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The greatest maritime rescue ever?

19 February 2017
– 11 Minute Read


It is just over 25 years since what has been described as the greatest maritime rescue in modern history was effected. It took place a couple of miles offshore on the Wild Coast. The sea on the Transkei coastline is perilous, perhaps South Africa’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. Hundreds of ships have encountered problems in our coastal waters over the years, but a great many of those have experienced their darkest hours off the Transkei. The fast flowing warm Agulhas current heading south from Mozambique, severe winds blowing in the opposite direction and the 200 fathom line on the edge of the continental shelf conspire to create huge, sometimes freak waves which can completely immerse ships and put strains on them for which they were not designed.

The MV Oceanos was a 153 meter passenger ship, built in 1952 and designed to carry 550 passengers and 250 crew. It was owned by Epirotiki Lines of Greece and chartered at the time by a South African company, TFC Tours. The notorious Master of the vessel was Captain Yiannis Avranas. In August 1991 I was a junior partner in the maritime department of a major Durban based law firm and was privileged enough to have been one of the team which investigated the sinking of the Oceanos.

The vessel had been plying the waters of the Indian Ocean during July and August of 1991. Its voyage had taken it to the Indian Ocean islands of Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion and it was steadily making its way up the coast from Cape Town to Durban. The vessel berthed in East London and a wedding was held onboard on 2nd August. Despite appalling weather, the bride insisted that the wedding ceremony should take place at sea. The ship left the harbour and, when everyone was properly seasick and the ceremony had been performed, the vessel returned and guests partied through the night.

The next day, the vessel’s departure for Durban was delayed because of ongoing terrible weather. Eventually she set sail late in the afternoon, but passengers reported a terrible ordeal through their dinner, with plates flying off the tables and alarmingly mobile furniture.

A number of entertainers were onboard. A guitarist called Moss Hills reported that, at around 8:45 pm he saw crew members running around the vessel handing out life jackets. Moss went in search of the Cruise Director, Lorraine Betts, to establish what was going on. She told him that the Captain had told her there was engine trouble and they would have to abandon ship. In the meantime, the passengers had gathered in the ship’s lounge in anticipation of a 10pm show. Whilst they were there, the lights went out. Despite having no power, the entertainers conducted a singalong, to the accompaniment of furniture, crockery, cutlery and even a grand piano crashing around the ship.

Meantime, below deck in the auxiliary engine room, all was not well. Water had started pouring in through the side of the ship from the sea chest (a water intake reservoir). It is believed that a freak wave had smashed into the old vessel and a shell plate had fallen off, causing a massive leak. This is consistent with information given to us by David Gordon SC, one of South Africa’s leading maritime advocates, who, two weeks before this incident, had been on the Oceanos as a passenger when she sailed from Reunion. As the vessel was leaving the harbour, David, who was filming her departure, recorded a swirl of mud and stones under the hull of the ship. On enquiry, the Captain assured him that it was nothing: they had probably just hit an underwater buoy, but David was adamant that the hull had touched the bottom whilst leaving the harbour. He described it to me as the worst ship on which he had ever sailed.

When the water came flooding in, the engineers closed the watertight doors of the engine room (designed to prevent the ship from sinking), donned their life jackets and fled. As Capt Roy Martin, who was investigating the sinking with us commented: “When you see the ship’s engineers upstairs wearing life jackets, you can be sure that they know that the ship cannot be saved.””

Although no announcements to abandon ship were ever made and no alarms were sounded, the crew started launching life boats “as a precaution”, despite assuring everyone that the ship was not taking water. However, Moss Hills went downstairs to one of the lower decks and filmed a body of water rising slowly up the stairs.

Senior officers and crew members were seen jumping into life boats ahead of passengers and then launching the boats only half full, so eventually the ship ran out of life boats with about 200 passengers remaining onboard. The life boats themselves had been launched into mountainous seas. The Captain of a ship which helped rescue passengers later told me that the waves were 30 meters in height and the biggest he had ever seen in 33 years at sea.

In the meantime, telephone lines were buzzing at a number of air force bases around the country. At 9:30 pm Able-Seaman Paul Whyley, a navy diver based in Durban, received a call to join up with 15th Squadron and fly by helicopter to the rescue of a ship which he had been told was sinking in the Coffee Bay area. At first light, 16 helicopters from 15th and 19th Squadron set out for the Wild Coast with Paul and some other navy divers. On arrival, they saw the ship listing at 30 degrees to starboard and being battered by huge waves and a 60 knot southerly wind. The helicopters could not land on the ship, so Paul was winched onto the deck by harness. During his descent he was blown around so badly that he ended up crashing into the sloping deck and being badly gashed.

The passengers onboard, having seen Paul’s ungracious landing and bleeding face, were understandably reluctant to leave. He eventually persuaded one to return to the helicopter with him. He then returned to the ship and, with one of the passengers, Piet Niemand, Paul started cutting rigging, cables and anything else which could snag the harness or helicopters. They then started loading passengers two by two into harnesses lowered by the helicopters. The latter were flying in rotation, so as each was filled, it flew off to drop passengers at the Haven (on the nearby coastline) and the next helicopter would come onto its station. The work was dangerous, the spray forcing the helicopters to fly higher. The pilots were unsighted because of the high winds and the forward position the helicopters had to maintain in order to lower and raise the harnesses onto the ship.

To Paul’s amazement, as he was helping passengers, Captain Avranas showed up to board the second helicopter. When Paul objected, the Captain told him that he was going to coordinate rescue efforts from the shore. So much for traditions of “women and children first” and the Captain goes down with his ship! Captain Avranas wasn’t hanging around and probably became a role model for the Captain of the Costa Concordia. That left the entertainers to coordinate the rescue onboard the ship, try and summon help using the ship’s radio and generally maintain morale.

Eventually, the helicopters had to head back to Umtata to re-fuel. As the sky emptied, Paul Whyley went through the vessel looking for passengers who might have been trapped or for some reason had not left their cabins. He only found one passenger, who was apparently sitting drinking himself into a stupor. What he did notice, however, was that all of the showers were running.

He and another diver then tried to launch the rubber ducks from the ship. Two boats were crushed by the heaving vessel in the water, but a third survived. His task was then to try and persuade people to jump into the sea and swim to the rubber duck. Understandably, no one was particularly enthusiastic about this. Eventually, one of the rescue ships in the area, the MV Nedlloyd Mauritius, courageously launched its own life boats to come and pick up passengers.

When the helicopters returned Paul reported that “the sky was again black with choppers”. Whilst he was loading passengers, one of them flailed his arms, which a helicopter mistook as a signal to heave, and in the heaving the passenger fell out of the harness, slid down the deck and fell into the black and boiling sea. Paul immediately dived in after him, and with the guidance of passengers on the Oceanos, finally managed to surf down a wave, find the passenger still alive in a trough and haul them both back onboard. He continued until the last passenger was evacuated and, as he himself boarded an overloaded helicopter, he watched the Oceanos tip up onto its nose and then topple over and sink.

In the meantime, several commercial cargo ships and fishing vessels had, in response to mayday calls from the entertainers and the Silvermine Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, gathered around the stricken Oceanos to rescue people. This mission was itself perilous, with life boats crashing into the sides of the rescue ships, some of them narrowly escaping the spinning propellers of the rescue ships, passengers falling into the water and being plucked out again and then having to climb up the sides of ships on ladders in howling wind. One passenger, Gail Adamson, was the mother of 3 children. I met her when she was disembarking from a rescue ship which had arrived in Durban at 3:00 am on the morning of 5th August carrying survivors. She walked off the MV Great Nancy carrying her 17 day old baby and accompanied by her other two young children. She told me that each had been placed in a bucket lowered to the lifeboat by the Chinese crew of the Great Nancy, clothes were stuffed on top of them and the crew hauled each child up the side of the ship. Gale then had to climb a ropeladder in howling winds. Miracles happened that day.

What actually caused the vessel to sink? It was a mystery for some time why she sank despite the watertight doors having being closed after the initial leak. However, investigations revealed that, at the time when the water came flooding into the auxiliary engine room, the crew had been working on a valve on the sewage system. The water came in with such force and so quickly that they did not have time to close the valve. Instead, they fled and sealed the engine room doors, but knew that the water would flood back through the sewage system and eventually sink the ship. This was consistent with Paul Whiley’s observation that the showers were running. One clue which we kept hearing reported by passengers was that there was a funny smell onboard before the ship sank. We didn’t know what to do with that information, but when the true cause of the sinking was revealed, we finally understood that everyone (quite aptly) was smelling poop before the ship went down.

As the pipes leading through the watertight bulkheads of the engine room were relatively small, it took a long time for the water to flood through to the rest of the ship. The fact that it took 18 hours for the ship to sink after the first breach allowed time for every last person on the ship to be saved.

There are numerous other stories that emerged at the time: stories of heroism, cowardice, greed, cheating and a host of intrigue. Space does not permit me to share these right now, but what was extraordinary was the heroic effort of the entertainers, the Air Force and the navy divers. Many aircrew and divers were given bravery awards. Paul Whyley received the Honoris Crux Gold, of which only 6 were ever awarded in history. Were it not for those heroes and the selfless response of the ships which came to the rescue, almost certainly hundreds of lives would have been lost. Instead, despite the crew and Captain’s cowardice, the rescue was a triumph and, in my view, the greatest maritime rescue ever.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune.