Forgotten lady of the sea

Dec 31, 2002
Author: Terry Hutson

The coast of South Africa serves as a graveyard to many a fine ship, so much so that several lengthy books have been written about them.
On occasion the drama of a ship sinking into a watery grave has become headline news for a few days or even weeks as the drama plays itself out. On other occasions an unfortunate ship goes quietly to her final resting place and hardly anyone notices.

Such was the case of one of the world's grand old liners and a favourite cruise ship among many seasoned passengers, which sank about 50 nautical miles off the Cape coast one Saturday in October 2000, an event that rated not the slightest notice in the local media and came to be described by a Cape Town port official as a "bit of a non-event really."

The ship was sailing under the name of Belofin I, but was better known to world travellers as Britanis, and she was on her way without power and under tow to the tug Irbis, bound for the breakers yard in Pakistan. The old ship had reached an end to a long and illustrious career stretching back nearly 70 years, as an ocean liner, troop carrier and later a luxury cruise ship.

Belofin I started taking on water in her aft section not long into her final journey from the East Coast of the United States. Despite a short stopover for temporary repairs at Salvador in Brazil, the leak worsened during the long Atlantic crossing. The intention was to try and reach Cape Town where proper repairs would be carried out, but as the ship neared the African coast she developed a list, and when this eventually became too acute about 50 miles off Cape Town, it became obvious that the ship was not going to make port. The grand old lady slipped silently beneath the waters a few minutes after 7 o'clock on Saturday evening, 21 October 2000.

The American passenger ship had a long and illustrious history. She was launched in October 1931 at the Bethlehem Steel Yards in Massachusetts, USA as the Matson liner Monterey and was commissioned for service with a subsidiary company, Oceanic Steamship Co on their South Seas service in October 1932.

During World War II Monterey served with distinction as a troop ship, after having already been involved in the rescue of refugees from China, Japan and Korea ahead of the beginning of America's hostilities with Japan. As a troop ship she was fitted out to carry 3 500 troops but on some voyages this swelled to nearly double, with many a marine or GI Joe going to war in her.

Monterey first saw combat on a voyage into the Mediterranean, where she came close to being bombed by enemy aircraft, and was involved in the American invasion of North Africa at Casablanca in 1942.

After the war the ship was laid up for a number of years. During the mid-1950s she re-entered service as a passenger liner named Matsonia, having been refitted by the same company that designed the Blue Ribbon liner SS United States. After a time she was again renamed, this time as Lurline, before eventually being sold to the Greek Chandris Line in 1970 and renamed Britanis.

Following a Chandris refit at Piraeus her passenger capacity was increased to 1 655, her appearance streamlined and the ship initiated a round the world service from Southampton to Sydney, going on to Panama and across the Atlantic to Southampton.

In 1974 she entered full time cruising both in the Caribbean and European waters. By 1982, now already 50 years old, Britanis was transferred to a sister company, Fantasy Cruises, to begin cruising off the American coast. Later she was homeported at Miami, from where Britanis continued cruising until 1994.

After her final sale to a Lichtenstein-registered company, AG Belofin in 1998, the grand old lady of the sea was supposed to have gone immediately for breaking up. However, a downturn in the price of steel brought about delays resulting in her being laid up at Tampa in Florida, during which time a number of unsuccessful plans were hatched to stage her as a floating waterfront attraction and hotel in San Francisco. When these proved unsuccessful Britanis, now renamed one more time as Belofin I began her final voyage that was to end off the South African coast.

In her hey-day SS Britanis could manage 21.5 knots although she usual cruising speed was usually 18 knots. The ship measured 192.5 metres in length with a beam of 24 m and had a gross tonnage of 18 655.
Hundreds of thousands of people travelled on her, but on her last day only the tug crew were there to say goodbye.

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