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Yes, disasters do occur and the one which springs immediately to mind is that of the Titanic. Yet over the years many ships have foundered and many lives have been lost due to negligence, bad weather, incompetence and/or a combination thereof. No ship is immune to disaster and fire is one of the most serious and common cause of disaster. In 2000/2001 we had 3 ships on their way to the breakers sink off our shores and over the past 20 years 2 ships which were part of our cruising industry were lost, fortunately without serious loss of life.

The Local Cruising industry

The biggest non-lethal disaster of all was the failed season of the American Star Lines cruise ship Betsy Ross as detailed elsewhere.

The amount of damage done to our fledgling cruise industry took a long time to dissipate. However, Just as things were improving again, the Oceanos was sent to spend an extended season in our waters. Alas, as we now know, things were not all satisfactory aboard that doomed vessel. The period when I sailed on her she had been the 2nd most popular unit in the Epirotiki fleet. By the time she was here for the second season she was in decline and doubts have been cast as to the seaworthiness of the ship. The conduct of the master of the vessel during the sinking has always been controversial and history is the judge of Captain Avrannis.

The dispute following the sinking of the Oceanos between TFC and Epirotiki resulted in the withdrawal of the Odysseus which was mooted to replace the Oceanos. The Aegean Dolphin which eventually arrived had originally been scheduled for a 1989 visit which had also been cancelled. The final 2 voyages of this ship had been categorised by squabbles between TFC and the owners and passengers were eventually left stranded in Europe. It was the end of TFC. Their demise was a major blow, this agency had been the single factor in keeping ships in our waters, fortunately though, the formation of Starlight Cruises, under the very capable leadership of Allan Foggit was a miracle..

Naturally the "also rans" tried to break into this niche, the so called Travelcor Cruises which was going to bring out the Enrico Costa also folded under strange circumstances and could have made a major impact on our market. Oddly enough, the Enrico would eventually see our shores, but under the name Symphony and with Starlight at the fore again.

Then there was the Amerikanis, feted as the ship which would re-introduce the mailship route, it too was withdrawn through politics and nit picking. Had this vessel been in our waters when she was supposed to, the chances are that they would have been able to pick up all the bookings from the ill fated Achille which sank that same year.

Alas, 5 Star Cruises tried twice again to influence the South African cruising industry, once with a Russian ship, The Russ, and then with the ridiculous time share idea for the Amerikanis.... The least said about that the better.

With hindsight though, the sinking of the Achille was more of a boost to our cruising industry, we have seen the a huge increase in cruise ships calling in our ports and the Symphony having a successful extended season and more bookings on ships all the time. A portent of ships to come???

The final disasters though were the mooted replica Titanic to be built in Durban and the possible use of the Canberra as a hotel ship... both came to nought.


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 passenger liner 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.

TV1.15H50. 04-08-91.
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.

TV1. 20H00.
By now the whole drama has played itself out. The real heroes are the 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. 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.

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.


30 November 19H30.
On Wednesday, 30 November, cruising enthusiasts in South Africa were shocked to hear the drama of the Achille Lauro as it unfolded. The Italian owned cruise ship caught fire while on a line voyage to South Africa. There were over 250 South Africans on board the ship at the time. Passengers were safely evacuated in the boats and at the time of writing there had been only 2 deaths and 8 injuries. American warships are underway to go to the aid of the stricken ship which apparently was still burning and listing heavily. The area where the vessel is in distress is not easily accessible to helicopters and help is very far away, with tugs reportedly en route to the stricken ship. Fortunately a tanker, Hawaiian King was able to render assistance to the passengers and they are in no immediate danger.

News reports now say that the fire broke out in the engine room at roughly 01H30 and the ship was evacuated after 07H00. So far it seems as if she has a 40 degree list and with a heavy swell coming up the situation is changing possibly for the worst. A decision had not been made yet as to where the passengers were to be taken.

01 December 1994. 20H00.
The first video footage of the vessel was shown on TV earlier on. Dated yesterday, the footage shows fire raging in the area below the pools and tennis court, the list is very evident and things do not look good for the ship at all. Passengers were transferred to other vessels from the Hawaiian King for passage to Mombasa, Mahe and Djibouti. Medical Rescue International were preparing to fly out to the passengers where they are landed to assist those with medical problems. The ship is still afloat at this time, however will tomorrow still see her afloat or not remains to be seen?

02 December 1994. 20H30.
In the news it was reported that tugs had reached the Achille, but while under tow the vessel finally foundered. Passengers are on their way to the three previously named ports, with the first expected to reach Mombasa at 14H00 tomorrow. Sadly a few passengers have accused the crew of incompetence and laxity. Criticism has also been laid at the owners, stating that the ship was old and decrepit. Sadly for all those crew members who remained behind to fight the fire and those who performed their duty, the big tar brush has struck again. While the drama around the Achille continued, in the Philippines, yet another ferry has gone down following a collision with a merchant ship. As if two deaths were not enough...

The Achille was a regular caller in these waters since 1986, while not a luxurious ship, she was a real classic vessel with a riveted hull, twin winged funnels and a high superstructure. Her famous blue hull was unique in the cruising industry and she even gained the name "La Nave Blu" or "The Blue Ship", with a pop song written in her honour. Ironically, her fleetmate with Lauro Lines, the Angelina Lauro was also lost to a fire. The Achille was no real stranger to disaster, having caught fire once before while being rebuilt originally. She gained fame during 1985 when she was hijacked while on a cruise in the Mediterranean.

Already a replacement ship has been announced. The Symphony, (ex Enrico Costa.) will be replacing the Achille on the programme of cruises due to start in early December. Local operator, Starlight Cruises is no stranger to cruising and hopefully will come out of the predicament with all flags flying. As for the Achille? she has joined the ranks of those ships that voyage eternally in peaceful waters and in fond memories.

© DR Walker 2000-2013