30 Dec 64 : Two boats and a terrible tragedy 

Tony bought these postcards on his travels – the first shows the SS Yarmouth, on which they enjoyed their Bahamas cruise.

The second shows the SS Yarmouth with its sister ship SS Yarmouth Castle, which also ran pleasure cruises from Miami to Nassau.

In November 1965, just 11 months after Tony and Colin’s trip, the Yarmouth Castle caught fire and sank during a cruise, with appalling consquences. The tragedy would change maritime safety laws forever…

SS Yarmouth reentering Miami harbour 1964 built in 20s scrapped 75
The SS Yarmouth entering Miami Harbour in 1964
SS Yarmouth and SS Yarmouth Castle

On 12 November 1965, the Yarmouth Castle set sail from Miami for a pleasure cruise to Nassau. There were 376 passengers and 176 crew on board, making a total of 552.

Shortly before 1am, when the boat was 60 miles from Nassau, a badly burned passenger staggered from a stairwell and collapsed on deck. From that moment, events took place at dizzying speed.

It would later emerge that a cabin – which was already excessively hot, being above the boiler room, and which had exposed flammable insulation – had been used as a storeroom, crammed full of mattresses, paint cans and other items. One mattress, pressed right up against the ceiling light, ignited as a result.

The ship’s fire alarms failed to sound, the sprinkler system failed to activate, and as the blaze burst from the cabin, it raced at dizzying speed through the liner’s wooden superstructure, and its wood-panelled corridors, decks and ventilation system.

When the onboard fire hoses didn’t have enough water pressure to fight the flames, the bridge was consumed before the crew could radio for help.

Most passengers were woken by the sound of screaming. Many had to break their portholes to escape their cabins – their windows had been painted shut. Terrified, they climbed ropeladders to the decks.

With the front half of the boat rapidly consumed by flames, the passengers crammed to the rear of the decks, hunting for life jackets and lifeboats. As there had been no information on evacuation procedures provided, no-one knew what to do.

Some of the crew showed incredibly bravery, even giving away their own lifejackets. But not all behaved heroically, or even ethically.

As the ship blazed brightly in the darkness, it was spotted by two other crafts in the area.

As they raced towards the Yarmouth Castle, the Finnish freighter Finnpulp repeatedly attempted to radio Nassau to raise the alarm. They received no reply.

It wasn’t until 1.36am – 40 minutes after the fire began – that the Finnpulp managed to contact the US Coast Guard in Miami and report the unfolding disaster. By then an American liner, Bahama Star, was also rushing towards the burning cruise ship.

Finnpulp’s Captain John Lehto was appalled when the first lifeboat to leave the burning boat rowed up to their stern.

Although it could seat 40, there were only 20 survivors on board, and of those, only four were passengers. None were women or children.

The remaining 16 were crew members – including the Yarmouth Castle’s captain, Byron Voutsinas.

Furious, Captain Lehto took the passengers onboard, but ordered the captain and crew: ‘Go back and look for more survivors.’

The next two lifeboats to escape the burning ship contained only crew.

In total, only six of the Yarmouth Castle’s 13 lifeboats were successfully launched – several burned before they could be launched, while the ropes of others jammed in the winches, as they had been painted over.

Because they were all missing rowlocks, the lifeboats had to be paddled like canoes.

Desperate to save the trapped passengers, the crews of the Finnpulp and Bahama Star took their own lifeboats and motor boats to line up beside the burning ship.

The rescuers later recalled the screams and yells, the sounds of breaking wood and glass – and the constant, low groaning of steam being forced through the ship’s whistle.

Passengers swarmed down ropes and rope ladders – or simply jumped, then clung to chairs, mattresses, suitcases and other items in the cold water.

As the blaze consumed the liner, four planes sent by the U.S Coastguard arrived. But even flying 4,000 feet overhead, they were nearly engulfed by smoke and flames.

In a last ditch rescue attempt, Finnpulp pulled up so close that passengers were able to jump across to safety. But when their own paint began to burn, they had to pull away.

The last passengers were rescued at 4am. By then, the Yarmouth Castle‘s hull was glowing red and the water around it was boiling. It sank in a roar of steam at 6.03am.

When they arrived at Nassau later that day, Finnpulp and Bahama Star were carrying 465 survivors – 291 passengers and 174 crew members.

14 critically injured people had already been airlifted to hospital, three of whom would later die. This took the final death toll to 90 – of which only two were crew.

The disaster shocked the world. Captain Voutsinas and other crew members were charged with violation of duty, and in March 1966, the U.S. Coastguard published a damning report on the tragedy.

There had been numerous safety violations in addition to those already described: Many cabins held no life jackets, and no fire doors were closed during the blaze.

Although required by American law, the Yarmouth Castle did not have three inflatable liferafts, or two radio operators, on board.

However, it emerged that as it was an older ship, and because it was registered under the Panamanian flag, the liner only needed to conform to far less stringent international safety conventions.

Following the tragedy, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) law was updated to include expanded and enhanced safety regulations, requiring fire drills, safety inspections and structural changes to older ships.

Any vessel carrying more than 50 overnight passengers is now required to be built entirely of non-combustible materials such as steel.

You can watch Pathe newsreel footage of the survivors disembarking at Nassau here: https://youtu.be/ZZ0gvZ72RoY

I am indebted to Wikipedia’s entry on this topic (this account is a truncated retelling) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Yarmouth_Castle

Some sobering photos of the fire and of survivors arriving at Nassau can be found here: http://flashbackmiami.com/2014/11/12/ss-yarmouth-castle-fire/

I am incredibly glad that Tony (my father) and Colin were not on that particular cruise.

It it an appalling, devastating disaster and our hearts go out to all who died so tragically, all who survived it, and all who lost loved ones or were in any way affected.

Additional note by Tony:

Tiffany’s account above is quite chilling for me.

I only found out recently (when I was looking for a picture of the SS Yarmouth) that its sister ship the SS Yarmouth Castle had sunk.

However, there was no mention of the shocking events linked to its sinking, and the resulting death toll.

I can only assume that the ship we were on, the SS Yarmouth, was equally a death trap – an accident waiting to happen.

It’s good to know that today’s very high safety standards on cruise ships are the result of this terrible incident. At least some good came out of it.

This tragedy happened in November 1965, when Colin and I were at sea again, this time on a German cargo ship working our passage from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand. More about that in later letters.

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