The wreck of the Astor

2009-09-14 00:00

ONE of Port St John’s attributes is that one meets a lot of very different people. Like the Canadian couple who were flying their way around Africa. One of the things about flying around Africa is never knowing what the day will bring. Of all the things that the Canadians may have envisaged happening to them, being the vital link between civilisation and a shipwreck probably wasn’t on the list.

They were having breakfast with their host at a guesthouse, when the host was called to the phone and told about a shipping disaster down the coast. It was in a typical Wild Coast area and inaccessible. Their host went back to the table, told his guests the news, and was about to sit back and wait for the rescue divisions of the South African Navy and Army to do what they do best, when the guest suggested that they take his plane and check out the situation.

When they reached the site of the wreck, they were in for a surprise. The ship hadn’t gone down, it had gone up. Just as a skiboat is driven up on to a sandy beach for retrieval, so was this ship very high and dry. But on rocks, not sand. And the crew were sitting on the rocks waiting to be rescued.

The master of the ship, Captain John McMichael, was a very experienced seaman, and was about to retire with an unblemished record. He had been asked to delay his retirement for one last trip – to take the refrigerated freighter, the Astor, from Mauritius to Durban.

So far it had been plain sailing, good weather and nothing to worry about. Until an officer decided to drink and sail. He drank a lot, and then forgot his left from his right, or rather, his port from his starboard. And he happily steered the ship, in the dead of night, high and dry up a rocky bay.

The crew and captain were helicoptered to safety, and the vultures descended on the stricken ship. Men who were normally your average citizens, turned into greedy salvagers. These Port St John’s residents (may they hang their heads in shame forever), drove to the wreck in their clapped-out Land Rovers and began to steal the most expensive of the equipment. Radios, computers, navigational equipment and radars, were all loaded on their 4x4s and taken away. They believed that the ownership of a shipwreck lay with the person who first attached a rope to it. As most people know, that is extremely archaic; nowadays, wrecks belong to the owners, just as your car still belongs to you should it break down on a highway. The vultures can only climb in if the wreck has been abandoned beyond international shipping waters, in so-called no man’s waters.

Professional salvagers were hired to salvage what they could on behalf of the legal owners, and they set up camp at the site. Keeping environmental damage to a minimum was also part of their job, and the first thing they set out to do was contain the oil spillage and empty the enormous fuel tanks.

They did this, but while they were away, taking the fuel to a safe storage area, the local villagers took advantage of the situation and came in droves to the wreck. They clambered up the Jacob’s ladder and stole and plundered anything that wasn’t rivetted down. A slow river of humanity formed a line back to the village, as bunks were taken apart and the wood ferried away. Linen, mattresses, loose furniture, books, kitchen utensils and food were carried away. Some of the huts in the area now have elegant dinner services with the Astor’s name emblazoned on dinner plates, cups and saucers.

A few weeks later, at a local restaurant, the non-vulturine Port St Johnians had the last laugh at the expense of one of the salvagers. We’ll call him Enricho. He had parked his BMW outside the restaurant, and when he was about to leave, he saw a rope tied from a pillar to his bumper. A crowd of people were waiting to see the exchange between the person who had tied the rope and claimed the car as his, and Enricho. Enricho didn’t see the funny side of his “abandoned” car having been claimed by the first to tie-a-rope-to-the- vessel-and-claim-it-for-himself salvager. But, thank goodness, he realised that he and his taking ways weren’t welcome in PSJ, and was seldom seen again.

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