Saturday, July 04, 2009

[oceanos] cowardice and courage

Click pic to enlarge

The sinking of the Oceanos, on August 4th, 1991, was a tale of cowardice and courage.

A French built, Greek owned cruise ship, she was travelling from East London to Durban, which is against the prevailing sea. That particular stretch of water is one of the most treacherous in the world, having claimed many, many craft over the centuries.

The Oceanos, by this time, was already neglected and internally derelict but that didn't worry the company, which happily packed people on board. In heavy seas, a leak in the water scoop below, which brought in cooling water and was connected to baths and toilets throughout the ship, began taking in water in increasing amounts.

The captain and crew were seen heading for a life raft, leaving the passengers and ancillary staff to fend for themselves, not even closing lower portholes, standard procedure. Passengers were unaware until they saw water around them in their bunks and wherever they were.

Later reports state that the Captain in fact stayed and was the 7th person airlifted to shore but then he came back by helicopter to 'supervise', from the safety of the helicopter, the rescue of those below. Either way, neither he nor his crew were down below organizing the rescue, which he very much should have been doing.

Two entertainers, Julian Butler and Moss Hills, not only filmed it all on a home video recorder but also coordinated the rescue effort, getting people into lifejackets, going to the bridge and issuing a mayday , then awaiting the naval helicopters, which duly arrived and airlifted the passengers in a large operation.

Captain Avranos claimed, in the aftermath, that he was only going for help and that it didn't matter at what stage he did that. Naturally, he was found guilty of neglect and as far as I can see, was reprimanded. Reprimanded? By maritime procedure, he qualified for execution!

There is not only precedent and accepted practice at sea but also now in International Maritime Law, which not only gives the Captain near absolute power but also near absolute responsibility, on pain of penalties. This, in turn, has been reinforced in healthcare, where 'Captain of Ship' is a possible defence in cases of negligence. In one particular case, this was stated:

Of course, maritime law had a totally different development than did tort law. The fact that the captain of a ship was liable for the negligence of all members of the crew had never been (and has never since been) applied to any other area of the law of negligence except medical malpractice. It is somewhat easy to see how a court was drawn into the simile of Captain of the Ship.

The problem is that it is not easy to apply as actual law and courts in various countries see it different ways. It is most certainly de rigeur for the Captain to be last off and this was another case in point:

In 1965, a cruise liner called the Yarmouth Castle caught fire in the Caribbean and began to sink. A nearby ocean liner, the Bermuda Star, sent lifeboats to help. When the sinking ship's captain was one of the first people rescued to climb aboard the Bermuda Star deck, the Bermuda Star's captain was so incensed that he forced his colleague to return to the burning wreck until all the passengers were accounted for.

Most operators of luxury liners tell ship captains "to insure the safety of everyone else before their own," said Priscilla Hoye, a spokeswoman for Cunard Line Ltd., operator of the Queen Elizabeth 2 and other vessels. But she acknowledged that in the heat of an emergency, ship commanders are allowed flexibility.

Avranos stated, in an interview with ABC News:

"When I order abandon ship, it doesn't matter what time I leave. Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay."

To me, this is outrageous. For a start, he did not issue that order before he was seen preparing for his and his closest officers' departure. Secondly, he did not remain behind to supervise the rescue. He claimed he could 'supervise the rscue better from the shore'.

Naturally we and every passenger on that ship saw him as a coward, a rat who had abandoned his own ship and broken every law imaginable but you know how it is with the law and [some] lawyers. They say, 'Not necessarily,' and attempt to bring elements of Tort Law into Maritime Law.

On the other hand, in law, precedent is a major factor and the precedent in this case is overwhelming. Also, this is not the first cowardly captain to have abandoned his responsibilities. This Philippines example is more to the point - they wanted the Captain found, dead or alive. So it should be.

I can't get information as to what eventually happened to Avranos.

The people who really should have been hauled over the coals were those who headed the shipping company. To allow that level of neglect of the ship's infrastructure, in that part of the world, is in itself criminal negligence. That a shipping company were not aware of the aquadynamics which act in relation to a ship's hull in heavy seas is too much to believe.

Many people cannot understand how a huge liner or tanker can break up and sink when a little sailing boat, like a cork, can be blown every which way but come out of it alive. In the end, it comes down to stresses and the size of the sea. A 40 foot boat, when the wave crests are 30 feet apart, is going to find itself suspended and sagging between two crests at some stage and this puts strain on the infrastructure. An 18 foot boat in that situation will ride up and down the waves - more uncomfortable but structurally safer.

On the other hand, an 18 foot boat in high seas is in real danger. There is a rule of thumb that your vessel needs to be of a length, to be safe, that the highest seas it will encounter are no more than 55% the length overall. In practice, the highest seas encountered [with some exceptions] are around 30 feet, more usually 20 feet. Therefore, in round figures, the boat needs to be at least 35 feet long and preferably 60 feet long to go to sea.

This, in fact, is what most ocean going sailcraft are.

The boat I've designed for myself is a 63 foot outrigger, 7 feet wide, built in compartments and with two junk sails of 1400 square feet. That, to me, seems the best compromise.


  1. Those are amazing stories of cowardice, so amazing that they surprise each time.

    I am just reading Chateaubriand's account of his return from America when his ship was caught between rocks in a channel gale, the sailors themselves praying, cutting away broken masts, and trying not to be swept overboard. The tiller had been abandoned, and Chateaubriand describes an American passenger, 'one of those men thrown up in the course of events, one of those spontaneous children of peril', take the helm and gauge the waves at the stern to select one to take them over a sand-bar into deeper water, or wreck them. The American put about as his wave arrived, the vessel, about to fall on its side, carried over, and Chateaubriand was pleased to write his memoirs.

  2. Yes, that's exactly the sort of thing the article is on about. How disaster brings out different things in different people.

    I hope, nay pray, in fact, that should I find myself there, I'd do the right thing. It's of far greater importance to me to die well thought of than to try to save my immediate life.

    More than that, it's seeing what needs doing, I think. The closest I can think of to this is my rugby playing days when there wasn't time to calculate the risk - it was obvious that there was a fast closing gap and the ball had to get through there.

    Naturally, life and death are a different matter but it is still a split second thing.

    How can any of us tell though unless we're actually right there? As I say, I'd hope and pray I'd act the right way.

  3. We still joke about the Oceanos, and how Greeks push to the front of the queue -- even for tea ofter church!

  4. Never heard that story before, thanks.

    It sounds like a real-life "Lord Jim" situation - which novel was also based on a real incident, as I am sure you know.

    I don't entirely support your assertion about necessary size of boats for safety. Sure, a nineteen-foot open boat in the open sea is unlikely to be safe (unless commanded by Edward Shackleton, of course), but yachts only slightly larger have safely circumnavigated many times, including the Cape Horn route. Vertues, Folkboats, and many others under thirty feet. Wanderer III is a fine example, still sailing and now on her fifth circumnavigation - or possibly sixth by now.

    What matters most is the seaworthiness of the design rather than its size - and the crew of course, but a good boat will always be stronger that its crew. We know how to make small boats seaworthy, but we often don't do so nowadays because accommodation and comfort in harbour are usually regarded as more important.

  5. Oh yes, there are some great little boats which have plied the seas but it was Ian Farrer [of trimaran fame] who said that 26 foot was the generally accepted minimum for long distance voyaging, smaller than that and everyone gets on the others' nerves.

    There is also the wave factor - there is a minimum and also a maximum size, not hard and fast but roundabout, between which the boat is less susceptible to big seas for differing reasons.

    This is why Chichester opted for 56 feet and James Wharram for 63 feet. The Gypsy Moth sailed like a dog apparently so the argument is negated but in the case of Wharram, large is comfort.

    Baden-Powell said that the wise bushman never 'roughs it' and the wise sailor too. This doesn't mean you deck out a wide tub with everything that opens and shuts but it means that once you've got a thoroughly seaworthy craft, you allow yourself X amount of comforts up to a certain weight.

  6. Avranos (Oceanos Capt) was off on one of the first 2 Puma`s (from the aft deck) and once on shore made no attempt to identify himself as the Capt - He certainly did not return to the vessel. He was part of the first batch of passengers rescued by the 4 Puma`s from 15 Sqn AFB Durban who were the first helicopters on the scene landing in amongst a Kraal in the dark. Once it was light enough 2 Puma`s got airborne and started the rescue. The next Puma`s from Cape Town arrived after the 4 Durban based machines had done 2 sorties each and were out of fuel having brought 4 drums extra each (800l) He would have been flown later on in the day along with all the other passengers to the hotel/ resort. he was in a blue jersey with absolutely no rank insignia. ME FIRST = Greek for "Abandon Ship".

  7. As an ex Master Mariner, I was appalled at the broadcast on TV recently regarding the "Oceanus". As a result I explored further and read the personal account of the musician on board who acted, with other non professional seamen, to achieve a remarkable rescue of passengers apparently abandoned by the Master and officers and some of the crew. As a result I have sent him an e-mail on recognition of his and others courage and fortitude in acting as they did. I also expressed the opinion that I hoped my training and sense of duty when sailing in similar vessels as an officer would have prevailed in similar circumstances and in my heart of hearts I know the sense of duty and responsibility for my crew and passengers would ,dare I say with no modesty, have been my paramount objective.



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