I have been visiting the Greek islands on and off for nearly thirty years and island hopping for the last six and I have noticed that things are beginning to alter, and not always for the better either. There are new roads being constructed on the islands and EU funded improvements to ports, traditional mini-markets are becoming supermarkets and the ferries are beginning to change. New roads are fine and improved port facilities are good, personally I prefer the dusty old shops with surprises in dark corners but I have to say that I am really disappointed by the ferry changes.
This year there were new routes and unfamiliar boats and these were all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun. They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality. I understand that these changes are welcomed by the people who live on the islands, who now have faster and more convenient transport options, but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers. I prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure. In 2008 we were stuck on Folegandros for an extra day when ferries simply didn’t turn up but in 2009 there was disappointing sense of reliability.
In 2006 I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa (named after the monastery on Amorgos) and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful. I used it again in 2007 but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus. So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called Speedrunner or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.
Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible. This year only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and I used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and I really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a mythos, listening to the gentle ‘sha sha sha’ as the prow scythed through the water cutting an arrow head of foam into the blue, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by. Next year I fear that the Agios Georgios will probably be gone too and journeys between the islands will be less enjoyable.
On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and see the captain at work and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the back of the boat (I believe they call that the stern) and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards. It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors. On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the efficient engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.
This regrettable change is driven by the desire to improve but is in part due also to stricter operating rules imposed on ferry operators after a disaster on 26th September 2000 when the Express Samina Ferry sank off of Paros while the captain slept and the crew watched a football match on TV. Several of the crew were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail and the General Manager of the company committed suicide when he jumped from his sixth floor office window in Piraeus. There followed a crack down on safety, record keeping and passenger numbers and ferries that failed tough new safety checks were barred from operating. Interestingly the Agios Georgios failed this test at first and has also subsequently broken down at sea! After thirty-five years ferries are no longer allowed to operate so it is inevitable that within only a few years there will be none of my favourites left.
I am glad that I had a few years of travelling between the islands on the old boats and I suppose I will have to come to terms with the fact that these days have gone and in future there will be no option but to use the awful new ferries to get from place to place. That is called progress I suppose!