A ferry to Madeira could be good in these days of covid-19. All kinds of rules and regulations make air travel less pleasant. And maybe, they make you feel less safe than you would like. Unsurprisingly, many have sent me questions about the ferry to the mainland. True enough, a ferry to the mainland would make it possible to use your own car to travel to Madeira.
You could travel without being packed into an aircraft where you depend on the reliability of the airline’s air filters. Travelling by sea, in the open air at times, would give travellers a lot more room to keep the social distance. So yes, travelling by ferry could be a lot more pleasant. And the Madeiran government keeps promising a ferry to the people. But there are interests of private parties that seemingly are more important to the government than the people of Madeira. The same people that elects them and pays them. Here is a horrible story about broken promises and corruption..
getting our stuff to Madeira: not many options
When we first started to contemplate spending our golden years in Madeira, we started looking for all the possible ways to get our stuff transported. We had been living aboard our sailing yacht Heerenleed for ten years already. So, the furniture we wanted to keep had been in storage for all that time.
The most logical thing to do seemed to be, to pack it all into a sea container and have the lot shipped. That was when we found out there were not many companies to choose from when it came to getting our car to the island. We had a beautiful Pininfarina-designed Peugeot 306 cabriolet which we absolutely wanted to take with us. For this, we could choose from one single company that would take it. It was called Auto Expresso.
We asked for a price (it was not on display on their website) and we were quoted around 500€. That was, obviously, one way. And it did not include the transfer of the car from the ship across the port area in Madeira upon arrival. It turned out they wanted 150 € for that as well. A lot of money for just driving the car 500 metres across the customs area. Also, the price did not include the driver who was supposed to travel by plane.
A ferry to Madeira after over 30 years?
We decided to wait for a while, as there were rumours a ferry was going to run in 2008. After a lot of research and trying to get a decent number of options we finally received the excellent news that indeed, a ferry was going to run between Portimão in the South Algarve to Funchal. It was the extension of the overnight ferry that already ran between the Canary Islands and Funchal, and Naviera Armas, the shipping company that ran it decided to simply extend the line to Portimão and lo and behold: the first passenger ferry since 30+ years was a fact.
time to book the boat
Time to book our beautiful convertible on the first available ferry early June. We loaded her up with every scrap of glass- and crystalware we possessed, plus all the earthenware, silver and porcelain, opened the linen top and put the hardtop on and off Noud went. Of course, it was an extremely long drive to Portimão from the Netherlands, but he went with some time to spare because we could not afford to miss it. But all went well, and after a crossing of some 22 hours, he could drive the car off the ferry in Funchal.
The officials did not know what hit them, and, as officials do, tried everything to get a grip on all these foreign cars entering their thus far blissfully isolated little island. Completely oblivious of the modern electronic possibilities someone in his wisdom thought it an excellent idea to put an old kitchen table near the roll-off ramp, install a very important looking man behind it who had to write down all the license plates of the cars that came off the ferry. When Noud let me know over the Phone we could not help but snicker about such outdated way of displaying territorial rights. Unfortunately, he had no time to make a picture of it.
Anyway, everything arrived in one piece, except for one earthenware bowl. Noud continued to the house we had rented for the time our own house was being renovated.
Later that summer, in August, Noud flew back to the Netherlands, where we rented the largest Ford Transit we could lay our hands-on. We booked a return ticket for it on the Armas ferry. We carefully loaded it up with all our stuff, bought some more when we had some space left, and off Noud went again. It turned out he was allowed to drive the Transit with his normal license, but not when it was fully loaded. He almost found out the hard way that driving such a heavily loaded van, when he tried to take a roundabout a little too fast. It went well, but only just.
Fortunately he arrived in Portimao on time, the evening before the ferry left and spent the night in the van enjoying the screeches of the electronic seagulls that were supposed to tell the real ones not to use the parking lot as a public loo.
The crossing was uneventful, the unloading of the van – luckily with the help of friends – a bit less uneventful if heavy work. A week later, he came back on the ferry and we returned the van. We calculated that the whole operation, including van hire, toll roads, hotels, meals, fuel and the ferry ticket, was about 2500€. An excellent result, if we compared it with the 12000€ that was quoted by several shipping agents.
Over the rest of 2008 and in the time that followed Noud did several trips on the ferry, helping moving cars of friends and getting some more furniture from the Netherlands – I was still working and had to stay in the Netherlands – until in January 2012 the ferry came to a screeching halt.
The problems started when the Portuguese Shipowners Association accused Naviera Armas of unfair competition. As a ferry for passengers and roll-on-roll-off freight, the complaint was that they allowed the transport of just semi-trailers, without the corresponding lorry. Subsequently, the Association filed a complaint for unfair competition. Itwas filed with the administrative court of Lisbon. The court then ordered Armas as well as the Funchal Harbour Operator APRAM to keep the lorries attached to the semi-trailers. Seeing that the Grupo Sousa was – and is – the monopolist for transport to and from Madeira, it is no rocket science to guess where the compaint came from.
It is more probable that they did not like that Armas charged 170 (178 in the last couple of years) for a normal car, including its driver. The Sousas wanted €500. Plus €150 to cross the freeport grounds. And that excluded the driver who was forced to take a plane. Also, sending freight was still cheaper on the Armas ferry than on the Grupo Sousa’s ships. And tha inspite of the fact that Armas was forced to keep the lorries attached to the semi-trailers, reducing the payload with 25%. Clearly, the Sousas were desperate to keep their (illegal) monopoly for all transport to and from the island.
Even with all the deliberate harassment by the Madeiran officials they applied for a second time slot in the harbour. This would allow them to do two crossings a week instead of one. But the then responsible minister of transport Mrs. Conceição Estudante imposed even more limitations to freight transport. Clearly her actions were not in the interest of the Madeiran people, but in the interest of the Grupo Sousa. A clearer example of the incestuous political liaisons in Madeira will be difficult to find.
We will never know what incentives she enjoyed, but rest assured she had something to gain. When it became clear that the Madeiran politics had their mind set on terminating the Armas connection, in favour of an illegal monopoly for the Grupo Sousa, they knew that there was no chance of being treated fairly. So Armas told the Madeira government they could shove the ferry up their place where the sun doesn’t shine. They were terminating the line without notice.
Black day for Madeira
It wa a black day for Madeira when they lost the sea connection to the mainland. Apart from losing a sea-connection, Madeira also lost its only Madeira based supermarket chain Sá. That was a direct result, because Sá could not afford the high transport prices charged by the Grupo Sousa who now had their precious monopoly back. Sá went bust, the island cried murder but the government did nothing.
One would wonder why a twenty-first-century European region has a government that is obviously being told what to do by a large company. The answer to that is simple. The Grupo Sousa has been financing the PSD-M, the Madeiran So-called social democrats, since decades. Everyone knows, and no-one dares to stop voting fort hem. Why is that? Simple. Most families have someone working for some company that belongs to the octopus called Grupo Sousa. And they are not convinced their opinion remains their secret. In other words: fear is what moves them. Fear for people they think are ‘their betters’. Like nothing has changed since the 1974 revolution when dictator Salazar was kicked out.
Fortunately, not everyone could be shut up effectively by playing the fear card. There was a small Facebook Group that opposed the loss of the ferry. They started lobbying to get it back. A lot of discussions were heard, political parties said their piece. But really, – though not a single one can be trusted. This is, after all the incestuous Madeiran politics and they also may depend on hand-outs by the Sousas. An altercation I had over Facebook with a chosen member of the European Parliament I had is a good illustration of the contempt shown to the electorate by Madeiran politicians).
But under the pressure of some public opinion makers and exposing some clear examples of corruption or at least nepotism, the regional government announced in august 2017 there would be a public tender for a new ferry line to the mainland. Much to the annoyment of the pressure groups, the ferry was only meant to sail during the summer months.
The government and the Grupo Sousa had gone out of their way to try and convince the public that a ferry could never be cost-effective. They said that large sums of public money were needed to operate such a ferry. All the former obstacles remained in place, and it is no wonder that no party offered itself. Of course, Armas has seriously been considering to enter the tender. Only, in the meantime the harbour dues had become excessive.
In the same period, we saw that cruise ships started to take Funchal off their schedules. Apparently, not just Armas would suffer ridiculous harbour dues. The only company not having this problem is the Porto Santo line. This is the ferry between Madeira and the smaller sister island of Porto Santo. If this surprises you, well, it shouldn’t. This company is owned by non other than the monopolist Grupo Sousa who is exempt from habour dues.
Then, the regional government granted a subvention of 9 million Euros. That would be for a concession of three years. One company stood up. Clearly, to snatch the 9 million for only a handful of return trips between Funchal and the mainland. Nobody was surprised that it was – again – the Grupo Sousa. The contract was won by a puppet company especially established for this purpose. But let me tell you a secret. Nobody knew this at the time. But just before the Grupo Sousa entered the tender, the harbour dues for the ferry to the mainland was secretly reduced. Another favour to the Sousas.
They did not have a roll-on-roll-off ferry, so they chartered one. And lo and behold: it was none other than Naviera Armas who was chartered to do this ferry. Anyone can understand that running a ferry gets more expensive if more parties want to make money out of it. We could well have done without the Sousas sucking money out of this public service. And Armas would certainly have entered the tender if the reduction of the harbour dues would have been publicly announced. The way it should have been in the first place.
Once the taxpayers’ millions cashed, the Grupo Sousa kept trying to prove that the line could not be cost-effective. To discourage possible bookings, no information about fares and sailing times was available up to two weeks before the first ferry was scheduled. They did everything they could to make it impossible to book a trip. The web site was crap, with pages lacking necessary information. The staff at the booking office was rude and uninformed, you name it, they tried it.
But it did not work. After the first ferry that was far from fully booked, bookings picked up. Because a ferry is really something that many people living in Madeira want. It enables them to take a holiday to the mainland. They can go and visit their family and take their own car. No multiple airline tickets and expensive car rentals. Also, it allows them to buy things that are less expensive on the mainland and take them back with them. We also saw it brought people from the mainland or even from abroad. Many people from Spain used the ferry to enjoy a stopover in Madeira on their way to the Canaries.
So after all, it was profitable, for Armas. It woul have been, because otherwise, they would not have operated the line. It was profitable for the Sousas, because they got their 9 million euros for not doing much else than the paid obstruction of a public transport service.
no third season
Finally, after two years of unsuccessfully trying to torpedo the much-appreciated sea link between Funchal and the Portuguese mainland, the third season came. The usual obstructions were already in place long before the ferry’s season had started. The Grupo Sousa was not at all willing to do the third season. In November 2019 they already announced that the ferry was not profitable. They wanted to discontinue it and they finally dumped it in 2020.
Nobody knows what happened to the 3 million Euros subsidy for this year. But I think I am not alone in my fear that they have been silently pocketed by the Sousas with the – silent again – permission of their puppets that call themselves the government. They must have been happy that the covid-19 pandemic created other worries to distract from this scandalous corruption
Have a look at the video of the arrival of the first ferry after the interruption. You can see that in spite of the obstructions meant to hamper bookings, the ferry had plenty of vehicles and passengers that disembarked in Funchal
Don’t think that the fight to get a decent ferry back is over. Because it isn’t. Many people keep putting a lot of energy into exposing the nepotism or corruption, an ongoing thing in Madeira. Madeira may not be a republic. But there are plenty of bananas. And there seems to be a relation between the fruit and corruption. And don’t think for a minute that the people who have spoken up so far can be silenced. When this nasty covid-19 virus stops being the all-consuming item in politics and news, the cause will be picked up with renewed energy.
A final word about the regional government of Madeira. In these difficult months, they received a lot of praise. Deserved, as hey dealt with the outbreak of the pandemic so well. I will be the last one to deny that adequate measures have been taken at the right time. Although I have a lot of doubt where their wisdom came from. I am much more inclined to give the credit to the health authorities at IASaúde. But at least they have recognised good advice when it was brought to them. So yes, every decision that was taken and every measure that was imposed where the containment of the virus in the Madeiran archipelago is concerned was well done. But it will not cause me to forgive them the corruption and nepotism that has kept Madeira and its lovely people in a stranglehold for far too long.
Would you like to join us in our ongoing struggle to make the Madeiran politicians finally keep their promises to the Madeiran people? And make them stop favouring families like the wealthy Sousas and others? Then, you can join us in one (or both) of the Facebook groups here and here.