We loaded at the Iranian terminal Kharg Island (Persian Gulf) two grades of crude (Iranian Heavy and Iranian Light).
From Sines (Portugal) to the Persian Gulf we passed through Suez Canal, but the returning voyage back to Sines would have to be made around Africa due to the vessel’s deep draft (22,5m). This ship was huge. With 341,6m length overall (LOA) and 53,6m breadth, I remember Tarifa Traffic issuing navigational warnings for other vessels to keep clear of us when we were proceeding through the Strait of Gibraltar. In fact, with a massive 300000 tons of deadweight and 151225 gross tonnage you can’t do too much to avoid other vessels in a strait.
Anyway, proceeding through the Mozambique Channel heading for South Africa, the weather started deteriorating to an extent that we had to slow down the speed to avoid embarkation of sea on the forecastle deck.
As we were approaching the tip of Africa the weather was becoming much worse and we had to adjust speed and heading to avoid the enormous waves coming from southwest.
This area off South Africa is particularly dangerous for west bound vessels due to the interaction of the Agulhas Current (up to 4 knots and about 70 Sv) with the heavy seas coming from the southwest that leads to the formation of the often called freak waves.
In fact, when a current flows against the direction of wave propagation the wavelength decreases and the waves get higher and steeper. Wave height will also be further increased as a result of energy gained from the current. Waves are also refracted by the counter current, creating a confusing sea, where you can no longer predict the direction of the swell.
Off South Africa, with bad weather coming from southwest, wave heights can be in the order of 30m when they encounter the southwest flowing strong Agulhas Current.
Now take a look at the synoptic chart for 15th of June 1996 (the day before the accident) with the 3 low pressure systems:
Synoptic chart 15th June 1996.
During these days we heard several vessels requiring emergency assistance due to cargo lost overboard, loss of power, loss of steering, etc.
On the morning of the 16th, from the bridge wing we started hearing a strange noise coming from the forecastle that resembled air under pressure, passing through a pipe or something…
The Captain then asked the Chief Officer to assemble some crew to check what was happening on the forecastle (you have to remember that due to the very bad weather no crew had worked on deck the previous 2 or 3 days).
The Chief Officer and me (the 2nd officer was also the safety officer on this ship) prepared the equipment (safety lines and harnesses) with the Bosun, and, together with the Chief Engineer and two ABs, we proceeded through the middle of the ship, slightly protected by the discharge lines on the deck.
When we arrived there, we immediately saw the portside deep tank vent completely torn off and air coming out and going in at high pressure, following the motion of the vessel.
In consultation with the Captain on the bridge it was decided that it was necessary to check if something was wrong in the portside hull. To do that I strapped myself to a safety line with a harness and the two ABs hold me from the middle of the ship while I ran the 25m to the ship’s rails in order to see what was happening (waves were falling on deck so we had to check first how many seconds I had before the next one crashed…).
When I got there and looked down to the hull I saw nothing wrong. Then when the vessel’s bow raised due to the swell this is what I saw below the waterline: