Sealink Saints get a fantastic new lease of life – Part 2 (St Christopher / Stena Antrim / Ibn Batouta / European Star)

By: Scott Mackey
EUROPEAN STAR seen at Vlore in Albania, 13th April 2023. © Patrick Heard

The former ST CHRISTOPHER/STENA ANTRIM, built for Sealink at Harland and Wolff, Belfast in 1980, has benefitted from a major mechanical and interior renovation. The ship was introduced by Starlines as EUROPEAN STAR on the route between Brindisi in Italy and Vlorë in Albania during the summer, following a long period in lay-up.   

The transformation is quite remarkable considering the reported condition of the vessel a few years ago. It was widely expected she would go for scrap, but a significant investment of both time and money on the part of her new owners has transformed the ship. Now in her 43rd year, the former Sealink ‘Flagship Service’ stalwart is proving her worth on the Adriatic.

EUROPEAN STAR at Vlorë in Albania preparing for service in April 2023. © Patrick Heard.
EUROPEAN STAR at Vlorë in Albania preparing for service in April 2023. © Patrick Heard.

H&W’s Third ‘Saint’ – St Christopher

ST CHRISTOPHER was the third in a series of four similar vessels designed in-house by Sealink Naval Architects, Tony Rogan and Don Ripley. She was launched in March 1980 and was virtually identical to the second ship in the series, ST ANSELM. Both ships were destined for service between Dover and Calais. ST CHRISTOPHER arrived on the English Channel route in April 1981.

The pair were Sealink’s response to the freight and passenger needs of the early 1980s. The uncluttered twin vehicle decks and ability to load and discharge both decks simultaneously meant they were very efficient to operate. All four ships in the series were also designed with the ability to load and discharge both decks via a single level shore ramp. This was achieved by four large internal ramps that could be raised and lowered, thus enabling the top deck traffic to move on and off the ships via the main deck.

The sisters joined Sealink SNCF’s new build, CÔTE D’AZUR on the intensive link across the Dover straits, in direct competition with Townsend Thoresen’s Spirit Class vessels, built in Bremerhaven, Germany.

It was quickly realised that their passenger areas were insufficient for the traffic on the route. In 1983, they both returned to their builders in Belfast to have the accommodation extended aft over the poop deck. This increased passenger capacity from 1000 to 1,400 and included a large duty-free supermarket area. The top deck had also been previously opened for passenger use by providing outside seating.

To the North Channel

Following the sale of Sealink British Ferries to Stena Line in 1990, the vessel was renamed STENA ANTRIM in 1991 and transferred to the North Channel to operate alongside her other near sisters, STENA GALLOWAY (ex-GALLOWAY PRINCESS) and STENA CALEDONIA (ex-ST DAVID) on the Stranraer – Larne (later Belfast) route.

In July 1996, the second HSS, STENA VOYAGER arrived on the North Channel and the STENA ANTRIM was relegated to back-up duties. She then moved to the Newhaven-Dieppe route in August where she remained until April 1998.   

Sold to the Mediterranean

The STENA ANTRIM was sold to Limadet in August 1998 and renamed IBN BATOUTA for service between Algeciras and Tanger.

The service was later taken over by Comanav and the ship remained on the route until the collapse of her owners in early 2012 when she was laid up in Algeciras. She was noted in particularly poor condition and, in 2015, she was towed to Durres in Albania.

In 2018 she was towed to Tuzla in Turkey for renovation work. By the end of 2018, it was believed she had been purchased by European Ferries and the intention was to operate her between Brindisi and Vlorë.

IBN BATOUTA in drydock at the Gemak Shipyard, Tuzla, Turkey in early April 2018. She has recentlly had her hull repainted in a new yellow scheme. Polimar Shipping.
IBN BATOUTA in drydock at the Gemak Shipyard, Tuzla, Turkey in early April 2018. She had recently had her hull repainted in a new yellow scheme. Polimar Shipping.

Over a period of 4 years, she was thoroughly renovated by her new owners before commencing service in July 2023.

A new lease of life

Patrick Heard is a former Sealink crew member whose father also worked on the ST CHRISTOPHER as radio officer in 1980’s. In July 2021, Patrick was in Greece and photographed the ship at the Salamis Shipyards.

Patrick comments: “31.07.2021 Salamis Shipyards. After walking for over an hour in 40° heat this was as close as I could get to the ex St. Christopher laid up in Salamina Greece. Was due to take up service from Brindisi to Vlorë but Covid put paid to that.” © Patrick Heard.
Patrick comments: “31.07.2021 Salamis Shipyards. After walking for over an hour in 40° heat this was as close as I could get to the ex St. Christopher laid up in Salamina Greece. Was due to take up service from Brindisi to Vlorë but Covid put paid to that.”
© Patrick Heard.

During April 2023, Patrick photographed the EUROPEAN STAR at Vlore in Albania. At this stage she was in the process of being prepared for service. He later learnt they were only running freight services at that stage.

Then, once she had entered service, in August 2023, Patrick travelled onboard the ship in her latest guise operating in the Adriatic. He has documented a remarkable transformation and has kindly agreed to allow his photographs be shared here. Starlines have also provided us with a selection of photographs for this feature.

Machinery Spaces

Patrick comments: It’s not just the fresh paint and general cleanliness, the absence of vibration during manoeuvring was very impressive. A huge thank you to Chief Engineer Grigor Billa who has put in a lot of work since Starlines acquired the ship over 4 years ago… [and for a] guided tour of the Engine Room during a crossing from Brindisi to Vlorë on the 28th August 2023. Hopefully the engines will enable an extended life for this old girl. They certainly seemed in excellent condition, sounding smooth enough.”

Vehicle decks

As built, the so-called Sealink ‘Saints’ could all load and discharge a full load of traffic using either single or double level shore berths at both the bow and the stern. Effectively the upper vehicle deck, deck 5 consists of four suspended ‘ramps’ which can be lowered to deck 3 at ports where double deck loading is not available. This feature made all four vessels extremely versatile and would probably explain why three of the four are still in service, more than 40 years after they were launched.

In her new role, however, EUROPEAN STAR, operates as a single level stern loader at both ports she serves. The flexible design enables her to make use of both vehicle decks, even today.

Outside deck spaces

Patrick comments: These photos show how a big ship in the 1980s has become a small ship in 2023. All photos taken during a return crossing from Brindisi to Vlorë on the 28th/29th August 2023.”

The Bridge

Patrick comments: An immense thank you to Captain Abozeid for this visit of the bridge during a day crossing from Brindisi to Vlorë on the 28th August 2023.”

Passenger spaces

Patrick comments: “Interior photos of ‘European Star’ (Ex. St. Christopher / Stena Antrim) taken on a return crossing from Brindisi to Vlorë the 28th/29th August 2023.”

The layout of the ship’s passenger spaces remains largely the same as it was during her Sealink and Stena Line career, with the exception of the addition of cabins aft on deck 7 in the area formerly occupied by the video lounge and duty free shop and on deck 8 where the Motorist’s Lounge was located.

Today, the forward end of deck 7 features the Café Atene. This was previously the ship’s main lounge bar area. It has been refurbished in with new furniture which seems to have been acquired from one of the former Stena HSS vessels.

The large midships area of the vessel on deck 7 includes the self-service restaurant and an area of seating as well as the truck driver’s mess room, located on the port side, adjacent to the galley. The forward-most section of this central area contains the restaurant servery.

Adjacent to the cafeteria, in the centre of deck 7 is a seating area, beside the reception area and purser’s office.

The aft end of deck 7 is now a cabin area. This includes the former video lounge and shopping area which was part of the accommodation extension undertaken in 1983 by Harland and Wolff.

Moving up to deck 8, the aft lounge is now cabins while the area that housed the small cafeteria/coffee shop while the ship operated for Sealink and Stena Line is now an area of reclining ‘air seats’.

Onboard Plan

The plan in the photograph shows the current layout of the vessel’s passenger accommodation.

Patrick comments: “We can see that there will be no top deck stern unloading. The upper car deck bow door will probably only be opened for ventilation. I can’t remember the ‘garden shed’ now visible aft of the mizzen-mast so that’s an addition. The space for the Dover foot passenger skywalk will no doubt perplex people now. So, in her 43rd year she is looking quite good and ready for a new, hopefully long-lived, chapter in her life.”

The vessel sailed from Brindisi to the Salamis shipyard, arriving on 29th September for what we understand is a period of annual maintenance.

With special thanks to Patrick Heard for the use of his photographs and some of his comments, without whom this article would not have been possible. Thanks also to Nigel Thornton of Dover Ferry Photos, and Massimo Prudentino of SeaMed Trading (Starlines) for his assistance and for providing a selection of photos.

See also part 1 of this two-part series where we look at the former GALLOWAY PRINCESS/STENA GALLOWAY/LE RIF. The first vessel in the series of near sisterships built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff for Sealink, has recently re-established herself on the busy route from Algeciras to Tanger Med as MOROCCO SUN.

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