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The people who make a difference in the Canary Islands
   The people who make a difference in the Canary Islands

The ferryman can
In 1904, a Mr Thomas Olsen, son of a Norwegian shipping family, set up an agricultural business in La Gomera and a Canarian legend was born.

The Canaries is more than sun and good weather, you have to get there and travel around
The Canaries is more than sun and good weather, you have to get there and travel around

15.02.2004 -

Juan Ramsden, managing director of Fred Olsen lines, is now part of that legend, having joined the company ten years ago.  With the surname Ramsden I was curious as to any link with one Harry Ramsden.  While Juan didnt know of the man, he did tell me that his great granddad was English.  I believe he was from the Manchester area.  He was an engineer who was sent to work on the railways in the Basque country, met a local girl and he stayed.  Juan studied in his home province before earning his captains ticket in the merchant marine service.  He later took a Masters in business administration in Madrid and worked for various shipping interests in Spain and South Africa. Then, they offered me the opportunity to come to Fred Olsen Lines, and here I am.  He continued to study, earning a Masters in management.

I was curious to know how a Norwegian had come to the Canaries to start a ferry company.  Had he too fallen for a local beauty?  No Juan revealed, he fell in love with the Canaries.  The Olsens were a ship owning family from as far back as the 19th century and they were still sailing ships in those days.  They came over from Europe with machinery and took fruit back.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, Thomas came to visit the Canaries and he obviously liked it very much.  He fell in love with La Gomera and started to visit more frequently.  Later, for health reasons he was recommended to winter in a gentler climate, and so he began to spend longer periods here.

The family set up a shipping route to export the tomatoes and bananas from its own fields in Lomada de Tecina and Playa de Santiago.  A hundred years later, the Olsen familys interests cover international shipping, cruises, hotels, real estate constructions, golf, rural tourism and restaurants and Fred Olsen S.A. is still in family hands, under the presidency of the originators grandson.

Perhaps the most widely visible face of the Fred Olsen Company in the Canaries, the ferries - Fred Olsen Lines, started plying its first service between San Sebastian de La Gomera and Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1974.  They called the first ship Benchijigua after an area of great natural beauty in the centre of La Gomera.  Curiously, the Olsen family already had a tradition of giving the ships names beginning with B.  Thomas Olsens mothers name began with B and they named a ship for her.  In the shipping lists, for examples at Lloyds of London, the ships are in alphabetical order, so they began to name all the new ships with B, so that they appeared close together in the lists.  The current Canarian fleet consists of the Benchijigua Express, the Bentayga Express, the Bonanza Express, the Bocayna Express and the Barlovento.

In that first year they transported 25,000 passengers.  These days they carry 2,700,000 passengers a year, 500,000 cars and around 200,000 cargo vehicles.  The company has a 40 per cent share of all the transport between the islands, counting both air and sea and a total of 40 per cent of the goods transport.  In 1999 Juan Ramsden oversaw a farseeing, total transformation of the islands ferry service, with the introduction of the new twin hulled, fast ferry the Bentayga Express.  Today, with the exception of the Barlovento, which is a traditional ferry ship, all the ferries in operation are of the new speedier design.  They operate between La Gomera and Los Cristianos (Tenerife), Playa Blanca (Lanzarote) and Corralejo (Fuertaventura), Agaete (Las Palmas) and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, La Palma and Los Cristianos and with the Barlovento on the El Hierro to Los Cristianos route.

In 2000, they had a trial run of a service to Lanzarote with the Betancuria for six months, but it didnt receive enough traffic and had to be withdrawn.  Its a service that we hope to include one day, and without a doubt we will include one day, but not at the moment.  We are more interested in the moment in improving the quality of the service.

On the 8th of July this year the ferry company will celebrate its thirtieth birthday and although there will undoubtedly be a celebration for the occasion, for the company the real celebration this year will be the arrival of the new trimaran, at the end the year.   The biggest multi-hull ship in the world will offer a lot more comfort.  More spacious, the new design will sail more steadily in high seas and help reduce motion sickness.  It has not been decided yet which route the ship will operate, but Juans preference would be for the La Palma/La Gomera route, which operates in the direct path of the might of the Atlantic, and where he feels the biggest difference will be noted and appreciated.

The first fast ferries we bought, we bought on a leasing programme, a more flexible financing system, until we made sure that they were right for the Islands.  Now we are absolutely sure of the success of the Fast Ferries, we buy them, with a loan of course - no-ones got that kind of money.  Its going to cost 50 million euros.  The only real change to the docks to accommodate the new ship will be new gangways, but that doesnt matter because we dont really like the current ones.  Some people dislike their height, so we listened, as we always try to, and this new ship has lower entry ports.

Fred Olsen Lines even have their own loyalty card Fred Olsen Plus.  Every trip earns you points which you can swap for free trips or for gifts in the on board shops.  Just about everything is on offer from a mug or a baseball cap to bed and breakfast in the Tecina five star Hotel.  Unlike other schemes it wont you take years to earn enough points either, regular travellers will soon see a return as the points mount up quickly.  Usually a free trip will be available after just ten journeys, three times more generous than any airline!  You will have priority in any waiting list and will receive regular information and special offers.  It also means that you dont have to present a photocopy of your identity document to receive the residents subsidised price, the company keep a copy on file and print it off when you book.  Juan understands that the paperwork can be annoying to some travellers who are not used to it.  Spain is a very bureaucratic country, but by maritime law you have to leave a photocopy of your identification each trip.

Although legally you dont need an identity card, it makes life much easier.  For example on a ferry crossing, to receive a discount you need to be from the EEC or Norway Switzerland or Iceland, a resident and able to prove it, either with a Spanish issue identity document or a certificate from the town hall (which only lasts six months).  A driving licence wont do.  Its not our law, if we dont have the right document, the government dont refund us the subsidies.

I like computers Juan declared, maybe thats why he was so pleased with the amazing success of the new electronic ticket system.  Clients can now buy tickets via the web, and new machines in all the ports (two in some) allow you to key in the reference number or your Plus card number, and obtain the boarding cards yourself.  Reservations were already available on-line, but in the first week of the actual sale of tickets, without any publicity whatsoever, the turnover increased an incredible 1000 per cent.

For Juan it is another option.  Tickets are already available from any travel agent in the islands, the Santa Cruz bus station, Santa Catalina Park in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, any of the ports that they sail from, or by telephone on 902 100 107 with a credit card.  What we are looking for is to give a quality service to our clients, something they will be most comfortable with.  Our obligation is to give them as many options as possible.  Special discounts, including return trips from Las Palmas and entrance to the Loro Parque or the Piramides de Gimar or a return trip to play a round of golf on the new course in La Gomera are also available.

As a company, Fred Olsen just keep growing.  They have just opened Golf Tecina which will be officially inaugurated later this year.  The Pueblo Don Thomas, an elite construction development, is even now rising next to the Hotel Tecina.  A new marina and another top class hotel the Hotel Tapahuga are also planned for the not too distant future.

As far as the fleet is concerned, the future looks rosy.  If things work out as planned long term proposals include replacing all the ships with trimarans, including the aging but still serviceable Barlovento.  Its a really good boat, but its the only conventional boat that we have and we want to put a fast ferry in there.

Fred Olsen company philosophy is to reinvest the company benefits in the island generating wealth in the local community, to look after the environment and they are well known for their patronage of various sporting and cultural events.  For the managing director of the ferry company that was normal.  Of the more than a 1000 people employed by the company, over 97 per cent are Canarian.  We collaborate with social and cultural programmes because we feel we are a part of the Canarian society.

Juans two children are now at University in Madrid, leaving him and his wife time for new hobbies.  I play squash, but at the moment Im learning to play golf.  At my age I thought it was more appropriate but Im getting hooked and that worries me.  Im going to classes in Amarilla Golf with my wife.  The idea is that well play together, a golfing couple.  We still get on really well together, but Im not too happy that shes almost better than me he joked.

Together with the Canarian tourist board and other transport companies, he would encourage people to get around the other islands.  The Canaries is more than sun and good weather, its magnificent landscapes, nature.  I believe that the islands are still unknown, you have to get there and travel around.

With return trips starting at less than 30 euros, what are you waiting for?


By Sheila Collis

Gallery: The ferryman can
The Canaries is more than sun and good weather, you have to get there and travel around 
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