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The mystery of SS Lakemba's disappearance

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, June 02, 2014

DISASTERS in Fiji waters dating back to about a century have claimed a few hundred lives. But there have been incidents where people have been rescued from on board vessels or from the seas. Some of the known sea disasters include the Syria, which ran aground on Nasilai Reef off Nausori on the night of May 11, 1884 while bringing indentured labourers from India. The 1010-tonne ship reportedly broke into two after hitting the reef, claiming 59 lives and leaving about 200 survivors in the dark night and in dangerous waters. On March 29, 1964, the Kadavulevu capsized and claimed 89 lives while the Makogai and the inter-island vessel Uluilakeba got caught in the centre of Cyclone Lottie in 1973 and capsized near Lau on the same day, jointly claiming about 80 lives. In 1986, the barge Talofa capsized in waters off Yasawa-i-Rara and claimed the lives of eight people, whose bodies were never found. There have been other incidents that claimed several lives in different parts of the Fiji waters, some while people were being ferried from one island to the other. However, one incident that is known to have not claimed any life was when a 7459-tonne ship carrying Canadian and American migrants ran aground on Cakaulekaleka Reef off Vatulele Island in 1967. The ship disappeared from the reef after a few days, believed to have sunk somewhere close.

SHE was built in Canada in 1945 as a steamship to carry cargo only.

From 1945 to 1947, she was with the British Navy as HMS Spurn Point, according to www.wrecksite.eu.

In 1947, the SS Lakemba was acquired by Pacific Shipowners Limited in Suva (W R Carpenter Limited in Sydney, Australia).

The 134.7-metre long ship was refitted with accommodation for 98 passengers and placed on the Vancouver (Canada)/Honolulu (Hawaii)/ Fiji /Sydney run.

On Friday, October 6, 1967, The Fiji Times reported on its front page the ship had run aground on Cakaulekaleka Reef, about 45 miles southwest of Suva. Some of the passengers who were rescued from the ship before it sank told this newspaper then about their experiences while on board.

Mike Reid, who was a teenager in 1967, was migrating from Canada to Australia via Fiji, like others from his homeland and America.

He had travelled on the SS Lakemba to Fiji and was heading to Sydney but was not on board when the incident happened.

Mr Reid has been a Fiji citizen for the past 12 years and he also has a story to tell.

The ship had left Vancouver for Honolulu in early September before it arrived in Suva enroute to Sydney with the Canadian and American migrants.

She left Suva wharf at about 6pm on October 4, 1967 for Lautoka to pick up passengers before heading for Sydney.

However, this newspaper reported on October 6 that the ship had run aground on Cakaulekaleka Reef about 1am on October 5.

"There is no danger of her breaking up because the weather was reported yesterday to be fairly calm with a moderate swell. When she left, it was reported that she would not call at Suva again because she had been sold," it was reported on October 6.

When Captain John P Ward radioed for help after the stranding, the cable repair ship Retriever left Suva at top speed and arrived at the reef about 10:20am and transferred everyone from the SS Lakemba on board.

It was reported that in Sydney, Qantas announced that a chartered Boeing 707 would leave for Nadi on October 6 to bring the SS Lakemba passengers to Australia.

Some of the 62 passengers who were on the ship told this newspaper then that they had to be disturbed from their sleep to be told that the ship had struck a reef.

All passengers this newspaper spoke to then spoke highly of the crew and the ship's officers for transferring them and their luggage to the Retriever.

David Boen, 11 years old then and formerly of Texas in the US, told this newspaper then that it was the greatest experience of his life and he "enjoyed every minute of it." He was travelling with his parents and four siblings.

The ship's doctor, E J Murphy of Australia had said that all the passengers behaved admirably and no injuries were reported.

"The transfer from one ship to the other took place very well. Everyone had a lifebelt and lifeboats were used," he told this newspaper then.

On October 7, 1967, this newspaper reported that the Fiji Marine Department would investigate why a ship with modern navigational aids should run aground on a well-known reef five miles off her course in fair weather while sailing a route she had covered many times.

Fiji's Director of Marine then, Captain A J Newport told a reporter from this newspaper then that the position regarding a preliminary inquiry into the SS Lakemba mishap had not yet been clarified.

It was also reported then that about £300,000 ($F932,202) worth of Canadian timber on board had started to break loose from the deck. Also, it was reported that there was no sign of two cars that belonged to passengers.

Also, it was reported in the same edition that a crew member of the ship was fined £15 ($F46) by the Suva Magistrates Court for stealing a saree, two yards of material and nine ball pens from the ship while she was stranded.

On October 9, 1967, it was reported that every single piece of luggage belonging to passengers was successfully retrieved from the sinking SS Lakemba.

It was reported that many of the passengers were migrants going to Australia and no trouble was experienced in salvaging their baggage.

This newspaper also carried pictures of the ship as it listed to the starboard while stuck on the reef, with no signs of it being salvaged.

On the front page of October 10, 1967, this newspaper reported that the ship had founded, apparently driven off Cakaulekaleka Reef by wind-whipped seas on the night of October 8.

The sugar ship Riverton that was on her way to Suva after loading sugar in Lautoka passed close to the spot where the SS Lakemba had run aground radioed that the wrecked ship had vanished.

Captain Ian G Fraser, who brought the Riverton from Lautoka to Suva, told this newspaper then that there was no sign of the SS Lakemba.

"There wasn't a sign of her. There was no debris to be seen, not even a stick of wood. All that could be seen was what looked like an oil slick over the place where she had been," he had said.

Beaches on the northeast coast of Vatulele Island were reportedly stained with oil and littered with expensive Canadian timber from the SS Lakemba.

While passengers on board the ship when it ran aground were able to get their luggage back, there was one person who did not have a good experience.

He arrived in Sydney days later with his passport, some important documents and only the pair of shorts and T-shirt he was wearing.

NEXT WEEK: The experiences of a Canadian migrant now a Fijian.





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