I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
It was late winter in the southern hemisphere when the Greek-owned cruise ship MTS Oceanos left the port of East London on South Africa’s east coast. The departure on the afternoon of August 3, 1991, took the vessel into a stormy Indian Ocean, but she was not seaworthy enough to handle gale-force winds and massive swells.
Oceanos’s Maintenance Below Standard
The almost 40-year-old Oceanos had been built in France and had changed ownership and names several times. She had seen better days.
Famous Ocean Liners reports that, “The ship had been a victim of intentional or unintentional negligence [and had sailed] with a 10 cm hole in the watertight bulkhead, loose hull plates, and check valves stripped for repairs.”
There was a faulty waste-disposal system in the engine room that was being repaired as the ship left port.
The company that owned the cruise liner, Epirotiki Lines, did not have a good safety record. According to a New York Times article “a member of the family that owns the line was quoted anonymously by The Associated Press as expressing concern that the company had lost three ships in three years.”
Explosion and Flooding Aboard Oceanos
At about 9.30 pm on August 3 passengers heard a muffled explosion.
Disasters at Sea notes that shortly afterwards “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 immobilized the engines. The hole in the watertight bulkhead was allowing water to flood” into the ship.
Check valves to stop the flow had not been installed in the waste disposal system so water was backing up through every toilet and shower on board. Without power, the ship wallowed in nine-metre (30-foot) swells and began taking on more water.
Captain Yiannis Avranas Abandons His Passengers
While the captain, Yiannis Avranas, and many of the crew packed and got ready to leave, the passengers were not told the ship was in peril.
Keith Morrison of NBC Dateline reports that the crew began leaving in half-empty lifeboats: “By midnight on the Oceanos most of the officers had abandoned ship, many crew too.” The safety of the passengers was largely left in the hands of the cruise ship’s entertainment staff.
One of the entertainers, Moss Hills, went to the bridge for instructions and found it empty; the captain had left the remaining 170 or so passengers and crew to fend for themselves.
The following radio conversation took place between Hills and another vessel:
“Where are you?”
“I don’t really know, somewhere between East London and Durban.”
“Can you give me your actual position?”
“What is your rank?”
“I’m the guitarist.”
The cruise director Lorraine Betts eventually found the captain trying to get into one of the lifeboats. She hauled him back on board but said he seemed to have shut down and was incapable of directing the evacuation.
The ship was listing so heavily that the remaining lifeboats could not be launched.
Miraculous Rescue from Oceanos
Many of the passengers made it into lifeboats, but that must have been a harrowing experience in the rough seas. A two-week-old baby was put in a bucket and winched onto the deck of a rescue ship. Parents and their children were separated in the confusion.
But, with the lifeboats launched, there were still about 170 people aboard the sinking ship.
Fortunately for those still on board they were in sight of the shore―the aptly named Wild Coast―and South Africa’s search and rescue helicopters were scrambled. But, it was still the middle of the night and the terrified passengers had to wait until dawn, four hours later, before help arrived.
When the first helicopter arrived, a navy diver was lowered to the tilting deck to instruct passengers how to put on the harness to be lifted into the aircraft. Professor of Maritime Studies Craig Allen picks up the story: the diver “reported that Captain Avranas stepped ahead of an elderly passenger and demanded to be hoisted next. The diver, believing he had misunderstood him, turned to assist the passenger, only to find that the captain had already donned the sling and was being hoisted off.”
The captain explained that he needed to get to the shore so he could coordinate the rescue. Well, of course, that’s what conscientious captains do. It’s exactly the same explanation Captain Francesco Schettino offered for leaving the Costa Concordia after it slammed into rocks on the Italian coast in 2012.
Amazingly, the helicopters used in the operation pulled everybody off the pitching deck of the doomed vessel. Hills, and magician Julian Butler, were the last to leave.
The ship sank that afternoon.
Interviewed just after the disaster Captain Avranas said: “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.”
It’s a matter of honour that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession.”
Jorgen Loren, captain of a passenger ferry operating between Denmark and Sweden
Captains and Maritime Law
We are all familiar with the image of the heroic ship’s master having done everything possible to secure the safety of his passengers and crew, going down with his vessel. However, there is no legal requirement for captains to make this sacrifice, only a moral obligation.
Nevertheless, The Merchant Marine Officer’s Handbook lists certain expectations of a captain whose ship is in peril. The skipper should be:
- “The last man to leave the vessel;
- “Bound to use all reasonable efforts to save everything possible (ship and cargo), through aid of salvage, if necessary;
- “Responsible for the return of the crew;
- “Responsible for communicating promptly with owners and underwriters; and,
- “In charge until lawfully suspended.”
The Safety of Life at Sea Convention, “does not specify that the captain should stay with his ship but states that the captain, or master, has the ultimate authority aboard his ship … This may or may not stipulate that the captain has to be the last to leave” (BBC).
So, this appears to leave some wiggle room for captains such as Avranas and Schettino.
- Even though a Greek board of inquiry determined that Capt. Yiannis Avranas was negligent in the sinking of the Oceanos, his employer, Epirotiki Lines, gave him another command.
- Epirotiki Lines now has four vessels operating under the name Royal Olympia Cruise Lines.
- In 1965, a rather decrepit passenger ship, the Yarmouth Castle, caught fire in the Caribbean Sea. Another ship, the SS Finnpulp, rushed to offer assistance and one of the first people to come aboard was Byron Voutsinas, captain of the Yarmouth Castle. Ninety people died in the disaster and the subsequent inquiry found Voutsinas “negligent.”
- “The Most Destructive Cruise Ship Accidents.” Famous Ocean Liners, undated.
- “Disasters at Sea: MTS Oceanos.” All at Sea, undated.
- “A Captain’s Tale: ‘The Rescue Was Perfect - Everybody Is Safe.’ ” Barry James, New York Times, August 8, 1991.
- “Disasters: Going, Going . . .” Howard G. Chua-Eoan, Time Magazine, August 19, 1991.
- “Miracle on the Wild Coast.” Keith Morrison, NBC Dateline, February 27, 2011.
- “The Greatest Maritime Rescue in History.” Terry Hutson, africaports.co.za, November 6, 2018.
- “The Captain’s Duty on a Sinking Ship.” Craig Allen, Professional Mariner, January 17, 2012.
- “Must a Captain Be the Last One off a Sinking Ship?” BBC News, January 18, 2012.
- “Cruise Captain Sparks Outrage Among Mariners.” Associated Press, January 19, 2012.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor