Top:The Samothraki leaving Mytilene in July 2007.
The recent arrival of the Samothraki (ex-Viking Voyager) at Aliagia in Turkey for scrapping was perhaps not in itself a surprise but her demise, together with that a couple of years ago of her stretched sisters (the former Vikings Valiant and Venturer) leaves only the present Vitsentzos Kornaros (ex-Viking Viscount) of the quartet of ferries delivered to Townsend Thoresen in 1975/76 by Aalborg Vaerft in Denmark.
Somewhat surprisingly, the class has actually been out-survived by the generation of ships they were designed to replace â€“ Thoresenâ€™s original Viking trio of which two remain, only the pioneer Viking I having been dismantled, in 2008 after a legendary 44 year career. Her sister, the Viking II, later Earl William, now somewhat battered, survives in static use at Chaguaramas in Trinidad. The Viking III of 1965 meanwhile remains in service on one of Southern Europeâ€™s more notorious ferry backwaters â€“ the route between Brindisi in Southern Italy and Vlore in Albania.
The careers of these seven Vikings show just how the destinies of individual ships are affected by acts, if not quite of luck then certainly by events outside which the performance of an individual vessel can have a substantial impact. I last sailed on the Samothraki in 2007 and she was in perfectly good order and one would have bet on her running on her operations in the North Aegean for many years to come. The sudden and spectacular demise of her owners, SAOS Ferries, and the laying up of essentially their entire fleet in late 2008 saw her decline through neglect from serviceable flagship to unwanted scrapper.
Through whatever channels SAOS had managed to build up their network of subsidised routes, things came crashing down around the company and the Samothraki ended her days in Greece virtually abandoned in Alexandroupoli. One found it hard to imagine that this well-built and reliable ship would never operate again but the decay which sets in quickly in such circumstances evidently overtook her. The dismal state of the Greek economy meant local buyers with cash to invest were few and far between and it eventually became apparent that the shipâ€™s future lay only at the scrapyard.
The Viking Voyager and Viking Viscount were originally delivered for operation on Townsend Thoresenâ€™s Felixtowe-Zeebrugge service and they remained there until 1986 when, replaced by a pair of converted Stena Searunner class freighters, they moved West to operate from Portsmouth alongside their recently-stretched sisterships, the latter pair covering primarily the Le Havre run with the unstretched sisters operating to Cherbourg. Renamed Pride of Cherbourg in 1989, the ship was sold to Lineas Fred. Olsen for Canaries service in 1994, with her sister going to LANE Lines of Greece.
Fred. Olsen looked after the ship well, but after bearing the names Banaderos and Barlovento, she was replaced in 2005 and acquired by SAOS and renamed Samothraki, effectively replacing the former Vortigern in their fleet. In her initial summer season, still with a white hull, the ship could be found regularly in the Port of Piraeus, not too far from the berth of her sister. Thereafter however the Samothraki was focused on operations in the far northern Aegean, and by 2007 one could island hop around these relatively remote islands on the SAOS local fleet including the Samothraki, the Express Limnos (ex-Prins Philippe) and the rather less agreeable Panagia Soumela (ex-Lady of Mann) – a ship whose own final voyage to the scrapyard is imminent.
It is in this busy time, not long before the sudden end, that I will remember the ship. I made three sailings on her in the Summer of 2007 as we explored the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samothraki and Limnos and the onboard pictures below were taken during this period. Although in the late 1980s P&O subjected the original, quite funky, interiors to an overlayering of light wood veneers, pastel seating and conservative decor, the ship’s basic layout changed little over the years. She retained the bulk of that P&O-era look until the end, with a few Fred. Olsen tweaks here and there. As the Vitsentzos Kornaros, the ship’s sister operates with some minimal subdivision as a two class vessel but SAOS never tried to implement this on the Samothraki and passengers were given a free run of the ship.
The demise of the Samothraki, the impending scrapping of the Romilda (ex-Free Enterprise VIII) and the abandonment in Vlore of the Veronica Line (ex-Free Enterprise V) leaves just the Vitsentzos Kornaros from Townsend Thoresen’s early/mid 1970s newbuild programme within easy reach. These ships, whilst in some ways less stylish and built nearer to the margins than their Sealink rivals, were and are representative of the market-dominating private ferry company of the age and helped lay the foundations for the ongoing strength of P&O today – albeit now shorn of both the Western Channel and Belgian routes that the Super Vikings were designed to operate.
Although her demise was prolonged, the end of operations for the Samothraki was rather sudden. And, whilst the Vitsentzos Kornaros has now operated reliably for ANEK-controlled LANE Lines for nearly as long as she sailed from the UK, the state of the Greek economy means that nothing is certain anymore. Indeed, LANE’s current three-year subsidy agreement (agreed in 2009) supposedly requires at some stage the replacement of the ‘VK’ – therefore anyone who wants to experience one of these James Ayers-designed ships really should try to sail on her sooner rather than later.