Oceanos with SA Air Force helicopters arriving to pluck passegers from the sinkling ship. Picture: East London Museum, featured in Africa PORTS & SHIPS maritime news
Oceanos with SA Air Force helicopters arriving to pluck passegers from the sinkling ship. Picture: East London Museum

article by: Yvonne de Kock

–4 August 1991 —
Rescue ship to a person on the bridge of the fast sinking OCEANOS

“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”

Transkei stamp of the Oceanos sinking, appearing in Africa PORTS & SHIPS maritime news

Unbelievable but true – an account of the terrifying conditions on the OCEANOS on 4 August 1991 when it became obvious that not only was the position of the ship unknown, but the whereabouts of the captain and some crew as well.

Most have heard the story, the sinking of the OCEANOS with 571 passengers and crew on board, none of whom suffered fatalities or serious injury.

It was then up to the Tour Director and members of the entertainment group having to take over the task of getting passengers off the vessel into lifeboats and rescue helicopters.

This account was brought to life by Andrew Pike, a maritime lawyer (Bowmans)  who was involved in what he termed as the biggest case he had dealt with in his career.

Andrew was the speaker at a recent well-attended fund-raising breakfast of the Sailors’ Society in Durban.

Principal Chaplain Revd Boet van Schalkwyk introduced the work of the Society by means of a short video and description of the situations encountered by chaplains who go on board vessels, in short, how the Sailors’ Society cares for seafarers ecumenically and materially. Seafarers are at sea for lengthy periods by the very nature of their work, away from families, also with limited time ashore. Others find themselves in the unfortunate position of their vessel being arrested resulting in lengthy times in ports without being able to go ashore. Here chaplains ensure they have sufficient food and necessities on board.

Three years ago the Crisis Response Network was formed. Headed by Revd Van Schalkwyk, CRN Co-ordinator for Sub-Saharan Africa, this service focuses on trauma counselling of seafarers after suffering events such as piracy attacks, disasters at sea and also death and illness of their families back home when they are thousands of kilometres away. The Sailors Society steps in and through the network is able to ensure that chaplains are able to render trauma counselling and help no matter where they are.

Those on the OCEANOS also suffered indescribable trauma. Many organisations played vital roles in the rescue; the SAAF, NSRI, Ports Authority amongst others. Passengers were airlifted from the ship which had been disabled and was sinking near Coffee Bay in the then Transkei and were taken to the Haven Hotel.

Andrew related the story of a two week old baby having been placed in a bucket and hoisted from the sinking ship onto a passing bulk carrier. Children had also been separated from their parents in the haste of the rescue with the parents not knowing their whereabouts.

Andrew Pike of Bowmans attorneys and Revd Boet van Schalkwyk of the Seamens Society, featured in Africa PORTS & SHIPS maritime news
Andrew Pike of Bowmans attorneys and Revd Boet van Schalkwyk of the Sailors’ Society

The Port of Durban, where a crisis centre had been set up, received vessels which had been contacted to rescue passengers. A captain of one of these ships reported 30 metre waves. Although trauma counselling was arranged at the time, it is ironic that the very work done by the CRN team could have been so appropriate then.

All were spellbound listening to Andrew’s vibrant account of this disaster, sharing with us details we either have forgotten after having read reports or didn’t know. He, by the nature of his work, had to interview many role players regarding claims and other legal aspects and so could give a profound insight into the situation.

There are always some humorous vignettes even in the face of tragedy.

“I didn’t know so many people went on this voyage wearing Rolexes”! he said.

Andrew Pike has written a book on this miracle so many may also shortly be able to share this remarkable rescue – which he correctly described as “worthy of a Hollywood movie”.

He concluded: “It was the greatest maritime rescue in history, in fact a miracle, – a miracle where there were no fatalities or serious injuries.”

The Sailors’ Society requires donations without which their work would have to be curtailed. Andrew’s contribution to the fundraising effort so as to continue with the vital services is highly appreciated.

by Yvonne de Kock
Public Relations Co-ordinator
Sailors’ Society SA