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Aqua Jewel on the dock of Neos Molos Drapetsonas near the port of Piraeus; before acquired by Seajets Aqua Jewel was used by NEL, a Greek Shipping company that went bankrupt in 2016. February 2015 Photo: Angelos Christofilopoulos / FOS PHOTOS

How a “Ghost-ship” Abandoned Passengers and Left an Island in Despair

A Greek Maritime Company chartered to service off-the-beaten-track islands has been found leaving islanders and tourists stranded. Despite having a contract with the Greek State, with subsidies to service routes to and from Aegean islands, it had been chartered instead in the Azores in the Atlantic.

On the small and heavenly island of Anafi that floats east of the world-famous Santorini, a passenger vessel named the Aqua Jewel has provided material for a sea of jokes. However, that humor turned into rage over the past few months, because of the vessel’s peculiar reported exodus from Greek waters in mid-June. The Anafi islanders have since had to deal with goods’ shortages, subsequently disrupted services, a loss of revenue from the tourist season. An island the size and morphology of Anafi is completely dependent on receiving incoming goods by boat since there is no airport. Additionally, the Aqua Jewel has generated bitter memories for many tourists. Visitors to the idyllic island have been stranded, missing their flights and transit transportation and missing out on prepaid accommodation or even facing repercussions for not turning up at work, because they booked tickets for a ship that did not sail, as promised, in the Aegean Sea but rather turned up in the Atlantic.

The pin indicates where the island of Anafi is located.
The pin indicates where the island of Anafi is located.
The pin indicates where the island of Anafi is located.

These consequences, however, do not seem to be of concern to the owners of the Aqua Jewel, a company called Seajets with a parent company named JUMBO JET SH.C. The company is controlled by a shipowner named Marios Iliopoulos who is the company’s Head of Strategic Planning and Development. Early last week he agreed to an interview about the issues arising around the Aqua Jewel, however, a few days later through his spokesperson, he canceled our call due to ‘technicalities’.

Our question was straightforward. Why was it that one of Seajets vessels, while holding a contract with the Greek State and subsidized by Greek taxpayers’ money, inter alia to carry out the intra-Cyclades route Syros-Paros-Naxos-Folegandros-Sikinos-Ios-Thirasia-Thira-Anafi, instead apparently serviced intra-Azores routes in the Atlantic, since late June? This alternative route has been pursued apparently without concern for the company’s contractual obligations to serve the Cycladic shipping route, say some residents of Anafi. The company has been accused by the islanders, in their letter on the 24th of June to the former SYRIZA government’s Minister of Shipping and Islands Policy Fotis Kouvelis, of substituting the Aqua Jewel in the route that includes the port of Anafi. This substitution “is taking place occasionally and according to will by the company, without even a previous official announcement on the web” states the letter.

The contract between the Greek Ministry of Shipping and Islands Policy and Seajets, gives the company the right, following a Ministerial Decree, to substitute the vessel with another one, but, on several occasions, as is described below, either inadequate solutions were chosen to substitute it or it was not substituted at all and no vessel arrived as scheduled in the port of Anafi. The vessel Andros Jet is seemingly servicing the line since mid-July. In several cases, the vessel was given official approval for ‘immobility’ — a status that does not provide clarity on the company’s obligations if it is to substitute the ship in the assigned route. In any case, since Aqua Jewel was contracted to service, among others, an off-the-beaten-track route, any changes in the schedule, even more so if they were sudden, or cancellations, would create a serious problem.

According to the locals of Anafi, since almost the beginning of this year’s tourist season, Seajets has canceled passage of ships to and from the island or has changed them on short notice and without any warnings. As they wrote in their 12th of June open letter to Seajets:

“Your ship, in several cases, did not fulfill its obligations in a satisfactory way. Indicatively, we mention that there were many route cancellations, without sufficient justification, in the middle of the tourist season. We, the isolated Cyclades islanders, in the year 2019, we consider this lack of professionalism and punctuality from your side at least completely unacceptable. It is a matter of dignity, whichever the route change, to be timely posted on the web so that both professionals and tourists can clearly see the ship's itinerary. The fact that, whenever you want, you send us another ship in the place of the official one, without any updating (in the system), cannot be perceived as a service, but rather as a mockery towards our island”.

An example of what it is described above is that the company has on a number of occasions reportedly sent small leisure boats to collect Aqua Jewel ticket holders from Anafi, transfer them to Santorini, from where they can depart for the destination they have initially booked their ticket for, with one of the vessels that have been officially assigned (subsidized or not) the specific route, usually bigger ones or catamarans.

The situation as described in this article, especially in relation to the considerable subsidies offered by the government to shipping companies to service particular routes and islands, would appear to be inconceivable for an organized State. This is surely more true for a country like Greece, which boasts tourism is its booming ‘primary industry’.

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The vessel Aqua Jewel

How my vacations became a news story

My story should probably be recounted as a minor incident but is instead a shining example of Seajets’ apparent attitude towards Anafi locals and visitors to the island. I booked my tickets along with a friend to embark on an ‘island-hopping adventure’ through a travel agency on the 23rd of May: Anafi to Folegandros, with Aqua Jewel, departing Sunday 30th of June.

On the 22nd of June, a day before we departed from Crete to Anafi, we received a phone call from our travel agent, who informed us that the (Sunday) 30th of June route from Anafi to Folegandros was canceled. Just like that, a link in the chain of planned island transits was broken, and now the whole trip was in the air. But what’s more important to this story, is the alternative that Seajets offered. We were told we could either cancel the tickets and get a refund (an option which would mean cancelling the whole trip at a great financial loss, since all accommodation and other recreational ferry tickets had been prepaid) or conceding to be transferred a day before (Saturday 29 June) to Santorini and from there to Folegandros on a Seajets catamaran on Sunday morning.

According to our travel agent, the company justified the cancellation by citing ‘ship repair works’. When we called Seajets on the same day, in protest, the employee on the phone avoided giving a clear explanation for the cancellation. The employee blamed it on Port Authorities, claiming that they can also authorize a route cancellation. We replied that Port Authorities would never authorize a cancellation a week before, due to weather restrictions as it is impossible to predict that far ahead. Then the company representative replied with great nerve:

“This is how it is, and if you like it, cancel your tickets.”

As a result, we prepaid an extra night for accommodation in Santorini, which was not included in our itinerary, while we had already prepaid accommodation for the very same night in Folegandros Island. This was the only way to minimize the overall loss, which would be greater if we canceled the whole trip.

On Saturday the 29th of June, while we were now preparing to leave Anafi, we were informed to our surprise that we would board for Santorini on a leisure vessel, called Maistros. To illustrate the reason for our reaction: this is one of the small vessels that take Santorini visitors on day trips around the island. These kinds of boats can be a rocky experience in even relatively tranquil sea, so they do not provide comfort even for a short voyage of an estimated 35 nautical miles like the one between Anafi and Santorini. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, or just feel lucky that we hadn’t been asked to jet-ski to Santorini. Funny detail is that Maistros in Greek means Mistral and is considered the most beneficial wind, said to blow only during the daytime. In our case, the beneficial winds were not on our side.

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The boat Maistros. Photo: Gianluca Chimenti marinetraffic.com

After an update from Seajets, our travel agent informed us that the boat would depart from Anafi at 19.45. Before long, on the same day, the departure time changed to 12:00 noon, while the local travel agency insisted that it remained 19.45. The 12 o’clock boat proved to be another “ghost-vessel”: it never arrived. After that, our agent told us, Seajets did not pick up the phone to our agent, to give out information about what was really happening and how Seajets intended to get us off the island. The Maistros never came, due to weather restrictions, according to the local travel agency, despite no prohibition of sailing being in effect. However, given the size of these boats, an above 5 Beaufort voyage is said to be potentially risky. Aqua Jewel, instead, would have handled the trip, given its bigger size but not so the Maistros.

So, long gone was the anticipated comfort of our prepaid one-night accommodation in Santorini, which was booked only because Seajets arbitrarily changed our itinerary the previous week. After the no show of vessels on Saturday, we were completely abandoned on the island of Anafi by the company. In search of a way to embark on the rest of our island hopping adventure, we booked extra tickets with another vessel named Prevelis (of different company ownership) to Milos Island and, from there, we finally departed for our destination, Folegandros.

Facts versus Excuses — The deep dive

Among dozens of tourists, we were not the only ones being provocatively abandoned by Seajets in Anafi. According to islanders’ testimonies, in some cases, Greek and foreign visitors even missed flights. We ourselves witnessed a Greek couple, sitting in Liotrivi restaurant on that Saturday night, saying they had missed their flight. As local business owner Efi Kalogeropoulou had said in an interview for Greek national broadcaster ERT on the 11th of June:

“In June, we have tourists from Europe. This means that they have booked their flight tickets months ahead. They cannot even imagine that there is any chance a State to function this way, with [routes] cancellations… They don’t understand it”.

And this is where I started thinking about taking a deep dive into the case. Hopefully, I wouldn’t do it literally, given the risks, but there was definitely something fishy about the Aqua Jewel. It is known that the vessel has a binding contract with the Greek Ministry of Shipping and Islands Policy. According to this contract, the Aqua Jewel is due to carry out the intra-Cyclades island route Syros-Paros-Naxos-Folegandros-Sikinos-Ios-Thirasia-Thira-Anafi and return twice a week, every Tuesday and Saturday, with an overnight stay in the port of Anafi and return back to the island of Syros the next day.

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Syros-Paros-Naxos-Folegandros-Sikinos-Ios-Thirasia-Thira-Anafi

In another illustrative example, according to a local business owner who does not wish to be named, as well as the Facebook page of the local travel agency Roussou Travel Anafi, the last time Aqua Jewel was seen in Anafi port this year, apparently on the 11th of June, and only several hours before its arrival, Seajets announced that the ship would not stay there overnight, as it was due, but it would depart immediately. As a result, hotel owners embarked on an Indiana Jones-like mission, trying against the clock to find their Aqua Jewel ticket-holding customers at the beaches to update them. The result was that — due to the impossible task — most of them missed the boat. But why the sudden and unscheduled departure?

Given what Greek website arxipelagos.gr reported, the apparent reason the Aqua Jewel changed its schedule suddenly should be attributed to that on the 12th of June the ship had already “departed for its long voyage to the Azores” while “stopping at Kalamata port for refueling.” For those unfamiliar with Mediterranean and Atlantic waters, Azores is not Greek territory but rather it is the famous islands in the Atlantic, constituting an autonomous region, integrated within the framework of the Portuguese Republic.

When the ship-owner company announced on the 22nd of June that Aqua Jewel would not sail to Anafi from 12 to 28 June this year, “to undergo maintenance”, a number of local business owners from the island wrote the earlier mentioned letter to Seajets, dated 12th of June. “There were many cancellations, without sufficient justification, in the middle of the touristic season,” they wrote.

“You have brought us to despair and we have experienced great anxiety when, with a sudden announcement, you simply canceled our island’s sea route link with civilization and we were called upon to solve a puzzle as to the reason for this cancellation as well as deal with all the inconvenience this caused.” They also requested a written update regarding “the fate of Aqua Jewel itineraries.”

They did not receive a reply. And the story continues.

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The island of Anafi, Cyclades, Greece 2012. Photo: Andreas Simopoulos / FOS PHOTOS

The “hide and seek game” of Aqua Jewel

A question arising consistently is whether the Ministry was aware of what constituted common knowledge for a considerable number of people, in particular, those business owners on the island of Anafi.

So, who was aware of the exact location of the Aqua Jewel when we were informed of its 30th June route cancellation?

One of the most popular sites providing global ship tracking intelligence is marinetraffic.com. Thus, while we were subjected to the various argumentation by Seajets employees and travel agents and the company’s attempt to justify the route cancellation, marinetraffic.com was tracking the passage of the Aqua Jewel into the Azores.

At the same time, numerous Greek maritime news websites were verifying the tracking data, proving the company’s justifications of undergoing maintenance, even more blatantly false. For example, on the 13th of June, ellinikiaktoploia.net reported: Aqua Jewel embarked last night for Azores, being for the second subsequent year chartered for the Azores island complex on behalf of Atlanticonline”. Furthermore, “according to publications in the Portuguese press, the Seajets vessel will start its intra-Azores routes on the 22nd of June”. The portal nautilia.gr reported on the 12th of June: Aqua Jewel is expected to be replaced for its intra-Cyclades routes by “Alexandra L.”, which was chartered recently by Seajets and is already in Drapetsona new jetty to undergo all necessary changes and repair works”. However, no Alexandra L. nor any other Seajets vessel arrived at Anafi on the 23rd and 30th June or on 7th July, according to all available reports.

Inhabitants of the island, residents and local business owners, as well as tourists, dependent on the Aqua Jewel itinerary, were to be stranded in the islands of Cyclades, at least if a leisure boat did not manage to get there to their “rescue” through Santorini. Blue Star’s Patmos ship (Blue Star being another shipping company dominant in the Aegean) has included Anafi twice a week in its routes since the 26th of June. However, because this was announced as late as the 25th of June, and it services a quite different route to the Aqua Jewel, it could not facilitate passage for all the stranded visitors, and meanwhile the islanders had to deal with the existing consequences of the earlier cancellations including financial repercussions, like cancellations and infuriated tourists.

Greek Ministry approves the replacement of Aqua Jewel “for annual maintenance and inspection” while the ship was operating in the Atlantic

While locals and tourists were infuriated, the Ministry, two days before the national elections of July 7th, authorized the temporary replacement of Aqua Jewel due to “immobility” for the 5–6 and 8–9th of July. Incredibly, this Ministerial Decree came while the vessel was operating in the Azores, where it has reportedly been chartered, as mentioned earlier, by Atlanticonline.

The decree, dated July 5th and signed by the former (SYRIZA) government Deputy Minister of Shipping and Islands Policy, Nektarios Santorinios, authorised the immobility of Aqua Jewel to carry out annual maintenance and inspection work for two days with immediate effect and its replacement for four days by a high-speed multi-haul vessel named Caldera Vista (reportedly named Master Jet in Seajets fleet), clearly stating the relevant subsidies amounts applied to the vessel operating to service this Cycladic route. The decree was posted in the official Greek state transparency portal “Diavgeia” by the Ministry.

Santorinios signed the approval for immobility, while the ship proved perfectly able to sail, and, when we asked him, he stated that according to the relevant law “it is an option, but it is not obligatory to substitute the vessel, for the period concerning the two-month immobility status”. He added that “this particular substitution was realized after my firm pressure to the contractor company, to facilitate the elections procedure”. Moreover, Santorinios said:

“Regarding the fact the contract provides that the concessionary is obliged to carry out the routes, it is now evident that the concessionary is not obliged to carry them out during the immobility period (period of stopping the routes), while it is usual for a vessel to undergo maintenance at a foreign port.”

According to informed sources in the maritime industry, a ship in Greece is entitled to be in “immobility status” for two months each year, which, under certain prerequisites, do not have to be consequent. However, even if, according to Santorinios statement, the company is not obliged to substitute the ship during immobility, the following questions arise. Can approval for immobility be given, even if the ship is not really immobilized? And is it responsible to give permission for immobility with no substitution in the summer season? In any case, it is clearly provided that the shipowner company owes it to the public to inform them in time, and certainly in advance, about all relevant changes in routes in order for them to make alternative arrangements.

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Caldera Vista or HSC Master Jet. Photo from the company website.

Following this decree, and when Caldera Vista, during the aforementioned period from 5th to 9th July, reportedly left Anafi off the itinerary, the islanders sent a second letter to Seajets on July 7th. They were clearly outraged.

“On Friday, 5th of July, we were surprised to realize that Caldera Vista was launched on an intra-Cyclades route, even temporarily, to connect the ports previously served by Aqua Jewel, without, however, including the port of Anafi. Instead, you are sending us a [leisure] boat to run the Santorini-Anafi route, meaning Anafi is not connected with the ports of the rest of Cyclades, but also runs the risk of canceling routes due to weather restrictions.”

Leisure boats are considered very risky to sail in gale force winds, and in addition, they cannot carry any vehicles, so passengers with cars or mopeds are forced to leave them behind.

Santorinios, told AthensLive that Caldera Vista “was not possible to approach Anafi port, due to technical difficulties.” He claimed also that: “leisure vessels were sent to the Thira-Anafi route following my firm pressure to the concessionary company, to serve the needs of the islanders, at no cost to the Greek State or the municipal authority, and this is something you can confirm.”

In this same letter, the islanders accused the company of continuing to issue tickets with Aqua Jewel, while the ship sails in the Atlantic.

According to the Ministry, it had no idea.

“I was not aware of this detail, but I was never informed regarding this, neither by any Port authority nor in the form of a complaint by a citizen concerned,” Santorinios told AthensLive.

Does Greek taxpayer money end up in the Aqua Jewel’s “black hole”?

“We are not begging for a shipping link, we are entitled to it. The company’s attitude, so far, is as if they are doing us a favor, while they are being subsidized.”

People of Anafi wrote one more letter, dated June 9th and addressed, among others, the responsible Ministry. The letter’s authors were protesting that “companies not having included Anafi in their itineraries since May, while it was still not included in Blue Star itinerary.”

The contracts signed by the Ministry of Shipping and Islands Policy with Jumbo Jet (Seajets) are successive and refer to subsidized shipping routes. The latest public service contract No 2252.1.3.98/68217/2018, which includes, inter alia, the Syros-Paros-Naxos-Folegandros-Sikinos-Ios-Thirasia-Thira-Anafi and return route is dated September 17, 2018, and is valid from September 18, 2018, to October 31, 2020.

The contract, in section (d) provides:

“d) SYROS — PAROS — NAXOS — FOLEGANDROS — SIKINOS — IOS — THIRASIA — THIRA-ANAFI and return, with two (02) weekly routes every Tuesday and Saturday from Syros, overnight stay at Anafi and return the next day, for a subsidy of thirty thousand one hundred Euros (30,100.00 €), per full trip, to the company named JUMBO JET SH.C., shipowner of the Aqua Jewel, for the period until 31/10/2020, subject to the following terms and conditions, which the contractor accepts unconditionally.”

A decree with Registration №2252.1.5 / 16434/2019, dated 4 March 2019 was signed by ex-Deputy Minister of Shipping Nektarios Santorinios. Some subsidies amounts changed (for reasons that appear to be related to the cost of fuel), including the subsidy for the route in question, which, from 1/11/2018 to 31/10/2019 and according to this decree shall be 30,852.50€ per complete journey.

Thus, with a rough calculation, Jumbo Jet (Seajets) receives in one week for two of these complete journeys, 61,705€. And therefore in one month, for eight such scheduled journeys, circa 246,820€.

It is worth taking a moment here while talking about income that the average sailor receives about 1,500€ on a monthly basis. These governmental subsidies are intended to cover the cost of the trip to such an extent that the ticket price that the traveler pays to reach a small remote island is very low. Most companies involved in this type of service add other destinations to the routes to make it more profitable.

The initially mentioned Contract No 2252.1.3.98 / 68217/2018, signed by Santorinios and the legal representative of the company named JUMBO JET SH.C., ship-owner of Aqua Jewel Athanasopoulos Georgios, clearly states that the subsidies money is given only if the company strictly complies with its terms.

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Vessels docked at the port of Piraeus in 2016. Photo: Panayiotis Tzamaros / FOS PHOTOS

According to the agreement, the obligations of the contractor include:

“To carry out all routes continuously and in full, in accordance with the relevant itinerary defining decrees of the Directorate for Maritime Transportations.”

It also clearly states that:

“The execution of the approved itinerary is obligatory for the concessionary. Change is subject to the approval of the Minister of Shipping and Islands Policy or the body to which the competence has been delegated or the authorization to do so has been granted. Denial of acceptance or performance of the service by the shipowner shall result in his disqualification from this Contract and from all his rights deriving from it”.

The contract also stipulates that the ship may be replaced only with the approval of the Minister of Shipping or an accordingly authorized body:

Aqua Jewel which, during the contract period is due to follow the aforementioned itinerary, may be replaced by Andros Jet, with the above-agreed subsidy, subject to the approval of the Minister of Shipping and Islands Policy or the body to which the competence has been delegated or the authorization to do so was granted.”

It should be noted that the Aqua Jewel’s designated routes, including to and from Anafi, seem to be serviced quite properly after the vessel started to be substituted by Andros Jet of the same company, with subsequent decrees signed by the new government’s Minister of Shipping Ioannis Plakiotakis, from the 16th of July, 2019. The latest decree provides for substitution until the 2nd of August, 2019. However, given the Aqua Jewel’s record, as described, it is difficult to feel assured that the company will be consistent in its contractual obligations.

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View from the Monastery on Anafi Island, Cyclades, 2012 Photo: Andreas Simopoulos / FOS PHOTOS

Can it be even considered feasible that these subsidies continue to be granted for ferry services that are canceled or which have not been carried out properly, by a government that is under strict fiscal supervision from its international creditors and has signed relevant memorandums to improve the economy? The ex-Deputy Minister Nektarios Santorinios, citing the relevant contractual clauses, states clearly that “when a route is not carried out, it is not paid for.” However, an official statement regarding the Aqua Jewel case as reported here, including the justification of subsidies paid to Seajets, from the current Minister of Shipping, Ioannis Plakiotakis was still anticipated when these lines were written.

The other vital question is whether a whole island, its population, and its visitors can be held “hostage” to the unclear intentions of any company, while, simultaneously, Greece’s reputation abroad risks suffering another severe blow. Anafi is a popular side trip for visitors to the world-famous Santorini as well as a heavenly destination for lovers of the off the beaten track islands.

After all the questions raised by the deep dive, a bitter irony. A Seajets representative reportedly recently called a business owner on the island of Anafi to ask him if they would permit the company to include the island in one of Seajets tourist brochures. Rumour has it that the call ended so abruptly and explosively that visitors to the island could potentially travel all the way to Piraeus on the tidal wave that resulted.

Note: At Seajets portal, “Aqua Jewel” is displayed as part of its fleet and the vessel bears the company logo, while in the contract with the Greek Ministry of Shipping and Islands Policy the ship-owner company is referred to as Jumbo Jet.

You can find this article in Greek by following this link.


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AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for…

Despina Papageorgiou

Written by

Freelance journalist — Journalism is not about being objective; It’s about monitoring power

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.

Despina Papageorgiou

Written by

Freelance journalist — Journalism is not about being objective; It’s about monitoring power

AthensLive

AthensLive is a non-profit, on-the-ground source for stories from Athens and throughout Greece.