Thursday 4 August 2016

White feather Right stuff

I was a navy brat.  This meant
  • having lunch every day at 1300 hrs +/- 2 minutes 
  • learning how to sail (but not liking it very much)
  • knowing when to use a bowline and a clove-hitch
  • being exposed to a particular set values that might be called honour
  • having a strong sense of service
  • a predilection for nautical tales (Bartimaeus, Hornblower, WW Jacobs)
My old man The Captain had a strong sense of what was right, including that the Captain should be the last to leave the ship if, like The Herald of Free Enterprise, it starts to sink. Nobody knows the ship like her commander and s/he is in the best position to save the situation or save the most lives. That's a very Utilitarian - greatest good [life!] for the greatest number - idea[l]. But he would have been the first to admit that when the chips are down and SOS goes out, not all souls are equal: women and children are to be privileged when there is a rush for the last life-boats. We all know that, in real not ideal shipwrecks, women and children don't make out nearly so well as fit young men. We've seen that in Andrea Doria 1956, Empress of Ireland 1914, Titanic 1912, Seahorse 1816.

Nowadays very few people are passengers on ocean-going ships: it's so much cheaper ad quicker to go by Ryanair or AerLingus. If you are a passenger, it is likely that it's a once in a lifetime event and certainly on any cruise liner there are many people who are getting sea-sick for the first time. As in planes, the crew give you instructions about what to do in an emergency but nobody actually lowers a lifeboat and heaves you over the side. For that matter, nobody pays any attention to the Ryanair hosties when they indicate the exits and emergency lighting strips with their formal ballet. So passengers' experience of abandoning ship is NIL. The crew otoh, go to sea for a living, they know where the life-jackets are and have been trained in how to lower a life-raft. If you still have you marbles you'll remember the disaster of the Costa Concordia which was driven onto the rocks off Italy by Captain Francesco Schettino in 2012. That Captain promptly left the ship "to seek help", an action which I can't imagine would have met with my father's appro.

25 years ago today, there was another Costa Concordia type of event, that time off the coast of South Africa. MTS Oceanos was built in France and launched in 1952 as the Jean Laborde and served Messageries Maritimes aka MesMar keeping communication open between France and her colonies before jet travel became the default. The ship was eventually sold and sold and sold and finished up registered in Piraeus and owned by the Epirotiki Line of cruise-ships. Every time she was sold, or renamed pr there was a company restructuring, the Oceanus lost a little more of her French engineering and standards of service. On the night of 3/4th August 1991, Oceanos was en route from East London to Durban when she encountered a frightening storm. Over the previous 40 years the old ship had seen off far worse but that was when she was in good nick and manned by matelots. In the middle of dinner service, the ship sprung a leak rapidly flooding the engine room's electricity generators which left her without power and off an inhospitable coast in a gale. The Captain shouted Abandon Ship! and promptly obeyed his own orders followed by all the crew members who heard the news. Nobody bothered to tell the passengers. Those in steerage (the cheap seats) knew something was amiss when their of their cabins started slopping water through the port-holes. The full story.

It was left to the on-board entertainers to rouse the passengers, find out how to use ship-to-ship radio and learn really quickly how to launch a life-boat. Moss [R heaving a line from the sinking ship] & Tracy Hills and Julian Butler put on their heroes caps and were the last to leave the ship having ensured that everyone, that's everyone was safe. After the last usable life-boat was filled and cast off (remember this is happening a full gale), the remaining passengers were air-lifted to shore by a shuttle of South African Air Force helicopters. Moss is still dining out on the story, which is fair enough when you consider whether you would have had the bottle to do what he did when up against it. If we're naming names I should mention that the Captain [boo hiss, he's behind you] was Yiannis Avranas, in case you meet him at a dinner party.Weirdly Moss Hills was in another sinking - MS Achille Lauro 1994 - a few years later, so his life-raft launching skills were called upon again. Cue Lady Bracknell? "To lose one ship Mr Hills . . ."

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