Historical: what happened to South Africa’s cruise ships?

Some of them were infamous, some of them were souless, some of them sank and entered the annuls of history, while others were unmitigated disasters.

The cruise ships that pioneered the South African cruise industry and proved that Durban and Cape Town could be used as cruise home ports are varied and loved or hated for different reasons, but what became of these ships? 

A varied selection of cruise ships of all sizes have operated regular cruise sailings in the South African cruise market, some will only be remembered by the veteran South African cruisers, such as Derek Walker of AllatSea.co.za, while the more recent vessels, such as the venerable MSC Melody will continue to hold a place in the heart of the general cruising public. Cruise Arabia & Africa wanted to create a record of the fate that befell each of these cruise ships that played a part in making the South African cruise industry the dynamic emerging sector it is today. Some of South Africa’s cruise ships met a sad and undignified end on the infamous breakers’ beaches of Alang, while others continue to serve to this today. If we’ve missed any, or if any of our details are incorrect, let us know!

Astor 1 sailed as a South African cruise ship in the 1980s, she was also South Africa's last SA-owned cruise ship

Astor 1 and 2 (1980s)

In the mid to late 1980s South Africa was associated with two cruise ships called Astor. The first, built in 1981, was purchased in 1984 by Safmarine Line, which was then interested in re-starting the Southampton-Cape Town liner service abandoned by Union Castle Line in the 1970s. However, the 1981-built Astor proved under-powered for liner service and was sold in favour of a new build to the same design. The new ship was also named Astor and was ordered in 1985, but by 1987 Safmarine had decided to abandon the UK-SA liner service as well and sold the half-built cruise ship to an East German shipping company. Neither of these cruise ships ever made a mark in South Africa’s then-fledgling cruise industry, but ironically, have done so later on in their service careers.

The first Astor, built in 1981, now sails under the Saga Cruises brand, while Cruise & Maritime Voyages recently acquired the 1985-ordered Astor on a long term charter from Global Maritime Group. The second Astor is a regular caller to South Africa, in 2015 and 2016 she will cruise her originally planned route from Cape Town to the UK. Astor will depart Cape Town on April 2nd, 2015 on a 21-night voyage to Britain, repeating the same cruise exactly a year later to the day in 2016. It is a sad fact that Astor 1 was the last cruise ship that was ever South African-owned.

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Oceanos is the most famous South African cruise ship, having sunk off the Wild Coast in 1991 in rough weather

Oceanos (1989 and 1991)

Oceanos’ fate is world famous and she remains to this day the most serious cruise ship accident in South African waters since the loss of SS Waratah, which sank suddenly and under mysterious circumstances off the Wild Coast en-route from Durban to Cape Town in 1909. Some 211 passengers and crew were lost aboard Waratah, but not a single life was lost in the 1991 Oceanos sinking, which was at the time the greatest airborne evacuation of an ocean liner in history. More than 200 of 571 passengers were lifted from the sinking ship in rough weather by the South African Air Force, the rest managing to escape into life rafts and life boats.

Oceanos had cruised a highly successful season in South Africa during 1989 and had returned in 1991 with great expectations of becoming South Africa’s first regular seasonal cruise ship offering roundtrip cruises from South African ports. She set sail on August 3rd from East London bound for Durban, battering her way into 40-knots winds and 30-foot seas. Flooding in the engine room spread and eventually overwhelmed the ocean liner turned cruise ship and she began to sink. Oceanos took almost a full day to die, finally rolling over and sinking bow first a full 18 hours after the alarm was first raised by the ship’s entertainment team, who were credited with saving the lives of her passengers after Captain Yiannis Avranas and his crew abandoned ship without informing passengers that the vessel was sinking.

Achille Lauro sailed in South Africa for several cruise seasons and caught fire in 1994 on her way back to Durban from Europe

Achille Lauro (1986 to 1989 and again between 1992 and 1994)

Achille Lauro and Oceanos are the two most famous of the cruise ships that temporarily cruised roundtrip from South Africa in those pioneering days of the South African cruise market. Achille Lauro was made famous by a 1985 hijacking, but became a popular cruise ship with the South African public in the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s when she sailed several successful cruise seasons out of Durban. In 1994 when cruising from Italy to Durban, she caught fire.

The fire started when one of her engines exploded on November 30th off the coast of Somalia. Due to a lack of supervision, the fire burned out of control before crew intervened, by which time it was too late. After battling the blaze for several hours, the ship was abandoned and her burnt out hulk sank two days later on December 2nd. According to Derek Walker of AllatSea.co.za, this left a “huge void” in the South African cruise industry, but it was filled the following year by MSC Symphony.

Controversial from the very start, Betsy Ross' one and only cruise season in South Africa was an unmitigated disaster

Betsy Ross (1988)

A converted ro-ro passenger ferry, Betsy Ross’ career as a cruise ship is a tale punctuated by one disaster after another. The only time she was ever marketed in South Africa proved a failure, during 1988, as mechanical failures and bad publicity from disgruntled South African cruise passengers forced her cruise season to be cut short. Betsy Ross’ service career never recovered from her disastrous South African cruise season. She was chartered and re-named Amalfi in 1989, but was placed under port arrest due to unpaid debts by her owners, ultimately being placed on auction and purchased by Stargas in 1990.

They re-named her Star of Venice, but a fire in 1991 forced her to undertake repairs and in 1992 she became a floating police hostel housing members of the Italian Mafia. The cruise ship was laid up for several years before Mediterranean Cruises (not to be confused with MSC Cruises) tried to re-start her cruising career in 1998 with similarly unsuccessful results as those seen in South Africa ten years before. She was used as a hotel ship during 2000 before ultimately being towed to Turkey for scrapping in 2001. Even in death the former Betsy Ross could not avoid controversy, while being scrapped in 2002 Greenpeace staged demonstration aboard her hulk, protesting against toxic waste and poor working conditions in the shipbreaking industry.

Aegean Dolphin only ever sailed one South African cruise season in the early 1990s but is regular caller in the South African cruise market to this day

Aegean Dolphin (1992)

Aegean Dolphin made her debut in South Africa’s cruise market in 1992, sailing roundtrip cruises to firm favourites such as Bazaruto Island under charter to TFC Tours (now Starlight Cruises). Cruise Arabia & Africa is unsure how long Aegean Dolphin spent in the South African market, but according to Allatsea.co.za she was definitely cruising out of Durban in January of 1992. Aegean Dolphin proved unsuccessful at winning the hearts of the South African cruising public and she did not, apparently, return for a second roundtrip South African cruise season, but she remains to this day a regular caller in the country. Aegean Dolphin is now operated by the one-ship British cruise line Voyages to Antiquity. Aegean Odyssey will cruise roundtrip from Cape Town to Cape Town on January 5th, 2016 on a 14-night destination intensive tour of South Africa. She will cruise again from Cape Town on January 17th bound for Singapore.

Our personal favourite, MSC Symphony was the little ship that could, proving that the South African cruise market could turn a profit

MSC Symphony (1995 and 1997 to 2000)

MSC Symphony was arguably South Africa’s first real cruise ship in terms of offering a regular season cruise program each year that allowed the South African cruise market to develop into the fast growing sector it is today. She was also the first cruise ship to sail year round from Durban during the winter months. MSC Symphony pioneered roundtrip cruises out of Durban to the favourite destinations of the 1990s, such as Inhaca Island, Portuguese Island, Il de Mozambique and Bazaruto and made cruising an accessible holiday option for middle class South Africans. MSC Symphony sadly sailed her last South African season in 1999/2000 and was sold by MSC Cruises in 2001.

For such a beautiful and historic ocean liner, her demise was an ignoble one. South Africa’s favourite cruise ship of the millennium was placed under port arrest in Dover, UK in July, 2001 while under charter from an MSC Cruises subsidiary as Ocean Glory 1, authorities said she had failed numerous safety and hygiene inspections. On September 18th 2001 the former MSC Symphony was sold at auction to Carpenthai Holding and renamed Classica. She departed Dover under that name, quietly slinking away beneath a setting sun, bound for Alang, India, that great ship graveyard, where she arrived on October 30th. By May the following year, she had been entirely broken up.

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MSC Rhapsody cruised regular seasons in the South African cruise market throughout the late 90s and early 2000s

MSC Rhapsody (1996 and intermittently until 2006)

Launched in 1974 and undertaking her maiden voyage in 1987, Rhapsody started out life as a Cunard liner, the Cunard Princess. In 1995 she was chartered to MSC Cruises (then StarLauro) before being bought altogether and re-named Rhapsody. The cruise ship first sailed a South African cruise season in 1996 and did intermittent seasons between then and 2009 when she was sold out of the rapidly modernising MSC Cruises fleet. Cruise Arabia & Africa last sailed aboard her to Portuguese Island in 2006. Rhapsody now sails as the Golden Iris for the Israel-based Mano Maritime cruise company on Mediterranean itineraries marketed almost exclusively at Israeli passengers.

MSC Monterey was one of the first cruise ships to sail a cruise season in South Africa following MSC's rebranding

MSC Monterey (1990 and intermittently until 2006)

Launched in 1952 as a cargo ship and converted to a cruise ship ocean liner in 1955. MSC Monterey was one of the cruise ships purchased by MSC when they acquired the StarLauro cruise brand in 1990. She often tag teamed with MSC Symphony sailing out of Durban or Cape Town during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The ship had actually been marketed for a full year deployment in South Africa through 2007, cruising the west coast of African out of Cape Town, with MSC Melody based out of Durban, when a boiler explosion in October, 2006 temporarily crippled her in the Mediterranean. Only able to operate under reduced power, the wounded old lady was sold for scrap and towed to Alang, India, to be broken up.

MSC Melody, the fat old lady of the South African cruise market, was loved by tens of thousands of South African cruisers until her sad end

MSC Melody (2001 intermittently to 2006 and regularly after 2012)

Built in 1982 for the now defunct Home Lines and sailing initially as MS Atlantic, MSC Melody made her debut in South Africa in the early 2000s following the sale of MSC Symphony. A significantly larger and more modern cruise ship, she was warmly embraced by the South African cruising public and had a strong following for almost ten years sailing regular South African cruise seasons alongside MSC Rhapsody, which was sometimes deployed in her place to cruise roundtrip out of Durban. With MSC Cruises rapidly modernising their fleet throughout the last decade, the writing was on the wall for the ageing Melody. By 2012, MSC Melody’s fate as an MSC cruise ship had been sealed and conflicting stories began to emerge about what would be done with her.

In July 2012, there was speculation that she was to be chartered to new operators in Japan, but in August it was reported that she had been sold to a South Korean company, Lotus Mine, and that as from February 2013 she would operate a regular service between Shanghai and Jeju Island, South Korea. That arrangement appeared to fall through as she was decommissioned on January 7th, 2013, with the remained of her summer season abruptly cancelled. By November, after a brief period in lay-up, she was sold to Sahara India Pariwar, a multinational group involved in finance, leisure, hotels, construction, property and industry. Under the new name Qing, she was to be delivered in Goa, India, and converted into floating accommodation.

As of November, 2014, she was still in Goa, moored at the Vasco Harbour in Vasco de Gamma, Goa. There had been some speculation that she would be used as a hotel ship, but in the absence of any marketing for such a role, Cruise Arabia & Africa suspects she may just be an accommodation ship for workers. A rather forlorn end to one of the longest serving South African cruise ships.

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