hotel Gritti Palace, or Michael Winner’s favourite, the then Sea Con-owned Cipriani. On the other hand, they had just been willing to overnight on an excruciatingly expensive train with no en-suite facilities whatsoever.
In contrast, the main brochures for the ship herself brought the matter to the forefront and the 1989 version contained the following as its very first paragraph:
When you think of a car ferry, you think of a vessel that provides, essentially, a service. When you think of a cruise ship, you think of carefree, sun-filled days punctuated by the pleasures of the table, the entertainment and the ports of call.
When you consider mv ‘Orient Express’ you must start again and think of both.
For both is exactly what she is. Below decks a car ferry, her hold lined with the cars of travellers and holidaymakers bound for Athens, Istanbul and the beaches of southern Turkey. Above, a fully stabilised, uncompromising 12,500 ton cruise liner equipped to take you – with car or without – on a very special voyage.
In 1987 the US brochure for the ship had included some interesting comments amongst a series of passenger testimonials:
“Some of the cabins are a little small. Typical of a North Sea ferry. But what you’ve done to the rest of the ship is just amazing”
“We didn’t know what to expect. A cruise ship that carries cars? But you never see them. They just sit in the hold keeping the prices down.”
“They say the (VSOE) train is far more elegant than the ship. It’s hard to believe. These are some of the loveliest public rooms of any ship of its size.”
“A British-run ship. It’s just what they needed in these waters. No one does it with as much class as the British”.
Winter months were generally spent either on charter or operating cruises around the Canary Islands, including calls at Agadir in Morocco. It was at the latter port that I had the unexpected chance to visit the ship in 1988, having espied the distinctive funnel colours from across town on the beach near to the Hotel Europa, harangued the family into jumping into a taxi and taken the chance to ask for a look around. She was certainly an interesting vessel, and had most definitely been spruced up for service in her cruise-cum-ferry role. Significant sums had been spent on refurbishment, including the installation of a moderately-sized outside swimming pool, and a look around the facilities showed that they were clearly more luxurious than Sealink’s English Channel norm.
The marginal nature of the business and Sea Con’s need to generate cash urgently to fend off the Temple Holdings (Stena & Tiphook) takeover bid saw the ship sold in late 1989 back to Effjohn (formed by a merger from the ship’s former owners Effoa and Silja partners Johnson Line). One final season as the Orient Express preceded a brief period in Singapore operation before returning to the Effjohn fold as the Wasa Star for subsidiary Wasa Line in 1992. The ship was significantly rebuilt but remained in service through the merger of Wasa Line into Silja in 1993 and remained back with her original operators until 2001. Sold to Star Cruises she forged a new career operating out of Hong Kong, latterly on gambling cruises. Displaced from this role in 2007 she spent a brief period sailing in Malaysian waters but was purchased from lay up by Halkydon for operation between Italy (Trieste or Bari) to Durres in Albania.