The Shillong was a Cargo Liner of 8,934 GRT built at Vickers-Armstrong & Co Ltd., High Walker Yard No. 104, Newcastle, UK, for the Peninsular & Oriental S.N.Co, London. The ship was launched 09 June 1948 and completed 05 March 1949 with a length of 159.1 meters and beam of 20.5 meters . Propulsion was provided by a triple-expansion steam engine from Barrow-in-Furness providing 13,000 SHP to a single propeller for a speed of 17 knots. Normal crew compliment was 87-88 personnel and accomodations for up to 12 passengers.
The Shillong’s final journey started in October 1957 when the ship departed the Ushant loaded with 11,700 tons of general cargo, 6-passengers, 26-British Officers, and 61-crew, en route to TsingTao, China under the command of Captain E. J. Spurling. The ship made port calls at Almeria, Spain and Genoa, Italy where she discharged cargo and took more cargo onboard. The ship then sailed to Port Said where the ship joined a south-bound convoy through the Suez Canal. The convoy anchored in the Great Bitter lake to allow a north-bound convoy to pass and then to await fog to clear before proceeding south to Port Tewfik.
After clearing Port Tewfik at 1600 on 22 October 1959, the pilot was dropped off and the ship increased speed and continue south through the Gulf of Suez in weather described and being fine and clear. The Shillong overtook and passed slower moving south-bound vessels, while at the same time north-bound vessels were passing her on both sides.
The bridge watch was changed at 2000 by the Second Officer and a training cadet, Ian Goddard. The ship was on a course to pass near the light at Ras Gharib 40 miles to the south. Captain Spurling has left an order to be contacted when the light was in sight. Approximately 2 hours later the light was sighted off the starboard bow and the Captain was duly informed. An Italian passenger liner was also steaming south off of the ship’s starboard quarter, another south-bound vessel ahead of her, and two north-bound vessels advancing towards the Shillong on an almost a reciprocal course. It should be noted here that this area is one of the narrowest parts of the Gulf of Suez. The two northboud vessels, the Purfina Congo and the Skotland, who had registered each other’s presence and positions at a range of 10-miles from the Shillong, altered course by 20-degrees which placed the ships on a collision course with the Shillong’s port bow. The Shillong’s Second Officer maintained the ship’s course and speed as he was bound by Rule No. 21*. The Purfina Congo’s Watch Officer considered the Shillong as a passing vessel.
(* Note: This may have been the Navigation rule at the time. However, Rule No. 21 of COLREGS is now the rule listing required running lights. Rule No. 14 is now the applicable rule in this case concerning ships on reciprocal, or near reciprocal headings.)
As the Ras Gharib light drew near, the five vessels were converging on each other, greatly reducing the maneuvering capabilities of the Shillong. To make matters worse, one of the north-bound vessels altered course with the intention of crossing over the Shillong’s starboard bow!
At less than a mile apart it became apparent to the Second Officer that the oncoming vessel was not going to alter course. He immediately ordered a hard turn to starboard and sounded the ship’s whistle to communicate his intentions to the oncoming ship. Captain Spurling arrived on the bridge when, at the same time the oncoming vessel altered her course as well…..only it was to port, intended to cross the Shillong’s bow!
The Second Officer ordered Emregency Full Astern…but it was too late. The oncoming vessel, the tanker Purfina Congo, struck the Shillong just aft of the pilothouse. The ship then proceed to slide down the entire length of the Shillong’s port side, leaving a huge gash in the amidships area flooding the ship’s engine room and the port side cargo oil tank.
The ship almost immediately took on a port list as the ship swung around from the force of the impact, the No. 3 boat deck already flooded.
As the ship was flooding, the order to abandon ship was given. However, the lifeboats located on the ship’s port side were rendered useless by the collision, and the starboard lifeboats could not be lowered due to the extreme angle of the ship’s port list. As the engine room continued to flood, the ship’s list decreased enough to finally deploy the starboard lifeboats, allowing the ship’s crew to abandon the sinking vessel. Captain Spurling was the last man to leave the ship.
The ship finally sank just after midnight at position 28.16.33N/33.13.50E in 23 meters of water in the separation channel just north of the July Oilfield. The M/V Skotland, which was the other north-bound vessel, returned and rescued the crew. Two members of the crew were killed in the initial collision, and a third died sometime afterwards.
Footnote: There was never a formal investigation concerning this collision, nor were there damage claims filed, and there was never an official cause of the collision or blame determined. This maritime incident was used as one of the examples justifying the need for ship routing through the Gulf of Suez, which was not in place at the time of this accident. Today we have what are now known as “TSS”, or Traffic Separation Schemes, in all navigation channels and areas of marine traffic.
Many of the regular tour operators in the Red Sea state that the wreck of the Shillong has not been found as of late 2008. Other dive operators state on their websites that the wreck is on their dive itineraries. The position of the wreck site is the position marked on the navigation charts. Other information found states that the wreck is at location 28.15.65N/33.14E, which is near the position above. This may be the position where the actual collision occurred and not the location of the wreck itself. This information will be updated when known.
Miramar Single Ship Report for 1182960