MS Zenobia

MS Zenobia

This is the true account of the loss of a ship on her maiden voyage.

Built in Kockums Varv AB shipyard in Sweden in 1979, the MS Zenobia was the first of three ‘Challenger’ class roll on-roll off ferries, which means that the lorries drove on turned round in the ship and then drove off again through the back. Shortened to the term RO/RO.

The ship was named after the Roman Queen of the Turkish Palmyrene Empire in the third century and with the latest computer technology, she was at the forefront of twentieth century modern design.

She was delivered to her owners Rederi AB Nord in December 1979. On the fourth of May 1980 she proudly headed out of Malmo, Sweden on her maiden voyage to Tartous, Syria. Her cargo was one hundred and four articulated lorries with goods for delivery to the Middle East and Mediterranean areas. There was also at least one bicycle!

Her route took her through the English Channel then through the Bay of Biscay and into the Mediterranean via the straits of Gibraltar on 22 May 1980.

Her first port of call was Heraklion in the Greek island of Crete and then on to Piraeus the port of Athens in Greece. On route to Piraeus the captain noticed steering problems and the ship started listing to port.

Computer technology was in its infancy in the 1970s and mistakes in software programming were hard to detect.

Following checks in Piraeus it was found that excess water was being pumped into the ballast tanks on the port side. The water was pumped out and with the ship on an even keel again she set sail for Larnaca, Cyprus, the penultimate stop on her voyage.

She arrived at Larnaca on 2nd June 1980 the ballast problem had re-occurred and she was noticeably listing to port once again. The computer controlled pumping system was still pumping water into the ballast tanks on the port side due to a progressive error in the software system.

By the 4th of June the ship was listing so badly that the port authorities ordered that she was to be towed out of the port and anchored 2 kilometers offshore.

A team of engineers worked on correcting the problem but the list continued to worsen. On the 5th June with the ship now listing at 45 degrees to port, the cargo shifted, worsening the situation, the Captain dismissed the engineers and the maintenance crew. He requested that the ship be towed back into Larnaca.

The request was understandably denied by the port authorities and the ship was left where she was. The Captain was the last man to leave her, resigned to the fact that nothing more could be done to avoid the inevitable.

So, there is no story of raging storms, freak waves, collisions or heroic rescues of passengers and crew! The simple facts are that on the 7th of June 1980 at 0230. MS Zenobia capsized and sank in Larnaca Bay, Cyprus in 42 metres (138 ft) of water and lying on her port side – just thirty four days into her maiden voyage. She took 200 million pounds worth of cargos and vehicles with her. In this case maybe the description ‘RO/RO’ could stand for Roll on-Roll over!

Apparently the insurance would not pay out and she lies there to this day. The Captain committed suicide shortly after the sinking. There were no casualties in the disaster, but since that date a total of eight scuba divers have died in diving accidents on board. She is on the top ten most popular and interesting dives listed in the world.

What a sad end to the hopes and dreams of everybody involved.


621 words Michael White 2020

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