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That Sinking Feeling

Don't sail with Bryan Portwig - It could not be good for you.

Some people are born lucky and then you meet Bryan Portwig whose first cruising experiences were anything but plain sailing as he recalled.

His first cruise was on Betsy Ross and what a nightmare that turned out to be.

Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross had a rather chequered career, starting life as Leda in 1953 a little older than “Salty Seadog”. Built as a passenger-cargo vessel she operated twice weekly across the North Sea from Norway to Newcastle Upon Tyne. She had first-class accommodation for 119 passengers and 384 tourist class, she also carried 18 cars that were lifted on and off by her own cranes and stored in three cargo hatches. On her inaugural cruise with King Haakon of Norway onboard she ran aground.

During her long and varied history, she underwent many changes of name, ownership and uses. In the oil crises, her lack of fuel efficiency meant she did a spell as a hostel ship for oil rig workers. She was then purchased for use as a livestock carrier but was instead once again used for hostel accommodation in the Hebrides.

In 1980 she underwent another name change to Albatross and was rebuilt to become a cruise liner, a name change once again to Allegro was short-lived and she reverted to Albatross. In 1985 she was chartered to the American Star Line and renamed the Betsy Ross in honour of Betsy Ross the American upholsterer who made the first American Flag, accordingly known as the Betsy Ross flag.

We were booked to do our first cruise - got all excited - travelled down to Durban only to find the ship was 5 days late - beset with problems - the passengers coming off the ship told us the toilets were not working and the ship was a nightmare.

Our trip a coastal of 7 days was shortened to a 2-night cruise to nowhere. Promptly the ship broke down and I got “mal de mere”!

Luckily we got a full refund as we knew the owner of the charter company.

The next time around Bryan chose “Oceanos” which he describes as a nice cruise.

Oceanos was launched in 1952, built in France and named Jean Laborde, like the Betsy Ross she went through many different owners and name changes (Jean Laborde, Mykinai, Ancona, Eastern Princess) in the succeeding decades. By the time Brian boarded her in 1991 she had been owned by Greek company Epirotiki since 1976 and renamed yet again this time “Oceanos”.

Brian’s cruise took him from Durban down to East London, Port Elizabeth and down to Cape Town.

Oceanos starts to keel over before sinking.

Having returned home Bryan discovered that his neighbour was indeed due to sail on “Oceanos” in three trips time. However,, on 4th August 1991, he got a call from his neighbour telling him that the ship was sinking and he got to watch it sink live on TV. Ironically Bryan had been offered ZAR 100.00 (£5) fare trip on the leg she sunk on from East London to Durban. He was lucky he could not raise the airfare at the time.

Normally when a ship starts to go down, it is women and children first to the lifeboats, but not in the case of “Oceanos” as the Captain was nowhere to be found on the bridge having taken to a lifeboat with other officers and crew.

Oceanos the Lifeboats have launched.

Captain Yannis Avranias later claimed that he left the ship first in order to arrange for a rescue effort.

The entertainers came to the fore that night and organised the evacuation of the ship. When the ship lost all power, the lounge was in darkness, except for very dull battery-powered emergency lights. A small group of entertainers started to organise the launch of the lifeboats.

Oceanos - Photo was taken by a survivor before being rescued.

After all available lifeboats were launched, Lorraine, the cruise director, Robin a magician and a few of the entertainers made their way to the bridge and they discovered that it had been abandoned. They managed to establish radio contact with the shore-side rescue coordinators who dispatched helicopters to the sinking ship. When the helicopters arrived, musicians Moss and Tracy Hills, and magician Julian Butler left the bridge to help set up the helicopter airlift. Robin Boltman remained on the bridge, keeping in radio contact, and while he was there he saw the Captain's canary, still in its cage. He released the canary, allowing it the chance to fly free instead of being trapped as the ship went under.

Robin Boltman relays the tale in his book.

I also heard him interviewed on the Radio here in the UK and his story is fascinating.

It was thanks to these brave entertainers that every one of the 581 passengers and crew survived. In the dark they launched the lifeboats and as dawn broke, they helped the amazing helicopter crews to airlift the last 200 to safety as Oceanos sinks slowly to the Ocean bed

Bryan’s third cruise was on the Achille Lauro, once again his presence onboard left a lasting impression, she too sank and once again he watched this live on the TV.

Achille Lauro sank on 2nd December 1994,

The Achille Lauro had a very checkered career. Her life started in 1939, Interrupted by World War II and two bombing raids, the ship was finally launched in July 1946, as

Willem Ruys a cruise ship based in Naples. She was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. In other incidents, it also suffered two serious collisions in 1953 and in 1975 and four onboard fires or explosions (in 1965, 1972, 1981, and 1994). In the last of these, in 1994, the ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean off Somalia.

This video was captured by Louie Cowan

90% of this video is all the video footage that I filmed, onboard the ship and in the life raft, while the fire raged on the ship. (I was a singer on board at the time) When we reached land, I sold my footage to WTN, a news media supplier, who then got it shown on CNN and other news outlets.

Bryan comments that “My late father said to me at the time - if he ever wanted to go on a cruise - he would ask me what ships I had been on - then avoid them like rats deserting a sinking ship"

After that I called at Durban and managed to get a ship visit on the QE2 - a grand ship - a couple of months later she ran aground

Oh and my passion for ships started with the Titanic

- enough said.

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Jamie, The Purser
Jamie, The Purser
Dec 09, 2022

Bryan, you must be the Jonah of the Seas, what a reputation.

I was very much aware the Oceanos and Achille Lauro sinkings and recall seeing footage at the time of both incidents, but the footage by Louie certainly brings home the horrific unfortunate experience of fire at sea. Fortunately had no experience of fire at sea, but training with the Southampton Fire Service was frightening enough for me on dry land, its difficult to imagine an event such as yours.

Betsy Ross incident I was not aware of, but interesting to read all your experiences. Thanks for sharing, Cheers Jamie. the Purser!


Bryan Portwig
Bryan Portwig
Dec 05, 2022

thank you forwriting the article - i did have a 4th cruise on the rhapsody x cunard princess - lucky the cruise was great and no mishaps - except for a rumored wanted man on board - who it turns out was on our table sitting thru out the voyage - again durban - to cape town and a uninvited confrontation with a runaway bride 's husband when we called at plet bay - who again just happened to be part of our click on board ! i kid you not - and for lack of evidence on the wanted man i have left his name out of my little adventure as well as the stilted bride - i d…

Salty Seadog
Salty Seadog
Dec 05, 2022
Replying to

Bryan. You have so many stories to tell. Thank you for sharing them.

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