Andrew Pike is a Durban-based partner in the Shipping and Logistics practice group of Bowmans and heads up the Ports, Transport and Logistics sector in the firm. In 1991 he was a young maritime lawyer when he was assigned to investigate the sinking of a passenger liner, the Oceanos, off South Africa.
It was an experience that changed his life. In this article he gives insight into that fateful night and how it changed his life. He is writing a book about the Oceanos which is scheduled for publication later this year.
It is almost 27 years since what might be described as the greatest maritime rescue in modern history, if not ever, was effected. The rescue took place a couple of miles offshore on South Africa’s Wild Coast. The sea on the Transkei coastline is perilous, arguably South Africa’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. Hundreds of ships have experienced difficulties in SA coastal waters over the years, but a great many of those have experienced their darkest hours off the Transkei. A combination of the fast-flowing Agulhas current from the north, severe winds blowing in the opposite direction and the 200 fathom line on the edge of the continental shelf conspire to create huge, sometimes freak waves which can completely immerse ships and put strains on them for which they were not designed.
The MV Oceanos was a 153 meter passenger ship, built in 1952 and designed to carry 550 passengers and 250 crew. In August 1991, she was owned by Epirotiki Lines of Greece and chartered at the time by a South African Company, TFC Tours. The Master of the vessel, who played a notorious role in the rescue efforts, was Captain Yiannis Avranas. At the time, I was a junior partner in the maritime department of a major Durban law firm. I was privileged enough to have been one of the team which investigated the sinking of the Oceanos.
The vessel had been plying the waters of the Indian Ocean during July of 1991. She had visited the Indian Ocean Islands of Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion during her charter and, in early August, was steadily making her way up the coast from Cape Town to Durban. A wealthy East London businessman chartered the vessel for two days during her trip for his daughter’s wedding. On August 2, the vessel berthed in East London and the wedding was held onboard. Despite appalling weather, the bride and her father insisted that the wedding ceremony should take place at sea. The ship left the harbour and, when everyone was properly seasick and the ceremony had been performed, the vessel returned. The party continued on the ship in the harbour through the night.
On Saturday, August 3, the vessel’s departure for Durban was delayed because of the terrible weather. Eventually she set sail late in the afternoon, but passengers reported a terrible ordeal through their dinner, with plates flying off the tables and alarmingly mobile dining room furniture. A number of entertainers were onboard. A guitarist called Moss Hills reported that, at around 8.45 pm, he saw members of the crew running around the vessel handing out life jackets. Moss went in search of the Cruise Director, Lorraine Betts, to find out what was going on. She told him that the Captain had told her there was engine trouble and they would have to abandon ship. While this conversation was going on, the passengers gathered in the ship’s lounge in anticipation of a show scheduled for 10pm. While they were there, the lights went out. Despite having no power, the entertainers conducted a singalong, to the accompaniment of furniture, crockery, cutlery and even a grand piano crashing around the ship.
Meantime, below deck in the auxiliary engine room, all was not well. A little earlier water had started pouring in through the side of the ship from the sea chest (a water intake reservoir). It is believed that a freak wave had smashed into the old vessel and a shell plate had fallen off, causing a massive leak. This is consistent with information provided by (the now late) David Gordon SC, at the time one of South Africa’s leading maritime advocates. Two weeks before this incident, he had been on the Oceanos as a passenger when she sailed from Reunion. As the vessel was leaving the harbour, David Gordon was filming the departure on a video camera when his camera picked up a swirl of mud and stones beneath the hull of the ship. It seems that she had touched the bottom while leaving the harbour. The Captain assured David that it was nothing: they had probably just hit a buoy, but David is adamant that this was a strike to the ship’s hull.
When the water came flooding in, the ships’ engineers closed the watertight doors of the engine room, donned their life jackets and fled. Ships are designed with compartments so that, if one compartment floods, the ship should stay afloat if the watertight doors are closed. However, when one sees the ships’ engineers upstairs wearing life jackets, the chances are that they know that the ship cannot be saved.
Although no announcements to abandon ship were ever made and no alarms were sounded, the crew started launching lifeboats “as a precaution”, despite assuring everyone that the ship was not taking water. However, Moss Hills went downstairs to one of the lower decks and filmed water as it was rising up the stairs.
Senior officers and crew members were seen jumping into lifeboats ahead of passengers and then launching the lifeboats only half full, so eventually the ship ran out of lifeboats with about 230 passengers remaining onboard. The life boats themselves had been launched into mountainous seas. The Captain of one of the ships which had been in the area rescuing passengers from the water told me that wave heights were 20 - 30 meters and the largest he had seen in his 33 years at sea.
In the meantime, telephone lines were buzzing at Air Force HQ in Pretoria as well as at a number of air force bases around the country. At 9.30 pm Able Seaman Paul Whiley, a navy diver based in Durban, received a call to join up with 15th Squadron at AFB Durban and fly by helicopter to the rescue of a ship which he was told was sinking in the Coffee Bay area. Four helicopters from 15th Squadron set out from Durban for the Wild Coast with Paul and some other navy divers. On arrival at first light, they saw the ship listing at 30 degrees to starboard and being battered by huge waves under 60 knots southerly wind. The helicopters could not land on the ship, so Paul was lowered onto the deck because the harness in which he was lowered was being blown all over and the deck was sloping so badly, Paul ended up crashing into the deck, being badly gashed.
The passengers onboard, having seen Paul’s ungracious landing, were understandably reluctant to leave by the same route as Paul had arrived. He eventually persuaded one to return to the helicopter with him in the harness, and he then returned to the ship. With one of the passengers, Piet Niemand, Paul started cutting rigging, cables and anything else which could snag the harnesses or helicopters and they started loading passengers two by two. In the meantime, other helicopters had arrived from Cape Town and the hinterland, so eventually about 16 helicopters were participating in the rescue, as well as Air Force fixed wing aircraft which were acting as observation posts. The helicopters were working at both ends of the ship and flying in rotation, so as each one was filled, it flew off to drop passengers at the Haven hotel, which was a couple of miles away, and the next helicopter would come onto its station. The work was incredibly dangerous, the spray forcing the helicopters to fly higher and pilots being unsighted because of the high winds and the position the helicopters had to maintain in order to lower and raise the harness onto the ship.
To Paul’s amazement, as he was helping passengers into their harnesses, Captain Avranas showed up to board the first helicopter. When Paul objected, the Captain told him that he was going to coordinate rescue efforts from the shore. So much for women and children first. In the maritime tradition, the Captain is last off the ship, but like the Captain of the Costa Concordia, Captain Avranas wasn’t hanging around. That left the entertainers, Moss Hills, Robin Boltmann and Julian Russel, as well as Lorraine Betts and the other TFC staff, to coordinate the rescue onboard the ship, try to summon help using the ship’s radio and generally keep up morale.
Paul and another diver, Gary Scoular, then tried to launch the rubber ducks on the ship. Two of them were crushed by the heaving vessel in the water, but a third one survived. Paul’s task was then to try and persuade people to jump into the sea and swim to the rubber duck, but no one was particularly enthusiastic about this. Eventually, one of the rescue ships in the area, the Nedlloyd Mauritius, launched its own life boats to come and pick up people.
Paul and Moss Hills loaded passengers as fast as they could because the ship was nearing capsize. While Paul was loading passengers, one of them flailed his arms, which a helicopter mistook as a signal to heave, and in the heaving the passenger fell out of the harness into the boiling sea some 40m below. Paul immediately dived in after him, and with the guidance of passengers on the Oceanos, finally managed to surf down a wave and found the passenger still alive in a trough. He resuscitated him and then hauled him onto a rescue rubber duck. He then somehow scrambled back onboard and continued his task with the assistance of the entertainers.
Eventually, the helicopters ran out of fuel and had to head back to Umtata to re-fuel. As the sky emptied, Paul Whiley went through the vessel looking for passengers who might have been trapped or for some reason had not left their cabins. He only found one passenger, who was apparently sitting drinking himself into a stupor. What he did notice, however, was that all of the taps were running.
When the helicopters returned and Paul says that “the sky was black with choppers”. Paul and Piet Niemand were the last to leave the ship at 11.30am and they boarded an overloaded helicopter. The rescue teams on the shore could not account for everyone so a helicopter placed another four divers on board for a brief search, but no one else could be found. As they were lifted off the Oceanos, she tipped up onto her bow and then toppled over and sank.
In the meantime, several commercial cargo ships and fishing vessels had gathered around the stricken Oceanos to rescue people who were in lifeboats. This mission was itself perilous, with life boats crashing into the sides of the rescue ships, some of them narrowly escaping and even being damaged by the spinning propellers of cargo ships, passengers falling into the water and being plucked out again and then having to climb up the sides of ships on ladders in howling wind. One passenger, Gale Adamson, was the mother of 3 children. I met her when she was disembarking from a rescue ship, the “Great Nancy”, a bulk carrier which arrived at 3am on August 5 in Durban. She was walking off carrying her 17-day-old child. She also had a 2-year-old and an 8-year-old on the Oceanos with her. She told me that her children had each been placed in a bucket lowered by the Chinese crew of the “Great Nancy”, clothes were stuffed on top of them and the crew hauled each child up the side of the boat. Gale then had to climb up the side of the ship on a rope ladder. A number of mothers went through the same agony of having to watch their children being rescued in like manner. Miracles happened that day.
What actually happened that caused the vessel to sink? It was a mystery for some time why she sank despite the watertight doors having being closed after the initial leak. However, investigations revealed that when the water came flooding into the auxiliary engine room, the crew had been working on a valve on the sewerage system and had also removed a pipe which ran through a watertight bulkhead, breaching the watertight integrity of the compartment.
The water came in with such force and so quickly that they did not have time to close the valve or replace the pipe. Instead they shut the engine room doors and fled, but knew that the water would flood back through the sewerage system into the ship, so eventually it would sink. One clue which we as investigators kept hearing reported by passengers was that there was a funny smell onboard before the ship sank. We didn’t know what to do with that information, but when the true cause of the sinking was finally revealed, we understood that everyone was smelling raw sewage before the ship went down. Because the pipes leading through the watertight bulkheads of the engine room were relatively small, it took a long time for the water to flood back through the ship. The fact that it took 18 hours for the ship to sink after the first breach was the reason that everyone on the ship was saved.
There are numerous other stories that emerged at the time: stories of heroism, stories of cowardice, greed, marital cheating and a host of intrigue. Space does not permit me to share these right now, but what was extraordinary was the heroic effort of the entertainers, the Air Force and the navy divers. Many were given bravery awards and Paul Whiley received the Honoris Crux Gold, of which only 6 were ever awarded in history. Were it not for those heroes and the selfless response of the ships which came to the rescue, almost certainly hundreds of lives would have been lost. Instead, the rescue was a triumph which is why I maintain that this was probably the greatest in maritime history.