Robben Island ferry incident: Western Cape legislature demands answers

2017-10-04 13:15
Crew and passenger transfer take place after a damaged Robben Island ferry started to sink in September. (NSRI)

Crew and passenger transfer take place after a damaged Robben Island ferry started to sink in September. (NSRI)

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Cape Town - The Western Cape Legislature has demanded a report from the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) on the Robben Island Museum ferry that nearly sank last month, saying on Wednesday that it would not go through the "loopholes of government powers" for answers.

It also wants an independent external investigation into what led to the Thandi listing, and the massive rescue of 65 local and international visitors and staff in cold choppy seas.

"Why should we have to submit a [Promotion of Access to Information Act] request to get a report," demanded Beverley Schafer, chairperson of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament’s Standing Committee on Economic Opportunities, Tourism, and Agriculture.

This was after the Samsa delegates at the committee meeting on the incident, also attended by heads from the Robben Island Museum, announced that their investigation should be completed in a week, but that the committee would not be able to see it straight away.

READ: Robben Island Museum 'not aware' of its own weather warning for ferry that nearly sunk

"We are following process," said Captain Pierre Schutz, deputy principal officer at Samsa, which certifies and registered ships and ferries and conducts investigations into incidents involving them.

"It will get sent to head office, and then to the Department of Transport," he said, adding that it was then up to the department to release it.

This stunned Schafer, who said the lack of information would leave people developing their own versions of what had happened on the ferry, and that it would not be good for the perception of how safe the ferries were. It could also jeopardise the jobs of the people who relied on the interest in the island.

Samsa given deadline to provide report

The island's most recent history is that it was a prison for political prisoners during the struggle against apartheid. People who want to see the inhumane conditions people such as former president Nelson Mandela were kept in, queue daily for the trip and the tour. On Valentine's Day a massive wedding ceremony is held there by the Department of Home Affairs.

Schafer said it was important to get answers quickly, to take whatever action might be necessary, and gave Samsa until November 15 to provide the report, otherwise the committee would take further action.

However, before the unexpected exchange, the committee heard that the skipper of the Thandi, owned by businessman Esa Yacoob, had checked the sea conditions twice on the morning of September 15 before going out.

It went to the island with its passengers, and left again to get back to Cape Town at about 13:45 when conditions had changed dramatically, with high winds and choppy seas.

About 25 minutes into the journey, around 14:10, it started experiencing trouble.

The port (left) engine room bilge alarm went off and a crew member went to investigate, only to find that the engine room was taking on water and the bilge pump could not cope, the committee heard.

The engine room is usually unmanned for a vessel of that size.

The crew member went back up and reported it to the master of the ferry and the master sent a distress signal to port control.

Dramatic rescue

However, while this was happening, the forward windows of the ferry broke, so more water was taken in and this could have made the vessel list to the left.

Passengers were asked to put their life jackets on and wait for a sea rescue dingy.

According to Daniel Heiman, from the National Sea Rescue Institute, they happened to be on the water for training, so headed straight to the ferry.

Another ferry, the Madiba 1, which left Robben Island shortly after the Thandi, turned towards the Thandi, and passengers were transferred - with the help of the NSRI and other emergency services - to the Madiba 1 from the life raft. Another life raft was empty because it was dangerously close to the Thandi's propellers.

Everybody was taken to shore safely and offered counselling.

The committee heard that the Thandi had passed its general safety certificate a week before the incident, according to Samsa regional manager Gustav Louw.

Robben Island Museum CEO Mava Dada was at pains to say that the ferries were safe, but on the sidelines would not be drawn on why the skipper had decided to set sail for the mainland.

News24 reported in September that the museum allegedly overlooked a warning contained in one of its own reports that the Thandi "only be used in fine weather conditions".

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