Rust buckets still ply Greece's waters

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Travellers planning an island-hopping holiday in Greece this summer have been warned to avoid a list of 14 ageing ferries because of safety concerns, following last year's ferry disaster.

Travellers planning an island-hopping holiday in Greece this summer have been warned to avoid a list of 14 ageing ferries because of safety concerns, following last year's ferry disaster.

The Express Samina foundered off the island of Paros last September, claiming 82 lives, in Greece's worst shipping disaster in 35 years. The 34-year-old ferry was described in one guide book as an overcrowded "slime bucket".

With the new holiday year about to begin and thousands of Britons planning island vacations, the Greek government says it is making safety improvements. But Frewin Poffley, author of a newly revised guidebook, Greek Island Hopping, said tourists would notice little difference.

"Not a lot has changed, although measures are being introduced. There are still a lot of boats in service which would not be acceptable elsewhere," he said. "If people are worried, they should stick to new boats."

A list of boats and their ages, and vessels to avoid, has been placed on the internet.

After the Express Samina disaster, the Greek government mounted a huge push to ensure passenger ferries met existing safety requirements. The operating licences of 65 ferries were withdrawn after safety inspections. But all but seven have returned to service.

In an effort to raise standards, the government is about to table a bill in Greece's parliament designed to introduce more competition in ferry services and reduce the age of the fleet. The bill's main purpose is to liberalise the local ferry market rather than tackle specific safety needs.

Among the key provisions, Greece will open up its coastal services to other European operators on 1 November next year rather than on 1 January 2004 as it was entitled to under an EU exemption.

The bill also opens the way for a new system that could make it easier for respectable ferry owners to obtain licences to put their ships on popular routes. Critics say the old, discredited system often seemed to award licences through ministerial patronage to a few favoured companies. Ferries will be banned from service after 30 years in service, instead of the current 35-year maximum.

The Merchant Marine Minister, Christos Papoutsis, said this was the toughest requirement imposed by any European country. Ferry owners say it will force the premature retirement of 77 of their 124 vessels.

Recent travellers on the same route as the ill-fated Express Samina say there have been clear improvements, with the new vessel not overcrowded and equipped with 2,000 life jackets for 1,000 passengers. The car deck was locked to ensure that if the ship did run into trouble, no one would be trapped below. There was a mandatory safety demonstration, although the female officer in charge was wearing stilettos.

But serious concerns remain. In February, the Greek Union of Merchant Marine Captains warned that 31 ports at Greek holiday islands were dangerous for ferries and lacked basic facilities. The problems were worst in the Cycladic islands, one of the most popular tourist destinations.

Lights marking rocks off Paros should be improved to make them clearer to passing ships, the report said. It called for lights to be installed or repaired at dozens of other reefs, which have been blamed for more than 24 shipping accidents.

It also highlighted crumbling piers, poor or non-existent lighthouses, a lack of collision barriers and mooring facilities, and shallow waters. At Greece's biggest port, Piraeus, the union said, "The combination of space, depth and the number of ships makes both the approach and the docking of the ships very dangerous."

Yiannis Papathanasiou, the opposition's maritime spokesman, said Greek ports would not be able to offer safe transit to passengers or service the new ships. "Money is available, but organisation and efficiency are not," he said.

A study by Cardiff University's Seafarers International Research Centre has named Greece as being among countries with ferry safety problems. The inquiry began after the arrest of two Greek men accused of masterminding a fake safety certificate ring.

Andrew Linington, of the British maritime officers' union, Numast, said: "Lives are being put at risk. There is a real threat in countries like Greece."

Ferry traffic between the Greek islands is also expected to increase this year because of the chaotic opening of the new international airport in Athens. More passengers are expected to use ferries because of high airport taxes and whopping taxi fares to reach the airport.

Travel operators say despite the Express Samina disaster, tourist bookings have not dropped. STA Travel, a leading tour operator for independent travellers, said: "Greece is still a fantastically popular destination, especially for young people. There is no sign people are being put off."

Mr Poffley said ferry companies needed to change their practices to prevent doors being locked between different parts of a vessel, review safety equipment and improve crew training.

On a website linked to the Greek Island Hopping guide, Mr Poffley names 11 ferries, most more than 30 years old, that are "best avoided". He advises travellers to definitely avoid a further three vessels, the Express Naias, the Ialyssos, both 34 years old, and the 24-year-old Myrtidiotissa.

The 'Greek Island Hopping 2001' guide (Thomas Cook, £12.99) is out now. Web: www.