On the morning of July 12, 1952, Forges Chantiers de la Gironde launched the last of four sister ships in Bordeaux, France, under the name of Jean Laborde. The ship underwent several name changes including Mykinai, Ancona, Eastern Princess, and finally, in 1976, under the ownership of Pontos Nav SA, she was registered in Piraeus, Greece, under the name of Oceanos.
Originally built as a passenger/cargo vessel, the Oceanos underwent massive reconstruction by the time she came to operate as a cruise liner for Epirotiki Lines of Greece. The success of the 1988 cruise season in South Africa was motivation for her return in 1991 on an eight-month charter for TFC Tours of Johannesburg.
En route to Durban, the Oceanos set out from the port of East London on Saturday, August 3, 1991, into 40-knot winds and nine-metre swells. It has been reported that the ship was in a state of neglected maintenance with loose hull plates and an unfitted ventilation pipe. It had also had several sewerage-holding tank non-return valves stripped for repairs, following problems with bilge water rising through showers and toilets on a recent trip to Mozambique. The unfitted ventilation pipe was said to have left a 10cm hole in the watertight bulkhead between the generator and the sewerage tank.
Reports indicate that at around 21:30 off the Wild Coast of the Transkei, the Oceanos lost her power following an explosion in the engine room. The ship’s engineer reported to Captain Yiannis Avranias that water was entering the hull and flooding the generator room. The generators had been shorted and the supply of power to the engines had been severed.
The water steadily rose, flowed through the 10 cm hole in the bulkhead and into the waste disposal tank. Without valves to close on the holding tank, the water coursed through the main drainage pipes and rose like a tide within the ship, spilling out of every shower, toilet, and waste disposal unit connected to the system. There was no stopping the flooding and no hope for the Oceanos.
Realizing the fate of the ship, the crew fled in panic, neglecting to close the lower deck portholes, which is standard policy during emergency procedures. Passengers remained ignorant of the events taking place until they themselves witnessed the first signs of flooding in the lower decks. At this stage, eyewitness accounts reveal that many of the crew, including Captain Avranias, were already packed and ready to depart, seemingly unconcerned with the safety of the passengers.
Nearby vessels responded to the ship’s SOS and were the first to provide assistance. The South African Navy and Air Force launched a massive seven-hour mission in which 16 helicopters were used to airlift the remainder of the passengers and crew to the nearby settlements of The Haven and Hole in the Wall, about 10km South of Coffee Bay. All 571 people onboard were saved, following one of the world’s most dramatic and successful rescue operations of its kind.
At about 15:30 the following day, the Oceanos could hold her head up no longer and sank. Her bow hit the sand 92m below the surface, whilst more than 60m of her stern remained aloft; minutes later she was gone. She came to rest on her starboard side almost perpendicular to the coastline, with her bow facing seaward.
One week later, a 32-member team arrived on the scene as part of MNet Camera 7 news channel’s investigative documentary into the sinking of the Oceanos. Five divers, including the late Rehan Bouwer, made four attempts to reach the Oceanos, but only succeeded twice, and then only for a matter of minutes.
The Oceanos lies at a depth that varies between 92m and 97m, about 5km offshore, on the western edge of the mighty Agulhas current. The Agulhas shifts an estimated volume of 70 x 106m3/s down the East Coast of South Africa, making it the most powerful current on the globe. One of the divers, Karl van der Merwe, commented, “The current was so strong that at times it would rip your mask off your face and your regulator out of your mouth. On one occasion the 200-litre drum we used as a marker buoy was pulled down to 34m by the current. I wouldn’t recommend this wreck to anyone but the best technical divers who really know what they’re doing.”
Unable to spend sufficient time on the wreck, the Camera 7 team was forced to deploy a remote, surface-controlled camera in order to acquire the footage required for their investigation.
Four months later, on December 23, Rehan Bouwer, Steve Minne, Johan Swart, Ian Symington and Nicko Brand returned to the Oceanos. As in August, throughout the two-week period of the expedition, they only managed to reach the wreck on two occasions with a maximum bottom time of eight minutes. Steve Minne and Johan Swart confirmed the formidable force of the current. Steve said, “We had to hold onto the anchor line with all our strength. Sometimes we were almost horizontal going down. We were crazy to do that dive.”