Tag: East London

The sinking of the Oceanos

The sinking of the Oceanos off Coffee Bay in 1991 would have serious repercussions for our already struggling cruising industry in South Africa. However, it also brought change and helped to create a whole new dynamic operator who has since dominated the local market.

I have an interest in the Oceanos because she was my third cruise experience, and I really enjoyed my trip on her. A lot of the material on this page comes from pages that I created many years ago, and I have left them unchanged since then. As you read it, so it happened.

But first a bit of history:

The Oceanos was originally built as Jean Laborde, and was the last of four sister ships built for Messageries Maritimes. All ships were twin screw with Burmeister and Wain diesels developing 12 500 BHP with a maximum speed of 18,5 knots. They were designed for use on the Marseilles to Madagascar and Mauritius service.

Following many name changes and new owners she was acquired by Epirotiki Lines of Greece in 1976 who operated her successfully in Mediterranean waters for many years. In 1988 she came to South Africa where she successfully completed a cruise season. Her return in 1991 was to be the first long term cruise ship deployment in our waters since the 1970’s.

The Messageries Maritimes sisters

The Messageries Maritimes sisters

Causes of and factors contributing to the loss of the Oceanos.

On Afternoon of 3 August 1991 the Oceanos sailed from East London bound for Durban. A bomb threat had delayed the ship and she was on a  tight schedule. The weather up coast was rough and it would be a bumpy ride for the 571 passengers and crew on board.

In the engine room repairs to a faulty waste disposal system had not been completed and a vital ventilation pipe had been omitted. This pipe ran through the aft watertight bulkhead of the generator room.  Non return valves had also been left out of the waste disposal tank. At roughly 09.30 pm, a muffled explosion was heard and the ship lost power. The engineer explained that the ship was taking in water, either from a leak in the hull or after touching ground en route. The water had shorted the generators and immobilised the engines. The hole in the watertight bulkhead was allowing water to flood the waste tank which was then dispersing water throughout the plumbing of the ship and there was nothing that could be done about it except take to the boats.

The rescue of the passengers was accomplished mainly by other ships in the area as well as the South African Air Force which flew an incredible 7 hour mission to land the survivors.

The conduct of the crew was hotly debated with allegations of dereliction of duty being specifically laid at the master of the vessel. However, it is recognised that many crew members did their duty as long as they were able. The evacuation of the ship was mostly supervised by members of the entertainment staff on board. Amazingly no lives were lost in this disaster.

There is a very good video on YouTube that explains the circumstances very well. However, at some point this link may go 404.



Sunday 04/08/91 12H00.

This  morning at 05H30 I was awoken by Neville Dolley telling  me that  the  Oceanos was adrift off Coffee Bay,  her   engine  room flooded, the passengers in the boats or still stuck on board. The Air Force was on their way and things did not look good. The  Oceanos was the first cruise ship based in South  Africa since the demise of all those wonderful vessels that used to call here  regularly. She would be the ship that was going  to  reopen the  cruising market properly again. I had sailed on her in  1989 and was hoping to do a coastal later on in the year on her. Some  time  last night it appears as if she started  to  take  on  water,  rapidly  filling up the engine room and cutting  off  the power.  From  then  on  the  Oceanos  was  in  serious   trouble.

Fortunately  an SOS was sent and a massive rescue  operation  was undertaken.  Meanwhile  off  PE an oil tanker is also in trouble and  the  two salvage  tugs, John Ross and Wolraad Woltemade are steaming  flat out for her. Radio  reports  are sketchy, Radio 702  is basically  giving  out standard,  non-committal news reports whereas Radio Highveld  has reported that 100 people were unaccounted for and the vessel  had run  aground. We know that things are chaotic and  that  accurate reporting is difficult under the circumstances. So far I still am not sure of what her actual status is.  The  Oceanos  was  a  great ship, the  atmosphere  on  board  was brilliant,  she had a friendly crew, the food was  excellent  and she had a  general friendliness that I had not experienced on any ship I had been on. About 2 months ago my travel agent phoned me, offering  this  particular cruise at a very cheap price,  I  even passed the word to others, hoping that we would be able to make a group up and go on her. We would have been on her at this moment!


I  have just seen the first visuals on TV, she is  listing  badly and things do not look good, how could this happen? At the moment I  am  waiting for the TV news update promised for 15H30  to  see what  has happened, the news that 100 people are unaccounted  for is worrying!

Radio Highveld, 15H30:

SAPA  reports  that  more  than than  100  are  unaccounted  for. It  is  uncertain how many people have been  saved.  Durban  port authorities  have confirmed she sank at  13h30. 220  people  were airlifted  from  the  Oceanos  to Coffee  Bay,  150  people  were rescued from sea, there were 580 passengers and crew on board.

The  salvage tug Wolraad Woltemade has reached the tanker  Mimosa which is adrift about 45 kilometres off Port Elizabeth. The  ship is leaking oil and her steering gear is damaged. The harbour  tug PJ  Du Plessis was first on the scene. The John Ross is  expected to join in the operation later.


TV1.15H50. 04-08-91.

The  Oceanos has sunk. However the passenger situation  is  still unclear.  The visuals that were shown are frightening, I am glad that I was not on board when this  happened.

TV1. 20H00.

By now the whole drama has played itself out. The real heroes are the  chopper pilots who braved extremely hazardous conditions  to rescue  those  in trouble. The passengers remained  calm  and  it appears as if the band played music to calm the nerves. There are disturbing  stories  about the crew abandoning the ship  to  save themselves  and  of the master being taken off the  ship  in  the early   morning.  The  representative  from  Epirotiki  is   very evasive, he does not even know the Captain’s name! There is still confusion about the amount of people missing, however it seems to be about 27.

TV1 06H30. 05-08-91.

As  I  got  up I switched the TV on and  they  showed  the  final moments  of  the Oceanos. There was an unreal quality  about  the footage,  here was the whole thing in colour, the blue  sea,  the cream  coloured hull, the white deck chairs and this ship that  I got to know so well slowly being swallowed by the sea. Eventually only debris was left behind. She was gone.

As the day has gone past so the papers have told their story  and the  survivors  have  come home. All that is left are questions.

Oceanos sailing from Durban 1989.

Oceanos sailing from Durban 1989.


It  is  Wednesday,  all the passengers are  safe  and  there  are allegations flying left, right and centre. It is going to take  a very  impartial  look at the circumstances. Too  many  hysterical passengers  have  said things that were not strictly  true,  they have  laid  the Master’s career on the line and  discredited  the shipping  company. On the other hand the Master has  not  exactly played his cards straight and frankly things are very  uncertain. Hopefully  the  success  of the rescue will  overshadow  the  bad things that have surfaced. I hope this is not the end of cruising in South Africa.

Brochure image

Brochure image

© DRW. 1991-2018. Moved to blog 16/03/2014

Updated: 06/01/2018 — 15:07

Around the coast on the Berg

Durban-Walvis Bay-Durban 08-11-90 to 22-11-90.

Cruise time had arrived again, but this time I could not afford the local cruise liner prices, so I decided that it was time to go to sea on a “real ship”. There were not too may options available for cargo ship travel, I could have taken Unicorn’s Border or Barrier to Cape Town or Swakops or Kuiseb to Walvis Bay. however I decided to do either Berg or Breede to Walvis Bay and back as it was a nice long voyage and would be calling at East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Walvis Bay. Besides, it was not all that  expensive even with single supplement. My choice was governed by whichever ship was available at the time I decided to travel; and in my case it was the MCV Berg.
Publicity photo of MCV Berg

Publicity photo of MCV Berg

Unicorn Lines schedule

After much confusion with my booking, I left for my trip, arriving in Durban the day before I was due to sail. I finally found my ship at pier 108 deep in the container terminal. Fortunately I had been taken to the ship by Kathy of King Travel who was forced to stay on board until the gangway could be fixed! Finally at 14H00 we sailed, straight into a howling wind and quite a rough sea, was it a portent of things to come?
Sailing from Durban

Sailing from Durban

Sailing from Durban

Sailing from Durban

My cabin as can be seen from the brochure pic, was large with a double bed, and it’s own bathroom. It was very comfortable but tending to squeak when we rolled, which being a cargo ship we did all the time.
A letter in my cabin from the master had explained that I was free to look around the ship and go to the bridge as often as I liked. This I did, only to find that the only person on watch was the Chief Navigating officer, no lookouts. It was a great feeling to be at sea again.
I stayed on the bridge until supper arrived, passengers ate in the officers mess at the captain’s table. The food was edible, not on par with the QE2 but varied and well prepared. Usually there was a soup, cold meat and salads, a main course, and desert.

Breakfast Menus

Right next to the officers mess was the Berg Kelder which was the officers pub, it was nicely decorated and you signed for your drinks and any snacks or chocolates which you ate. There was a TV in the mess for watching video’s and a smallish bookcase full of books. However the bridge beckoned and once there I discovered that we were due to make an unscheduled 4 hour stop in East London the next morning. I went to bed feeling very happy, the feel of ship at sea is enough to put a smile on my face any day.
East London harbour

East London harbour

East London was a disappointment, devoid of shipping, the only two things of interest was the Energos (ex Mobil Refiner) and the salvage tug John Ross, I was very impressed by the Ross, she is much bigger than I had imagined. After leaving East London it was off to Cape Town, the weather was moderate if not windy and we puttered along at about 12 knots.
The bridge

The bridge

On the bridge  was given a laymans course on Decca Navigation and I figured out how the Radar worked, I also got on good terms with the cadet and third officer, these two would work the 8-12 watch and we would sit and talk ships and all manner of nauticalia. We also encountered a school of dolphins, I had hoped to see them from a ship and this was they chance I had waited for. There they were, swimming and playing a metre from the bulbous bow.  I spent an hour watching them and sniffing around the forecastle. I had been told that if I wanted to go to the bow I had to make sure somebody knew about it or I had to take someone with me for safety, a reasonable request.
Cape Town was a let down, it was drizzling, Table Mountain was covered in mist and generally the harbour was empty except for the Actinia which was an accommodation rig for Mossgas. I spent the day with friends and being Sunday everything was closed so there was not much to see either.
We sailed into a moderate swell which made us roll equally hard for the two day voyage to Walvis. The afternoon before we arrived we had man overboard drill, this entailed a throwing a 44 gallon drum with a hole in it overboard. We spotted the drum but it was lost in the swell and eventually sank, not very promising if you have fallen overboard I am sure.
We duly arrived early in the morning in Walvis Bay, there we met up with the Stella Lykes and the Swakops, unfortunately photography was difficult because of the glare. I walked into town, walked 6 another blocks and ended up in the desert, needless to say Walvis is not too big. I also visited the Walvis Bay Missions to Seaman who were very friendly and I spent a pleasant hour talking ships with the Padre, Chris Stratton and his wife. Back to the ship and a quick but fruitless attempt at getting on board the Stella Lykes- no luck 
We sailed at 20H00 for Cape Town into another rough sea and at reduced speed. The Berg is a single screw vessel with a variable pitch propeller, there are two engines clutched together to drive this arrangement, so in theory it is possible to obtain the same speed with one engine clutched in and with full pitch as it is to use both engines at half pitch. You can also shut down an engine for maintenance purposes without affecting performance. Unfortunately the sea was running and we had reduced speed so the voyage to Cape Town would take a few hours longer and we would get in after 14H00 on the Saturday. Being late meant that all my arrangements for Cape Town had gone down the heads and we would be spending less time in port. By the time we arrived everything was closed again and I was only able to see a small part of town and the V&A waterfront area. I did get to see Table Mountain and was suitably impressed.
We sailed late that night in foggy conditions, groping our way with radar. The next day I visited the bilge, holds and other dark and smelly compartments (the Berg can also carry fish oil) with the cadet. By this time it was evident that we were going to be spending an extra day in Port Elizabeth which meant that there was no way I would be able to get to Durban in time for my bus back to JHB.
approaching Port Elizabeth

approaching Port Elizabeth

PE was quiet, we were virtually the only ship in port which is very depressing if you are a ship fanatic, however the NYK Container ship Osaka Maru turned up and the products tanker Eland was hiding in the corner so I went to give them a look see. I also went to town to change my travel arrangements and look around. The next day the cargo ship Elso arrived and we were still stuck in port, I hoofed it to the Dolphinarium to have a look and came across the local museum which had some very nice models. I would have preferred to have had the two days in Cape Town but then cargo ships depend on cargo and not passengers.
The next morning saw us beating Unicorn’s ro-ro Border into East London, the break bulk ship Tamarind was loading and I went to town again, by the time I got back Tamarind had sailed and I had not even photographed her. East London is the only active river port left in South Africa and is not very busy. We sailed late that evening for Durban, My bus had been cancelled and by the looks of it I would miss it again if we did not speed up.
On Thursday afternoon we reached Durban, however we were forced to lay out in the bay for an hour, the ultimate frustration! finally we  went in, berthing at 104 in the container berth. While I waited for the the gangplank I saw the Gasikara sailing past and quickly took two slides of her, little did I know it would be  the last time that I would see her as she would be lost in a cyclone with all hands 2 months later.
I was lucky to get a lift to my hotel with a bus from Pentow Marine and the next day I spent an agonising 9 hours on the bus back to Johannesburg. I had just completed a 14 day voyage, covering 3860 miles and visiting 5 ports, it was worth every cent. I had also had an interesting glimpse into the lives of seamen and those who keep our commerce flowing, it was a rare vision of the life I would have chosen had the option been available to me when I was young.
When last I heard, the Berg and her sister Breede were up for sale, I saw Berg just before she sailed from South Africa, her hull was painted black and she looked very smart. I am glad I sailed on them before they went.
DRW. ©  1992-2019. Last updated 03 Aug 2004. Some images replaced and added 24 October 2011. Moved to blog 09/12/2013, images resized 17/04/2016 
Updated: 25/11/2019 — 13:23
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