When Mohamed Saeed first stepped aboard MV Victory as the Chief Electrical Officer, little could he have known that it would be his first and final voyage on the doomed cargo ship.
“I was one of the last to be rescued,” he revealed, thirty-seven years after the freighter sank off the coast of airport island Hulhule to become the most famous shipwreck in the Maldives.
It was the night of February 13, 1981, with clear skies under a bright waxing moon. Victory had just returned from Singapore, carrying general cargo from cement and iron to timber and cooking oil. Recalling the events of the fateful night, Saeed said he had not expected Victory to enter the capital’s harbour until the following morning, as it was illegal to enter Gaadhoo Kolu, Male’s main cargo route, after dark.
“What happened was that, on the night we left Male for Singapore, we saw a larger ship entering Gaadhoo Kolu,” narrated Saeed. “So our captain figured he could do it too.”
Saeed was surprised when the Chief Engineer ordered him, the Second Engineer and Third Engineer to be on standby for docking that night itself. Despite his misgivings, he took up his duty as the Chief Electrician while Victory entered Gaadhoo Kolu, making her way to Male’s commercial port.
“The popular belief is that Victory ran aground Male’s reef, but that’s not true,” said Saeed, explaining that they had seen the shallows clearly in the moonlight and kept their distance from the capital’s shore.
Once the freighter came upon the island of Fonadhoo, which lies between the capital city and Hulhule in the cargo route, she was steered around to enter the channel between Fonadhoo and Hulhule, since the Male-Fonadhoo channel is prohibited for freighters and tankers.
Here the freighter’s fate was sealed: a misjudgement by the helmsman coupled by the vessel's near-ancient hydraulic steering system failed in swinging her around and, at approximately 10:00 p.m. on a particularly unlucky Friday the February 13th, MV Victory hit Hulhule’s house reef.
“It wasn’t caused by equipment failure,” said Saeed stoutly. “The Chief Engineer and I checked; it was a steering fault.”
Their first cause of action after the collision was to try and save the ship. She was steered urgently back out of Gaadhoo Kolu while Saeed and the three engineers below deck tried to pump out water from the double-bottomed tank.
It was a futile attempt. The hull was breached a level above the cargo storage and there was no stopping the water flow. The sinking of the freighter was guaranteed.
With Victory already beginning to keel, it soon dawned on everyone aboard – 30 crew members and seven passengers – that they would be left to the mercy of the waves if she remained in open water. Saeed and a handful of other seamen quickly sought the captain, urging to take Victory back through the cargo route.
Options exhausted, the captain gave the dreaded order: scuttle the ship. Engines at maximum power and keeling more than 12 degrees to the side, Victory reentered the cargo route where under the captain’s orders, she was deliberately run aground.
News of the wreckage spread swiftly across the capital despite the late hour. Representatives of authorities gathered at Male’s shore while the military were dispatched to evacuate the people aboard the sinking ship.
“We were the last to be rescued,” said Saeed, referring to himself and the three engineers. While the passengers and the rest of the crew were on deck and promptly evacuated, the four had remained below, still working fruitlessly to pump out water.
When the four finally emerged, it was to an empty deck. Fortunately, rescue soldiers soon returned for them, while work was underway to tow Victory away from the reef to be floated.
While there were no casualties in the incident, several of the mostly-foreign crew were left bereft afterwards, losing nearly all their worldly possessions on the freighter.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the dismayed seafarers had watched MV Victory, with all of her lights still blazing, sink below the waves in the early hours of February 14.