Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 14, November 1-15, 2017

The ship-grounding 1966 cyclone

From notes recalling a horror - and a footnote to them.

1-nov-thasr-shi+TH_SHIP4This is the story of s.s. [Text Wrapping Break]Stamatis, as it actually happened. I am in a position to give the correct story, because of my personal involvement with the ship, and the devastating cyclone which battered Madras on November 6, 1966 at which time I was a Professional Surveyor there.

s.s. Progress, Marore, and Stamatis were chartered by Bethlehem Steel Company’s shipping subsidiary to offload wheat in bulk which had been brought to Madras in their bulk carrier Mari Hora, which arrived and moored in Madras harbour on November 5th, 1966. The firm Ericson and Richards (Madras), of which I was then Proprietor, was appointed by the charterers to inspect the three daughter vessels (term used for smaller vessels), with respect to their fitness to receive and carry wheat in bulk to Calcutta from the mother vessel, Mari Hora.

This inspection requires the surveyors to thoroughly examine the vessel’s cargo compartments to ascertain that they have been thoroughly washed and are absolutely clean, free of infestation, with no loose rust, in other words in grain-worthy condition.

My colleague, Capt. S.R. Dighe, and I set out early morning on November 5th to inspect the three vessels which were anchored in Madras Roads. The first vessel was Stamatis which was a ‘Liberty’ type vessel. The vessel’s cargo compartments were examined, and the ship was found to be clean except for some minor deficiencies which were immediately corrected by the crew and we certified her as fit. Then, on to Marore, a Canadian ‘Fort’ type, and we found her also fit. Then we visited Progress which we had inspected on the previous occasions when she was chartered by the same charterers. Capt. Heing, Master of the Progress, was fully aware of the requirements, and had his vessel absolutely ready in all respects to carry wheat. Just before leaving her, Capt. Heing asked us to request Capt. Victor Raymond, Port Captain (Char-ter-er’s Representative) to bring her alongside the mother vessel first, though he had arrived a couple of hours after Stamatis.

We returned ashore around 5 pm and went to Mari Hora at the centre moorings, and informed Capt. Raymond that the three vessels were passed for loading and also communicated Capt. Heing’s request. Having known him from earlier trips, he readily agreed and sent a message to Progress through the signal station that the ship should be ready in all respects to come alongside the mother vessel by the first pilot, at 6 am on November 6th, 1966.

By the time we left Progress, the wind had become very fresh, and the sea started breaking with ‘white horses’ all over. But the North-eastern Monsoon having already set in, this did not alarm us to a great degree. While on the Mari Hora, we saw preparation being made to discharge cargo. This involved placing of vacuuming machines at proper places alongside the hatch combings, connecting pipes, etc. These machines suck grain from the mother vessel’s holds and pump it across through the pipes into the holds of a daughter vessel. When we left Mari Hora by about 8 pm, the wind had increased considerably, and we both noticed a slight change in its direction. There was also intermittent rain.

By about midnight, it was raining continuously and the wind had freshened to gale force. I waited for some time, but finally decided to go to the signal station to see the conditions. Against my wife’s protestations, I finally left the house by 3 am on my way to the harbour. The roads had started to flood and it took me nearly an hour to reach the harbour. When I got to the signal station, the entire Marine Department’s officers, which included Capt. Van Geyzel, Deputy Port Conservator, Capt V.V. Sheshadri, Harbour Master, Capt. P. Balaram and Capt. Thiya-garajan, Dock Masters, and also Capt. Kelkar, Capt. Venu-gopal and other pilots were there.

It was now pouring hard, with gale force winds. Storm signals were put up. You could faintly see anchor lights of the vessels, anchored in the roads. The discussion was on the rapid shifting of wind and steep fall in the barometric pressure. We all came to the conclusion that the severe cyclone which was reported earlier was likely to pass over Madras, or at least close to it, and would do so very shortly. Surprisingly, the Meteorological Department kept on giving the position of the cyclone at 150/200 km SSE of Madras when we knew that it was far closer than that. The D.P.C. and H.M. were also muttering and blaming themselves for not sending out the vessels in the harbour the previous evening itself. Now all the ships were demanding assistance from the signal station, as it was becoming impossible for them to remain alongside, for their ropes and wires were snapping like strings of twine. There was hardly anything the Port could do at the time, though they did dispatch mooring crews to assist the ships.

By about 6 am, watching the shifting direction of the wind and barometer, we knew that the cyclone was crossing right over Madras. There was torrential rain, and wind speed had risen to more than 100 miles an hour. At daybreak, we could finally see the silhouettes of the ship at anchor. Three or four ships were not to be seen, and we figured that the Masters must have weighed anchor and proceeded to sea, which was the safer way.

The Progress was anchored north of the harbour entrance, approximately near the new channel that turns to the east about 1 to 1½ mile away. We could see that she was drifting southwards, and sometimes could faintly see her propeller rising in the air, as her stern rose above water due to heavy pitching. Apparently the Captain was trying his best to get away, but the wind and heavy seas were too much for her power. What was causing immense worry to Port officials was that she might founder right in the middle of the harbour entrance! They were cursing and praying at the same time, that she keeps clear of the entrance. Their prayers were answered and at the last moment a heavy return swell pushed her out seaward, and she dashed on the breakwater but on the outside. A heavy sigh of relief was breathed that she did not break up inside! She apparently broke into two, but, there was very little to do to help the crew at the time, as heavy seas were battering the breakwater walls. – (From the late Capt.

Prabhakar Datar’s notebook, sent to us by Mrs. Snehalata Datar).

Snehalata Datar adds, “I cannot find my husband’s account of what happened thereafter to the Stamatis, in particular, so I am adding this footnote from Google:

A spectacle that remains etched in the collective memory of the city is the sight of the half-submerged Stamatis, the cargo ship which hit Marina beach on November 3rd, 1966 and remained a sorry sight till the 1990s.

Worst affected by the storm of November 6th was the Progress. The ship split in two and about 25 crew members, mostly Chinese, died.

The Stamatis and Marore, jostled violently by the storm, drifted. While Marore ran aground off the Port Trust marshalling yard, Stamatis was dragged further and reached Marina beach. The Madras Steamers Agents’ Association, after a few days, declared that Marore was “as good as wrecked as it had developed a big crack amidship,” but they had some hopes about refloating Stamatis.

Ten days later, attempts to pull the ship out of the sand commenced. Large crowds had gathered to witness the event, but they were disappointed since the recovery operations failed.

M/s. Diana Maritime Corporation, the owners, agreed to sell what was remaining of the ship for its scrap value – about Rs. 3.3 lakh – to a local company. However, the wreckage could not be completely removed.

The ruined ship attracted a lot of curious onlookers, but it also turned into a death trap. Many who swam close to it were not aware of the buried, sharp steel girders and were often fatally injured. In January 1983, over three days that followed Pongal, 19 dead bodies were washed ashore. This tragedy created a furore.

Finally, in 1990, a major effort was made to haul the wreckage to shore. A Bombay-based company mobilised more than 30 workers to wrap the broken ship with wires and tried to haul it with the help of two winches. The wreckage was removed, but not completely. There are bits of it still under water close to the site where it beached.

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