A forgotten search-and-rescue saga

Many of the natural and man-made disasters that I recall from my years in Africa are largely unknown in the Northern Hemisphere.  They happened before the Internet, and besides, they were in very out-of-the-way places.  No-one (except those of us closer to the problem) paid much attention.

One such case was the rescue of survivors from the MV Pep Ice.  The ship has a checkered but by no means unusual history.  A small tramp freighter of just over 3,000 gross tons, she was built in 1977 and changed hands (and names) several times over the years.  Here’s a photograph of her at some time during the 21st century, when she bore the name MV Ice Flowers (I’m not sure of the exact date).

I’m informed she’s currently registered in Belize (a well-known maritime flag of convenience) under the name MV Alaska.  Like so many small tramp freighters, she may be getting on a bit (it’s 38 years since she was built), but she’s still useful, so she soldiers on.

On the morning of 7th January 1980, Pep Ice ran aground on the shoals of Bassas da India, a French-governed atoll in the southern Mozambique Channel, about halfway between Mozambique and Madagascar.  It was, back then, a very isolated place, with a few itinerant residents, no official representation and no facilities to speak of.  The crew remained aboard (there was nowhere else to go, after all), and the ship sent out a distress signal.  However, neither the Mozambique nor the Madagascan authorities could do anything to help.  They had no helicopters suitable to mount a rescue so far out into the ocean.

South Africa was the nearest country with the facilities to assist;  but there were no suitable military bases nearby that could provide support.  An extraordinary rescue effort was mounted, whereby a Puma helicopter was dismantled and flown to the barren, rugged Europa Island, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) south-east of Bassas da India.  Since the Puma is a fairly large, complex helicopter, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  It was reassembled there, flown to Bassas da India where it rescued the crew, then returned them to Europa Island, from where they were taken to South Africa for repatriation.  The ship was later refloated from the shoals and towed to South Africa for repairs.

The story of the operation was retold in a recent issue of a South African Air Force Association branch newsletter (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).  I had some long-distance involvement with the project in a back-up role in South Africa, and it brought back many memories to re-read the account.  It’s a long story.  Here’s how it began for the flight crews concerned.

It started for us quite early in the morning of 10 January 1980, when the OC of 19 Squadron, Cmdt C.N Breytenbach called the late Rob Dean and myself (Ed) into his office and explained that we needed to get a Puma helicopter to Europa Island in the Mozambique channel as soon as possible to effect a rescue, and that the Puma would be transported by Transall C160Z aircraft. Breytie had obviously decided to task Rob and me because Rob was a qualified test pilot and I had had some 3 years experience operating from ships on a Maritime helicopter squadron. We immediately went to see Col C.J (“Blackie”) de Swardt who was then SSO Operations of the SAAF and would be in charge of the rescue.

. . .

After some thought and discussion we advised “Blackie” that we would require at least three C 160s. One C160 was needed to transport the Puma and another two C160s to take fuel for the helicopter, the mobile crane, specialised jacks and tools. Furthermore there needed to be a fairly large contingent of aircraft crew, technical crew, medics and their equipment.

The major technical problem that was faced was that there was no crane strong enough to lift a Puma available that could also fit into a C160. The only crane that they could locate alone weighed 16,000 lbs. The technical personnel decided that they would therefore need to make the Puma lighter by dismantling it far more than normally necessary as well as defueling the aircraft. They immediately got down to work and a Puma … was readied to be loaded. This required the removal of the tail-end of the helicopter, the removal of the main rotor blades and head, as well as the engines and cowlings. After the undercarriage was removed and all external fittings such as aerials and electrical systems were disconnected, the fuselage was placed on a specially constructed cradle.

Rob and I had two serious concerns though. We were taking a Puma from 19 Squadron, Swartkop, which did not have any maritime radios and we would need to set up communications with the ship. The other was that we only had the very basic of navigation aids on board and would need to rely on the old heading and time concept, whilst travelling a long distance over the sea to locate an insignificant atoll.

. . .

Information available to the SAAF crews for the rescue was completely outdated. The designated runway at the island no longer existed, but a new 4000ft runway, although covered in long grass, was however, acceptable. On landing the three C160s moved close together at the end of the runway and shortly thereafter a man approached on a bicycle pedalling furiously towards us. “Blackie” went over to greet him and he said in broken English that he was from the weather-station a short distance away. He was very agitated and informed “Blackie” that we had to clear the runway as soon as possible because they were expecting the arrival of 3 French Transalls. “Blackie” tried to explain that we were the contingent of Transalls, but the language barrier was too great and “Blackie” agreed to ask the C160 commanders to reverse off the runway as far as possible so that we could get on with the task. The C160s moved clear of the runway which made the weatherman much happier. “Blackie” then asked him whom the island belonged to?

“Oh” he said, “Some people say France, others say Madagascar and others say Reunion.”

“Well” said “Blackie”, “How many people live on the island?”

“Oh, about 10 or 12.”

“Well” said “Blackie”, “We are 42 South Africans here at the moment.”

“Oh,” replied the weatherman. “In that case the island probably belongs to South Africa!”

To our great relief in the early afternoon a Shackleton from 35 Squadron, in Cape Town, under the command of Captain Mike Bondisio, appeared overhead. This was a relief for Rob and me because we would now have assistance with our navigation dilemma and we would be able to establish communication with the ship via the Shackleton. The Shackleton pinpointed the “PEP ICE” 63 nautical miles from Europa Island at 15:00B and at 16:00B we got airborne with the Puma for a test flight with Rob Dean in command. Fortunately the weather was very clear, a factor that could be the downfall of any rescue and an unknown threat to any airman.

After intensive checks all systems checked out serviceable and we landed again to take on as much fuel as possible. At approximately 16:30 we were again airborne, this time with me in command, and set heading for the PEP ICE, with the Shackleton acting like a great big mother hen to ensure we didn’t stray too far from the correct path. There were miles and miles of open sea and we really didn’t fancy our chances if we were forced to ditch!

There’s much more at the link.  It was quite an adventure, so if you like that sort of thing, it’s well worth clicking over to read it all.  Here’s a picture of the actual rescue, scanned from a contemporary newspaper.  Click it for a larger view.  (I apologize for the poor image quality.)

And here’s the ship after being pulled off the reef, under tow to South Africa for repairs.

Ah, yes . . . memories!



  1. Fascinating story, but if it was possible to refloat the ship, as later happened, why didn't they supply the stranded ship with provisions until she could be made seaworthy again? Or just take the crew off and abandon the wreck to its fate. Seems like a hugely dangerous and expensive operation that was not strictly necessary.

  2. I meant, take the crew off not using a helicopter but an amphibious boat, dinghy, flat-bottom boat… whatever would serve the purpose of getting close enough so the crew can rappel down into your rescue craft.

  3. @Anonymous: I don't know – I presume she was so far off the beaten track that resupplying her would have been as difficult as taking off the crew. Also, the weather there is changeable. Cyclones (the South Atlantic equivalent of hurricanes) come straight down the Mozambique Channel from time to time, and they're no fun at all. For whatever reason, the Powers That Be decided to mount the rescue, and so it was done. That decision was way above my pay grade.

  4. I would expect that the issue was money, specifically, between the owner and insurer. I may be talking out my patoot here, but I'd suspect that it was a question about what was cheapest for the owner and insurer, as far as making someone else chip in on the cost of salvage, which definitely can include paying for expenses related to repatriation.
    3000ITC ships like this one are moneymakers in the tramp trade, right up until they sink. Generally, losing a crew of 3rd world nationals is cheaper than having to rescue them.

    I could be being cynical. The owner could have been the rarest of unicorns, and care about the welfare of the crew. Generally this is not the case for the tramp trade, which is why brown folks from poor nations are favored for crew. Couple grand to the widow and the matter is closed. Cheaper than airfare.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *