Friday, 4 September 2009

The ferry boat (Το βαπόρι)

Staycation is over - now it's time for vacation. We never holiday away from home in the summer, for obvious reasons: if I want a holiday by the sea, I just need to pack a bag and drive for five minutes to get to the sea. We prefer to explore unknown places during our holidays, and that's always best done in cooler weather.

Crete's insular nature make planes and ships a vital form of transport for visiting the mainland, and not just for passengers: the cargo section of the only daily ferry boat service from Hania to Athens (or more correctly, Souda Bay to Piraeus Harbour) is how Cretan produce is transported to the mainland. Articulated lorries fill the car decks of the ferry boat every night throughout the year. ANEK Lines' fleet leaves Hania every night (morning services are only available in the peak summer season), and reaches Athens early the next morning. The wind level has to be above 6 on the Beaufort Scale to stop them from leaving the port.

the ferry boat in port at souda bay
The ferry boat is visible from the balcony of our house. Click on the photo to see where it is if you can't work it out.

My experiences of travelling by boat are bitter sweet. For the first few years after I came to live in Greece, I always bought budget deck class tickets. Ships were then always overloaded with passengers; the maximum legal limit was always exceeded. This was common knowledge, and very few people did anything about it; it was patently obvious, from the examples below.

As the Hania-Athens ferry boat service is an overnight journey (it doesn't have to be; see below), if you are travelling by deck class (you may not be able to afford a cabin bed, or they were simply fully booked, which happens during all the peak travelling periods), you had to find a place to sleep somewhere in the hallways or the ship cafes, or the television lounge which had been fitted out with aeroplane-style seats. You literally had to hog your bit of floor space or chair; if you decided to leave it and wander around these large interesting ships to get a stunning outdoor view from the deck, sit by the swimming pool on board (the same ships are used for services linking Greece and Italy, as well as for winter cruises), have a drink at the disco (rotating crystal ball included) or dinner at the restaurant, or simply try to recreate the sensation that Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet felt on board the Titanic, someone else would get your space, and you'd be left squatting for the rest of the journey. It was always THAT overcrowded during the high season: Christmas, Easter, July and August (peak summer months), and all national and religious holidays right throughout the year, especially when they fell on a Friday or a Monday (or a Thursday or a Tuesday), turning them into three-day (or four-day) weekends (Greeks just love their holidays, whether they are officially on leave from their job, or not).

the ferry boat
It may look like I'm travelling on a luxury liner; I actually have no other choice but to use this monopolistic service if I want to travel by sea, there being no other marine alternative to get away from the island.

Passengers would place their suitcases, bags, jackets, sacks of Cretan cheese, crates of Cretan oranges, and whatever other bric-a-brac they were carrying over the seats or floor space to make sure someone else didn't take it. Then they'd go off and do their own thing on the ship, asking their 'neighbour' to look after their 'zone'. Some of them would return after the disco closed. Everyone's litter was scattered all over the place. The ships always looked filthy.

During the trip, you had to make sure that you used the toilets before people starting vomiting all over the bathrooms (using them in the morning was literally like entering a slum whose water supply had been cut off). During the evening, when most people were sleeping, the floor space disappeared. If you got up just to stretch your legs (or desperately needed to go to the bathroom), your eyes encountered a sea of bodies. People were packed like canned sardines; the floor of the hallways and the cafe bar (but not the restaurant and disco - they were locked up after cessation of normal activities) could not be seen. It was like playing hopscotch trying to find a space to tread on, until the early hours of the morning, when more and more people woke up from the cramps in their back or the smell of bodies so close together. Your clothes are crumpled, your bags had most likely been used as a pillow (for safekeeping purposes), and you felt as though you had just woken up to hell in a prison cell.

On the first of May in 1995, at the end of the two-week Easter holiday break, I recall making my last sea journey from Hania to Athens just before settling permanently on the island. Everyone was waiting at the harbour; no one was allowed on board the ferry boat, which was most unusual, given the carefree security usually found around prot areas in Greedce at the time. We were in the queue at the port under a hot sun for two hours before the captain gave the green light for people to board. As we did so, tickets were being carefully checked and counted by officials. The previous week, a ship servicing the Aegean islands had run into trouble while at sea. Passengers had to be taken off the boat for their safety. It was discovered that there were twice as many passengers on board than the maximum safety limit stated for that particular ship, and there were no appropriate records of the passengers (and possibly the crew). Exact numbers were not even known. That proved a turning point in the way Greek officials began to handle sea safety. Although Hania has not had many ferry boat accidents in recent times, one of the worst shipping disasters ever to strike Greece (in 1966) took the lives of over 200 people, many of them Haniotes. In the year 2000, 78 lives were lost at sea in two accidents, despite our leading position in the international shipping trade.

ship cabin good morning from pireas harbour
A romantic way to travel or a tiresome lengthy journey just to get to the other side?
Cabins are small and Pireas Harbour is not a sight for your sore tired eyes...

Travelling is a lot more comfortable now, but I must add a caveat: I am speaking only about the ships travelling between Hania and Athens; we never make it on the news in the way that most other services do, especially during the summer (ships break down, they collide into the port area or other ships, services are slow, etc). Passenger numbers are kept within the legal limit, people without a ticket may not board (Greek law states that passengers must have a paper ticket in their hands before boarding a ship, which can easily become a hideout), and cabin travel has become more affordable, ever since cheaper airline tickets became available with the rise of competition in the national flights sector. The public areas of the ship are kept clean, and people are not allowed to camp out in the eating areas or cart their heavy suitcases around the hallways (these can be stored free of charge in the cargo area of the ship). One thing that helps keep the service up to a high standard is the fact that ships from Hania to Athens do not stop at other islands to pick up passengers in the way that other ships servicing other (smaller) islands do.

Mylos is the only island the ship passes by, and it is close to this point that the two ships doing the Hania-Athens route (one leaves Souda Bay in Hania at the same time as the other leaves Pireaus Harbour in Athens) meet up with each other as they ply the waves in opposite directions. I was lucky enough to see this romantic meeting once during a sleepless night spent on the deck. Otherwise, it's one of the least enticing Greek island journeys imaginable.

But it's still a monopoly. Only ONE company services the Hania-Athens route. Every time a new ferry boat service enters this competitive market, it never succeeds. Minoan Lines (based in Iraklio) used to run a similar overnight ferry boat service, but this service stopped over a decade ago. Blue Star Ferries (based in Athens) offered a brilliant fast same-day service to the island. Both these companies eventually stopped doing business in the feudal nepotistic market of Hania where ANEK Lines rules, based, naturally, in Hania, a local business run by Haniotes for Haniotes. During the few times when there was a competitor on the market, the standard of ship service had been of the highest standard. Nowadays, if you voice a complaint, don't be surprised if you hear one of the ship workers reply: "If you don't like it, find yourself another way to travel" (personal experience); this kind of behaviour was sharply curbed while competition was operating, only for it to return when competition left. You have the right to complain to the captain about incidents such as these, but you are still left with only one marine travel choice; it's a take-it-or-leave-it situation.

ship meal from the buffet lounge
Ship food doesn't resemble in-flight meals in any way; ferry boats carry all sorts of meals on board, ranging from coffee and snacks to buffets to three-course meals with table service.

Flying is preferable to sailing, no matter how romantic a boat with sparkling lights moored at the harbour in the evening may look. There is more competition, quicker service (Hania-Athens in only one hour), cheaper prices if you book early online, with the added bonus that ships may not travel during rough weather, but flights from Hania are rarely cancelled due to adverse weather; that doesn't mean that flights don't get cancelled or delayed, but that's another story. The only reason why we didn't fly out of Crete this time was because the car couldn't be carried on the flight as luggage; come back and see where we're going...

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