50 years ago: The “Brandenburg” sank in the English Channel

On 12 January 1971, the “Brandenburg” sank in the English Channel in just two minutes after colliding with a tanker that had already been involved in an accident. Twenty crew members perished. The 11 rescued members owed their lives to the swift reaction of local fishermen. A chain of unfortunate circumstances led to the tragedy.

We are fortunate that serious shipping accidents like this one are a rarity these days. Since the “Brandenburg” sank in 1971, safety technology in the shipping industry has made several advances. But that can also be attributed in part to major catastrophes like this one.

Built in 1950 , the “Brandenburg” had a length of 110 metres and a beam of 15 metres, and was deployed by Hapag-Lloyd in the Hamburg-West Indies service. After departing from the Port of Antwerp on a voyage from Bremen to the West Indies, the cargo ship met with disaster seven miles south of Folkestone: At 7:30 am local time, the “Brandenburg” collided with the stern section of the “Texaco Caribbean”. The tanker had collided with the “Paracas”, a Peruvian vessel, on the previous day and split in two. The “Brandenburg” drifted for another kilometre as it sank. Today, its wreck lies 1.45 nautical miles west-southwest of the middle section of the Varne Bank in the Strait of Dover.

What led to this huge disaster?

The fact that 20 members of the crew, including the captain, lost their lives resulted from a chain of unfortunate circumstances: For example, not enough had been done to warn other ships of the presence of the wrecked tanker on the shipping lane it had been sailing in. The radio operator didn’t heed a wreck warning from the UK Coastguard – possibly because he was listening to the Dutch weather report at the same time. The damage that the “Brandenburg” sustained during the collision was so severe that it sank within just a few minutes. In fact, it sank so quickly that there was no time to launch lifeboats and only a very few crew members succeeded in putting on lifejackets. On top of that, two inflatable life rafts did not inflate. At that time, they were not yet equipped with water pressure release valves. What’s more, like most ships of that era, the “Brandenburg” had not been outfitted with an alarm system. And to make matters even worse, the English Channel was at low water. If this hadn’t been the case, the cargo ship could have sailed past the wreck unharmed. The water depth was 29 metres, the tanker wreck lying on its side was 23.75 metres high, and the “Brandenburg” had a draught of 6.43 metres. When the latter started sinking, the ships in its vicinity did not realize what had happened quickly enough. An emergency message could not be sent owing to a power failure of the VHF radio equipment. The water temperature in January was extremely low. Only 11 members of the crew survived.

© THB - Täglicher Hafenbericht

Hapag-Lloyd flew its flag at half-mast, and a large memorial service was held in Hamburg. To thank the fishermen of Folkestone who assisted in the rescue operation, Hapag-Lloyd held a memorial service at the Grand Hotel in the British coastal town on 1 March 1971. There was great shock and dismay in the home port of Hamburg – but also a special ray of hope: On 13 September 1971, the widow of the deceased radio operator gave birth to a healthy baby daughter. The seafarers collected 6,600 Deutsche marks for the girl named Marret-Eike.

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