As ferry safety obsessives, Rose and I are spending our (Australian) winter holiday travelling around the Aegean islands by ferry. The last time we did this was 44 years ago on our honeymoon!
While we have returned to Greece several times since, we have always been on sailing yachts, which means we were rather disconnected from ferry travel. This note offers my early impressions of the current Greek ferry situation after three voyages. We are planning six more ferry voyages over the next fortnight, and I will report on those in due course.
First, I have to emphasise that, despite its recent economic troubles, Greece appears much more prosperous, certainly in the Northern Aegean where we have been so far. It is notably cleaner than previously. The sea is remarkably clean, probably thanks to the mighty efforts of HELMEPA and, presumably, now the Greek government. The streets, too, are clean and, apart from endless cigarette butts, impressively free of rubbish and dog poo. It is a lovely place, especially when the sun is shining.
The ferries are another matter, however. A very mixed bag. The first, ran from Kavala on the mainland to the beautiful island of Thassos, a 90-minute voyage at about 12 knots on an LST-type Ro-Pax ferry, the 1985-built, 1,174GT Panagia Thasou. Not a bad boat, as such vessels go, but we would have felt much safer had it been a catamaran of similar or even smaller size. It was, though, certainly one of safer looking and better-maintained Ro-Pax ferries we saw that day.
Apart from sailing with the bow ramp down for too long, as do all the LST ferries we have seen here, it was well-operated and comfortable enough for the short transits it undertakes. It was equipped with plenty of life rafts and Carley floats.
However, there was no safety briefing and, on the favoured outdoor upper deck, no safety notices despite displaying an abundance of IMO MARPOL notices. On that deck, also, no life jackets were visible. Further, you just paid for your ticket and went aboard. No ID checks and, obviously, no detailed passenger manifest such as is now required in the Philippines.
On enquiring of the bosun of the whereabouts of the life jackets, I was informed, “No lifejackets!”. Entering the enclosed lounge passenger space, I asked the cafe manager about lifejackets. He simply shrugged his shoulders. Eventually, I discovered that there were some lifejackets stowed under the lounge bench seats and in a locker. Their whereabouts indicated by the current idiotic green IMO-approved lifejackets symbol that is impossible to see in low light, let alone at night.
The next ferry was interesting. It was a 1987-built Kometa hydrofoil built in the Almaz shipyard in St Petersburg, Russia, back in the Soviet days. Funnily enough, although comparatively small, it felt the safest of all the vessels described here.
It had plenty of obviously fitted and stowed life rafts and lifejackets as well as printed safety briefings in each seat back and mounted on bulkheads. It’s crew appeared competent and, apart from emitting masses of thick black exhaust smoke, the vessel itself seemed fine. It had apparently been thoroughly overhauled recently.
Why is it that the operators of fast ferries, which have by far the best safety record of all ferries, are always the most safety conscious?
Finally, the 42-year-old Ro-Pax ferry Express Pegasus of 4,863 GT. Owned by Hellenic Seaways, she would best be described as “tired”. Pitted and rust streaked decks and dirty old toilets rather gave its game away as did its filthy exhaust emissions, even in harbour.
She was equipped with plentiful life boats that looked like original equipment. There were a few liferafts and plentiful lifejackets, except on the always-popular open upper deck. There was a PA briefing but, unfortunately, it was largely unintelligible. The seats were barely comfortable for a four-and-a-half-hour voyage.
Obviously, then, the problem in this part of Greece is one of ageing vessels. There are numerous new, barge-like Ro-Pax double-ender ships, but they are only suited to enclosed waters and appear to operate on the route from Thassos town to Keramoti on the nearby mainland.
As I sailed on these “clapped out” elderly vessels, I kept thinking of the improvements being wrought in the Philippines, with its similar logistical task to the Aegean. A further similarity is the competition the ferry industry faces from cheap airlines.
As in the Philippines, is there such a requirement for large, traditional Ro-Pax vessels? To face airline competition and the demands of modern tourists, more modern vessels and more frequent services are urgently needed in the Northern Aegean. They would best be provided by catamarans of both the Ro-Pax and pax-only varieties.
Passengers want safe, comfortable, convenient, low emission ships. Modern catamarans, whether high or medium speed provide that. There is a clear and obvious opportunity for the introduction of many such vessels in Greece.