Thursday, August 5, 2010

Revisiting the sinking of Oceanos part 2

Sinking of the OceanosPart 2 of our series on the sinking of the cruise ship Oceanos. This is a letter to the editor sent to the Amver Bulletin by the master of the Oceanus.

Letters to the Editor:

I have just seen AMVER BULLETIN 3-91 which contains an article concerning the loss of my ship.

I am happy that your article gives full credit to the South African rescue services for the magnificent job they performed in extremely difficult circumstances. However, I feel the article does not give a complete picture of the rescue operations as it makes no mention at all of the considerable contribution by my officers and crew and contains a number of inaccuracies which in my view ought to be corrected. I take the points as they appear in the article.
  1. The first distress signal was in fact sent out by the Chief Radio Officer shortly before 2200 on the night of the 3rd August 1991, and a response was received within a few minutes from Port Elizabeth Coast Station. We were informed that helicopters were on their way at around 2240.
  2. The Chief Radio Officer and I were amongst the last to leave the vessel. The article implies that he and I left early on, and that passengers were left to operate the radio. That is simply not correct.
  3. The merchant vessels to which the article referred arrive early on, and were taking passengers on board from around 0200/0300 on 4th August. The helicopters did not in fact arrive until daybreak, when they began winching passengers from the vessel decks.
  4. There were in fact only very few passengers left on board after the last life boat had left. In addition, lifeboats were plying backwards and forwards between the assisting merchant vessels and the Oceanos to ferry more passengers away.
Whether or not the criticisms of my conduct were rightly or wrongly made should not be allowed to detract from the fact that it was the ship's officers and crew who launched all eight of the ship's lifeboats in extraordinarily adverse conditions. A total of 351 passengers and crew were disembarked from the vessel in lifeboats without a single injury or loss of life and I do not believe anyone can dispute that this demonstrated seamanship of the highest order by my officers and crew throughout this operation.

The fact that once the lifeboats were safely launched and away from the sinking ship no one was lost or injured during the protracted time spent in the lifeboats, until embarkation on to the ships which came to our rescue, also commends recognition of the major role of the officers and crew. The most important aspect of the rescue operation was not of course mentioned by the popular press in their quest for sensational headlines. This omission was to be expected given that event the most serious well-known newspapers are these days unable to muster a single shipping correspondent amongst them.

From the newspaper reports I have seen, only Lloyd's List, the specialty shipping paper, gave some recognition of this fact. The following extract is from the editorial in their issue dated 5th August:
"There was also investment apparent in the seamanship which was exhibited by the Epirotiki crew and those handling the other merchant vessels and small craft that were involved in the rescue. You have to train people to handle boats properly in adverse conditions, so that they are not turned over in getting away from a ship, to spill their loads of passengers in the boiling seas. You have to rehearse accident scenarios if you are to accomplish what is fundamentally a very dangerous exercise.

There are those who will suggest that there is no real need for seamanship these days, what with wonderful communications and everything on board a ship accomplished by electronics and hydraulics. But to get a boat away from a sinking, listing ship in heavy weather without losing everyone in the process, seems to indicate that there was old fashioned seamanship exhibited of a high order."

Your article also describes 220 people remaining on board as passengers. This is both misleading and incorrect. Those remaining on board who were rescued by helicopters included myself, other officers and crew and some of the charters' cruise staff. The others were mainly elderly and infirm passengers. It was impossible in the prevailing conditions to disembark those passengers to lifeboats without the risk of many serious injuries and possibly deaths occuring in the process.

Of course I understand that I was criticized because after the helicopters took over to transport the last 170 persons on board I thought it would be more useful for the rescue for me to go ashore and make sure that everybody from the lifeboats and ships were safe. I would like to tell you that the last persons to leave the ship were from my own crew who were instructed to remain on board and assist the rescue. The purpose of this letter is to put the record straight.

Your truly,

Captain Yiannis Avranas

Photo credit: Wikipedia
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