THE SENLAC STORY
PART TWO: A Greek Battlefield 1987-
matt@hhvferry.com
Senlac's sale was finalised in November 1987 and the ship sailed for Greece in December. Her new owners were one of the various companies controlled by the fiercely competetive Ventouris brothers, in this case Vangelis Ventouris whose company Ventouris Sea Lines also operated, amongst others, the Georgios Express (ex-Roi Baudouin of RMT), Panagia Tinou (ex-Koningin Wilhelmina of SMZ) and Kimolos (originally Thoresen's first Free Enterprise). Renamed Apollo Express, Senlac was destined for service on the premier route out of Piraeus through to Santorini. The name was amended slightly upon the 1992 acquisition of sister ship Hengist to Apollo Express 1 but operations remained the same with the two ships operating in formidable partnership for VSL.

The end was as sudden as it was catastrophic: in late 1995, the Ventouris family's bubble finally burst with a complete financial collapse and worst hit of all was VSL. The fleet spent much of the next year laid up in Piraeus harbour but
Apollo Express 1 and Apollo Express 2 (ex-Hengist) were two of the most saleable assets available to the banks which decided the company's future and they were among the first ships to be sold, the former Senlac being acquired by fast-expanding Agapitos Express Ferries. A lingering reminder of her former owner's past glories remained for many years in the hoardings of the VSL offices in Piraeus where huge pictures advertising the Kimolos, Apollo Express, Georgios Express, Sifnos Express (ex-Cerdic Ferry) and Panagia Tinou remained until as late as 2003. VSL themselves were not major players again although a somewhat nostalgic comeback was made in 2004 when they repurchased the former Hengist/Apollo Express 2 for operations out of Rafina (the lack of any VSL markings apart from the Ventouris crest on the funnel perhaps indicated a reticence to remind prospective customers of exactly what had happened to VSL previously).

The former
Senlac however was clearly determined to be at the epicentre of political intrigue in the Greek domestic ferry market and her new owners were very much the new force in the marketplace in the late 1990s assuming much of the territory left open by the Ventouris collapse. As the Express Apollon she remained a key ship running out of Piraeus and was soon to be rejoined in the same fleet not just by her former VSL sistership but also by virtually every other ex-Sealink ship running within Greece.

The dramatic events which overtook the Greek ferry industry in late 1999 were unprecedented. Within a matter of weeks a huge new ferry company emerged, swallowing most of the former family-owned businesses which had previously been fierce competitors. At the centre of it all however was Agapitos Express and that company was very much the base for the new operations. The one-time
Senlac found herself back in the same fleet not only with Hengist but also Horsa, Vortigern, Chartres, St Columba, Earl Harold, Prins Philippe, Princesse Astrid and Earl Granville. This was very much a final reuinion for members of the old Sealink fleet and, despite the relatively advanced age of many of their newly acquired ships, Hellas Ferries seemed set to dominate the Greek scene for a long time.

The Hellas Ferries honeymoon was short-lived however. The September 2000 sinking of the
Express Samina triggered a huge review of domestic ferry operations and the new combine emerged with a seriously tarnished reputation. Meanwhile, the company was facing major problems from rivals Blue Star Ferries (ex-Strintzis Lines) whose fleet of new, fast conventional ferries were undermining Hellas' position on most of the key routes. With investment not forthcoming from now wary backers the company was unable to reply with newbuildings of its own and the hard and expensively-won dominance was lost as the fleet gradually contracted in size. Express Apollon was one of the ships which was retained by the company, and continued to operate out of Piraeus until a transfer to Rafina-Mykonos operations for the Summer 2004 season. Whether the ship would be retained for further service in 2005 appeared doubtful for a period, but eventually the ship emerged in late June in the new livery of her owners, who had rebranded as Hellenic Seaways. The ship spent the Summer operating in concert with former Dieppe consort Express Santorini (ex-Chartres) along the Piraeus-Paros-Santorini chain and remained in service into the Winter. For Summer 2006 however the Express Apollon was deemed surplus to requirements and for much of the season was to be found lying in the outer harbour at Piraeus.

Late in 2006 the ship was sold to European Seaways. European Seaways, owned by John Arkoumanis, have a fairly lengthy history of operations in the Adriatic, but have always been a rather marginal operator of older, smaller ships. The purchase of this new ship, however would see a return to Greece-Italy sailings after a gap of some years. The
Express Apollon, renamed simply Apollon began service in July 2007 on sailings from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa via Corfu, with certain sailings heading as far south as Zante. The season was very compact, ending in September, but the pattern was repeated for Summer 2008. However with increased competition out of Brindisi, the ship did not enter service in early July 2008 as scheduled, seemingly due to a lack of demand. For a while she seemed to 'pick and choose' her sailings depending on the level of demand, before finally getting into a more regular routine by August.

Once the main season was over, the ship returned to layup in Igoumenitsa, before being resurrected late in the year for sailings from Bari to Durres in Albania. Replaced by the company's other ship, the
Ionis, returned from long-term charter to Ventouris Ferries, the Apollon resumed her lay-up in January 2009. Happily for Summer 2009 both ships saw service on the Albanian route in an intensive schedule with two sailings each day being offerred from each port on peak days.
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Above & Below: Express Apollon in the colours of Agapitos Express.
Below: Express Apollon in Hellas Ferries livery in July 2003.
Below: Express Apollon looking in pristine condition at Mykonos in May 2004 (Picture courtesy David Baker)
Below: Another shot of Express Apollon, this time leaving Mykonos in May 2004. Although the ship has been somewhat built-up at the stern, this comprises solely extra deck space and no additional saloons have been added. (Picture courtesy David Baker)
Above & below: Two views of Apollo Express in the late 1980s as Ventouris Sea Line's flagship. The picture below shows the lower forward windows (facing out of the B Deck forward lounge) exposed - in Sealink service, these were permanantly concealed by rough weather covers, and would be again after a few years of Greek service.
Below: The Express Apollon seen from the cliff-tops at Santorini in July 2005.
Below: The Express Apollon at Piraeus on Christmas Eve 2005. (Picture courtesy Nikos Thrylos)
Below: The Express Apollon at Piraeus in June 2005 being readied for service prior to entering operations for the first time under her renamed owners, Hellenic Seaways. (Picture courtesy David Baker)
Below: The Apollon seen leaving Corfu in July 2007, showing the plain blue hull colours she wore in her first European Seaways season.
Below: At Corfu, July 2008 with modified europeanseaway.com markings.
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