The MTS Oceanos was a french-built, Greek-owned Cruise ship that operated from Piraeus. It is infamous for its sinking in 1991 off the coast of South Africa.
The ship was reported to be in very poor condition when it set sail for Durban on its final voyage, and was in a state of neglect, with loose hull plates, check valves stripped for repair parts after a recent trip, and a 10 cm (4 in) hole in the “watertight” bulkhead between the generator and sewage tank.
On 3 August 1991, the Oceanos set out from East London, South Africa, and headed to Durban. She headed into 40-knot winds and 9 m (30 ft) swells.
Usually, there would have been a “sail-away” party on deck with musicians and British entertainers Moss Hills and Tracy Hills.
However, due to the rough sea conditions, this was held inside in the Four Seasons lounge; most passengers chose to stay in their cabins.
The storm worsened as the evening progressed and when the first sitting of dinner was served, the waiters could hardly carry the trays of food without dropping something.
Eventually, the ship was rolling about from side to side so badly that crockery and cutlery began sliding off the tables and potted plants were falling over.
At approximately 21:30 UTC+2, while off the Wild Coast of the Transkei, a muffled explosion was heard and the Oceanos lost her power following a leak in the engine room’s sea chest.
The ship’s chief engineer reported to Captain Yiannis Avranas that water was entering the hull and flooding the generator room.
The generators were shut down because the rising water would have short circuited them. The ship was left adrift.
The water steadily rose, flowing through the 10 cm (3.9 in) hole in the bulkhead and into the sewage waste disposal tank. Without check valves in the holding tank, the water coursed through the main drainage pipes and rose through the ship, spilling out of showers, toilets, and waste disposal units.
Realizing the fate of the ship, the crew fled in panic, neglecting the standard procedure of closing the lower deck portholes. No alarm was raised.
Passengers remained ignorant of the events taking place until they witnessed the first signs of flooding in the lower decks.
At this stage, eyewitness accounts reveal that many of the crew, including Captain Avranas, 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 along with the South African Air Force launched a seven-hour mission in which 16 helicopters were used to airlift the passengers and crew to the nearby settlements of The Haven and Hole in the Wall (32°2′0″S 29°6′36″E), about 10 km (6.2 mi) south of Coffee Bay.
Of the 16 rescue helicopters, 13 were South African Air Force Pumas, nine of which hoisted 225 passengers off the deck of the sinking ship.
All 571 people on board were saved. Moss Hills organized the orderly evacuation of passengers by the helicopters and is generally acknowledged as the leading hero of the event.
Hills and fellow entertainer Julian Butler directed the efforts of the entertainment staff, which included Tracy Hills and Robin Boltman, to assist the passengers. Butler, Hills and Hills’ wife Tracy were among the last five to be rescued from the ship.
Women and children were given priority when loading the lifeboats. Oceanos’ cruise director Lorraine Betts ordered women and children to come through to the remaining boats after many officers and crew abandoned ship.
Later on in the disaster, a severe starboard list rendered the remaining lifeboats useless; the remaining passengers had to be airlifted onto South African Air Force helicopters by means of a safety harness. Betts again insisted that women and children be rescued first.
The following day, at approximately 15:30 UTC+2, the Oceanos rolled over onto her side and sank by the bow, eventually striking sand 90 m (300 ft) below the surface while more than 60 m (200 ft) of her stern remained aloft a few minutes before also slipping below, coming to rest at 32.12093°S 29.12029°E on her starboard side almost at right angles to the coastline, with her bow facing seaward.
The last 15 minutes of the ship’s sinking was captured on video and broadcast by ABC News.
The Ocean’s wreck lies at a depth of between 92 m (302 ft) and 97 m (318 ft), about 5 km (3.1 mi) offshore.
Divers have visited the wreck site, but currents are strong and there are many sharks in the area, so diving is difficult.
Photographs taken in 2002 show that the bridge section of Oceanos has collapsed.