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Three dead, five rescued in SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town

Three dead, five rescued in SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town
SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town.(Photo: Chris Binnington)

The accident came after a weekend of high winds and rough seas and a South African Weather Service warning of damaging waves in Cape Town on Wednesday.

The Department of Defence (DoD) has confirmed the deaths of three mariners on Wednesday in an incident involving the South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi. The vessel was offshore of Kommetjie in Cape Town when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea. A rescue operation launched just before 3pm saved the lives of five personnel.

SAS ’Manthatisi was en route to Table Bay from Simon’s Town for the South African Navy Festival, scheduled to take place at the V&A Waterfront from 23 to 25 September. According to the DoD, the mariners were in the process of conducting a “vertical transfer” (Vertrep) using an SA Air Force SuperLynx helicopter when they were swept overboard.

SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town.(Photo: Chris Binnington)

A Vertrep is a method of supplying seaborne vessels by helicopter.

“The Vertrep evolution was immediately cancelled and efforts were launched to recover the members. A surface swimmer was dispatched from the helicopter to assist with the rescue. Unfortunately, the recovery operation was negatively affected by rough sea conditions,” the DoD said late on Wednesday.

“All seven members were recovered, but sadly there were three fatalities, with one senior officer in critical condition. The remaining members, including the surface swimmer, are currently being treated in hospital. The names of the members will be released once the next-of-kin have been informed.”

A weather alert issued by the South African Weather Service warned of “damaging waves” in the City of Cape Town/Cape Point region on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Difficulty in navigation at sea for small vessels and personal watercraft … are expected [sic]. Localised disruption of small harbours and/or ports could also occur. Small vessels are at risk of taking on water and capsizing in a locality,” the warning stated.

submarine disaster

A South African Navy frigate in rough seas off Kommetjie, Cape Town on 20 September 2023. Three South African Navy personnel died and five were rescued in a submarine disaster off Kommetjie. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

“Be aware of large, unpredictable waves along the coast. Small vessels are advised to seek shelter in harbours, bays or inlets.”

Witnesses of the rescue efforts in Kommetjie told Daily Maverick that the swells off the coast were huge.

The naval accident comes just days after high waves, strong winds and a spring tide caused chaos in coastal areas of the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Seas were rough, and powerful waves swept inland, damaging property and resulting in two deaths.

Read in Daily Maverick: The ‘angry sea’ just ‘kept coming’ – ‘frightening’ weekend storm batters coastal areas of SA

Joint rescue operation

National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Kommetjie was activated following reports of navy personnel in distress offshore of Slangkop Lighthouse, near Kommetjie, said NSRI spokesperson Craig Lambinon. They were joined by other rescue teams, including the City of Cape Town’s Water Rescue Network, SAPS and SA Navy command.

submarine disaster

The NSRI rescued mariners from the SAS ‘Manthatisi (S101), a South African Navy submarine, off the Kommetjie coast, Cape Town on 20 September 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

“Of the seven people that were brought to shore at Kommetjie by NSRI Kommetjie — seven adult males — CPR was conducted on two adult males who sadly were declared deceased on the scene. One adult male was airlifted to hospital by Netcare 911 helicopter. He remains, we believe, in a critical condition. Four adult males were in satisfactory condition and did not require [going to] hospital,” Lambinon said. 

submarine disaster

NSRI and municipal rescue personnel gathered on the Kommetjie coast, Cape Town on 20 September 2023. The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) said three South African Navy mariners died and five were rescued at sea in a submarine disaster. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Dave Smith, NSRI Kommetjie station commander, reported that one SA Navy officer remained onboard the submarine. She was extricated in the late afternoon, offshore of Hout Bay, in a coordinated operation involving an SA Air Force helicopter, NSRI air-sea rescue swimmers and EMS rescue paramedics.

“Sadly, despite extensive CPR efforts, the female officer was declared deceased. The body of the female was airlifted to the NSRI Hout Bay rescue station. The bodies of the three deceased have been taken into the care of Government Health Forensic Pathology Services,” Smith said.

Lambinon said, “Our thoughts and condolences are with the families who have lost loved ones in this accident, and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this accident.”

In a statement on Wednesday evening, the DA conveyed its “sincerest condolences” to the “families, friends, and colleagues of the mariners who tragically lost their lives” in the incident. DM

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  • Brenda Hunt says:

    What on earth was the navy thinking having that type of exercise when warnings had been issued regarding high seas and huge waves along the Western Cape coast. Heads must roll.

    • Wayne Ashbury Ashbury says:

      I disagree, the Navy needs to train as near as possible in real life conditions. It is this training that’ll gain them valuable experience and save lives in the future. It is sad and unfortunate.

      • Glyn Morgan says:

        The Navy sure as heck got some “valuable experience” that day in the rough seas!

        Doing training in tough, real life conditions is a lot different from doing training in real risky, irresponsible conditions.

      • Richard Bryant says:

        Disagree. Basic seamanship would make sure all personnel above deck would be tethered on until attached to the helicopter. You can only lift one at a time. What on earth were the rest doing? Man overboard is a nightmare in situations like this and measures should be put in place to avoid this scenario at all cost

        • Darren Olivier says:

          The photos appear to show a tether in use, as is standard practice for a VERTREP.

          It’s also standard practice to have multiple personnel on the hull performing various functions.

  • Our deepest and heartfelt condolences to the families that has been affected by this tragedy – we salute the brave men and women who passed on in the line of duty as they were preparing to serve the South African community over the weekend with heritage festivities.. I salute you

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Where did the SA navy find enough fit people, to carry out this operation in clearly tricky conditions?

    In all the photos that I have seen of SA navy personnel, fitness for duty is not a concept that trips off the tongue.

    • Peter Geddes says:

      At this stage, such a sarcastic comment is inappropriate. Please try to express empathy. The world really needs a lot more of that.

      • Graeme Bird says:

        Yes, so much for the DM’s guidance on comments. Not just government asleep at the wheel.

        • Jon Quirk says:

          The conditions were known; they did not suddenly deteriorate. Those in authority have a duty of care that goes far beyond ensuring that the crew involved are “fit for purpose”, have adequate training, suitable equipment, including, if necessary safety harnesses, in short, are given the necessary support and equipment, and have had adequate physical training, such that they are capable of being at the necessary levels of competence, as individuals and as a crew, to meet the worsening conditions.

          Everything in our country is politicised – including the comments to this article, and that is sad, but is a direct consequence of the ANC seeking to control and politicise everything, and to appoint cadre into key roles, no matter their suitability for such tasks.

          Our only way to challenge their overreach, is almost solely down to the media, and asking challenging questions is a crucial part of our democracy. I am sure I am not alone in noting that maintenance of equipment is pretty much ignored, such that it is entirely feasible that a lack of rigour, training, diligence and maintenance were key factors in this sorry and sad debacle.

      • Wayne Ashbury Ashbury says:

        I concur. The comment bang out of order indeed

      • Dietmar Horn says:

        I’m very surprised at these reactions to Jon’s comment. You show a strange understanding of freedom of expression. Is this still South Africa or is it already Russia or China? Why shouldn’t the responsibility of the naval leadership be questioned at this point? Shouldn’t the same level of professionalism be expected in the Navy as in the sea rescue services? An accident like this shouldn’t happen! Empathy is one thing, but we can’t solve problems with empathy alone.

        • Glyn Morgan says:

          Empathy is one thing irresponsible silence is something else. The Navy were/are responsible for this catastrophe, plain and simple.

        • Mayibuye Magwaza says:

          Jon was legally entitled to post that comment and people are entitled to call him out. Comparisons to China are misplaced; in China his comment would be deleted by a government moderator and he’d lose social credit score, here some people on the internet just argue with him.

          The problem with his comment is that it casts judgement on the victims of this accident with a snide insinuation that they were unfit or bad at their jobs when we don’t know that. Maybe it was bad luck, maybe the exercise was poorly conceived (seems likely to me), but to jump to attacking their personal abilities is out of line.

          • Bob Kuhn says:

            Perhaps the operatives should have “demanded safety lines life jackets and other rescue kit before venturing out on what must have evidently been a very dangerous environment?

      • Darren Olivier says:

        I agree entirely.

        Anyone with a passing familiarity with the SA Navy’s submariners would know that they’re fit for duty and are motivated and dedicated personnel.

        The vast majority of the overweight personnel in the SANDF hold desk jobs not field postings like submariners where the requirements are much stricter. While it’s still less than ideal it has little operational impact.

    • Matthew Quinton says:

      Yes Jon’s comment is a bit snide and a bit rough and yes perhaps he is jumping to conclusions and this was just an unfortunate accident… and yes… in a normal civilised country a loss of life is always sad.

      BUT

      This is not a normal country and we are no longer civilised, and his point DOES stand. I cannot remember when last I saw an SANDF member, navy member, politically appointed police person (there are still a few “real” police who are there because of quality not quota, but not many) or frankly anyone the ANC gave a job to who is even remotely fit for purpose. All I see are obese, undertrained vote-fodder who have a “job” only and are utterly incapable of actually working….. they collect a salary and return a vote… PERIOD… no value… no use… no ability… no fitness for duty. A liability and a cost to the nation only.

      In a civilised country there is a massive regard for human life… but in cANCer land, I have lost count of the number of tragic deaths over the past few years directly attributable to our criminally insane government.

      This miiiiiiight be a sad accident, but Jon’s point stands, it is far more likely the result of poorly trained political appointees in a situation which they were completely incapable of handling.

      Thank God for the NSRI and it’s well trained volunteers!

      Luckily the breeding continues and there will be more to fill their uniforms and make a reasomably identifiable “X” next to the beloved ANC logo in 2024.

      A looter continues.

      • Glyn Morgan says:

        Right. Putting crew (whatever their training) on a subs deck in those conditions without safety gear, lifelines and life jackets(?), is insane. Snide is small cheese.

        • Darren Olivier says:

          There is no evidence that the crew did not have safety gear, lifelines, and life jackets. In fact, the pictures here appear to show them in use.

          • Ben Harper says:

            Crew members were swept “out to sea”, that wouldn’t happen if the did have lifelines and were properly hooked up and if they had lifejackets on, were they inflated? Safely harnesses connected and inflated lifejackets would have prevented this.

      • Darren Olivier says:

        I would recommend taking the time to speak to actual SANDF operational personnel the next time there’s an exhibition somewhere, such as at a Navy Festival, the Rand Show, an air show like AAD, or similar. You might find your preconceptions altered.

        I’ve met a number of active SA Navy submariners & surface warfare personnel over the years. None were ‘political appointees’, none were poorly-trained, none were obese.

        The NSRI worked in concert with the SA Navy and SA Air Force for the rescue, as they have all trained to do on many occasions.

  • zarkas123456789 says:

    Condolences to the families. I am deeply concerned about the level of readiness for combat of the SAN! Given the state our defense force is in, one could almost concede that this kind of tragedy was waiting to happen! If the recent exercise involving Russia and China is anything to go by, where we merely played a supporting role, then it appears that we are sitting ducks!I hope that a serious investigation will be done into this matter and the results made public. This is great cause for concern. I suspect that we are good candidates for a soft coup given the weakness of our defense force! Not acceptable…

  • Peter Streng says:

    Knowing the weather conditions, the ‘vertrep’ manoevre was allowed to continue by the cANCer navy – at worst, gross negligence, at best manslaughter.
    These futile and unnecessary deaths could have been avoided, but for failed leadership.

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Very sad the loss of life, but what a disgrace that the navy has to be rescued by the NSRI !!!!

  • Anne Felgate says:

    What has happened to the submarine ?
    Who is on it and where is it now ?

    So sad that there is such a loss of life
    Condolences to the families and friends

  • André van Niekerk says:

    Condolences to the families of the casualties.

    On a side note however, re the writing of this piece, how does seven people get washed away, five lives saved and three casualties occur? The confusion of the first paragraph detracts from the article.

  • Robert Slabbert says:

    I would like to put a question to all if a tragedy had to occur like the Oceanus where all were saved would that be the case yofsy

  • Alan Watkins says:

    Navy statement “The vessel was offshore of Kommetjie in Cape Town when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea. A rescue operation launched just before 3pm saved the lives of five personnel.”

    But…….. it appears not to be a navy rescue. If you read the details it was mainly NSRI and EMS paramedics. This is a disgrace. Other than the SANDF helicopter involved in the exercise no other navy or SANDF resources. No rescue craft, no SANDF ambulances. Lets be very clear what NSRI and EMS are. NSRI a non profit rescue operation manned by volunteers and funded by donations from the general public. And EMS is a PRIVATE medical ambulance service. So tell me what would happen if two tanks collided somewhere in South Africa. Would they call Gatieps Towing Service and EMS or ER24? As I said before, its a disgrace.

    • Lewis Gerber says:

      It is time the Goverment starts funding the NSRI ( without trying to control it) Going out into stormy seas in a rubber duck takes some guts. Why were the Navy’s rescue attempts so pathetic? Hypothermia is the real danger. You cant afford to waste time if personnel fall into the feezing waters around Kommetjie. Makes me angry and sad. One of my sons friends died in this tragedy! I just hope that this never happens again and the enquiry does not become another cover up. Above all. Deal with the cause not the symptom!

      • Richard Bryant says:

        Agree totally. I know the Kommetjie NSRI very well. Their main rescue craft is dragged by a tractor and launched off the beach at the Kommetjie boat club. It is really a teeny tiny rescue craft and takes good training and bravery to go out in those conditions. I would hope they are given the rightful recognition of their role in this rescue. I feel desperately sorry for those mariners who lost their lives.

    • Darren Olivier says:

      First, the SA Navy, SA Air Force, and NSRI train together constantly and frequently work together for rescues. The SANDF is not mandated or funded to provide a boat-based rescue service around our coasts but they do what they can to support the NSRI and provide its members with training.

      Second, when there’s a person overboard scenario the rescue call is sent to all stations as time is of the essence and it makes sense to use the nearest available resources. As mentioned before, the Navy doesn’t maintain rescue boats around the coast, and what it has are positioned in Simon’s Town, so as the NSRI and other civilian resources were closer it made sense to use them. However the SAS King Sekhukune I was nearby and also provided assistance.

      So it’s far from a disgrace that the NSRI was involved here. That’s its intended role, even when it’s a Navy vessel involved. Limiting this to just Navy assets would’ve wasted time and been pointless.

      • Ben Harper says:

        I think you overestimate how often they train together, at most one every year or two is probably more accurate. The Navy doesn’t have money to send the fleet to sea for exercises, the Air Force equally doesn’t have the funds to keep sufficient aircraft airworthy and serviceable let alone have “constantly” training together with the other arms of service and the NSRI receives absolutely no funding from government or even the Lotto anymore (that was stopped because they are not of the correct BBBEE category). When was the last time the Navy, Airforce and NSRI involved together in rescue services? The MRCC manages all rescue services for the SA Coast and it is rare that the Navy or Air Force is involved

  • Tim Price says:

    This is very sad. Unless they practice this kind of activity very regularly and gained proficiency when conditions are calm, this was a very bad time to try it. Also, why were so many people on the “deck” which is an extremely unsafe environment on a surfaced sub in rough sees.

  • Winston Bigsby says:

    What an epic fail by our fearless, gifted SANDF again! A deck lift in high winds and rough seas? What a great idea! “when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea.” HTF were they swept out to sea? Surely they would’ve been tethered to the sub in that weather?
    And the Navy submariners get rescued by NSRI rubber ducks? Does this not scream of incompetence?
    The chopper didn’t “vertical transfer” (Vertrep) a single one then? The one that got airlifted to hospital was in a 911 chopper. Jeez! Eish! Can’t believe it. Even me!

  • Liz Page says:

    I found the commentary from the NSRI spokesperson to be quite confusing. He was obviously not initially allowed to disclose that the vessel was a submarine. The confusing comment was about the “female member found on/in the vessel who was deceased”. What has happened to the rest of the crew and the actual vessel?

  • Thanks for all the sympathy to the submariners that have lost their lives on serving their country. T stress and put some light on the SA Navy. I have the utmost respect for all the submariners serving in the SA Navy. I am also talking as a parent of one of the submariners that were on the submarine during this disaster. we as parents know when they go out to see and hope to hear from them when they return from see. You don’t know where they are 90% of the time. So, you as a parent can’t get in your car and go looking for them. All of them are in the hands of the SA Navy and I as a parent have the utmost respect for the SA Navy. I can only thank the Lord that my daughter is one of the submariners that will be returning home. My heartfelt condolences to the families that have lost one of their children, Farther, brother. I can only imagine what they are going thru. As I have been in the same situation after receiving the message of the disaster. You don’t know what to expect. So if any person want to leave a comment please do so, and I will defend the sailors/submariners of the SA Navy.

  • Ted Baumann says:

    As someone who has spent a lot of time at sea one thing that’s puzzling to me is how why the submarine appears to have been positioned to take the sea on its beam. A beam sea causes extreme instability in most vessels, but especially a submarine which has no keel and less ballast than a surface vessel. When operating in a heavy sea, vessels typically adopt one of two strategies. The first is to “heave to,” which involves an after quarter and drifting along with the wind. This was clearly impossible given how close the sub was to shore and the wind direction. The second strategy is to take the sea head on by pointing the bow towards the direction of wind and waves. That makes it easier to prevent the vessel from rolling -although on a submarine it would mean that everything forward of the sail would be awash most of the time.

    Given the severe budget constraints and the doubtful professionalism of the Navy’s Junior and mid-level officers, I suspect that the problem boils down to poor seamanship. It’s true that naval vessels must practice in all conditions, but if they’re not practicing the right approach to the conditions, disasters like this are to be expected.

  • radineo says:

    Deepest condolences to the families of the mariners who passed away in this distressing accident at sea. A word of praise to the rescuers for their bravery. May their souls rest.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Sincere condolences to the families of the deceased. A huge shout out to NSRI and the other Cape Town and province supporting rescue services.

  • Alan89 says:

    The Government should immediately donate R100 million to the NSRI (no strings attached).

  • Sam Bowker says:

    The swell wasn’t unusually large yesterday, I surfed.

  • mjhauptstellenbosch says:

    What was needed here is humble-male-common-sense!

    I was on a frigate many decades ago,
    and i was present when a senior seaman said to our captain:

    “Sir, we cannot do that!”

    We all were fully trained,
    not tainted by a hidden feeling that we don’t deserve to be there,
    but humble enough to acknowledge dangerous situations.

    On another trip we sailed to Gough Island,
    with a helicopter on board,
    to pick up a sick person on the island,
    and the pilots refused to use the helicopter to rescue that man,
    because of the wind, waves and swelling.

    Not because they were cowards,
    but because they were well trained,
    they used common sense and
    their egos did not get in the way

  • May the souls of the faithful departed rest in God’s peace and rise in His glory. I would like to express my deepest condolences to the families, know that God will get you through this storm, to those still in hospital we pray for a speedy recovery and may God continue to bless you abundantly. To the whole SA Navy kindly note that we as the Nation pray for you as you guys have also lost colleagues and friends.

  • Genevieve Black says:

    Sounds like the real heroes are the NSRI, an organisation funded solely by donations and sponsorships. I hope people respond by supporting these amazing volunteers!

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