An expert's advice: how to avoid the death-trap ferries

There are still too many decrepit boats plying the Greek islands, Simon Calder is told

Britain's leading expert on Greek island hopping has condemned Greece's maritime safety standards. Frewin Poffley told the
Independent on Sunday that the local authorities' rules were lax, and their inspections sloppy, and named several ferries which, he said, should be avoided - including some with "dreadful reputations" that had recently altered their names.

Britain's leading expert on Greek island hopping has condemned Greece's maritime safety standards. Frewin Poffley told the Independent on Sunday that the local authorities' rules were lax, and their inspections sloppy, and named several ferries which, he said, should be avoided - including some with "dreadful reputations" that had recently altered their names.

Mr Poffley urged travellers to be cautious about using the vessels plying between the islands, following the Express Samina disaster. Visitors to the islands, he advised, should take steps to find out the age of ships before buying tickets. Many of the boats had seen years of service elsewhere in Europe before ending their days in Greece. "All boats built before 1970, both passenger ferries and tourist boats, should be forced into retirement," Mr Poffley said.

At present, the maximum age allowed is 35 years. The Express Samina, which sank on Tuesday with the loss of more than 60 lives, was 34 years old.

However modern a ship might be, said Mr Poffley, the standards of government safety checks needed to be improved dramatically. "At the moment they clearly aren't rigorous enough. Survivors of the Express Samina were reported as saying that lifeboat lights didn't work, that oars disintegrated when they attempted to use them, and that some of the inflatable liferafts didn't work. Yet this ferry is reported to have passed all her safety checks. One can only conclude that current inspections amount to little more than looking to see if lifeboats, oars and lights are there. No one seems to go further and ascertain if they actually work."

After two cases of severe overcrowding in the mid-1990s, when ferries set sail with twice as many people as they were legally allowed to carry, the Greek government introduced a computerised ticketing system designed to limit numbers.

But Mr Poffley, who during the past 10 yearshas travelled many thousands of miles on hundreds of ferries to research a guidebook, said the move did not go far enough. "Passenger names must appear on all tickets, and all passengers must have a ticket, even if, as is the case for children under the age of five, it doesn't cost anything," he said.

There is also a big danger in ferries with a poor reputation being able to change their names, as happened with the Express Samina - a vessel previously known as Golden Vergina and which he had described in his book as "arguably the worst Greek ferry afloat".

The sister ship to the Samina, now named Express Naias, also had a name change, being previously called Naias II. "I would now strongly recommend that island hoppers avoid this ship," he said.

Mr Poffley also pointed out two other boats. " Ialyssos, which serves the Dodecanese, is, like the Expresses, a 1966-built vessel. Access to and from the car deck to the deck-class saloon is very poor. She would be a difficult boat to evacuate quickly." The other ship, the ferry formerly known as Anemos and now called the Myrtidiotissa, runs along the Peloponnese to Kithera and Crete. "I have heard that in recent weeks she is again looking distinctly the worse for wear," said Mr Poffley.

He said holidaymakers, unaware of the name changes, could be put at risk. "The Golden Vergina turned into the Express Samina long after the current edition of my guide, Greek Island Hopping, went to press, and I'm conscious there could well have been people [on the Samina] who would not have checked our website (linked to the book, at www.greekislandhopping.com) and so weren't aware of the name change, and travelled - and possibly died - on a boat that they would otherwise have avoided. It's a very sobering thought when all you're trying to do is help people have a good holiday."

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