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SS Oronsay -Man Overboard

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

In memory of all Sailors who lost their lives to the sea

Earlier this week I received a message from Douglas Whitehead in Australia.

Douglas's father Graham was the chief officer on SS. Oronsay in the 1960s.

Douglas and his family moved to Brisbane, Queensland from North Devon in 1999 to start an academic posting. He was astonished to find the original shipbuilder’s model of the Oronsay on display in the local museum.

His Father was sadly washed overboard from Oronsay during a storm, his body was never recovered.

Graham Tells his Father's story here.

If you have any knowledge of this event or knew

Chief Officer Graham Bastin Whitehead.

His son Douglas would be delighted to hear from you.

Please contact him

A model of SS Oronsay, where the outboard gangways can be easily seen.

My Father was born on 13th March 1927 and, in the early 1950s, he married my Mother, Velijo Winter in Mill Hill, London. My Mother was born in the District of Temora, a town in the northeast of the Riverina area of New South Wales, Australia.

Graham Bastin Whitehead

Chusan 1963

The Oronsay was commissioned by the Orient Line Company in 1950 at Vickers-Armstrong, Barrow-in-Furness. SS Oronsay was my Father’s last ship. He was its Chief Officer. In the summer of 1966 it was on passage around the Mediterranean. By August it was steaming through Greek waters in the North Aegean Sea heading towards the port of Mytilene. Mytilene is the capital of the island of Lesbos. In those days, duty tours for officers were usually between 3 months and 6 months away from home. I barely saw him that year. My Father regularly sailed to Australia and the Far East throughout the 1950s and 1960s on this ship as well as other passenger liners. Australian liner services became uncompetitive as jet airliner services between Europe and Australia expanded and the Oronsay spent more and more time as a cruise ship. The Orient Line amalgamated to form the Peninsular and Orient Line Steam Navigation Company in 1960 and the Oronsay was transferred in 1964.

MAN OVERBOARD Just before 2 am Tuesday, 30th August 1966 the bridge officers of the watch called my Father in his cabin. They were concerned about the condition of an outboard gangway that had come loose in worsening weather. By that time, a stormy, dark night had quickly developed giving rise to storm conditions with a confused and rough sea state.

The gangway’s bottom footing had come loose and was battering the side of the vessel in the storm. It needed urgent inspection to determine a course of action. This was the duty of the Chief Officer whether on watch or not. Safe operation of the ship was my Father’s responsibility.

The outboard gangways on the Queensland Museum’s model showing the sea door where the accident occurred

On being called he immediately went down from his cabin to ‘C’ deck instructing the Bosun and Master At Arms to meet him there. Together they arrived at the sea door at approximately 2 a.m. He and the Bosun opened it. Both men stepped onto the top platform of the outboard gangway. My Father shone a torch down the gangway holding onto the top handrail of the outboard gangway. He then said to the Bosun: get me a gasket (a safety rope).’

(This is recorded in the Bosun’s evidence at the Board of Trade’s Inquiry and in the Coroner’s Report.)

The Bosun turned around to get it stepping off the top platform and back into the safety of the ship.

Any death at sea requires a formal investigation. The UK Government’s Board of Trade’s Inquiry recorded from the two witnesses present, that my Father stepped out onto the top part of the outboard gangway for a preliminary inspection with the Bosun. However, whilst he was left alone on the top platform, a large rogue wave hit part of the gangway engulfing him. The wave was apparently sufficiently large to cause sea spray to land inside the ship’s open sea door soaking the Bosun and Master At Arms. At the Board of Trade Inquiry, it also emerged that the top handrail had come adrift during the accident. A wingnut was also missing from the securing bolt making it lethal in those circumstances.

From oaths submitted to the Trade Inquiry Inquiry, doubt was cast on whether or not the top handrail was in a fit and proper condition before the wave struck it that night. That it came adrift is not in doubt. That it failed to save my Father was not commented on in the Trade Inquiry. A scandalous omission.

The Bosun contacted the bridge immediately advising of the accident. The man overboard signal was given just after 2 am by the bridge officers; they threw overboard the bridge’s lifebuoys and search boats quickly lowered at 02.29. However, the storm and rough seas made a search almost impossible. The crew of the lifeboat all suffered from seasickness and concerns for their safety grew. Captain Edward Cowan abandoned the search at 06.50. My Father’s body was never found.

My Father was P&O’s youngest chief officer. I am told that he was held in high regard by his crew, his officer colleagues, and the passengers. His death was reported in the Canberra Times on 1st September 1966 as well as our local newspaper the Stevenage Gazette in England.

After my Father’s tragic death, my Mother together with me and my three sisters traveled to Australia in 1967 on the SS Oriana, P&O’s flagship at the time. We stayed away for 6 months before returning to England in August 1967 to complete our education there. In 1964 my Father also served on the P&O vessel Oriana as its Chief Officer. Other vessels included the Chusan, Chitral, and Mooltan.

Queenslanders know R.M.S Oronsay well. The original shipyard’s model was for a long time on public display at the Queensland State Museum, Brisbane. On the side of the model are its two outboard gangways where the accident occurred. Subsequently, it has been moved into storage under the auspices of the Queensland Maritime Museum, also in Brisbane.

Tribute to Graham Whitehead and all Sailors who lost their lives at sea.

If you have any knowledge of this event or knew Chief Officer Graham Bastin Whitehead. His son Douglas would be delighted to hear from you.

Please contact him

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