The great Betsy Ross debacle

Durban to Durban 10/12/1988 – 12/12/1988

The whole episode starts in early 1988 when it was announced that an “upmarket” cruise ship with the unlikely name of “Betsy Ross”, would be calling during the December 1988 season, doing cruises to the Indian Ocean Islands.

A short Durban to Cape Town voyage was offered for January 1989 and I decided that I needed a holiday and that was as good an excuse as any to have one. So I booked my cruise, later changing my booking when an additional Durban-Cape to Town-Durban voyage was offered, these were Voyages 2 and 3 respectively.

Admittedly I had never heard of the ship before and it took much research before she revealed herself as the 1952 built ex-Bergen Line ferry TS Leda. As to who Betsy Ross was: “Betsy Ross was an American upholsterer who was credited by her relatives in 1870 with making the first American flag, accordingly known as the Betsy Ross flag.”. The ship was now owned by Dolphin Hellas Cruises, operating as Betsy Ross under the American Star Cruises banner. Unfortunately she was definitely NOT an “upmarket ship”, if anything she was a really tired old lady in dire need of repair.

Leda in happier times

CM Models 1/1250 Leda Model

Two of my fellow ship enthusiasts decided to join me on this voyage and we all started counting the days. We had booked into one of the sleazier hotels in Durban and with only a week to go before we sailed, disaster struck. The Betsy had been delayed in leaving the Med, hit a massive storm and missed her Suez convoy. Our voyage had become Durban to Port Elizabeth instead! By now we were in a frenzy and by the time we left for Durban we were all speculating about our shortened voyage. Once in Durban we were informed that the delay was even greater than before and we were now going to East London instead!

What followed was a week of frustration with three of us stuck in a sleezy hotel room with dwindling finances and ever increasing tension between us all. The unexpected arrival of the French cruise ship Mermoz did more harm than good as we tried to move our bookings to her. All to no avail.

Mermoz entering the harbour

The ship had called at Durban to offload the body of a passenger that had died on board, and had been due to call only at Cape Town en route to Rio. Watching the Mermoz sitting at her berth was so frustrating as we were unable to even get a visit to the vessel, in spite of pulling every string that we knew. We watched her sail at midnight, muttering vague threats against the odds which had messed up our voyage.

Postcard given out by TFC

The day before the Betsy was due to arrive we were transferred by the tour operator to a better hotel with a sea view where we proceeded to watch anxiously for our ship to come in!

At roughly 06H30 she limped into port, followed by the Achille Lauro which was due to sail the same day. Packing our goodies we rushed off to the harbour and nearly missed seeing her because she was so small! It was the first time in at least ten years that two passenger liners were in port at the same time and ominous bangings were emanating from the innards of the listing cruise ship, and a lifeboat was lowered to the quayside where its rudder was being panel-beaten. A generator thumped from a container which had been lowered onto her foredeck and to top it all the weather was taking a turn for the worse. We were relieved to finally get on board but then we were informed that “Sorry you are only going to be doing a “cruise out to the blue” and not East London after all!” There were loud shrieks of dismay.

As sailing time came and passed so the hammering and panel-beating continued, until eventually a white uniformed port official finally shrugged his shoulders and everything was packed away and we singled up! We were finally off! The Achille had sailed over an hour ago and even the people on the quayside had gone home, it was going to be an altogether dismal sailing.

Achille Lauro getting underway

Actually something inside the ship smelled off too, it was evident that there were plumbing problems on board as the vessel stank badly, the air conditioning was not working properly and there was a long queue of irate passengers at the pursers office demanding refunds.

We duly sailed after 6pm and from the start the Betsy proved to be a fine sea boat, there was a moderate sea running but she took that sea like a ship should! Driven indoors to supper we watched the amount of diners get smaller as the sea grew rougher. Later, we all congregated in the main lounge for the cabaret which was rudely interrupted by a total power failure on board!

Wallowing about 20 kilo’s outside Durban, the NUC lights were hoisted and a small fishing boat came alongside, playing her searchlight on us. Immediate panic as some woman remembered that her kids were still in the cabin and assumed that we were about to be attacked by a VLCC/UFO or similar, and she was quickly bustled below deck with a handy tranquilliser. We bobbed about for an hour or so as they tried to get the engines going again, her emergency generator seemed to be in her funnel and each time they attempted to start it sparks would fly out of the funnel onto the deck. It was potentially a hazardous situation, sitting in a sea lane in a ship with no power and the lights of Durban twinkling in the distance. The water slapping under her counter, sending gushes of spray upwards to drench those curious enough look over the side. Soon the decks started to throb again and we were underway, heading for who knew what!

My friend and I had a lovely 2 berth outside cabin with working plumbing! the biggest problem with the ship was blocked drains compounded by people flushing beer tins down the toilets. Our other friend who had a cabin elsewhere, and he spent most of the night in the one stairwell, prostate with sea sickness.

The next day dawned with working air conditioning and a rapidly dissipating smell. The sun even put in an appearance to cheer up our green friend who had seen quite a bit of the ships side. By that evening the spirit on board was amazing, the food, service and atmosphere were brilliant and in spite of all her problems the Betsy was a great little ship. I even won a bottle of plonk at one of the functions on board, unfortunately it was awful stuff.

Daily Programme

The next morning saw us arrive safely back in Durban but by then we were very unhappy that we had to get off. We disembarked to be greeted by hordes of anxious soon to be passengers. 

Arrival in Durban. Image by David Hughes

Many of those prospective passengers walked off the ship before it even sailed, complaining and dragging the Betsy’s name through the papers. However, my seasick friend was only too glad to get back onto dry land.

Those who finally made the voyage to Seychelles were uniform in their praise for her, however, ever increasing fears about safety and continual generator failures quickly caused the cancellation of the remaining cruises and eventually the Betsy slinked out of Durban one afternoon en route to Venice. There is no doubt that the Betsy Ross debacle seriously affected the already wobbly cruising market in our waters, it took a long time for passenger loads to increase and just as things were looking up again, the Oceanos went down off the Transkei coast.

I met many ex passengers the next year on the Oceanos, that ill-fated vessel did not quite compare as far as they were concerned. The cruise director, himself an Ex Betsy fan; still considers her to be one of the best ships he has ever sailed in, so do I for that matter.

I tried following her career, and it was very difficult to keep track of that little ship, she passed from one owner to the next, until 1991 when she incurred fire damage while lying at Venice and was transferred to Vanatu registration and renamed Star Of Venice by her owners. Repairs were undertaken at Rijeka. She briefly served a stint as a floating hotel, and was then laid up at Venice until being reactivated on Mediterranean Cruises in 1998, with disastrous results stemming from her poor mechanical condition. She was last used as an hotel ship at Ravenna (near Venice) in 2000. Eventually the end arrived and she was scheduled to leave stationary status at Ravenna, Italy under tow for Aliaga between 5 and 10 August 2001 for scrapping. Maybe it is not too late to have a tee shirt made…. “I survived the Betsy Ross!” The mages below of the Betsy at the breakers are courtesy of Bestshipimages. Photographs taken by Selim San

DRW © 1992-2022 Moved to blog 08/12/2013. More images added 02/03/2019, moved to Musings 21/02/2021. Tagged as 14/11/2008.

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