Oceanos hero awarded

Brave Neal Shaw and friend help passengers to safety

RIGHTLY RECOGNISED: Albeit 30 years after the incident, local man Neal Shaw is recognised by the NSRI with a Bronze Bravery Award for his courage during the sinking of the Oceanos cruise ship in 1991 Picture: ROB KNOWLES

Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the Indian Ocean when there is a sudden bang, a listing of the ship and the lights go out?

On Saturday, August 3 1991, this was the position in which local man, Neal Shaw, found himself. While he, his wife and child were enjoying an overnight cruise from East London to Durban on board the Oceanos, at about 10pm a pipe fractured in the engine room.

From that moment on, the Oceanos was destined to sink and be lost in the depths of the ocean.

Fifteen minutes later there was a bang and the entire ship shuddered. Obvious panic ensued but the first people to abandon the ship were its Greek crew, leaving the entertainers and the tour operator, TFC, to handle the developing crisis.

Shortly thereafter, the engines and the lights went out, leaving only emergency lighting to illuminate the ship.

Shaw was one of the passengers who assisted the TFC crew, who after the rest of the Greek crew left on covered lifeboats, were left to organise evacuating the most vulnerable passengers.

“On boarding the vessel, there were no safety instructions about lifeboats or life jackets,” said Shaw, who added that the captain had been warned about inclement weather and advised not to leave port.

“But the captain, having another appointment in Durban, didn’t want to miss out and so he ignored the warnings.”

The swells were up to 15m and were battering the ship on its starboard side, causing a lilt that would inevitably lead to the ship sinking.

The wind was blowing violently.

Shaw explained he was in the ship’s casino when the drama started. “The tables began to shift around so we upended them to prevent them for causing more damage,” said Shaw.
Water was beginning to flood the ship as it listed badly enough that the lifeboats on the starboard-side could not be lowered.

TFC staff, along with the entertainers and a handful of the passengers brought the women and children to the deck and placed them in open lifeboats as the Greek crew had used the covered ones.

“My wife and child, plus my friend’s wife and children, including an infant, were placed on a
lifeboat and lowered into the water,” explained Shaw.

At this point, Shaw and his friend, Mick O’Mahoney, were assisting the passengers to evacuate but, after filling a lifeboat with passengers they could not lower it fully into the water due to a technical problem and  therefore were forced, with some effort, to rehoist
the lifeboat and bring passengers back on board.

With water sloshing about their feet, little lighting and the ship slowly but inevitably sinking
toward the port-side, the ad-hoc rescue team retired to the bar lounge and passed bottles of booze among the remaining passengers to keep warm and calm while waiting to be rescued.

At first light, when the helicopters arrived, the captain was the first to board and head to shore.

Shaw and O’Mahoney continued to help passengers to the helicopter hoist point.
Under direction, they eventually jumped off the boat and were picked up by rescuers in a lifeboat.

“But, when we attempted to board the rescue ship, the Nedlloyd Mauritius container liner, the waves were causing the lifeboat and ship to move against each other, and climbing
the rope ladder with the wind and waves was harrowing and a matter of perfect timing.”

Shaw and the others were brought ashore on the Monday and only then could establish that their families were safe.

“All of the crew and passengers were rescued from the sinking Oceanos and there is far  more of the story,” Shaw said.

The entire incident is recorded in Andrew Pike’s new book, Against all odds.

Subsequent to this, the NSRI recognised Shaw and O’Mahoney’s heroism with Bronze  Bravery Awards.

It was the 30th anniversary of the rescue of the Oceanos’s passengers on Wednesday August 4, and the award is befitting for someone who showed extreme bravery in a time of
peril.

by ROB KNOWLES

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