SA Navy to probe submarine disaster off Kommetjie, but stresses safety measures were adhered to
South African Navy authorities have stressed that ‘all safety measures’ were in place before an incident involving the South African Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi. However, an inquiry will be set up to probe the incident.
‘No Navy vessel, submarine or surface vessel, will leave harbour without a crew that is worked-up or trained. This vessel [SAS ’Manthatisi] – the crew, the captain – they are all trained. All the safety precautions were taken, and the vessel was certified to go to sea by our own certification entity,” said SA Navy Flag Officer Fleet Admiral Musawenkosi Nkomonde on the evening of Thursday, 21 September.
Nkomonde was speaking at a press conference held at Simon’s Town Naval Base, where he provided more details on the naval accident involving the SA Navy submarine SAS ’Manthatisi, which was off Kommetjie in Cape Town when high waves swept seven crew members out to sea on Wednesday afternoon.
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. The festival has now been cancelled.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Three dead, five rescued in SA Navy submarine disaster off Kommetjie, Cape Town
The submariners were in the process of conducting a vertical transfer (Vertrep) using an SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter when they were swept overboard. Rescue operations launched before 3pm on Wednesday saved the lives of five personnel. However, three submariners died during the incident.
On Thursday, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) released the names of the deceased SA Navy submariners: Master Warrant Officer William Mathipa (48), Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Mojela (43), and Lieutenant Commander Gillian Hector (33).
Hector was heralded as the first woman in Africa to navigate a submarine.
“It is a huge loss for the South African Navy, the entire Department of Defence and the country as a whole. [Hector] was the first female to qualify in her position in the submarine, [and] she was also on the verge of becoming the first female commanding officer… It took years of training for her to get here,” said Nkomonde.
The five remaining crew members had been admitted to hospital, with the SANDF saying one senior official was in critical condition on Wednesday.
“As we speak now, those members that were admitted to hospital, three have been discharged and one is still in the hospital [and] is stable and recovering – he will be discharged tomorrow morning,” said Nkomonde.
He said plans were being made for a combined memorial service for the three crew members. However, SA Navy officials still needed to consult with the families of the deceased.
Training exercises and safety measures
At the press conference, Nkomonde provided more details on what transpired during the vertical transfer exercise:
“One of the evolutions that they were performing is called a vertical replenishment (vertical transfer), that is the transferring of personnel or equipment from a helicopter to a submarine, or the reversal.
“In this case, our submarine SAS ’Manthatisi was exercising with the SA Air Force Maritime Lynx helicopter. They were going to transfer personnel from the helicopter to the submarine. However, unfortunately, an accident occurred during that evolution. The members of the submarine were on the upper deck, waiting to receive the personnel from the helicopter, and were swept off, overboard, by a wave.
“Then that’s where the casualties started.
“Initially, three members were swept overboard, and the other crew members were trying to assist them, and they were also swept by a second wave. A surface swimmer from the helicopter, who’s normally a safety [monitor] for such evolutions was lowered into the water to assist with the rescue or recovery of the members who fell overboard,” he said.
Nkomonde said the crew members who were swept overboard were recovered and brought back on board. However, the sea was getting rougher and the rescue operation was becoming difficult.
“We managed to recover three of them on board, and the others were recovered [by] the NSRI [National Sea Rescue Institute],” he said.
Nkomonde stressed that when these evolutions took place, “safety is of the utmost importance”.
“All the safety measures were in place, all the members … were wearing life jackets and safety harness which are our safety measures…”
“All training operations are conducted under control conditions, that is why … there was a safety swimmer on board that helicopter. That is why we have them [a safety swimmer] so that when such incidents occur, they can come to the rescue,” he said in response to questions from Daily Maverick.
Several witnesses of the rescue efforts in Kommetjie told Daily Maverick on Wednesday that the swells off the coast were huge.
Maritime Project Leader at the Institute for Security Studies, Tim Walker told Daily Maverick that this kind of accident involving a submariner being swept off a submarine during surface operations was not necessarily “out of the blue” and had occurred in the past.
“Accidents happen, and with our navy – and in fact any navy – when they’re put to sea they’re always doing their best, and submariners are arguably the most skilled and dedicated because of the challenges they face,” he said.
Speaking to the rescue operations and the conditions at sea, Walker said: “There’ve been several incidents over the last couple of years where the NSRI and the South African Maritime Safety Authority have really done everything they can to try and save lives at sea. So the fact that they weren’t able to do this, relatively close to the shore, just goes to show how bad the conditions were.”
Establishment of an inquiry
An SANDF statement released on Wednesday night said that an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident would be convened “in due course”.
Nkomonde could not provide more details about the inquiry timeline and processes.
“For now we’re just focusing on supporting the victims who were injured, the crew members – because this is traumatic, as you can understand. Once we have settled that, the Chief of the Navy will pronounce, as soon as possible, the board of inquiry will be convened, and we will know what happened,” he said.
Given that all safety measures were allegedly in place, Nkomonde said it was crucial to convene an inquiry, “to establish what happened and to prevent a future recurrence of what happened”.
In response to questions on whether it was wise to conduct an exercise of that nature, given the high waves and strong winds which have battered the coastal areas of the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in the past week, Nkomonde said he did “not want to speculate”.
“However, the captain of the submarine would’ve made that call, to make an assessment, to check if the conditions were safe for such an evolution to be conducted. We were all not there, so we are waiting now for the people who were there, to give us first-hand information when we conduct our inquiry,” he said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The ‘angry sea’ just ‘kept coming’ – ‘frightening’ weekend storm batters coastal areas of SA
Maritime experts who spoke to Daily Maverick echoed Nkomonde’s remarks, saying the commanding officer would typically assess the sea conditions shortly before conducting a vertical replenishment exercise to decide whether to proceed.
On Thursday morning, the Presidency issued a statement saying President Cyril Ramaphosa was “deeply saddened” by the loss of the three crew members who perished at sea off Kommetjie.
“This is a sad loss for our nation and for our brave armed forces in particular who routinely face danger in order so that all of us can be safe and secure. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families, friends, commanders and colleagues of the crew members we have lost.
“We wish the injured personnel a full recovery from the physical and psychological trauma they experienced during this tragedy. We also appreciate the efforts of all role players who, at great risk to themselves, undertook the rescue and recovery operation,” said Ramaphosa.
Condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the deceased SA Navy crew members were also sent by the parliamentary portfolio committee on defence and military veterans and its chairperson, Cyril Xaba.
Cape Town Mayor Geordin-Hill Lewis, on X (formerly Twitter), said he was “saddened to hear of the loss of the three SA Navy sailors”.
“We mourn the loss of these servicemen and pray that they will know our gratitude for their service to our country,” he said. DM