A Voyage on the Aegean Dolphin. 20-01-92 to 24-01-92. Durban-Bazaruto-Durban
Our trip on the Aegean Dolphin started originally when I decided to sail on the Odysseus in the middle of the year. Unfortunately the ship was withdrawn by Epirotiki Lines and the Aegean Dolphin was substituted instead. She is owned by the Dolphin Hellas Shipping Line of Greece and was originally due to make her debut in our waters in October 1988, doing a voyage to Australia, I had tried to get on her then but had had no joy. Unfortunately the whole charter fell through and the ship never made her appearance. And even then I was not even sure what this ship had been before, she was somewhat of a mystery.
Finally in late November I started pestering my travel agent to get a booking, however I was forced to cancel it when the SADF decided to ruin my December holiday instead. Fortunately I got exemption and started to rethink my plans yet again, Howard in the meantime had gone to Cape Town and had managed to get on board the ship, he was impressed and that clinched it!
That night Rudi Van Dijk phoned me and I mentioned in passing if he would like to go cruising, He had no second thoughts! A man of decisions is our friend Rudi! I saw TFC on the 24th of December, booking our passage on a cruise sailing from Durban on the 20th of January, calling at Bazaruto on the 23rd, and arriving back on the 25th. We could only afford an inside cabin and this was allocated on A Deck, cabin 359.
As usual, time dragged on until the morning of the 20th, when we arrived in Durban at about 05.30am. We went straight to the point, hoping to see her, however she was conspicuously absent, a quick visit to Port Control revealed that they had not heard from her either! We decided to go to the pilot’s wardroom to see if they had any info and maybe hitch a ride out with the pilot. Alas their information was even less , however a promise by the pilot clinched us that trip out to sea on the pilot boat. Eventually the pilot was called out to a ship and we all headed to the R.P. Jackson. The sea was reasonably rough, and we pitched steadily out to Lloyd Triestino’s Europa, the sea was cascading over the decks and very soon we were very wet, it was worth it though because the trip was exhilarating. In between troughs we searched for the Dolphin, no joy!
We started to head into harbour again, and then the master told us the good news, the Dolphin was only a few kilometres away! He had been ordered to pick up three pilots and return to the bay, dropping them off, one being destined for the Dolphin. We picked up a pilot from the jetty as well as from MSC’s Valeria and Regina D, before going out again into the bay, the weather was still rough but as we cleared the harbour entrance, I spotted her in the distance. We first had to drop our pilots, the first ship was easy, however the next one was a problem, the pilot boat came in too fast and we whacked the side of the ship badly, sending the contents of the wardroom flying all over.
Then we headed for the Dolphin, we had been watching her all the time and we agreed that she was not a pretty ship, her stern was a square, ungainly shape and her funnel looked hideously out of place, with a bit of imagination, she looked like a mini Europa. We moved alongside the ship, she was rolling badly in a beam sea and as the hull lifted, so the water smashed out from underneath. To complicate the situation further, the pilot ladder was very far aft and it was clear that getting the pilot on board was not going to be easy. The Dolphin was forced to pick up speed and alter her heading before we could even get close enough to her, fortunately the pilot got safely on board and we headed back to the harbour and our cruise.
A quick thank you and we charged up to the Ocean Terminal to take some photo’s. We had received a letter from Portnet to the affect that due to alterations in the Ocean Terminal, we would be boarding from the citrus sheds and it was there that the ship was going to berth. From close up she looked even worse, however we decided that once you were on board, you couldn’t see her outside anyway! We bumped into Cecil from Port Natal branch and after a quick gossip, headed for the Wimpy and a quick scoff.
After a quick visit to the Estrella Do Mar we both popped off to the citrus terminal for boarding, a sign informed us that we were to begin boarding at 14H30 as opposed to 13H45 as per our ticket. Luckily Clive Bush and his wife helped us pass the time because it was soon evident that we were not going to get on board at 14H30! We stood around as the rumours flew, our luggage had still not been loaded and the gangway had been raised. It was a very ominous sign. The immigration officials appeared at about 15H30 and after much stamping of papers and looking up in lists, we finally climbed the gangway.
Our first impressions of the ship were favourable, the gangway is on A deck, the deck where our cabin was. The cabin was small and plain but very nice. We quickly had a much needed shower and change of clothes and went for a quick looksee.
The public rooms are mostly situated on Allegro deck, with the main lounge for`ard, the gift shop and Rendezvous lounge midships, and the Lido lounge and bar right aft. On either side of Allegro deck are the lifeboats, 5 per side. Access to the bridge decks is through the companionways under the lifeboats. The bridge is very low down on the ship and there is deck space under, in front of and on top of the bridge. The aft decks connect all decks via companionways and they finally end up on the pool deck. The ship has a huge space behind the funnel with the pool between the funnel and the suites.
The bridge is under the suites and the piano bar above them . The piano bar is one of the best public rooms on the ship, however it is used as a creche during the day and only at night does it come alive. Right at the bottom of the ship in the bows, on D deck is the cinema, it is almost under water and actually showed some very good movies.
We finally sailed an hour late, not before being told that we were no longer calling at Bazaruto because certain South Africans had ruined everything by raiding shipwrecks. Whether this was true, we do not know. By now we had discovered that some of the crew members were anything but willing to do their jobs, the bar service was indifferent and as we saw when we went to dinner, the service could be very bad.
The dining room is situated on C deck and is beautiful, there are lots of engraved mirrors and glass which made the room look much bigger than it really was. We had decided to go to the 2nd sitting dinner (more menu’s to collect) and ended up at table 4, with George as our steward. George decided to do things his way, he dumped our starters down, decided on our soup course and even thought that we all wanted salad. However we soon showed him that it did not work like that and as the voyage commenced, so our service at the table improved. The food was not spectacular, obviously the chef was an Italian as the food seemed very Achille Lauro like. The wine was reasonably expensive and we were content to drink water, which tasted very much like chemicals.
After dinner it was off to the “Welcome Spectacular”, the entertainers on board were Anne Power, Terry Fortune, The Carlo Spetto Dancers, Keith Cooper and Carol, Andre Schwartz, and Martin Clifford and the Pantopuppets. Our compere was the hero of the Oceanos, Robin Boltman, who soon proved again that he was a total mister cool when he was faced with a drunken heckler. Needless to say the show was great and we finally got to bed, having not slept for 40 hours.
Breakfast was only served in the dining room in an open sitting, the juice was some very unidentifiable yellow stuff which tasted like dead Eno’s! and when you ordered toast, they brought you toast! each slice was the size of a big paperback book! it was huge, we found hundreds of uses for it, and had we written a book on it, they could have sold it on board! It became the standard joke of the trip.
Lifeboat drill, was held at 10H30 on our first day out, oddly enough it was taken very seriously on the ship and was very thorough. The boats and all of the life saving gear are almost new and it was very comforting too.
We reached Bazaruto the next morning and turned around, heading back to Durban. That afternoon saw the “Fiesta Tropicale” held on the pool deck, the ship was decorated and lunch was held on deck with an abundance of food and some red stuff that could have been sangria, but was definitely not sangria!!! This show was well received by the passengers who were obviously very upset at not getting ashore. That night was the Greek night, which was a flop, the crew being badly let down by the steward who was doing all the singing.
The last night saw our farewell dinner and “A Touch Of Blue”, a naughty comedy by Robin Boltman, this went down very well, however it was not for the prudish but it was enjoyed by all. At this point in time we heard that we were just outside Durban and were travelling in a very slow circle. We were due to arrive at 06H15 off the pilot station, and sadly our cruise was almost at an end. Our arrival in Durban harbour was a non event, it was almost as if the ship was just another caller, we disembarked at about 09H00 and arrived back in Johannesburg just after 15H00.
Effectively we had had a three day cruise to nowhere, not a cruise to Bazaruto as we had booked. There was not sufficient time to really build up a spirit among the passengers, however in spite of all the problems that we had experienced most people enjoyed themselves.
The ship itself is magnificent inside, she is easy to find your way around and is well maintained, tidy and potentially a winner. Her public rooms are smartly done up and light and airy. Unfortunately the bar service was bad, the drinks were expensive, a coke costing $1-25 for a glass with more ice than coke. Dining room service improves with time and the cabin stewards are very discreet. The food is not brilliant and is cold lots of the time. Entertainment on board is excellent as are the TFC staff. unfortunately they ruined things by not announcing what was the hold up in the beginning and by trying to keep us in the dark. There were lots of rumours around and frankly it did make for lots of speculation. There were passengers who had gotten their cabins very cheap and there were those who had booked superior accommodation on the Odysseus and had ended up being short changed on the Dolphin.
I know that there were some very cheesed off passengers on that ship. Personally I enjoyed the cruise, it was too short and I am sorry about Bazaruto, I finally did get to sail on the ship that I had missed in 1988, and having sailed on her in 1992, I would gladly sail on her again.
Interestingly enough I found a drawing of what she looked like before her conversion. I believe she was one of five sisters built at Santierul Navali in Romania for Zim Israel Lines. Supposedly with a length of 111.5m and a beam of 20.5m. They were designed as ro/ro cargo ferries capable of carrying 150 vehicles.
To my surprise she is still afloat and operating under the name Aegean Odyssey, and was extensively refurbished in 2009/2010 which saw the addition of balcony cabins and a new funnel casing that has improved her looks a bit. She operates now doing “historical and cultural” cruises in the Mediterranean http://www.voyagestoantiquity.com with a smaller passenger load.
She had four sisters (Palintis, Iris, Pascani and Peris) and there are very few images of her as built. However, there is a good source of information on her and her sisters at http://www.faktaomfartyg.se/narcis_1973.htm (text is not in English)
The whole episode starts in early 1988 when it was announced that an “upmarket” cruise ship with the unlikely name of “Betsy Ross”, would be calling during the December 1988 season, doing cruises to the Indian Ocean Islands.
A short Durban to Cape Town voyage was offered for January 1989 and I decided that I needed a holiday and that was as good an excuse as any to have one. So I booked my cruise, later changing my booking when an additional Durban-Cape Town-Durban voyage was offered, these were Voyages 2 and 3 respectively.
Admittedly I had never heard of the ship before and it took much research before she revealed herself as the 1952 built ex-Bergen Line ferry TS Leda.
She was now owned by Dolphin Hellas Cruises, operating as Betsy Ross under the American Star Cruises banner. Unfortunately she was definitely NOT an “upmarket ship”, if anything she was a really tired old lady in dire need of repair.
Two of my fellow ship enthusiasts decided to join me on this voyage and we all started counting the days. We had booked into one of the sleazier hotels in Durban and with only a week to go before we sailed, disaster struck. The Betsy had been delayed in leaving the Med, hit a massive storm and missed her Suez convoy. Our voyage had become Durban to Port Elizabeth instead! By now we were in a frenzy and by the time we left for Durban we were all speculating about our shortened voyage. Once in Durban we were informed that the delay was even greater than before and we were now going to East London instead!
What followed was a week of frustration with three of us stuck in a sleezy hotel room with dwindling finances and ever increasing tension between us all. The unexpected arrival of the French cruise ship Mermoz did more harm than good as we tried to move our bookings to her. All to no avail. The ship had called at Durban to offload the body of a passenger that had died on board, and had been due to call only at Cape Town en route to Rio. Watching the Mermoz sitting at her berth was so frustrating as we were unable to even get a visit to the vessel, in spite of pulling every string that we knew. We watched her sail at midnight, muttering vague threats against the odds which had messed up our voyage.
The day before the Betsy was due to arrive we were transferred by the tour operator to a better hotel with a sea view where we proceeded to watch anxiously for our ship to come in!
At roughly 06H30 she limped into port, followed by the Achille Lauro which was due to sail the same day. Packing our goodies we rushed off to the harbour and nearly missed seeing her because she was so small! It was the first time in at least ten years that two passenger liners were in port at the same time. Ominous bangings were emanating from the innards of the listing cruise ship and a lifeboat was lowered to the quayside where its rudder was being panel-beaten. A generator thumped from a container which had been lowered onto her foredeck and to top it all the weather was taking a turn for the worse. We were relieved to finally get on board but then we were informed that “Sorry you are only going to be doing a “cruise out to the blue” and not East London after all!” There were loud shrieks of dismay.
As sailing time came and passed so the hammering and panel-beating continued, until eventually a white uniformed port official finally shrugged his shoulders and everything was packed away and we singled up! We were finally off! The Achille had sailed over an hour ago and even the people on the quayside had gone home, it was going to be an altogether dismal sailing. Actually something inside the ship smelled off too, it was evident that there were plumbing problems on board as the vessel stank badly, the air conditioning was not working properly and there was a long queue of irate passengers at the pursers office demanding refunds.
We duly sailed after 6pm and from the start the Betsy proved to be a fine sea boat, there was a moderate sea running but she took that sea like a ship should! Driven indoors to supper we watched the amount of diners get smaller as the sea grew rougher. Later, we all congregated in the main lounge for the cabaret which was rudely interrupted by a total power failure on board!
Wallowing about 20 kilo’s outside Durban, the NUC lights were hoisted and a small fishing boat came alongside, playing her search light on us. Immediate panic as some woman remembered that her kids were still in the cabin and assumed that we were about to be attacked by a VLCC/UFO or similar, and she was quickly bustled below deck with a handy tranquilliser. We bobbed about for an hour or so as they tried to get the engines going again, her emergency generator seemed to be in her funnel and each time they attempted to start it sparks would fly out of the funnel onto the deck. It was potentially a hazardous situation, sitting in a sea lane in a ship with no power and the lights of Durban twinkling in the distance. The water slapping under her counter, sending gushes of spray upwards to drench those curious enough look over the side. Soon the decks started to throb again and we were underway, heading for who knew what!
My friend and I had a lovely 2 berth outside cabin with working plumbing! the biggest problem with the ship was blocked drains compounded by people flushing beer tins down the toilets. Our other friend who had a cabin elsewhere, and he spent most of the night in the one stairwell, prostate with sea sickness.
The next day dawned with working air conditioning and a rapidly dissipating smell. The sun even put in an appearance to cheer up our green friend who had seen quite a bit of the ships side. By that evening the spirit on board was amazing, the food, service and atmosphere were brilliant and in spite of all her problems the Betsy was a great little ship. I even won a bottle of plonk at one of the functions on board, unfortunately it was awful stuff.
The next morning saw us arrive safely back in Durban but by then we were very unhappy that we had to get off. We disembarked to be greeted by hordes of anxious soon to be passengers. Many of whom in turn walked off the ship before it even sailed, complaining and dragging the Betsy’s name through the papers. However, my one friend was only too glad to get back onto dry land.
Those who finally made the voyage to Seychelles were uniform in their praise for her, however, ever increasing fears about safety and continual generator failures quickly caused the cancellation of the remaining cruises and eventually the Betsy slinked out of Durban one afternoon en route to Venice. There is no doubt that the Betsy Ross debacle seriously affected the already wobbly cruising market in our waters, it took a long time for passenger loads to increase and just as things were looking up again, the Oceanos went down off the Transkei coast.
I met many ex passengers the next year on the Oceanos, that ill-fated vessel did not quite compare as far as they were concerned. The cruise director, himself an Ex Betsy fan; still considers her to be one of the best ships he has ever sailed in, so do I for that matter.
I tried following her career, and it was very difficult to keep track of that little ship, she passed from one owner to the next, until 1991 when she incurred fire damage while lying at Venice and was transferred to Vanatu registration and renamed Star Of Venice by her owners. Repairs were undertaken at Rijeka. She briefly served a stint as a floating hotel, and was then laid up at Venice until being reactivated on Mediterranean Cruises in 1998, with disastrous results stemming from her poor mechanical condition. She was last used as an hotel ship at Ravenna (near Venice) in 2000. Eventually the end arrived and she was scheduled to leave stationary status at Ravenna, Italy under tow for Aliaga between 5 and 10 August 2001 for scrapping. Maybe it is not too late to have a tee shirt made…. “I survived the Betsy Ross!”
Images courtesy of Bestshipimages. Photographs taken by Selim San