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. It is also the first time in history that such a successful rescue operation by helicopter was carried out on such a large scale.

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 and TFC 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. You can also use the image below to access the video.



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 SAAF 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. The time had now arrived for postmortems, accusations and speculation.  

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. Those will hopefully be answered once an inquiry is held. 




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

Update 2019:

It is well worth reading “Against All Odds” by Andrew Pike (published by Jonathan Ball Publishers 2019). It provides a new look at the disaster and the conduct of the crew, and puts forward more information as to why the ship went down. It is interesting reading, but does not have all the answers. 


DRW.© 1991-2020. Moved to blog 16/03/2014

Oceanos from the Seychelles

Seychelles to Durban.  01/12/1989 – 08/12/1989

Following the Betsy Ross debacle I did not expect that we would be seeing any more ships doing cruises from South Africa again, but I was very wrong as it was announced in 1989 that Epirotiki’s Oceanos would be doing a season in our waters along with the Achille Lauro in December. This was good news as we never expected to see any ships at all that year. The Oceanos was considered to be one of the better ships in the Med and her reputation was based on many satisfied passengers.
Once again I hummed and hawed, toying with doing a possible voyage. Most were not within my price range although a Radio 702 fly cruise from Seychelles to Durban seemed very promising. It  included the flight to Seychelles, 2 nights in the Sheraton Hotel in Seychelles, the cruise to Durban and a call in Comores. This time I dallied till there were 4 months left before I made my booking. Once again I chose a 4 berth cabin, only this time it was an outside cabin and somewhat of an improvement on my previous submarine suite on the Achille.
Time once again dragged along until I finally stood at the airport waiting for my flight. In between booking and the flight, things had gone awry at Comores, as a coup d’etat had taken place in this enclave and the situation was very volatile. However, this did not deter me as I waited at Jan Smuts Airport for a flight that was delayed by 2 hours for “technical reasons.”
Eventually our aircraft was ready and I stepped onto the Luxair 747SP for the trip to Seychelles. The flight, already delayed by 2 hours arrived at roughly 3pm. on Mahe Island. The heat which struck as we stepped out of the plane was horrific, like Durban at its worst.
The airport was a landing strip next to the sea and customs was very slow dealing with us. Our luggage was slower and when I got to have my room allocated by the tour guides they could not find my name on the list! However I was told to climb on board one of the mini busses and we drove up the road which trailed up the mountain. The road was narrow and winding and there was just jungle on one side and a breathtaking view on the other when we could see it. The islands and pristine beaches were stunning and the ride was worth the agony.
oceanos264Upon arrival at the Sheraton Hotel I was finally allocated a room to myself and I thankfully plonked my luggage down before having a quick shower and heading downstairs for the briefing about  the ongoing Comores situation. It turned out that we would only know if we would be going ashore once we actually got there.
Then it was time to hit the pool before supper. The hotel had its own private beach and was very impressive with a huge pool and lush gardens. The supper was memorable, consisting of a huge buffet which had so much variety I did not know where to begin. Sadly though sleep was impossible because of the thumping noise from the disco which was below my room.
oceanosImage44The next morning I went on a tour to the reefs and a private island. The reef tour was in a small semi-submersible boat and was amazing. When we were going back on board our boat we saw the Oceanos arrive, at least our ship was in! We then moved over to the island where snorkelling was available after refreshments. Amazingly we anchored about 500 metres from the island and waded through knee deep sea to get to it. The water was luke warm and not unpleasant at all. A quick drink and we headed offshore to another island where we snorkelled for a while before going for a Seychellois lunch which was very tasty but which would wreak its revenge on me later that night.
We puttered past the Oceanos when we arrived back from out tour and she looked quite impressive from close by. 
Then it was back to the hotel in time for a dip in the sea before supper and that night I spent with my head in the toilet, disposing of my lunch and supper.
Famous Bow Shot 
The next morning I was feeling very miserable, and fortunately was able to get medication from the nurse at the hotel. I believe I was not the only one feeling under the weather. Then we boarded our bus and headed for the harbour where the Oceanos lay.
Oceanos alongside at Seychelles
Oceanos alongside at Seychelles
The harbour at Seychelles was amazing, it is small and compact but was surprisingly full of ships and boats. The 3 tugs we saw were like little toy boats and some very interesting oldies lurked in the roadstead just waiting to be photographed.
I even spotted a small sailing vessel and warships tucked away in an odd corner. The Oceanos, with her corn coloured hull and white upperworks was very attractive.
As built.
As built.
Much smaller than the Achille Lauro but very sleek and somewhat top heavy she presented a picture of efficiency. Being a 50’s style motorship she had a squat funnel and midships engine room with lots of shiplike features which are sadly lacking on modern vessels. Originally a cargo/passenger ship she had undergone extensive rebuilding and was barely recognisable from her original profile and those of her sisters.
Daily program (1500×758)
This was my second Greek ship and the hospitality on board was typical of the reputation that the Greeks have. The hull was a bit rusty but painting was being done, and there was lots of evidence of the various conversions she had undergone through the years.

The foyer was on Venus deck which was the same deck as my cabin. Decks are named from top to bottom; Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Dionysos, Poseidon, and Nereus deck. The Odyssey Lounge is located forward on Jupiter Deck while the Four Seasons Lounge is found below it on Apollo deck. The lounges are furnished in soft colours with Port side being the smokers side and Starboard the non-smokers.  Each lounge had a bar and drinks were signed for, the bill being settled at the end of the voyage.

A veranda style promenade connects the aft deck with the interior of the of the ship, this is furnished with cane chairs and tables but it does tend to get very hot during the day. The Casino, disco, pool, boutique and photo shop are also found on this deck. A central companionway gives access between lounges and the dining room on Dionysos deck. Lifeboat drill took place on the first day out and all passengers were mustered in the veranda promenade, and extremely goldfish bowl-like effect occurred very rapidly, it was announced that the drill took only 18 minutes, however they neglected to mention that very rarely do passengers have time to take to the boats in an emergency.
My cabin, V69, was on the port side aft and had a single bed with three Pullman style bunks, the bathroom was to prove to be very small and cramped. A very efficient air conditioner/blower kept the cabin cool and the bunks were comfortable if somewhat low. Roughly 18 towel changes per day were made and the cabin steward kept everything shipshape. Plugs are a problem but most women circumvented this by plugging their hairdryers into the 220V plugs in the passages.
The cabin. (excuse the mess)
The cabin. (excuse the mess)
Forward and below the bridge is the sports deck, this is a large open deck with a helipad on it, but unfortunately the railing does not go all the way around it and a considerably large chunk of deck is unused. Wooden deck chairs gave you a great view of the extremely strenuous aerobics. There is no access to the foredeck for passengers unless you sneak over the railing. The sports deck is also closed off at night.
Late that afternoon we sailed into calm weather and soon discovered that the Oceanos rolls in calm seas, but it was a comfortable shiplike roll and was soon forgotten. I watched Seychelles disappear into the distance and considered that it was one place I would love to visit again.
The dinner that evening was informal and there were 2 sittings (7pm. and 9pm.), all other meals are open sitting. The dining room was beautiful, small and tastefully decorated, the tables tended to be a bit cramped but were neatly laid. It is also a non smoking area which was a great idea. Our steward soon proceeded to feed us, the food is good, wine was available in small bottles and there was plenty to choose from. Most nights had a theme for the meal, for example we had a 1001 nights evening, a tropical evening and a Greek evening.
Menus (1500×594)
The photographer did the rounds and I was unable to duck and dive away from this shot.  And yes, I did have hair back then. The lady in dark blue was very sweet and she had been misinformed about what currency to use on board, but she was so nice to talk to, and was game for almost anything. The onboard currency was $US and because of our horrible exchange rate it was not a cheap experience. I was fortunate that I won $25 on Bingo just when I needed it most. 
Entertainment took place in the main lounge and was provided by Alain D. Woolf, Gary and Leslie Spencer, a conjurer, the Ray Cornell dancers, Yorgos Dikeos, Danny Garcie (who is amazing) and others.
The resident band was good and the shows were well worth watching. The Greek evening was excellent with Greek dancing and much cavorting around the lounge. There is also a cinema on board but it is very small and cramped and the sound was terrible
The situation in The Comoros was still questionable when we arrived 2 days later, anchoring in Moroni. The “harbour authorities” came on board, a group of AK wielding people with menacing looks. The list of rules for going ashore was long and many people decided to give it a miss. We were the second of two ships in the harbour, the first being a small breakbulk cargo ship which was offloading bags of rice into a lighter alongside. The wind started blowing hard, causing us to drift down on this small vessel and at one point we were almost on top of her. 3 boatloads of passengers had now been sent ashore but the situation on the island was tense and it was decided to recall them and head off for Durban.
Comores in the distance
We upped our hook and sailed off into the afternoon, the party getting bigger and the booze was flowing. The spirit on board was very good and as was expected we had much to do, cabarets, movies, games,  quizzes and just relaxing. The food was great and the cabin and table service was excellent.
A visit to the engine room was made where I was able to see the diesels which would fail the ship when she needed them most. We were idling along on only one engine and very lax watchkeeping prevailed. But that seemed to be  OK because it was a holiday spirit which was enhanced by the Radio 702 team on board as well as the very competent TFC staff.
On Wednesday the 6th the weather turned bumpy with a following sea and largish swells and then we saw how the Oceanos really rolled, but I enjoyed the rolling and it made for a very erratic party that night. The stabilisers were unshipped and we soon had a much smoother ride. We arrived off Durban to see 12 ships in the bay and that was a pleasant surprise as we waddled into Durban harbour, listing to starboard and with many sore heads present at the rails. I disembarked very unhappy to be leaving, I would have continued onwards to Cape Town had I thought about it at the time.
The Achille Lauro was in port too, her funnels sporting the new StarLauro logo.
Many who had experienced the Betsy Ross the previous year had preferred that trouble plagued ship and so did I,  but then again I had had a great voyage on the Oceanos.  
 One of my friends was doing the Durban to Cape Town leg and we stayed behind to wave him goodbye before heading back to Johannesburg.
Two years later the Oceanos was back, this time to do a longer season. Sadly, events overtook her and she sank in circumstances which left a sour taste in the mouth. Fortunately no lives were lost in the disaster, but stories of incompetence, mismanagement, cowardice and inefficiency were rife and suddenly TFC was in trouble.  
Crockery from the Oceanos.(given to me by a steward)
The Odysseus was supposed to replace her but with Epirotiki in the spotlight she was also pulled out and we were left with another vacuum in our fledgling cruising industry.  Epirotiki Lines bumbled forward for a few years but the Oceanos made a huge dent in their reputation and eventually they too folded. 
The sinking of the Oceanos
The sinking of the Oceanos
DRW ©  1992-2020 Moved to blog 08/12/2013, some new images added 19/02/2018