This past month of August saw the anniversary of the sinking of the MTS Oceanos off our coast. This disaster was characterised by many interesting things. For starters the behaviour of the captain of the ship made headlines all around the world, and the fact that no lives were lost made even bigger headlines. I sailed on this luckless vessel in 1989 and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was even offered this particularly disastrous voyage by a travel agent friend, but it would have been too expensive to get to East London and back from Durban, so I declined; fortunately.
I recall being woken up by one of my fellow ship enthusiasts at some ridiculous hour of the morning of Sunday 4th August 1991 and being told that the Oceanos was going down off the Wild Coast. My friend was not the sort who did practical jokes easily, so I immediately turned on the TV and radio. I remember going through that day with my ear tuned to radio broadcast wherever I heard them, and I even tried to make some sort of minute by minute report as it happened.
When things like this happen in broad daylight you tend to not really believe what you are hearing, and TV footage of the stricken vessel and it’s passengers had that strange surrealistic look about them, much the same way World War 1 footage does in monochrome. The biggest concern was for the passengers and crew, and they were in the very capable hands of the TFC staff and entertainers, as well as the South African Air Force, and the many merchant vessels that had arrived to offer assistance. The captain was “elsewhere”. The rescue went on for a long time, probably even longer for those who were on that heaving deck waiting for their chance to leave. But eventually the abandoned ship was left to her fate, and she foundered some hours later.
The recriminations and blame game started almost immediately, and there was a lot of explaining to be done by Epirotiki Lines and the captain. The media, unused to such drama off our coast had a field day, after all, it is not every day when you can attend to a sinking ship with so much drama attached and all in broad daylight. Ships tend to have this tendency to sink at night, and far from anybody with a camera. The headlines were soon screaming about “Structual Failure”, “Negligence”, “bombs”, “heroes” and “Titanic”. And it took some time before things settled down to what was considered “normal” in South Africa in 1991.
What was the cause of the disaster in the first place? The chief engineer admitted that there was a problem with the ventilation pipes in the area of the main generator. The pipes had been removed to see if they were blocked, but had not been replaced. The rough weather that the ship experienced while en route to Durban caused water to enter the ship through the sea chest on the starboard side, it then entered the generator compartment and started flowing through the disconnected pipes and started to flood the lower decks. Originally it was said that a piston had burst through the hull.
There were heroes and there were villains. The sinking of the Oceanos was particularly bad news for our tottering cruise industry, especially after the Betsy Ross debacle in 1988. We also had to contend with the problem that it seemed as if South Africa had become the place where old and tired cruise ships came to live out the years before they were broken up.
The Oceanos was has been dived on many times since her sinking, the first images on TV showed the usual murky water and tables still standing upright, it was a haunting view of a ship I had once been on. Fortunately she is not an easy dive or she would have been plundered a long time ago. The survivors have moved forward with their lives, and Epirotiki Lines eventually closed down. TFC Tours closed it’s doors too, re-emerging as Starlight Cruises. I know of at least two books that have been written about the disaster, and one evening the Titanic Society of South Africa had a meeting where we met some of the survivors and saw some of the video footage of what was a very frightening experience. I did not give give up cruising either, and did eight cruises on other ships afterwards. We lost the Achille Lauro in 1994 to a fire, and a number of smaller ships have foundered, taking many of their passengers and crew with them. The most recent disaster, that of the Costa Concordia, also had a Captain seemingly oblivious to the safety of his passengers and crew.
As long as we venture into great waters there will always be a risk, the sea is a very large and scarey place, and is so much bigger than the seemingly invincible ship that you stand on. However, they are safer than driving a car down the M1 North at peak hour. Occasionally though we need an Oceanos to remind us of just how fragile we are, and how easily things can go wrong. One day one of these modern cookie-cutter ships will meet with a disaster, and that will really be a disaster. The only winners will be lawyers.
© DRW 2012-2022. Images recreated and links fixed 25/03/2016