A while ago I was having supper with friends who were also passengers on the Oceanos, and another friend of mine was there – the other friend asked about the Oceanos and my fellow passenger blurted out “oh she doesn’t remember anything”, the reason for the outburst was because on the day that the ship sank, we came out on deck with the ship listing and I basically became a robot, I just followed orders, watched, waited and hardly said a word.
But let me start at the beginning, I don’t quite remember how or why it all happened, but my best friend Gwen suggested going on a cruise. Gwen and I had been friends since we both started working back in January 1982.
T.F.C. had advertised a really cheap cruise down to Cape Town, which included a stop over for a night in East London on the way back and then a night at the “Fish River Sun” as well. It wasn’t really cruise season, but it was an offer you just couldn’t refuse.
So together with Gwen, her mom, her moms friend Eileen and her two kids Sián and Dale we all booked to go on the cruise. On the Wednesday before we sailed, they had the old Titanic movie on TV and I remember going down to the computer room and the guys, Derrick (who I am now married to) saying to me, “are you really going on a cruise? Well you’d better pack your water wings because it’s going to hit an iceberg!” I also remember turning round to someone and saying, because I though I may have to share a cabin with someone else, that I didn’t want to go anymore and I hoped the F”£%n ship would sink! Apparently Gwen’s sister Sheila also said that she hoped the ship sank because she wasn’t coming with and was being left behind while we were all going off to enjoy ourselves.
So as you can see “She was doomed from the start”!!!
We sailed out of Durban harbour on Sunday the 28th of July, it was a sunny day and there were loads of people down at the harbour. It was only once we set out to sea that you realised that the weather was not great and especially (as we know now) not for sailing past the wild coast or the Cape of Storms.
(Photo - Gwen and Dale at Life boat drill - Monday 28th July 1991)
If I remember correctly we were at sea, most of Monday and Tuesday and then on Wednesday morning we awoke as we were arriving in Cape Town. Going down to Cape Town there were only about 150 to 200 passengers on the ship it could even have been less. A few passengers disembarked in Cape Town and Gwen and I got off to meet her Dad, who was living in Simon’s town and had come to the harbour in Cape Town to see her.
When we arrived in Cape Town we couldn’t see Table Mountain and a lot of the sailors laughed. They had said that everyone had told them about this famous mountain yet they had been down to Cape Town and never seen it. The table was set, was what they would say when there were clouds over Table Mountain and you could not see how flat it was.
We spend a couple of hours in the harbour in Cape Town and then it was time to leave and head for East London, the weather was so bad when we left Cape Town, the tug boat looked like it was a toy being tossed around in the swells. It took the pilot of the tug boat several attempts and about an hour to disembark the “Oceanos” back onto his tug boat.
Leaving Cape Town
The sea that day was not happy, it was grey and dark and angry – even a big ship like the Oceanos was tossed around in the ocean and rolled from side to side. I remember Irene bumping into the Captain and saying something about stabilisers. In an angry voice he blurted out “this ship she is strong, she no need stabilisers … she sail in the Med all the time”, yeah right, but this is not the med.
Gwen was sea sick most of that day and of course lunch on deck was cancelled again like it had been so many of the other days. We eventually found it a bit of a joke that we were always being tossed around on the ship, walking down the ships corridor even Panayotis a huge Greek sailor battled to find his sea legs. I remember being in the cabin sitting at the dressing table, trying to put my make up on when I was thrown to the floor – I even had a huge bruise on my back, but we just laughed about it, and also trying to sit on the toilet with out being thrown off was hilarious. The entertainers did so much to take our minds off the weather and the fact that the ship was really a “rust bucket”. Moss & Tracey were always around to entertain, as was Robin and the rest of them. It was great that there were so few passengers on the ship as most of the time you felt that they were really there just to entertain you. Also most of the elderly passengers would retire early and not come to any of the entertainment.
Talking about toilets, we would often smell sewerage but did not quite know where it was coming from; this had something to do with the pipes.
East London – Thursday 1st of August 1991
We finally arrived in East London on the Thursday evening, disembarked and the buses took us off to the Holiday Inn where we spent the night. It was fun as Gwen and I had made friends with a few other young people and we headed off to the Disco at the hotel. The next morning we did some shopping in East London and then the buses headed us off to the Fish River Sun a hotel in the then Ciskei.
Now the reason for us disembarking from the ship was because some wealthy guy from Queenstown, had hired the ship for his daughters wedding reception and the guests were all staying on the ship that night. This guy had also paid for all the passengers that were on the ship to spend the Thursday night at the Holiday Inn and Friday Night (the night of the wedding reception) at the Fish river sun.
Again if I remember correctly all the crew and entertainers stayed on board to assist with the wedding and entertain the guests.
Gwen and I were quite put out that we had to get off the ship because we were really having so much fun.
Stormy Saturday 3rd August 1991 and back to East London
The next day the buses were there to pick us up and take us back to the ship in East London harbour. Luckily on the Friday night the weather had been really good for the bride, groom and the guests. However, on Saturday morning it was totally the opposite the winds were gusting and the rain was really coming down. Driving from Fish River Sun we saw corrugated iron roofs being blown off houses. By this stage though we just wanted to get back on the ship, get back to Durban, jump in the car and go back to Johannesburg.
When we arrived at the harbour, the wind was so bad that it had blown huge concrete dustbin over and they had been smashed. When we started embarking, I remember one guy turning round and saying that he was not getting back on the ship and he would fly back to Johannesburg. When we got back onto the ship, there were loads of new passengers amongst them were mainly travel agents from East London and Durban who had got a special offer of a night on the ship. So in actual fact they were only spending one night on the ship and most of them intended to party the whole night through.
As we sailed out of East London you could already see that the ship was listing to the right hand side, I have photos that clearly depict this but unfortunately they are in a box in storage in South Africa and I am sitting in Dublin.
We went down to the cabin to get ready for dinner, we decided to do the 9 o’clock sitting as there were just so many people on the ship, although most people were in their cabins being sea sick that they did not come down to dinner anyway.
The last supper
Dinner was certainly entertaining that night, we basically had to hold your plate onto the table to stop it sliding off and try and eat at the same time. The dining room staffs, were also running around looking very irritated, and bothered but as we now know by the time we had supper most of the bottom of the ship was already flooded, no wonder they were looking perturbed.
After Dinner we were heading up the stairs from the dining room this was probably about 9:30 or 10:00, when we heard a very loud thud which sounded like it might have been from the engine room, then the lights went out. Gwen fell and ripped her tights, and within a minute or so the emergency lights were on, we carried on up the stairs and I was going to head to the lounge for a drink, Gwen said she would meet me there but was just going to change her tights.
I’m not too certain of the events that happen next, but I think we were told that no one was allowed to go back to their cabins and we all had to go upstairs to the lounge. At no point did anyone ever say that the ship was going to sink. We sat in the lounge listening to music while the crew handed out life jackets to everyone. I then remember a group of people sitting on the floor in the lounge huddled together crying and singing “abide with me” and of course someone else saying “oh for gods sake, that’s the song they sand when the Titanic sank”.
Most of what I am telling you now, could have happened in any order.
The Entertainers take over
Moss came in to the lounge and announced that help was on its way and that there were a lot of ships in the vicinity that would come and help us. Because I had never really know anything about ships, I just though it was like when a car broke down someone would tow you, and that would happen with the Oceanos, someone would come and tow us back to shore. (Must admit I was pretty thick back then ;-)) We spent most of the night and early hours of the morning in the lounge, we could smell sewerage and smoke coming from below.
At one point we thought we might be rescued, when Moss came in ordering all Woman with children, so No it wasn’t “Woman and children first”, but Woman with children. Oh well, maybe we’ll just wait for the tow to arrive. In a way we were very lucky not to have to go in the lifeboats. We saw them taking the lifeboats from the side of the ship that didn’t have the list, they packed in Woman and children and then lowered them into the angry sea were they were tossed around.
We watched everything happening and then went back into the lounge where it was at least warm and dry. The ship listed more and more and you could hear the wind slamming the life boats that were still tied up into the side of the ship. Some of the crew tried to get those life boats and bring them to the other side, I am not sure if they succeeded as again I thought it much safer and warmer in the lounge.
While all of this was going on the barman never left his post and ensured that everyone paid for their drinks, but by now I think he knew that if he did not abandon his post now all his mates would have left the ship without him. As most of you know a lot of the crew abandoned ship taking valuables with them, we heard later that most of the cabins were raided and the pursers office. So off the barman went, leaving an open bar for everyone, not that anyone really felt like drinking.
Sunday 4th of August – The final day
Everything happened very orderly and no-one became hysterical. It almost reminded you of the movie “Cocoon” where all the elderly people follow the guy who is taking them to a better world. At the first sign of day break we heard the helicopters hovering above the ship, we were then told to go out on deck. This was probably about 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. only once we actually got out onto the deck on the aft side of the ship did we realise how bad the ship was actually listing. There was a short woman running around, I forget her name now, telling everyone to get into rows and to sit down – she was one of the TFC crew.
Everyone listened to anyone who they thought was in charge. (As a South African brought up in apartheid times, you never questioned authority and just did as you were told.)
There were 2 helicopters, one on either side of the ship (aft and fore) hoisting up passengers, 2 at a time and then there were another 2 helicopters hovering, so once 2 passengers were in the sling the helicopter would fly away so that the next helicopter could take 2 and so they would carry on until they were full. The helicopters were from the South African Defence Force and I don’t think they had under taken such a large civilian operation before. Once they had enough passengers they would then fly them off and drop them at “The Haven”. We had no idea that the captain was one of the first people to be air lifted off the sinking ship until we saw it on TV that night.
Being out on the deck and realising how bad the ship was listing and looking at the queues of people waiting to get onto the helicopters, only then made you realise hey we might not make it after all. I remember someone saying quite loudly, “doesn’t this remind you of a movie”, and then someone else saying well it’s not a “feckin’ movie!!!” But this made everyone start thinking about death and drowning, I also know someone said that when you drown your eyes pop out, so I consoled myself by thinking, when you die it’s just like going to sleep, it all goes black and you just never wake up. One of my best school friends had died in the February of that year, and my dad passed away on the 14th of July, so I wasn’t too worried about it then.
Good morning Jack
I know I was sitting on the deck at one time, chatting to a guy from Durban who had a precious bottle of “Jack Daniel” with him. It was freezing out on the deck, and he offered me some and why the hell would I say No thanks.
At one point I was standing holding onto the banister while the ship was listing very badly, the waves were pounding the ship and the deck chairs were all sliding into the ocean. I was standing next a very heavy wooden box, that looked like a giant coffin, it held life jackets, and in front of my eyes I saw the rope that was keeping it tied to the railing unravel slowly – in a weird kind of calm, scary voice I said to Irene who was standing next to me “the rope is unravelling”. She then shouted for help and someone sorted it out. But I think I was in such shock that I just couldn’t do anything.
Another time while standing on the deck, someone shouted that there were sharks in the ocean, we saw the fins, but luckily it turned out to be a school of dolphin. We were standing in the queue on the aft of the ship wondering when we would ever get off, when someone came and said something. I remember Gwen saying come with me and I followed her, trying not to fall we headed for the front of the ship and Gwen started going down the stairs, I then said to her – “where are we going?” and she said “we are going to have to jump into the sea and a life boat will pick us up.” Thank God someone stopped us from going down, the next minute we were climbing up the stairs to the front of the ship, within about 5 minutes I had a harness around me and I was being air lifted into the helicopter. I bumped my head as they were pulling me up but at that stage I did not care, I was safe.
Gwen and Irene were not on the same helicopter as me, once they dropped us at “The Haven” an army officer came down to meet the people and there were other people with blankets. They threw the blankets around us as we headed up to the hotel. I couldn’t find Irene & Gwen, so I headed into the bar knowing that they would find me there … and they did. We had probably been air lifted at 11:30.
Once Gwen and Irene arrived, we went into a kitchen where we were given a cup of soup, some bread and a rusk. Once we were finished we then were told to sit on the grass, there were a lot of military personnel co-ordinating the passengers. Only once everyone had been air lifted from the ship and brought to the haven did they start moving us out.
The ship must have sunk at about 1:30 that afternoon. Worried families were getting different news reports and nobody had been able to contact their loved ones. The phones at the Haven in Coffee bay were also not working. Once they had counted up the passengers they then put us on buses. I think some people were given lifts with the SADF helicopters back to Durban, but once again I could be mistaken.
Back to East London
We were put into a bus, which rattled and rocked on the sandy roads, but we didn’t care very much at that stage. We eventually got to the Holiday Inn in East London when it was dark. When we arrived they bustled us into the disco where they had loads of people taking names, telephone numbers, next of kin and any other details. We were then, given shoes and any other clothing we needed as well as toiletries, a hotel key for the night and all meals, phone calls etc were on the house.
Monday 5th of August 1991, We’re going home
That night they also arranged for us to fly back to Durban in the morning, we would have flown direct to Johannesburg, but I had left my car at friends in Durban. We apparently missed the 5:00 am flight, we never heard the wake up call and had to then wait until they called us again which was around 11:00 a.m. ( a more decent hour). We then flew back to Durban, picked up the car and headed straight back to Jo’burg.
It was only once we got back to Johannesburg that everything actually sunk in, everything we had been through.
A lot of things had emerged while we were on the sinking ship, the cruise company T.F.C. (Too F*ckn cheap) had gone belly up, but opened about a month later under another name. This obviously had something to do with them looking at hundreds of law suits.
To be continued …
© Rose-Marie Rowe (neé Kemp)