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Oceanos At Sea

Leaking Greek Liner Oceanios Sunk On African Coast

By James Donahue

After 39 years at sea and going through numerous owners and name changes, the Greek liner Oceanios was a disaster waiting to happen in August, 1991 when it began its final voyage from East London, South Africa, to Durban with 571 passengers and crew.

Shipping specialists from other nations might well have marked the Oceanos as unseaworthy had it been operating from European or North American ports of call. After acquisition by the Epirotiki Line and given its final name in 1976, the vessel operated in the Mediterranean until 1988, when it began service to South African ports, eventually falling into a state of neglect.

When the liner departed East London on August 3, it was already taking on water from loose hull plates. Also there was a 3.9-inch hole cut in what should have been a watertight bulkhead between the generator room and a sewage-holding tank. There had been problems with bulk water rising through showers and toilets and workers had removed ventilation pipes and non-return valves for repairs that were not completed.

August is winter south of the equator, and the Oceanios sailed directly into a winter storm packing 40-knot winds and nine meter swells. The 500-foot ship was rolling so severely that the usual deck party was abandoned as passengers chose to stay in their cabins.

The storm intensified that evening to the point where the waiters in the dining room struggled to carry their food trays without dropping things. They said crockery and cutlery was sliding off the tables and potted plants were falling over.

Sometime around 9:30 p.m., while off the Wild Coast of the Transkei, the ship’s engineer reported to the bridge that water was entering the hull and flooding the generator room. There was a leak in the engine room’s sea chest, a device that scooped up cooling water. Before the rising water shorted the generators, they were shut down and the vessel went dark. Auxiliary power also was lost so the engines shut down and the Oceanios was left adrift in the dark.

Listing And Doomed

The water steadily gained, flooding through the hole in the bulkhead and into the waste disposal tank. Because the valves that closed the holding tank had been removed, the water soon forced its way through the drain pipes and began spilling out of the showers, toilets and waste disposal units throughout the ship.

Realizing that the ship was in a sinking state, the crew panicked, packed their personal things and headed for the lifeboats without sounding an alarm. In their haste, they failed to close lower deck port holes, thus accelerating the sinking of the vessel.

Passengers later said they were not aware that the ship was sinking until people noticed flooding in the lower decks. By then, they said they found the entire crew, including Captain Avanaras, packed and prepared to launch the lifeboats.

Avranas later defended his actions. He said he left the ship first to arrange for a rescue effort. He said he wanted to supervise the rescue from a helicopter.

Fortunately, the radio room got off an S.O.S. before the power was cut, and that launched a successful rescue of the people left stranded on the liner. The South African Navy and Air Force conducted a successful rescue effort, using 16 helicopters to airlift the passengers and crew to the nearby shore. Everybody was successfully removed before the Oceanos rolled on its side and sank.

The liner was launched in France as the Jean Laborde in 1952. It was one of a fleet of four sister ships operated by Messageries Maritimes that offered passenger and freight service from Marseilles to Madagascar and Mauritius.

Before its sale to the Greek owners, the ship went through several name changes that included Mykinai, Ancona and Eastern Princess.