August 4, 1991: MTS Oceanos sinks. The French-built Greek-owned cruise ship had been launched in 1952 and completed the next year. She was the last of four ships built for Messageries Maritimes and was christened Jean Laborde. The ship was renamed several times before coming into the possession of the Epirotiki Lines and registered at Piraeus, Greece in 1976. Her cruises from South Africa were very successful in 1988 and she was given an eight-month charter from TFC Tours of Johannesburg. She was old and neglected and there were many issues with the ship overall including loose hull plates and check valves not working. There was a known 4 inch hole in the “watertight” bulkhead between the generator and sewage tank.
On August 3, 1991, the Oceanos set out from East London, South Africa and headed to Durban, a port city northeast of the point of origin. The day of departure was stormy with 40-knot winds (about 46 mph) and 30 foot swells. Departure events usually included a “sail-away” party on deck but the seas were too rough. British entertainers Moss and Tracy Hills instead entertained the guests inside the Four Seasons lounge, but attendance was sparse since most travelers stayed in their cabins. The storm grew worse and as the first sitting for dinner guests arrived, the waiters could barely bring their food. The ship began tossing so hard the guests couldn’t keep their dinners on the table and the potted plants were crashing around them.
Around 9:30 PM while off the Wild Coast of the Transkei, there was a muffled explosion and the ship lost power. A leak in the engine room caused the chief engineer to contact Captain Yiannis Avranas to let him know that the generator room was flooding and the generators themselves had to be shut down. The ship was adrift. Water steadily rose. Because of the hole in the bulkhead, water entered the sewage waste disposal tank and from there entered the plumbing of the ship and spilled out of showers, toilets, and waste disposal units. The crew fled in panic without closing portholes on the lower deck. They also failed to notify the guests of the state of the ship.
By the time passengers realized what was happening, the Captain and crew were packed and ready to leave. Moss Hills went to the bridge to find out what was wrong and found it abandoned. He radioed for help and nearby vessels responded to his SOS. The South African Navy and the South African Air Force launched several helicopters to rescue stranded passengers. The only heroic crew member was Lorraine Betts, the cruise director, who did get some of the passengers into lifeboats before the ship listed too far and they were no longer able to launch. All 571 people aboard were saved. The captain justified his behavior but was unsuccessful in convincing a board of inquiry of his innocence.
When I order abandon the ship, it doesn’t matter what time I leave. Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay. – Yiannis Avranas
Negligence is the rust of the soul, that corrodes through all her best resolves. – Owen Feltham
Success produces confidence; confidence relaxes industry, and negligence ruins the reputation which accuracy had raised. – Ben Jonson
Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. – Napoleon Bonaparte
Also on this day: Salude – In 1693, champagne is invented.
Shortcut – In 1902, a new tunnel under the River Thames opened in London.
Missing – In 2002, two girls go missing in Soham, Cambridgeshire, England.
Saturday Night – In 1821, the Saturday Evening Post was first published.