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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.