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Shipwreck lifeboat drifts from Tristan da Cunha to Australia

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The encrusted hull of the MS Oliva's lost lifeboat. Picture: Nick Balmer
The encrusted hull of the MS Oliva’s lost lifeboat, pictured in South Australia by Nick Balmer

A battered lifeboat has washed up on a beach in South Australia, nearly two years after drifting away from the wreck of the MS Oliva near Tristan da Cunha.

It floated about 5,000 miles from Nightingale Island, where the ship ran aground after duty officers mistook the island’s radar shadow for a heavy rain cloud, and failed to change course.

They had no idea they were passing close to a group of islands, 1,700 miles off the tip of South Africa.

MS Oliva lifeboat inspectedClick here to see a gallery, including the 2011 wreck

The lifeboat was lowered from the ship, but the ropes securing it to the hull parted in the worsening sea, and it was carried away. Crew members still aboard the stricken vessel were taken off on inflatable zodiac craft from a cruise ship. No human lives were lost.

Twenty two months on, the lifeboat has turned up on a sandy beach at the Coorong wetlands, near Adelaide.

But that may not have been its first landfall, according to Nick Balmer of nearby Victor Harbor.

The lifeboat could have carried 20 crew. Picture: Nick Balmer
The lifeboat could have carried 20 crew. Picture: Nick Balmer

He told ABC radio: “The seats inside are torn up so, you know, the chances are it’s probably been sitting on other beaches around the world maybe, you know, and people have sort of trashed it inside a bit.”

A lifejacket was found a short distance down the beach.

Shellfish growth on the hull had formed a tideline running from low in the bow to the top of the stern, suggesting it may have lain in one place for some time.

An ABC radio producer, Eliza Kirsch, told St Helena Online that once the station began running the story, TV crews started sending helicopters to fly over the scene.

The station used reports from the website to tell listeners the story of the wreck, which resulted in thousands of penguins being killed by oil, and urchins and other marine life being smothered by drifting soya from the ship’s holds.

The official accident report described the lifeboat being lost on the night after the ship ran aground, on 16 March 2011. It said:

“At 0530 the master informed the owners. As it became light, the master instructed the crew to don lifejackets, prepare the rescue boat and lower the vessel’s free fall lifeboat into the water using the davit. This was done and the lifeboat manoeuvred and secured alongside starboard side of cargo hold no 7.

“In the afternoon, 12 crew members were transferred across to the fishing vessel Edinburgh, which had witnessed the grounding and now stood by the vessel to render assistance. The fishing vessel used her own lifeboat to facilitate the transfer.

“During the night, the weather deteriorated and the master ordered the crew to lower the starboard liferaft.

“On 17 March, at about 0100, the vessel slid on the bottom and settled in a direction of 043 degrees and the port list reduced. The vessel now started moving heavily over the rocks under the influence of the deteriorating sea and wind conditions, and the master decided to evacuate the rest of the crew to Edinburgh. However, the skipper of Edinburgh advised the master that no evacuation was possible due to the weather and poor light conditions.

“At about 0200, the lifeboat painters parted and the boat drifted away. At about 0300, the Oliva struck a large rock in the way of hold no 7. By 0405 , the chief engineer reported ingress of water into the engine room.”

The MS Oliva was by no means the first vessel to come to grief on the wild shores of the Tristan group of islands. In the early 1980s, the Denstone Expedition to Inaccessible Island yielded evidence of nine wrecks in the area, only seven of which were recorded at Lloyds of London.

In April 2006, an oil rig that was lost in mid-Atlantic – twice – eventually drifted ashore at Tristan da Cunha. Islanders were surprised to find the 100-metre platform nudging the foot of cliffs on a seldom-visited part of the island.

Months of salvage work was hampered by severe weather, and eventually it was towed out to sea and sunk.

Tristan da Cunha disaster recalled as Queen honours captain
Revealed: blunders that caused Tristan da Cunha wreck disaster

Shipwreck lifeboat washes up in Australia – ABC News
Official report on the MS Oliva sinking
Tristan da Cunha website – MS Oliva pages
Lost oil rig bumps into Tristan da Cunha

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