Port Elizabeth of Yore: Thunderbolt Reef claims another Victim

One would have thought that the denouement of the age of sail would have brought the menace of the Thunderbolt Reef to a close. Instead, it was not to be. Perhaps as a belated swansong, on a calm winter’s afternoon on Monday 29th July 1985, yet another vessel would attempt to traverse the treacherous inner route between the rocky shore at Cape Recife and Thunderbolt Roof. With few exceptions, they would learn a sobering lesson about its dangers. In the case of the Kapodistrias, a Greek bulk carrier of 29,185 tons, it would not be an exception.

How was it possible that a modern vessel equipped with all the latest navigation equipment, could run aground on a  calm morning?

Main picture: This was the last photo taken of the Kapodistrias wreck at Cape Recife. The next morning she was gone.

The 118-metre Kapodistrias left the Port Elizabeth harbour at 13:45 bound for Montreal in Canada carrying a cargo of 7,500 tons of manganese ore, 27,653 tons of sugar, as well as zirconium and rutile. Between 14:00 and 15:30, which was high tide, the vessel took the inner passage and ran aground on the eastern part of the notorious Thunderbolt Reef about one kilometre offshore. The stricken vessel was a Greek bulk carrier built by Hakodate Dock Co. Muroran, a port city on the south coast of Japan’s Hokkaidō island but registered in Panama.  It was now estimated that the Kapodistrias was about one sea mile from the shore, not far from the boiler of the Pati, a freighter which also came to grief on Thunderbolt  Reef.

In this incident, the Kapodistrias was the 13th vessel on record to have struck the reef, but fortunately, no lives were lost. Notwithstanding that two women and a child had to be lifted from the Kapodistrias to the anti-pollution vessel Kuswag 2. After taking the women and child back to port, the Kuswag 2 returned to the scene and spent the night and most of Tuesday on standby near the stricken vessel keeping a wary eye out for oil spillage.

For some unknown reason, no effort was made to pull the 30,000-ton Kapodistrias clear on the Monday but the captain and crew were still on board the carrier that night. Tuesday broke with the a rising westerly wind which was expected to gust up to 20 knots thereby hampering salvage efforts

The Kapodistrias in the Welland Canal in Canada

According to a report in the Herald, Assistant Port  Captain of Port Elizabeth, Captain Bruce Etherington stated that attempts to pull the Kapodistrias off the rocks could not be made  until more facts were known. “We have to assess the situation first. We’ll have men out there at first light. I don’t know whether she is taking water. There is a possibility that the bunker oil might spill into the sea if the bunker tanks are holed. As far  as the pollution  aspect is concerned, it depends on the amount and type of oil”. As the Kapodistrias was capable of carrying as much as 1,000 tons of bunker oil, spillage was a concern for the authorities.  

With Capt. Etherington claiming that there was no possibility of the ship breaking up, the Cape Town based  salvage tug John Ross sailed from Table Bay at 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon with an anticipated arrival time in Algoa Bay of about 2 p.m. on Tuesday.

Probably due to the westerly wind, no attempt at refloating the Kapodistrias appear to have been made on Tuesday or Wednesday. By Thursday, 1st August 1985, there were fears that the salvage operation has been left too late, as a cold front was expected to hit Port Elizabeth that day and this, according to local experts, could result in 4 metre swells, which would break right over the Kapodistrias. At this stage, only the captain and seven crew were still on board and it was proposed that most of the sugar on board could be jettisoned in an effort to lighten the ship. Furthermore, conservationists were concerned that bunker fuel was leaking from the stranded vessel.

Only now was the first inkling of the cause of the grounding made public when the Master of the Kapodistrias informed a representative of the salvage Association that a problem with the steering equipment had led to her running aground on Monday, the 29th July.

On Thursday 1st August, the Herald reported that Mr. Ian Lloyd, who arrived in Port Elizabeth to assess the damage for Lloyd’s of London, stated on Wednesday night that the sugar was easier to handle than the other cargo, which included manganese ore. He said that although three of the bunker fuel tanks were ruptured, very little oil was leaking into the sea. “She’s in pretty good condition to be refloated and we could get started by tomorrow. We are trying to arrange signing of the contract tonight or early tomorrow morning“. Asked whether there was any chance of the Kapodistrias breaking up in heavy swells, which are expected on the 1st  [that day] or the 2nd  [Friday], Mr. Lloyd claimed that  she was a very strong ship and was sitting “nicely” on the bottom. At this stage, Mr. Lloyd was fairly confident that if the salvage contract could be started post haste, it would be a matter of no more than seven days before the ship was back in port. He went on and claimed that there was no chance of a great amount of oil spilling and that even though the oil was leaking slowly, there were no plans to transfer it. He also dismissed speculation that the ship had nearly reached the end of her life expectancy, hence rebutting  the claim that the delay in the decision to salvage her, arose due to this issue. He then informed the press that solicitors would be flying out from London to take statements from the crew that day.

It was with a sense of foreboding that Mr. Mike Liebenberg, former chairman of the South African Council for Anti-pollution, raised his concerns regarding the expected cold front which was imminent. This would make the conditions at the reef ill-suited to transfer the oil and cargo. By now [Thursday], the Kapodistrias has developed a six-degree list to port and  was leaking oil from three damaged bunker fuel tanks.

The truth will set you free

Many people have an uneasy relationship with the truth, but ultimately the truth will be exposed to the light of day. On Friday 2nd August, the  Herald revealed that there had been nobody at the helm of the Kapodistrias when it ran aground on Thunderbolt Reef on the Monday. This revelation emerged from interviews with the Pakistani crew and the Master, Captain N. Liodis. On Thursday the Pakistani crew claimed that the helmsman had been sent off the bridge soon before the ship had run aground, and this was confirmed by Capt. Liodis who admitted that the ship was on automatic pilot.

The Eastern Province Herald had pieced together events leading up to the stranding of the ship in interviews with the Pakistani crew and the Master. It was one of the crew, Mr. Rahim Dad, who revealed what he had written about the grounding on the back of an old cigarette carton. The crew endorsed what he had written. Apparently, an able seaman was at the wheel soon after the ship left port but had been instructed to go down off the bridge to raise ladders. “A few minutes before this happened the master and another officer discussed something slowly in each other’s ears and then ordered the able seaman who was at the wheel to go down”.

Make no mistake, divining the unvarnished truth is never straightforward. In this case there were serious discrepancies in the accounts of what happened thereafter. The crew claimed that the bridge called for “full three times causing the Kapodistrias to slew round to starboard and be damaged on the reef”. However, Capt. Liodis asserted that after the ship had run aground, he had ordered full astern in an attempt to free it.

By Saturday 10th August, it was abundantly clear that as all salvage attempts had been unsuccessful, that refloating the Kapodistrias was out of the question. This failure had largely been as a consequence of bad weather and high seas. On the 10th August, Captain Dai Davies, who headed the salvage operation, confirmed the worst; the engine room of the Kapodistrias was flooding, and that the pump was no longer able to counteract the vicious swells crashing into the ship. Consequently, there was no hope of pumping air into the ship to try and raise her off the reef. Captain Davies stated that the decision to abandon any further salvage attempts had been made at 5.15 a.m. that day. Despite the previous day being a neap tide, the waves were “vicious.” As the ship had been exposed to violent swells, the ship had been grinding onto the seabed for the previous 10 days. By then, the steel members of the ship had worn down and some had fractured.

The John Ross and the Causeway Adventurer, two salvage boats, had already been disconnected from the ship and salvage equipment was being loaded up. The Chief Engineer, the Third Engineer, the Electrician and the ship’s representative were all there when the decision to abandon salvage operations was made.

On Saturday, the last members of the crew were airlifted by helicopter from the ship to the shore. There were still divers and watchmen on board who were ensuring that no one attempted to salvage anything on the ship. A warning was issued to the effect that anyone who attempted to get on board the vessel would be handed over to the police.


The Bay of Lost Cargoes: The Shipwrecks of Algoa Bay and St. Francis Bay on the East Coast of South Africa by Warren Morris(2005, Xpress Print and Copy, Port Elizabeth)

Ship Runs Aground: Thunderbolt Reef claims fully laden carrier by Lloyd Coutts (Eastern Province Herald 30th July 1985.

Bid to Salvage “Kapodistrias” Likely Today by Lloyd Coutts, (Eastern Province Herald 1st August 1985.)

Attempts to Salvage the Stranded Carrier “Kapodistrias” were permanently abandoned today by CathySchell (Eastern Province Herald 19th August 1985.)

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