• Alexandros Vrailas

In The News: Minoan Lines Fleet Reshuffle

The KYDON PALACE (ex-FESTOS PALACE) seen docked in Piraeus during the summer of 2020.

The CRUISE EUROPA seen heading towards the port of Patras, during the summer of 2018.

The Heraklion-based company Minoan Lines has been the center of much media attention over the past few years due to the various changes that were introduced on their services. However, the past few days have added additional coverage to such an extent that it is noteworthy to specify every detail, as its content can be confusing for someone who reads it for the first time. Indeed, in the upcoming weeks, the fleet reshuffle which had started in early 2020 will continue on the Adriatic Sea services, where the company has been operating since 1981. In other words, the two cruiseferries that were operating for the company in this area, the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA, will be transferred to their parent company, the Italian giants Grimaldi Lines. The latter is the flagship company of the Grimaldi Group, which is owned by the Grimaldi family (a major shipping powerhouse for many decades). This group is undoubtedly the most dominant one of its kind on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as in Europe as a whole. It operates a gigantic fleet of vehicle carriers and passenger ferries across Europe, North America, South America and Africa. It consists of the following companies:

-Grimaldi Lines: Operates vehicle carriers which connect European and West African ports with North American and South American ports via the Atlantic Ocean. It also operates cruiseferries and Ro-Ro carriers across the whole Mediterranean Sea, connecting mainland Italy with Sardinia, Sicily and Malta, as well as with Spain, Tunisia and Greece.

-Finnlines: A major Finnish company which was purchased by Grimaldi Group in 2007. It operates large Ro-Ro carriers and Ro-Pax ferries on the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, connecting mainland Finland with the Åland Islands, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Russia, Belgium, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Spain.

-Atlantic Container Line: A Swedish-American company which was purchased by Grimaldi Group in 2001. It operates a fleet of large Con-Ro vessels, which are a mix of containerships and Ro-Ro carriers (thus transporting both containers and vehicles). Their ships trade between Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada via the North Sea, the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.

-Malta Motorways of the Sea Limited: A Maltese company established as a subsidiary of Grimaldi Group in 2005. It operates Ro-Ro carriers which connect Malta with mainland Italy, Sicily and Libya.

-Minoan Lines: As you know it, a Greek company which began operations in 1974 and of which Grimaldi Group has been the main shareholder since 2008. It operates cruiseferries on the Piraeus-Crete services on the Aegean Sea, on the Adriatic Sea and on the Crete-Cyclades service.

As a result of its large size and countless areas of operations, the Grimaldi Group possesses very large, modern, fast and efficient ships. All companies of the Grimaldi Group are dominant players in their respective markets, with the freight services garnering notable acclaim. A major advantage that the Grimaldi Group has is the incredible flexibility of the fleet, meaning that it can easily switch services of various ships and areas between them, regardless of the company that operates them. This has notably been the case with ships of Finnlines and Malta Motorways of the Sea Limited, which have been sent from their usual respective services on the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to operate under Grimaldi Lines on other areas, with the latter sending their own ships to operate elsewhere. And this is what has happened with Minoan Lines.

Before getting into the details of the changes that are occurring in the upcoming days, it is also important to have a quick overview of Minoan Lines' services, and how they had changed in recent years, prior to the departures of the CRUISE EUROPA and of the CRUISE OLYMPIA. Indeed, the company is considered to be one of the best in the history of the Greek coastal service, and it has owned several ships which went on to have legendary spells in Greece. The company began service on the Piraeus-Heraklion line (its flagship service) in 1974, before then beginning to operate on the Piraeus-Chania line in 1978. Successful stints on both services from Piraeus to Crete led the company to expand its operations, and it eventually decided to enter the Adriatic Sea market. For this, they bought the Japanese ferry FERRY ATSUTA of Meimon Car Ferry in 1979. After two years of conversion in Perama, the ship entered service on the Adriatic Sea in 1981 as the EL GRECO, beginning operations on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Corfu-Ancona line. Her service there became an instant success, and it cemented her company as one of the best to operate on the Adriatic Sea. As Minoan Lines continued to be ambitious, they went on to considerably expand their services during the 1980s and 1990s, bringing large and comfortable second-hand ferries on both Crete and the Adriatic Sea. They also began operating on the Cyclades, the Sporades and the Northeast Aegean Sea. By 1993, they were the main operators on the Adriatic Sea, along with their Chania-based arch-rivals ANEK Lines, Strintzis Lines and Ventouris Ferries. Following the introduction of Superfast Ferries (owned by Attica Group) in 1995, Minoan Lines sought to match the impressive services offered by the newly-established company's high speed cruiseferries by ordering newbuildings of their own. Overall, they ordered three cruiseferries to be built in Sweden and Norway between 1995 and 1998. These were the ARETOUSA (built in 1995, sold in 2001 to the French company Compagnie Méridionale de Navigation, also known as La Méridionale), the IKARUS (built in 1997, later renamed IKARUS PALACE, began to operate under charter to Grimaldi Lines in 2010, before being sold to the latter in 2016 as the CRUISE SMERALDA) and the PASIPHAE (built in 1998, later renamed PASIPHAE PALACE, sold in 2009 to the French company SNCM as the JEAN NICOLI). But this did not stop there. They then went on to order seven other ships: four cruiseferries and three Ro-Pax ferries. The former were to be built in Italy between 2000 and 2002, while the latter were to be built in South Korea between 2001 and 2002. The first pair of the ships to be built in Italy were the KNOSSOS PALACE and the FESTOS PALACE, and were planned for service on the Piraeus-Heraklion line. The second pair consisted of the OLYMPIA PALACE and of the EUROPA PALACE, and was planned for service on the Adriatic Sea. They were to be joined there by the three South Korean sister ships, namely the PROMETHEUS (sold to Italian company Caronte & Tourist in 2004, before being subsequently sold to Grimaldi Lines in 2005, for whom she initially sailed as the EUROSTAR BARCELONA before being renamed ZEUS PALACE in 2009), the OCEANUS (later renamed ARIADNE PALACE ONE, sold in 2003 to French-Italian company Corsica Ferries-Sardinia Ferries, for whom she still operates as the MEGA EXPRESS THREE) and the ARIADNE PALACE (sold in 2006 to Italian company Moby Lines, for whom she still operates as the MOBY TOMMY). The company also had a strong presence in Greece through the establishment of Minoan Flying Dolphins, a partly-owned subsidiary which almost became a monopoly on the Aegean Sea. This company was renamed Hellas Flying Dolphins in 2002, before being restructured as Hellenic Seaways in 2005.

Despite this impressive fleet expansion, strong competition provided by ANEK Lines, Superfast Ferries and Blue Star Ferries (the successor of Strintzis Lines, which had been taken over by Attica Group in 2000) and financial struggles caused by debts to shareholders (as the company had entered the Athens stock market in 1998) shook Minoan Lines, even though the new ferries were considered a massive success. In order to cover most of their debts, they sold many old ferries between 2000 and 2002. However, problems persisted, and this forced the company to sell the ARETOUSA, the PROMETHEUS, the ARIADNE PALACE ONE and the ARIADNE PALACE between 2001 and 2006. They also had to abandon several areas of service, such as the Cyclades, the Sporades, the Northeast Aegean Sea and the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Corfu-Bari line (on which the PROMETHEUS and the ARIADNE PALACE ONE were operating). The PASIPHAE PALACE also left the fleet in 2009. However, despite its struggles, the company was salvaged in 2008, as most of its shares were acquired by the Grimaldi Group, which subsequently sought to expand its services on the Adriatic Sea. For this, the Grimaldi family decided to operate two of the four extremely large cruiseferries that had been ordered in Italy between 2008 and 2010 to be deployed on the Adriatic Sea. These were the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA, built in 2009 and 2010, respectively. They entered service on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona line, and became the new major weapons of Minoan Lines on the Adriatic Sea. Their service was so successful that it led to their two rivals, ANEK Lines and Attica Group (Superfast Ferries and Blue Star Ferries), in forming a joint venture in 2011.

When the 2010s began, Minoan Lines owned seven ships. Indeed, it had the KNOSSOS PALACE and the FESTOS PALACE on the Piraeus-Herkalion line, the OLYMPIA PALACE and the EUROPA PALACE on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Corfu-Venice line, the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona line, and the IKARUS PALACE which was chartered to Grimaldi Lines and serving the Liverno-Barcelona-Valencia-Tangier Med line. However, in 2012, the company ceased to operate on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Corfu-Venice line. They then attempted to deploy the OLYMPIA PALACE and the EUROPA PALACE on the Piraeus-Chania line (which they had left in 1995), however their request was rejected by the Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy. As a result, the two ferries were chartered to a competitor of Grimaldi Lines, Tirrenia Di Navigazione. They were respectively renamed BONARIA and AMSICORA, and were deployed on the Civitavecchia-Olbia-Arbatax line on the Tyrrhenian Sea. As a result of this, the company only deployed four ships from 2013 to 2017.

The KNOSSOS PALACE docked in Piraeus in 2016. She was the first of the four sister ships that were ordered by Minoan Lines in Italy to begin service for the company. She began operations on the Piraeus-Heraklion line in late 2000, while also becoming the company's new flagship. Before her, it had been the IKARUS/IKARUS PALACE from 1997 to 2000. She spent 20 years on the line, and was widely lauded for her impeccable service and the unique amenities that she had onboard.

Despite only operating four ships, Minoan Lines remained very successful on both the Piraeus-Herkalion line and the Adriatic Sea. By that time, Grimaldi Lines had also started to become more present on the latter area, deploying smaller Ro-Pax ferries on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Brindisi line. By 2017, it had become the main company serving the line. Ships that operated there included the late SORRENTO (scrapped in 2016 following a fire which destroyed her in 2015), the CATANIA and the ZEUS PALACE. They then had two Ro-Pax ferries that were transferred from Finnlines, the EUROFERRY OLYMPIA and the EUROFERRY EGNAZIA, which were very successful in terms of freight transport, but widely criticised for their poor passenger service. They then had the FLORENCIA along two of her sister ships, the CORFÙ (ex-CARTOUR GAMMA of Caronte & Tourist and TTT-Lines) and the VENEZIA (ex-ALBAYZIN/CIUDAD DE CÁDIZ of Spanish company Trasmediterránea) in 2019 and in 2020.

2018 proved to be a milestone year for the company. Indeed, their services drastically expanded on the Aegean Sea, beyond their core operations on the Piraeus-Heraklion line. That year, the Grimaldi Group decided to sell its Hellenic Seaways shares to Attica Group. In exchange, the SUPFERFAST XII, the flagship of Superfast Ferries, was due to join Grimaldi Lines for service on the Civitavecchia-Olbia line as the CRUISE AUSONIA. Moreover, the deal also included the sale of the high speed ferry HIGHSPEED 7 of Hellenic Seaways to Minoan Lines. With this acquisition, the company had a high speed ferry for the first time since 1999, and was able to operate on the Cyclades for the first time since 2005. Indeed, it was agreed that the ship would continue to serve her extremely successful seasonal service on the Heraklion-Santorini-Ios-Paros-Mykonos line (where she had been operating since 2013). She began service for Minoan Lines after having been renamed SANTORINI PALACE. The company also decided to further strengthen its presence on the Cyclades by having the KNOSSOS PALACE and the FESTOS PALACE stop to the beautiful island of Milos as an intermediate port between Piraeus and Heraklion. As a result, both ships were deployed on the Piraeus-Milos-Heraklion line.

The SANTORINI PALACE (ex-HIGHSPEED 5/HIGHSPEED 7 of Hellenic Seaways) seen in the port of Mykonos, just 10 days after she began operations under Minoan Lines for the first time, during the summer of 2018.

However, things did not stop there. Minoan Lines made the most important deployment of 2018 by bringing back an old acquaintance in one of their former services. Indeed, following a six-year-long spell under Tirrenia Di Navigazione, the AMSICORA and the BONARIA were no longer in the company's plans. The Grimaldi Group decided to assign the two ships into two different services under two different operators. The BONARIA was taken over by Grimaldi Lines, was renamed CRUISE BONARIA and was deployed on the Livorno-Olbia line (together with the CRUISE OLBIA, which has been owned by Grimaldi Lines since 2016, and is coincidentally the former SUPERFAST VI of Superfast Ferries, hence a former competitor of Minoan Lines on the Adriatic Sea). As for the AMSICORA, she was due to return for service under Minoan Lines for the first time since 2012. She was renamed MYKONOS PALACE and was initially planned to be deployed on the Piraeus-Syros-Mykonos-Naxos line on the Cyclades, however her company decided to assign her on a more notable service: the Piraeus-Chania line. Not only was it the first time since 1995 that the company would operate there, but it was also attempting to bring an end to the monopoly held by ANEK Lines (as well as Blue Star Ferries which was operating under the ANEK-Attica Group joint venture). The introduction of the ship was extremely successful, and she was praised for her speedy and comfortable service. Overall, 2018 was a very memorable year for the company, with its success laying the foundations for the subsequent plans it had in mind for its services on the Aegean Sea.

The MYKONOS PALACE (ex-EUROPA PALACE) seen in Piraeus, during her first summer on the Piraeus-Chania line, in 2018. It was also her first summer under Minoan Lines since 2012.

On the Adriatic Sea, Minoan Lines began to gradually cede most of the services to Grimaldi Lines. This happened in 2017, when the Grimaldi Group decided that Grimaldi Lines would be the operators of the CRUISE EUROPA and of the CRUISE OLYMPIA, while Minoan Lines would remain their commercial managers. As a result, both ships began to trade under the Grimaldi Minoan Lines brandname. Furthermore, after having operated on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona-Trieste line from late 2012 to late 2016, they began serving the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona-Venice line instead (with Corfu being added in 2019).

After yet another successful season during the summer of 2019, in which all three cruiseferries operating in Crete also became the first-ever ships of the Greek coastal service to be equipped with an exhaust gas cleaning system (also known as 'scrubbers'), Minoan Lines decided to further improve their services by undergoing a major fleet reshuffle that would last from 2020 to 2021. Their decision was influenced by the fact that the MYKONOS PALACE and her sister ship, the CRUISE BONARIA, had a larger garage than the KNOSSOS PALACE and the FESTOS PALACE, which would benefit the lorry drivers traveling on the Piraeus-Heraklion line. With an upgraded capacity, the company could provide better service than that of the ANEK-Attica Group joint venture. As a result of this decision, the following reshuffle was proposed by the Grimaldi Group. For the summer of 2020 the company would:

-Withdraw the FESTOS PALACE from the Piraeus-Milos-Heraklion line, and instead operate her on the Piraeus-Chania line. She was to be renamed KYDON PALACE.

-Withdraw the MYKONOS PALACE from the Piraeus-Chania line, and instead deploy her on the Piraeus-Milos-Heraklion line. She was due to take the former name of her fleetmate and sister ship, as she would become the new FESTOS PALACE.

The new FESTOS PALACE (ex-EUROPA PALACE/MYKONOS PALACE) seen in Piraeus in 2020, during her first season on the Piraeus-Milos-Heraklion line, and during her first summer under her new name, which had been held by her sister ship from 2001 to 2020.

Following the completion of the 2020 season, Minoan Lines implemented the second phase of their fleet reshuffle:

-The KNOSSOS PALACE would end service on the Piraeus-Heraklion line after 20 years, and would be transferred to Grimaldi Lines in order to begin service for them as the new CRUISE BONARIA (therefore taking the name of her former fleetmate, the ex-OLYMPIA PALACE).

-The CRUISE BONARIA (ex-OLYMPIA PALACE) would rejoin Minoan Lines (two years after the MYKONOS PALACE/FESTOS PALACE had done so, and for the first time since 2012) in order to replace the KNOSSOS PALACE on the Piraeus-Heraklion line. She would also take her predecessor's former name, hence becoming the new KNOSSOS PALACE.

The KNOSSOS PALACE seen in Piraeus in 2020, in what turned out to be her last summer under Minoan Lines. She had spent her entire 20-year career on the Piraeus-Herkalion line, while also serving Milos during the summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Two months ago, the original KNOSSOS PALACE ended her Minoan Lines career and left for Naples in order to be repainted in Grimaldi Lines' colours. She became the new CRUISE BONARIA. It is currently unknown where she will operate, although it is highly likely that she would operate on the Civitavecchia-Olbia line, which is where the original CRUISE BONARIA was deployed during the 2020 season. The latter ferry has already rejoined Minoan Lines and has been introduced on the Piraeus-Heraklion line as the KNOSSOS PALACE.

Now that the full background is clearly explained, it is now the time to talk about the additional fleet reshuffle that Minoan Lines and the Grimaldi Group will undertake, this time on the Adriatic Sea. Indeed, due to an increase in passenger and freight demand on the Livorno-Olbia line, it was decided that the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA (which also happened to be equipped with scrubbers in 2020) would be transferred to this service, therefore joining Grimaldi Lines on a full-time basis. Furthermore, the CRUISE OLYMPIA will be renamed CRUISE SARDEGNA. They are to replace the CRUISE OLBIA and the CRUISE AUSONIA (the former ships of Superfast Ferries), which were considered too small to compete against Moby Lines and Tirrenia Di Navigazione. Ultimately, the goal of Grimaldi Lines is to deliver a striking blow to both companies, as they are suffering from many financial difficulties and are in dire necessity of making money.

In order to replace the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA on the Adriatic Sea, the Grimaldi Group has so far planned to introduce an usual service. Indeed instead of having two ships on the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona line, they would have a total of four ships. Two would have a direct service on the Patras-Ancona line, while the other two will only serve the Igoumenitsa-Ancona line. This will happen in order to compensate the speed and capacity voids left by the two gigantic cruiseferries, as having two smaller ships will not satisfy the large freight demand for Ancona. While the summer lineup of the company is uncertain, in the near future it will be as follows:

-The CRUISE OLBIA will begin service on the direct service on the Patras-Ancona line. It is also rumoured that she will be renamed EUROPA PALACE, hence taking the former name of the current FESTOS PALACE. It will be her first time operating on this line since 2013. Indeed, she had served the Patras-Igoumenitsa-Ancona line as the SUPERFAST VI for Superfast Ferries from 2001 to 2013. She was then sold to American company Resorts World Bimini (owned by Genting Group) in 2013, and served the Miami-Bimini line on the North Atlantic Ocean for three years before being bought by Grimaldi Lines in 2016. Her stint under Superfast Ferries was extremely successful, therefore her return will certainly bring back memories to regular Adriatic Sea passengers. However, it is presumed that would still be operating under Grimaldi Lines, and not under Minoan Lines.

-The second ship that will operate alongside the CRUISE OLBIA has not yet been determined. For now, the CRUISE BONARIA (ex-KNOSSOS PALACE) will begin service on the Patras-Ancona line, but she will likely be transferred to another service during the summer of 2021. She will be replaced by either the ZEUS PALACE or the CRUISE AUSONIA (ex-SUPERFAST XII). Both ships had previously operated on the Adriatic Sea, hence their experience is certainly useful for Grimaldi Lines.

-The two ships that are to operate on the Igoumenitsa-Ancona line are most likely to be the small Ro-Pax ferries and sister ships CORFÙ and FLORENCIA.

The CRUISE OLBIA seen in Livorno in 2016, in what was her debut season under Grimaldi Lines. Five years later, she is due to return to the Adriatic Sea, where she had spent the first 12 years of her career as the SUPERFAST VI. Whether she will be renamed EUROPA PALACE remains to be seen in the upcoming weeks. Picture taken by Will Weijsters and published on www.shipspotting.com.

As the Minoan Lines fleet reshuffle is about to end, the different changes on the Adriatic Sea will be very interesting, as they will certainly have a major impact on competitors like ANEK Lines and Superfast Ferries. From a shipping enthusiast's point of view, it is also nice to see former Greek Adriatic Sea ferries making their return to the area, albeit under the livery of an Italian operator. Ultimately, this nostalgic feeling is also an indicator of how the Greek companies, which had been the main players on the Adriatic Sea for so many decades, have experienced such a decline that their former ships now operate under their competitors, and under foreign liveries. It goes on to show how all steps taken by the Grimaldi Group have gradually started to mark full control on the Mediterannean Sea and on the Adriatic Sea. This rise is far from over, as the Italian giants have all the means to continue upgrading their services. They have ordered dozens of new environmentally-friendly Ro-Ro carriers and Ro-Pax ferries to be delivered in the 2020s, and they are also looking to further invest in the Spanish ferry market, as they seek to take over Naviera Armas and Trasmediterránea (two of Spain's largest ferry companies). Besides having considerable economic resources, it is also their ability to switch ships of their fleet very effectively, as they easily have the possibility to move ferries from the Adriatic Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea and vice versa, or to trade Finnlines-owned ships with Grimaldi Lines-owned ships. Hence, they are likely to further expand their services. At this pace, it is also extremely likely that they will have full control of the Mediterranean Sea, making them an unmatched competitor.

While the Grimaldi Group is benefiting from its continuous rise in power, its subsidiary, Minoan Lines, finds itself under a reduced fleet. And it appears that, 40 years after the EL GRECO first began service on the Adriatic Sea, there will be no ship operating under Minoan Lines there. Instead, the company will continue to focus on the Aegean Sea, where it has experienced a vast amount of success over the past three years. It is certainly sad to see that its former flagship, the KNOSSOS PALACE, no longer operates in Crete, however her successor, the new KNOSSOS PALACE, will undoubtedly have a successful service for the upcoming years. In the end, after seeing how many ships have alternated between Minoan Lines and Grimaldi Lines, who knows if the old KNOSSOS PALACE will come back to her original owners? Will they expand somewhere beyond Crete and the Cyclades? Will the CRUISE EUROPA and the CRUISE OLYMPIA also return to Minoan Lines if the demand on the Livorno-Olbia line falls? The future will tell us.

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