A CRUISE TO REMEMBER – The sinking of the SUN VISTA
Sun Cruises, Singapore, a personal memory by Fred Burnett
Built at Cantieri Riuniti dell’Adriatico, Monfalcone, Italy as GALILEO GALILEI for
Lloyd Triestino SpA di Navigazione, Genoa 1961
SUN VISTA (ex-GALILEO GALILEI, GALILEO, MERIDIAN) sank May 20, 1999
MaritimeMatters: On the afternoon of May 20, 1999 the SUN VISTA was returning to Singapore after a cruise to Phuket, Thailand when a malfunction in the engine room switchboard ignited a small fire. The fire could not be contained and spread throughout the ship. A distress call was finally sent about 6:30 PM. Meanwhile, the passengers were instructed to go up on deck and prepare to abandon ship. All 472 passengers and 672 crew abandoned the ship. The SUN VISTA slowly sank deeper and deeper by the stern over the next seven hours. Finally at 1:22 AM May 21, 1999 she sank in about 200 feet of water some 60 nautical miles south of Penang Island, 50 nautical miles west of Port Weld, in the Strait of Malacca. A passing freighter eventually rescued the passengers after they spent about five to eight hours in the lifeboats. There were no fatalities with some minor injuries reported.
Fred Brunett’s passenger eye view of the events: Time 2.30pm Singapore standard time 20th May, 1999.
There we were, myself, my partner, my sister and her husband standing on the bridge of the cruise ship SUN VISTA joking with the friendly staff and learning a little about the operations of the ship before we went on down for a engine room tour. What was so funny? Well, we could read messages about piracy warnings in the Malacca Straits and made wisecracks about a fire warning light partly covered up. Life is wonderful; my first cruise, what could possibly go wrong? The next 24 hours became an experience of a lifetime!
Our engine room tour wasn’t happening, our crew person rang the engine room and we were told they couldn’t do the tour with us at the moment. So off we go, maybe we’ll come back, hell it’s our last day of the five day cruise and the ship still had food and alcohol to be consumed, we’d spent the first four days trying to lighten the load, why stop now.
We went back to find my parents, the six of us were traveling together and just after we found them in our favourite bar all the lights went out and the ship lost power. Bit of a glitch we thought. After a while we were informed there was a minor fire in the engine room, (sort of explained why we didn’t get our engine room tour ) and we were requested to muster on the deck near the pool area. The crew started to set up BBQ’s for a bit of a feed and provided some entertainment. After a while we started to realise this minor problem could last for a while as we noticed a bit of smoke starting to come up through the funnel complex of the ship. By now we had lost all momentum and were drifting with no power. Things were becoming a little uncomfortable, no air conditioning, toilets overflowing but I don’t think many people thought anything was serious as a tanker had just crossed our bow, almost stopped then continued on. We thought things must be under control otherwise we would have requested assistance from them.
We had all been advised not to go below decks due to smoke and gas from the fire but as our cabins were fairly close to where my group of six had now moved to (up at the bow enjoying a wonderful view with a few beers) I decided with my brother in law to go back to my cabin and grab few things. Even then I never thought there was a serious problem but hey I don’t care what happens or where I am, as long as I’ve got my credit card I can survive. So yes below we went and gathered the necessities of survival, my hip flask of scotch my camera and thankfully my sisters jewelry. Now there’s a note of warning to all fellow travelers; read the fine print of your travel insurance policy regarding items kept in cabin or room safes you may find your not covered for loss or theft.
So now time is moving on, instead of a bit of inconvenience and excitement this problem was becoming a bit of a worry, I mean tonight was our last night, we had the big captains dinner. Lots of nice wine on order and here we all were on the decks, hot and humid, beer running short and the **** was about to hit the fan.
An announcement was made to every one to assemble at our designated lifeboat areas, (an area I was not sure of as I didn’t take much notice of the safety drill when we first boarded; funny how I’m very attentive at these briefings now when I travel). So now the confusion, anxiety and organised chaos really starts. Hey no life jackets, guess where they are? You got it, back to the cabin again with my brother in law. I tell you it was starting to get a little uncomfortable below decks now but we finally started to realise something was a tad serious, (besides lack of beer). We then mustered at our life boat position and formed up ready to hop into the lifeboat, this has ruined the Captains dinner hasn’t it! So in we get. At this moment I feel very surreal, yes I love to travel, have had some strange and funny things happen to me on holidays (most of my friends are now a bit weary of traveling with me) but this was weird. Never a fear of panic or anything, just a feeling of, well this just doesn’t happen, you only read about stuff like this.
Now the fun begins!!!! Our lifeboat is full (approx 72 persons) and we are the first away. Prior to this cruise I had not seen the recent movie blockbuster Titanic but three things happened that brought a chill to my spine when I eventually did see the movie. As our lifeboat was being lowered one of the two ropes which lower it had not been freed which then caused it to tip at a bit of a frightening angle. Thankfully the person on deck realised this, stopped the lowering until one of our crew found a knife and free’d the rope. Off we go again and stop just short of the water, now we can’t find the bung. Talk about comedy, I mean you have to see the funny side of it (now I do) if it wasn’t so serious you’d cry. You beauty, someone found the bung, only problem was it wouldn’t screw into the hole, don’t know what the problem was but our engineer crewman soon fixed it; thumped it in with his boot. Now lets get out of here we all think, not so fast, we are just not that lucky. Now our lifeboat is in the water, time to start the motor. You guessed it, maybe something to do with the Sun Vista not previously being shipwrecked and the lifeboats getting very little use but the motor wouldn’t start. Now life got a little hairy, as we are in the water the lifeboat started to drift towards the stern of the ship under the next lifeboat being launched. Everyone started to realise that we had drifted under where the second lifeboat was going to come down and started to yell at the crew on deck to stop lowering. I think I came within about three seconds of acute embarrassment as I was about to grab my girl and go over the side as we were right under the section where the boat would have come down. Luckily the crew realised the problem and stopped the other craft, very lucky for me, imagine what my girl would have done to me if I had thrown her in the drink for no good reason. I’ll take the shipwreck any day to that sort of carnage.
The final chilling moment then happened, the motor was started and when they released the big block and tackle that was used to lower the boat it swung past and just missed my father by centimeters. So now the time is approx 6.30 pm, all this so far has taken four hours, we are now on our second cruise of the day (you have to find the positive out of it all don’t you) close to sunset and we are watching the SUN VISTA disgorge lifeboats and smoke and I’m busy taking snapshots with my camera and taking the occasional swig from the hip flask. Now I’m no hero, I may seem a little carefree but I think most people realised the situation may have been dramatic but not really life threatening. I mean, I recommend to anyone if you are going to be shipwrecked then do it in the Malacca Straits, it is very calm, there are hundreds of other vessels within a reasonable distance of you, and as we all had life jackets on if you by some misfortune ended up in the water you would probably have more chance of dying of dysentery than shark attack or drowning.
So now lets just sit back and bob around in the ocean, watch the sunset and wait for our rescue. Organised chaos continued as we watched a tug arrive and pour water onto the Sun Vista in a vain attempt to put the fire out. Entertainment was provided by our crew, maybe not intentionally but what we had was an English speaking officer in charge of our lifeboat, Swedish engineer and a Filipino tiller man. As all three were needed to maneouvre and control the lifeboat I thought they did very well considering neither spoke the others language. I think the expletives were reasonably well understood and helped them all.
A couple of large container vessels soon arrived and just stood off and monitored the situation, I don’t know what was meant to happen and why we were not allowed to embark upon them straight away, all sorts of stories and rumours began to emanate like ferries coming from Penang to collect us etc etc but what did happen is that we bobbed around in the ocean until approx midnight when I think the officer in charge of our lifeboat made the decision to get us off and headed for one of the two vessels which had been standing off near us. We had a hairy 45 minutes getting people from the lifeboat onto the container vessel as the lifeboat was bobbing around in the swell a fair bit but everyone got safely off. So now we are on our third vessel in 24 hours, third cruise I guess. The crew of this vessel were most kind and gave us plenty to drink ( no beer unfortunately ) and several rooms to lounge around in. So now the discussion turned to what would happen to all our belongings, when would we get our stuff back and ain’t it just grand to be safe.
At approx 2.30am our ship fired up and began to move, lets go for a walk I suggested to Penny, my partner. We had had a few romantic strolls around the decks of the SUN VISTA over the last few nights so why no do one more. We arrived on deck, leaned on the rail to have a look around at all the ships and boats in the area. I don’t remember seeing that structure I said to Penny, looks like an oil rig or something. That’s strange we both thought, it’s shrinking; then it dawned on us as to what it was. We both stood there and stared at the last seconds of the wonderful ship, our first cruise the Sun Vista, slide ever so gracefully, bow last, beneath the sea. Hell of a cruise we both thought!!
So there you have it, one persons story of the SUN VISTA’s last day. Even though I was shipwrecked I still enjoyed the holiday, have I cruised since, absolutely, still the best way to holiday in my opinion and I’m hoping to do many more. What was the best thing to come out of the whole ordeal; well on a cruise you book everything up to your cabin, all your drinks etc and guess what, the drinks bill went down with the ship.
Article edited by Martin Cox, personal story contributed by Fred Burnett, Perth, Western Australia. With images from previous cruise taken by Jonathan Boonzaier.
(A version of this article first appeared on an earlier edition of MaritimeMatters in August 2002, edited and returned in 2011)
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.