Authored by: Andrew Pike, Fellow of the Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA)
In August 1991, excited holiday-makers boarded the Oceanos, a Greek-owned passenger vessel, at East London for the trip of a lifetime.
Despite a raging storm, the Captain ordered the ship to set sail for Durban. Hurricane force winds and giant rogue waves battered the ship.
About 4 hours after she had set sail and when she was a couple of miles off a remote stretch of the Transkei coast, the auxiliary engine room was breached and the ship started taking huge volumes of water.
Panicking senior crew members scrambled into lifeboats, leaving the ship’s evacuation to on-board entertainers and crew staff. Women and children clambered aboard life boats which were then launched into the monstrous seas, but eventually all operational or launch-able life boats had been used and 221 passengers were left stranded aboard the sinking ship.
The South African Air Force, in cooperation with the Navy, then launched its biggest rescue operation in history to airlift passengers off the stricken vessel, battling 70 knot winds and waves in excess of 20 meters.
Passengers who had been evacuated in life boats were eventually all picked up by merchant ships and fishing vessels in the area.
The airlifted passengers were removed from the ship and taken to a local hotel about 2 to 3 miles away from the ship. During the helicopter airlift, the Captain of the ship also deserted all of the passengers and remaining crew, thus leaving the ship completely in the hands of civilians and junior crew members.
Eventually, about an hour before the ship sank and 17 hours after the drama started, all passengers had been safely evacuated. It was against all odds that no one perished in the disaster. Stories abound of heroism, cowardice, commitment and the emergency response of all involved.
However, the reality is that the Department of Transport itself had never planned for a disaster on this scale and certainly no one in South Africa had ever given any thought to the possibility of a passenger ship sinking.
This was the materialization of a risk on such a grand scale in maritime terms that it was never in any one’s contemplation and, had risk management been the art form then that it is nowadays, a sinking passenger liner would probably not have been on any one’s risk register.
And yet, despite mountainous seas, a cowardly crew, a shortage of life boats and everything else, South Africa pulled together and effected what was arguably the most successful maritime rescue in history.
Nowadays, with a keener sense of risk identification, most major organizations have some level of preparation in respect of most risks.
But what do we do about the risks which were just never seen coming? Given the current accelerated pace of technological growth, climate change, uncertain financial markets and the like, it seems inevitable that at some stage most organizations are going to be faced with a risk they hadn’t thought about.
For me, the common thread running through the Oceanos rescue was a combination of the following factors which made the rescue the success that it was:
People and skills:
In conclusion, whilst Risk Registers and Risk Identification are becoming more sophisticated, it is likely that, as things change, organizations will not be able to anticipate and prepare for every risk.
However, if the basics and essentials are in place, what organizations will do is build sufficient resilience to address the disasters which may befall them.
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