Ferry survival tactics!

I started writing this blog post about Greek ferries 10 months ago. I know, crazy, 10 months and still only sat in the draft section of my blog. Lazy, probably. But also I had unshakable desire to travel on more ferries. I feel in a better place to write this now than when we were just back from Sikinos and I couldn’t describe how much I loved the Greek ferry system; but I am still learning to love its quirks and mysteries. We had travelled on Zante Ferries ‘Adamantios Korais’ on a midnight sailing from Sikinos to Santorini and I was mesmerized her bubblegum pink and mint green leather seating reminiscent of a down-beat disco bar. It was built in Japan in the late 1980s and has this futuristic interior that was a wonderful reminder of the lost glamour of sailboat travel.  When we were home G encouraged my ferry interest by buying a random book from Amazon which captures a little slice geekery called ‘5 Days in Greece: the Greek Ferry Industry at a crossroads”. This book is something of a gem as it is written by a couple of ferry fanatics who capture a key time in Hellenic maritime history. It has amazing photographs of ferries and detailed descriptions before several of the older ships (often ex-cross-channel boats) were about to be retired following the change in legislation in the aftermath of the MS Express Sanmina disaster in 2000. If you don’t know the tragic tale, the Sanmina sank outside Paros in September 2000 – it was due to end its service after 35 years the following year. 82 people lost their lives in the disaster and the cause of which was not only the ship shunted into rocks and let in water, but the crew failed to lock nine of the ships eleven watertight doors. I saw some underwater photos of the wreck at the Kini Aquarium last week which prompted my thoughts on it.  As a result Greek law was changed to ensure that all boats retire at 30 years and are subject to extra safety procedures as well as voyages now having ‘black box’ recorders. This meant that in the 2000’s many of the older characterful ferries that had metamorphosed from one country route to another shipping company altogether, were taken out of service. But there are still some wonderful boats on journeys across the islands, charting between major and minor ports. It’s not just the boat that plays a role here but also the voyage and the views, as well as the stories that people bring with them as they travel.

Last week we stood waving my parents off at Ermoupoli port as they took the Blue Star Naxos to Mykonos to catch a flight– little did I know there had been a mix up at the ticket agency and I’d mistakenly managed to buy them tickets for July travel instead of June (I can’t even blame my bad Greek, the whole transaction was done in English!) Although afterwards they reassured me all was sorted quickly and the ship staff shrugged when realising that someone must have let them use the incorrect tickets for their outbound journey. Meaning that no one knew they were on-board, contravening the basic sea-travel law of having a passenger manifest!  Some things never change.

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Whilst we waved we watched two glamorous looking young American girls disembark the Blue Star and stand around on Syros port – they ambled over to the store to buy beers and stood waiting around. Like most ports the accommodation owners are allowed to tout for passing trade when a boat comes in – as the girls had been standing around for a while the lady who runs a hotel in town asked the girls if they had a place to stay in Syros. I didn’t over hear the exchange but we certainly started watching when the Greek lady started pointing to the Blue Star ferry and shouting “No, this is Syros! After here is Mykonos…Quickly! Run! Go”. The girls screeched some expletives and then started running back towards the ferry they had just left, arms flailing, wheelie suitcases falling over and bouncing over the perilous concrete, one lost a wedge heel shoe…all the while they both miraculously held onto their beers! It was quite a commotion for the port in the midday sun, but too late for them to hop on the Blue Star, as the harbour master had unhooked the ropes and it had started reversing out of port. Luckily, the old faithful Aqua Spirit was still tied in and from what I could see the Greek lady helped negotiate them onto the ferry  and off to Mykonos without too much fuss! I imagine that will be quite the story for those travellers, but I also think it must happen all the time – perhaps if you’ve arrived on a 10 hour flight and are jet-lagged, it’s could be plausible to mistake the venetian hills of Ermoupoli for the sugar cube houses of Mykonos. But they do always make announcements in English as well as Greek…and Mykonos and Syros don’t even sound similar…

Sometimes it seems like you need a Rubik’s cube to figure out the timetables – believe me I do spend a considerable amount of time looking at them.That being said the ferry network confuses most people, myself included. Sometimes it’s easier and quicker to go to the main islands on a slow boat overnight like Crete, than it is to go shorter distances to smaller places! The ferry timetabling is much part of the local news media here, Cyclades24 has news stories dedicated to timetabling, which boats ran late, which failed to run at all. Things like the fast connections to Syros from Athens only started late in June, so people think they don’t bring enough tourists out of the peak season – then connections to close by islands like Sifnos are badly served by the boats.

The boat service throughout the year is a life-line, yet we travellers often forget it isn’t just there for Greek island hopping and zipping between beaches. It isn’t so as much a complex method of travel for tourists to navigate and understand– it’s a complex industry which primarily is designed to move local people and goods to keep the islands functioning! They need regular heavily subsidised routes for locals to access basic services – when we were trapped in Tinos in May due to the union strikes – the only boat going back to Syros took 4 hours and went via Andros, which any you look at the map is a four hour detour. But that network has an obligation to provide at least a bi-weekly accessible route to Syros, as it has hospitals, law courts and tax offices.

In the peak summer there are countless potential routes to get you across island groups by hydrofoil or highspeed line from Piraeus to Santorini or Naxos and Mykonos – all the most popular islands have the best connections (which again is a source of grumbles for Islands trying to attract tourism as they are tied by the ferry companies desire to be commercially viable). But come Winter the ferry’s reduce to a slow skeleton service connecting island networks at the mercy of being cut off by weather, and for the smaller and remote places the weekly ferry is a lifeline. They don’t have sources of food and supplies – a simple fact on some of the rocky outcrops in the Cyclades, communities have self-sufficiently existed there for years without deliveries of goods and services – small populations with enough farming and livestock for their villages. Now when these small islands like Tilos, Halki or Paros started attracting tourists from the late 60s onwards they needed roads building, construction, cabling, electrical supplies, and transport – every single thing has to be delivered by boat and that sometimes includes its water supply, although many now have de-salination plants thanks to the wonders of EU funding.

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Wherever you arrive or depart it is brilliantly orchestrated chaos.  If it’s a big boat it is chaos on a grand scale, huge swathes of passengers swarming on clambering for seats, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, trucks of goods, tankers and parcels being loaded on by people with endless clipboards and labels running on and off the boat. It is a feat of ingenuity that only the Greeks could master. If this was the UK there would be too many forms to complete and dockets to sign that a boat would never get out of port!

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There are a few good rules to follow: pay attention to where they ask you to leave bags when you board on the car deck and remember where it is, they usually have signs for each destination, but sometimes the man will just point and shout! If you really do want a seat and the option on bigger ferries tend to be deck or economy or the next class is airline seat, do pay the few extra euros for the airline seat. Some of the time you can just sit wherever you want on deck, in the cafes or in the air-conditioned lounges – but sometimes on busier ferries people reserve all the seats with their luggage and just leave their stuff, meaning no one else can sit down. Sometimes the staff ask people to move or the ticket inspectors check everyone should be sitting there. Most Greek people like to rush on and set up a spot for their families, but I do like to roam around the boat, perusing the café’s (usually for a decent spanakopita and espresso) and viewing the islands from the deck as we pass by. Its best to always wrap up warm even if its hot outside, once on-deck in the meltimi winds or in an air-conditioned cabin the temperatures can plummet. I safely take travel calm tablet on longer journey’s, I’ve never been sea-sick but its just insurance against it happening. But they do sell tablets on board.  It’s usually a lot simpler on shorter journey’s like the ‘Despina’ from Corfu to Paxos, or the aptly named ‘Meganisi II’ from Nidri on Lefkada or a personal favourite was taking the 70s aircraft-esque Tilos Sea Star from Rhodes Harbour in which they showed episodes of Blackadder with Greek subtitles. We recently ventured on Golden Star’s latest boat the highspeed SuperRunner to Paros which despite being in the middle of a storm was a smooth and swift journey in relative luxury!

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Travelling by ferry should always be seen as a big part of the holiday, whether you are there for a few weeks or just a short hop from Piraeus in Athens. One Easter on a small Dodekanise Express I left my luggage next to a crate full of live chicks on the hydrofoil to Patmos which was utterly cute to see the little bundles of yellow feathers chirping away, although I fear their destination may have not been so nice. We have seen herds of sheep, crates of tomatoes, fresh flowers and even prisoners being transported by armed police.  I spent 5 blissful days on Halki and actually enjoyed waking up at 3am to watch the towering Crete bound Anek ferry arrive into the tiny port, watching the chaos ensue on the sleepy harbour from the balcony as it unloaded trucks and passengers blinking bleary eyed. It’s lights on deck lit up the dock like Christmas!

I didn’t travel by ferry until I was about 6 years old on my first holiday to France, we would have driven all the way down to Dover to get the ferry to Calais. I have very little memory of being on the ferry, but it obviously stuck a cord somewhere. Now I see the ferry is a big part of the adventure in Greece, and we have lots of mini-trips that should incorporate more routes and boats. Although I have a feeling that the Aqua Spirit may become a ship we know too well this summer, and Hellenic Seaway’s Artemis, as they seem to be the only two boats covering most of the smaller Cyclades Islands.

Luckily getting my hands on some ‘Ferry Swag’ is a new hobby. So far I’m the proud owner of Blue Star Ferries cap which when I wear (mostly for gardening or running) I secretly want people to ask me about timetables…go on, I might even know the answer!

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