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.
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.
THE END OF THE OCEANOS AS IT HAPPENED.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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