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 jn my opinion does not have all the answers. 

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

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