COMANAV, then the state-owned shipping company of Morocco, established operations between Sete in Southern France and Tangier in 1974 following the acquisition of the former Vikingfjord, later Prinz Hamlet II, which they refurbished in a suitably Moorish style and put into service as the Agadir. The ship therefore began the first truly long-haul car ferry service to Morocco and, despite sailings in each direction requiring two nights aboard, the operation soon proved to be a success and by the mid-1980s a decision was made to order a purpose-built ship.
The Chantiers dâ€™Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire was chosen and the new ship, to be named the Marrakech, slotted intriguingly into the passenger ship orderbook just before the cruise ship Star Princess, SNCMâ€™s first Daniele Casanova (now the MÃ©diterranÃ©e) and Brittany Ferriesâ€™ Bretagne. For two vessels built in reasonably close succession by the same yard for broadly similar length crossings, when one steps aboard the Marrakech and the Bretagne it is difficult to imagine two more divergent ships. Whilst the Bretagne firmly established the AIA-designed form of French modern as Brittany Ferriesâ€™ house style, in many respects the Marrakech could have been a product of the 1970s. She is unabashedly a ship of state with deluxe and distinctly indigenous-looking first class saloons – the ship being, along with the Koningin Beatrix (1986) and Kronprins Harald (1987), amongst the last clutch of major European-built ferries to be delivered with separate classes onboard. A sailing from Sete to Tangier in May 2011 provided the opportunity to enjoy this chunky-looking classic on the route for which she was designed.
The Marrakech was designed not only to be the national ferry flagship but also, when the occasion demanded, to become the de-facto royal yacht of King Hassan II. This is demonstrated on board today in the large panel in the main lobby which states that the ship transported Hassan to the June 1988 Arab League summit in Algiers. The King died in 1999 and the royal family has long since relinquished their use of the ship and, as we shall see, whilst the delicately detailed first class saloons created for their use have stood the test of time well, in other areas the ship has rather been allowed to fall into less than perfect repair.
The class division was evidently designed with a change to single class operation in mind and, after the simple expedient of opening two doors on Decks 5 and 6 there is little the general passenger might notice in terms of orientation save for the transition from puke-coloured lino to blue carpeting in the cabin areas and the observation that there are two shopping areas along the starboard-side arcade, one open plan, richly-lit and decorated with designer goods in display cases whilst the other is a small, fluorescent-lit box where cigarettes and chocolate are the staple commodities on offer.
Boarding in Sete was via the vehicle deck which is a simple lorry-height affair split by a chunky centre casing peculiar to the extent that a small sliver of cabins are squeezed in on the upper level. Whilst plenty of ferries have cabins in side casings, this is a fairly unique arrangement, the only similar concept I can think of being the original incarnations of Viking Lineâ€™s Aurella as well as the 1960s Dieppe-Newhaven sisters Villandry and Valencay which had cabins and some small saloons inboard of the mezzanine vehicle deck.
Deck 5 is the main cabin deck, with the section aft of the amidships lobby being the former second class where things are very basic with bare off-white walls, no decorative touches and no en suite facilities. Forward, the first class cabins are of their time (if not a touch earlier) although no longer in pristine condition; in most convertible sofa-beds provide for the popular habit of spending the entire crossing cooped up in the cabin. A small range of luxury suites are provided on Deck 7, whilst on the deck above, just aft of the bridge, an old-school radio room can still be found where in previous times passengers could pass messages through the hatch to be wired ashore.
Deck 6 is the saloon deck where, forward, a quite outstanding pair of First Class rooms remain intact. Overlooking the forecastle is the â€˜Mamouniaâ€™ Bar with central dance area and live music whilst the astonishing Moroccan Saloon is just aft of this on the port side. This is furnished in dark red with an intricate, hand-painted ceiling and wall and table lamps which at night-time diffuse their light into a kaleidoscope of patterns against the bulkheads.
A starboard-side arcade is the main circulation route on board and, heading aft, next is the former first class â€˜El Bahiaâ€™ restaurant followed by the open-plan shopping area.
One then moves into the former second class area where a pair of more simple shop areas can be found (one now in use for storage) whilst, aft again, is what was the only public room in this class, an open-plan space with cafeteria (â€˜El Bahjaâ€™) to port and lounge area (‘Salon Agdal’) to starboard. There remain some quite detailed touches, with the wooden carvings on the bar counter of particular note but the general dÃ©cor is somewhat stripped back and could easily come from a ship built a decade earlier. Right aft is the former second class outside deck, furnished with wooden benches and interrupted on the centreline by the box enclosing the bottom of the swimming pool in the former first class area above (as if to really kick second class passengers in the teeth about the pleasures first class were enjoying, there are small windows on either side actually looking into the bottom of the pool).
The final major saloon is directly above the cafeteria/bar and this fulfilled the function of first class lido bar and, come the evening, nightclub. Just forward of this is the conference room/cinema which was out of use but appeared to have previously been used as an area of reclining seating. We were told that COMANAV no longer sell deck or seat passage on the ship as there is not enough money in it for them although with her passenger capacity of less than 650 one would have thought it would be profitable in the peak Summer migration season. That said, one of our tablemates in the restaurant advised that, even with her current capacity, the ship can be awful at these times when â€œthe children running around make it a nightmareâ€; from what we were told it seems little short of a miracle that the intricate detailings of so many of the original saloons remain in such good condition. On this occasion, with probably no more than 100 passengers on board, such considerations were thankfully for another day.
The fairly extensive outside decks are in quite poor condition; the lido area is covered with rather dirty matting and the swimming pool looked filthy but in any event remained covered by its netting throughout. At some stage it has lost its surround which means its sheer edges are now flush with the deck which must be disconcerting on a rough crossing when passengers are struggling to find their feet. The rest of the outside decks are somewhat pitted and the wooden deck railings in severe need of varnishing. In contrast, one of the crew could be seen hard at work polishing the brass on the staircases and the desk in the reception area which, in line with the other saloons, was in pretty good condition.
As with previous experiences aboard COMANAV, the food was average, although it seemed to improve as the crossing went by. All meals are included in the price and all passengers were served on this sailing in the former first class restaurant. On busier crossings the echo of the class distinction lives on as those in the old second class quarters use the self service cafeteria, whilst the rest make use of the restaurant where two or even three sittings are required. If previous experience stands true, the food served in both is the same forgettable fare. The first evening was particularly poor â€“ the starter was a beige coloured lumpy gloop with no discernable taste which we were astounded to subsequently find out was billed as salmon soup. This was followed by meatballs of unknown provenance and a fruit tart for desert. The following morning it was difficult to go wrong with a continental breakfast of rolls, jam, coffee, tea and orange juice, whilst lunch on Day Two was tuna salad, followed by what may well have been Birds Eye breaded fish and potato balls with an apple on a plate for desert (as a point of etiquette it appeared to be frowned upon if one did not use a knife to carve the apple up first). The evening meal on the second night was probably the best of the bunch with a superb Mulligatawny-style soup, followed by lamb and a chocolate eclair.
Something the shipâ€™s crew were able to rustle up was a decent gin and tonic, although the complete failure of the shipâ€™s ice-making machine was a negative factor. For that, and other, reasons our fellow passengers had fairly negative views of the Marrakech as she is now â€“ some could remember her during the glory days when she lived up to her billing as national flagship whilst others felt her operational partner on the route, COMARITâ€™s Biladi (ex- LibertÃ©) was superior, especially since her 2010 modernisation. The Marrakech has recently received a â€˜duck tailâ€™ sponson aft but this has had a seemingly negative effect on seakeeping, with a somewhat jumpy motion being experienced even in relatively calm seas.
One thing on which all were agreed was that the ship was far too hot â€“ the air conditioning was either underpowered or not working properly and this was particularly evident in the cabin areas. The technical troubles went deeper for, whilst the ship managed to run broadly to time, she appeared to have problems with her bow thrusters and tugs were required at both ends of the journey and one could imagine that the reverse dog-leg to move onto the berth in Sete proved a challenge on the previous arrival. Then, on the sailing subsequent to ours, the ship endured a fire in a machinery space which necessitated a retreat to La Spezia for repairs.
The entertainment in the forward bar was good with a keyboard player accompanied by a singing violinist who, together with their backing track, provided an appropriately Arabic vibe to the forward half of the ship. This extended to the deck below where there appears to have been little consideration of soundproofing even between cabins never mind from the saloon above; suffice to say light sleepers with quarters in these areas would be advised not to try and get an early night.
And so the 36-hour journey played out, with food followed by leisurely explorations of the ship and chats with fellow passengers, followed by food, followed by an afternoon siesta and an hour or so reading a book, followed by food, followed by after-dinner drinks and a game of cards in the first class saloons. Most passengers seemed to spend much of their time in the cabin areas smoking and chatting with the beds drawn down into their sofa positions. The crew meanwhile were unerringly friendly throughout, in particular the shipâ€™s doctor who was justifiably proud of his shipâ€™s glorious past but perhaps a little bashful at COMANAVâ€™s inability to maintain her in the manner in which she had been conceived.
We arrived off the new port of Tangier Med just a fraction behind the scheduled time of 7am but with the prolonged pushing and pulling of the tug to move us onto the berth followed by the on board customs procedures it was past nine when we finally disembarked onto the port shuttle bus. The former Oostende trio of the Oleander (running for COMARIT/LME), Eurovoyager (FRS) and Al Mansour (COMANAV) came and went to Algeciras together with another former Ramsgate ship the Boughaz (COMARIT). The local scene of conventional ferries was completed by the two IMTC ships Atlas and Le Rif, Accionaâ€™s Ciudad de Malaga and Balearia/Nautasâ€™s Passio per Formentera. COMARITâ€™s Ibn Batouta (ex-St Christopher) lay somewhat forlornly out of use on the Algeciras breakwater.
Tangier Med, 25 miles to the east of Tangier itself, formed a somewhat depressing finale to the trip â€“ whilst the new Gare Maritime itself is a not unappealing building, the wide and open lorry parks and acres of fencing are a poor substitute for the old days when arrivals at the old Tangier port landed one directly in the heart of things and an air of excitement combined with the slight perception of the dangerous unknown proved a heady mix for the intercontinental traveller. In contrast, the Med port is efficient, completely devoid of touts and altogether unexotic. Nonetheless, despite the romantic deficiencies of both her new home port and some aspects of her current condition, our voyage on the Marrakech had been a splendid one: a relaxing and enjoyable weekend spent sailing on a fascinating ship which had been overlooked for perhaps too long.