I was 18 years old when I was assigned to do two year national service in the South African Medical Services. I was sent to Potchefstroom to do my basic training. My Basic Training was equal to three months of getting fit as well as learning about the defence force, Biology and medical training. After Basic Training I was sent to 2 Military Hospital for Ops Training and then I asked to go Simonstown Medical Centre where a Doctor and a Medic like me were assigned to a War ship.
In December 1981 I first boarded the SAS President Kruger. The whole reason I wanted to be on this specific ship was, my oldest brother was onboard this ship as well. He worked in the electronic warfare department. Fortunately for him he was drafted off the ship not long after, for training somewhere else.
The ship had a compliment of 193 men, and consisted of the bridge, different decks, and divided into living areas, office areas as well as warfare departments. There were other compartments like the Engine room, storage and cold storage, junior rates mess hall, senior rate’s mess, and officer’s mess, as well as bathrooms and showers and a sickbay.
The Sickbay consisted of an operating table; two cradle beds (like a double bunk but swings with the motion of the ship), lockers full of medical equipment and a toilet. As I arrived I had to learn the who what and where of the ship. Where to eat, daily routine, and sleep onboard was all new to me.
In January 1982 I went on my first trip to Port Elizabeth, the seas were not bad, I had to learn to find my sea legs trying to walk in a straight line down the alley ways (passage) while the ship is rolling around. The only time I felt a bit affected by the ship’s rolling to port and starboard, forward and aft, was after lunch or supper, my stomach felt a bit weird, but I never got sea sick. (By the way, if anyone got sea sick, on any trip, these old sea dogs would make fun of you forever and a day). Motto of the story is never ever get physically sick. Even with the sea not being so bad one of the ship’s crew got sea sick every single day and even with medical treatment he had to be drafted (transferred) off the ship when we returned to Simonstown.
In February 1982 we were told that we must prepare and that we will be going to Walvisbay, Southwest-Africa (Namibia), for at least a week or two. Everybody stocked up with food, water, fuel, and medical, office, ammunition and liquor supplies. We were ready for the trip.
On Monday we left Simonstown and I knew there was something different about this trip, because the sea was more rough than before, and one of the Warrant Officers, mentioned that during Tuesday night water ran into one of the hatches and he has never experienced that before.
On Tuesday during the day one of the men from the engine room, hurt his ankle while going down the stairs. The doctor had a look at him, and because his ankle was very swollen and we did not have luxury facilities like the x-ray machine onboard, the Doctor and I put his leg in plaster of Paris in case it was broken and at least his ankle was stabilized.
Our ship the SAS President Kruger and other War ships as well as a Submarine were engaged in exercises, and basically only the people on bridge and deck would know what is happening, as all other men below deck would go on with their daily task, without knowing where we were going or how fast we were going
Wednesday, 18 February 1982
I woke up with a tremendous crashing sound, the doors of sick bay bursting open and I jumped off the top bunk, dressed only in a tracksuit pants, t shirt and no shoes of course. As I put my feet on the ground I realized that I am standing in fuel oil, in the dark with no lights burning except for a red lights in the alleyway that is on as per normal, I look up towards the passage (alleyway) and all I see is loose wires and what looked like disconnected piping.
I was sleeping in the top bunk and the person sleeping in the bottom bunk was the person who possibly broke his ankle the previous day. Still in a daze we try to find out what actually just happened. To me it looked like a pipe burst in the alley way, as I looked into the passage towards the back of the ship about a meter to the left, I looked straight into a wall of twisted metal blocking off the passage towards the rear exit of the ship, so I knew that I cannot go in that direction and had to turn right towards the front of the ship. I told the seaman who’s leg was in plaster of Paris from his toes up to his knee, and only dressed in shorts, to go to the front of the ship, and he hobbled as fast as he could down the alley way. I never saw him again after that.
As I stepped into the alley way I noticed debris all over the place and sea water already leaking into the passage, as I went past the junior rates bath room I then looked at the outside wall (bulkhead). There was nothing, I was staring into the darkness of night, and as the ship was tilting I saw the white foam as the sea was breaking into the bathroom. Panic stricken by all of this, I knew I had to get away from there to my emergency mustering point which was the officers mess in the front of the ship.
At this time the ship was already starting to list on one side and I had basically walked on hand and feet to get to the front of the ship, getting cuts on my feet from the debris on the deck. On arrival at the wardroom I met up with the Doctor and I asked him if he knew what happened, and he said he heard that a Tanker crashed into our ship (at this stage I thought that the Tanker was a private oil tanker ship, not our own Navy’s Supply ship) The Doctor then said we need to clear the room of the tables and chairs as there will be casualties as the result of the collision. The first casualty arrived, it was a Petty Officer from the cabin where the impact occurred and he was dressed only in his underpants and had lacerations on his body. The Doctor then attended to him, and they covered him in a blanket as he was in shock and cold.
I realised then that I never took my life jacket that was hanging from my bunk, back in the Sick Bay, and went back down the alley way to go and fetch it. Halfway there at the junior rates bathroom I saw sparks flying from an electrical box on the wall, and realized that I cannot get passed it to get my lifejacket, so I turned around and headed back to the wardroom, and from there we were told to “Abandon ship.” We headed for the hatch in front, between the big cannon and the bridge. The ship was already listing about 30 to 40 degrees over to its side at this stage. We crawled up the steps leading up to the bridge on the outside. Close to bridge where the life rafts were kept in grey looking capsules, we were ordered to jump off from that point one by one in an orderly fashion, as not jump on top of each other(The life rafts were already released prior to our arriving at that point)
Being a medic and not even from the navy, I have never been through an actual drill, and what to do in the event of an emergency and this was enormously overwhelming for me. Not being a good swimmer I asked one of the guys for a life jacket, which I quickly put on. Each life jacket has a little light which is connected to a seawater battery, and when the battery comes into contact with seawater it automatically lights up.
When I eventually jumped into the water, dressed only in a lifejacket, T-Shirt, tracksuit pants and underpants, it hits you like a ton of bricks. The only way I can describe it, is that it’s like being woken up at 4.00am in the morning and told to take an ice cold shower and then go outside while a howling South Easter is blowing. It takes your breath away.
You look around and all you can see are the lights on what seems like a hundred other lifejackets. At first you panic and try to swim, but then you realise there is nowhere to swim to. It’s like me taking you out in the middle of False Bay or Table Bay at night and then asking everybody on Land to switch off all the lights. Its pitch black, there are no reference points. Where do you go from here?
There you are, in pitch darkness, fitted with a lifejacket and thrown into a sea being buffeted by a 30 knot South Easter in water that is 3000m deep, 144km offshore at 4AM. That far out to sea the swells are the size of multi-storey buildings and you lose sight of any others floating with you.
I swam around aimlessly and swallowing seawater (and not knowing fuel oil as well) and vomiting for 5, 10 or 20 minutes (time stood still) praying “God help me please” and in the end said “God I can’t do this anymore” and was ready to give up, when I floated past a sailor who tells me not to try to swim, but rather just to stay afloat. “Do breast-stroke” he says. I know that God put this person right there at that exact moment so that I could survive.
Something brushes past my leg, and reaching down I found I have caught a drogue (a sea anchor, looks like a parachute, designed to prevent lifeboats being blown away by the wind). Pulling me along the rope I arrive at a life raft but it is upside down. Which means you can’t climb into the raft; you just have to hang onto it as it never inflated properly when it was released. Also hanging onto this raft was the Doctor, Captain of the SAS President Kruger, Air Force Pilot and helicopter mechanics as well as the injured person from our ship and other men.
I spend the next two to three hours hanging onto the side of it, first with this arm, then with that arm, desperate not to let go. Somebody decided, in order to keep our spirits up, to sing songs, ironically one of the songs was “My Bonnie lies over the ocean”
The Warship SAS President Pretorius was close to us during that exercise and made a wide turn and basically drifted without propulsion as not to hurt anybody in the process and started picking up guys from the water. This was a lengthy process as the swell was pushing the guys up against the Ship that was rescuing us, as high as the deck and then in the next few seconds, you would drop meters below to almost the keel of the ship.
Then at last a rescue harness was lowered from the side of the flight deck, it was my turn to be hoisted up against the side of the ship. I’m telling you, there was no better feeling, when I safely put my feet onboard the SAS President Pretorius, I swear I could have kissed the deck, just to know that I am safe and don’t have to battle it out there against the elements.
By this time it was getting lighter outside, it was round about 6 or 7am. Onboard the SAS President Pretorius you see a sailor standing at the side with a rifle. The thoughts pass through your mind – why would they want to shoot you, they’ve come to rescue you! You learn later that they were there to shoot sharks. Sharks! It hasn’t occurred to me once that there might be sharks that could attack us.
After we got rescued by the SAS President Pretorius I was taken to have a shower, and given lots of soap to wash off the fuel oil we were drifting in, we were pitch black from head to toes. After the hot shower we were given navy overalls and tackies. A roll call (Head Count) was done by senior Ranks of the SAS President Pretorius every hour or so as more and more people were rescued, a recount was done to make sure all of us were identified. We weren’t sure who was rescued and who was not as some of The President Kruger’s crew were picked up by the SAS Tafelberg (the replenishment ship that crashed into us) whom, after assessing their damages, came back to assist with the rescue effort.
I will never forget as we sailed into False Bay that evening, we were sitting in the junior rates mess (dining hall) and someone put the TV on, and there we were on prime time TV news on SABC as we were sailing towards the harbour, filmed from a helicopter above.
I can’t remember exactly at what time we came alongside the pier, but we were escorted to a waiting bus, and from there we were taken to Simonsberg where our family and friends were waiting for us. There were lots of tears of joy to see us but let me tell you there were lots tears of loss as well. I only understand now having met some of the deceased family and friends what they must have gone through that night and thereafter. It is sad, very sad, and I often think of the guys who did not survive, and the good times we had together.
We were each given a lousy R50 and a week’s leave to recover from the experience.
This tragedy was all over the news for days and months and even after I finished my national service I had to go to the Cape Town court for the inquest. Immediately after the event military intelligence confiscated all photographs and speaking about it was strictly forbidden. Searching the internet even now you will find very little about this tragic event, yet there were 16 lives lost that night.
I still have the watch I was wearing, with its hands forever stopped at that time.
I was serving as a Medic, seconded from the SA Medical Services, on board SAS President Kruger and returned to Simonstown Medical Centre where I finished my National service on dry land.