NNSL Marine Casualties: The Mv River Gurara Sinking

By Dr. Edmund Chilaka

Mv River Gurara

The first shipping casualty in the NNSL which became a total loss was Mv Oba Ovonranwem which grounded at Carpenter Rock, Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1969. She was laden with 10,000 tons of general goods en route Liverpool to Lagos.(Olubajo 1984, 18) Two of her sister ships, Mv King Jaja and Mv El Kanemi, salvaged much of her cargo to Lagos while the stricken ship was refloated. However, she was too badly damaged to continue in service and was towed to the breakers’ yard. Another incident about this time was MV Dan Fodio which was affected by fire outbreak in 1969 and had to be laid up for a long time, with a huge repair cost of £106,275.00 as at 1973.(NNSL Ltd 1973, 13)

            However, by far the most orchestrated marine incident affecting the carrier was the sinking of the Mv River Gurara near Lisbon, Portugal, in February 1989 after her engine failed and she did not receive the help of a tug boat requested by the captain.(Awuletey 2011; Hucket 2009, 102) The 16,000ton combo vessel laden with 11,000 metric tonnes of export cargo split into two after a tropical storm rammed her against rocks at Cape Espichel, near the village of Setubal in Lisbon Portugal. The vessel sailing under UKWAL banner had loaded 77 empty containers and export cargoes of cocoa beans, beer, rubber and ginger at Apapa port on January 20, 1989 and proceeded to load more cargoes at Port Harcourt, Douala, Tema, Abidjan and San Pedro. She was bound for Dublin and Liverpool and sailed from San Pedro on February 17, 1989.(Okoroanyanwu 1989, 1-2)

            Three days after sailing from San Pedro, the master, Capt. Tunde Ogundein, called the marine superintendent at the NNSL’s Liverpool office to report problems with the main engine oil lubricating system. The ship thereafter diverted course to Lisbon for emergency repairs. Consequently, she could not be steered or stood at anchor and began to drift being already afflicted with other problems, including a faulty bow thruster and anchor. (Mordi and Ndiulor 1990, backpage) According to former NNSL employees, the ship drifted for two days before a strong Atlantic storm which picked up at sea rammed her against rocks at Cape Espichel, causing the death of the captain and twenty other crew members.(Awuletey, Azubuike 2011; Okoroanyanwu 1989) At the first sign of the problem, the captain deployed a rescue plan using the life boat, which saved the lives of all the passengers, mainly the captain’s Ghanaian wife, children and family members of other officers. The crew remained onboard ship to salvage her, in the best traditions of professional seamanship.

The notorious storm which “disabled” eight other ships on that fateful Sunday caused two vessels to sink while one ran aground. The total casualties from all affected ships were eight dead, 25 missing and 80 rescued and the storm raged from Britain to Spain with winds of 80MPH and 30-foot waves. (Ames 1989) A Portuguese frigate and a helicopter came to River Gurara’s rescue. They helped to save 27 of the 48 crew members before the N25-million combo ship sank to the depths, the first and only time in NNSL’s 36-year operational history to record such a constructive total loss. However, River Gurara was insured to the tune of £7.895 million with Nigerian Insurance Corporation (NICON) and also covered by London and Liverpool Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association. After the loss was indemnified, the NNSL set aside N2.9 million for compensations and the 27 survivors received compensations ranging from N8,000 to N15,000 for the loss of their personal effects. (Mordi and Ndiulor 1990)

            Nevertheless, the sinking of River Gurara mirrored the internal struggle for life going on within the NNSL as a state-owned carrier. As the ship failed to withstand the gale force wind of the Atlantic storm, so the company also failed to withstand the adverse forces that assailed her corporate existence. Both sank as irrecoverable losses. The company’s account of the accident was incoherent from month to month; it also wavered on the causes of the sinking. According to the initial press release by the management, River Gurara was healthy and in class when she set sail on January 22, 1989. (Nigerline 1989, 9-11) After the Federal Government sent a fact-finding mission to Lisbon and Liverpool and set up a Marine Board on the accident, headed by a representative of the Attorney General of the Federation, Mrs. G. E. Ade-John, more facts began to emerge and the management’s position began to shift, to the extent of doubting the professional competence of the ship’s crew. (Mordi 1990, backpage)           

The five-man Marine Board interviewed Pinto Bastra, the NNSL’s agent in Portugal. They also visited the village of Setubal, near Cape Espichel, where Gurara sank and held discussions with the harbour master of Lisbon port and the naval men who conducted the rescue operations with a frigate. In Liverpool, the board held public sittings where employees and former employees of the NNSL Liverpool Office testified. In Nigeria, it held public sittings at Marine Road, Apapa, where serving and former NNSL employees, including the managing director, Rear Admiral Ugunna, the chief marine superintendent, Captain Saidu Otaru, Captain Akabom Bassey, Capt. N. C. Orazulume, Engr. Bob Alfa, Saliu Olokoba, and Capt. P. T. Olukotun testified. The following survivors, Engr. J.O. Chugbo, E. Dean, Godfrey Ozumba Mbachu, P. E. Ekong, and E.P. Allenubhi also testified. (Mordi and Ndiulor 1990, backpage; Hill Dickinson 1992, 4-5)

First, it emerged that a long list of faulty parts in the ship was submitted to the management for repairs as far back as November 1987 which the engineer considered critical for the safety and seaworthiness of the ship, including a Lloyd’s surveyor’s report calling for dry-docking of the vessel. Some of these repairs had not been done by the time the ship sailed in mid-January 1989. Moreover, there were conflicting accounts about the bunker supplied River Gurara in Lagos. While some alleged that it was adulterated, others, including the London solicitors, hinted at “barratry”, that is, stealing of some of the bunker, which caused a shortage of lube oil and triggered the engine to stall. (Marine Board 1993) Another source said that the engineers aboard noticed that the sump was broken and ocean water was seeping into the engine, which mixed with the lubricating oil and turned it into a whitish substance. (Ibia, 2011)

            The doubts on the quality of the lube oil was connected with the company’s insolvency. Previously, the major oil marketers used to bunker the line’s vessels. The NNSL was so heavily indebted to Zeek Nigeria Ltd, the alternate supplier of lube oil to the company’s ships at Lagos, that further credit facility was suspended. (Azubuike 2011) This gave rise to less credible suppliers who would supply on credit. Moreover, the insolvency of the company affected the management’s response to the ship’s “save our souls” (S.O.S) message, as it was widely known in the industry that the NNSL was defaulting in protection and indemnity (P and I) insurance cover for its ships. Insider reports blamed the owners of the tug boat, Telco Commander, which was approached to assist the ship, for delaying steaming to the vessel from 20.45hrs to 02.30hrs the following day. Their hesitation arose from doubts about NNSL’s capacity to pay the agreed USD10,000 per day cost of the salvage operation. Unfortunately, although NNSL’s agent, Pinto Bastro Navigacao, informed the Portuguese Naval Authorities about the distressed ship off her coast and the presence of a frigate in the area, this war ship, N.R.P Hermenegildo Capelo, reached the location, circled the vessel and stood off for two hours when the vessel was drifting towards the rocky coast. She offered no assistance, except to take in the survivors after River Gurara had hit the rocks. (Report of The Salvage Association 1989, 2)

            In hindsight, the managing director’s attribution of the sinking to “a combination of heavy seas and machinery breakdown” and insufficient training of the crew at Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron, seemed like a kneejerk response, if not an afterthought. For, had the tug boat reached the ship by 23.00Hrs as initially arranged, River Gurara likely could have been saved from sinking. Moreover, considering that the same crewmen had been manning the ships in the preceding 30 years with a fleet of 28 ships at its peak, without a similar accident, Rear Admiral Ugunna’s allusion to poor crew training and carelessness on the high sea flew in the face of the facts on the ground as an attempt to shift blame to the dead.

In conclusion, NNSL’s official procedure in respect of managing incidents of death on duty applied to the dead. The management ensured a quick repatriation of all the survivors and the family members of the dead sailors before the arrival of the bodies by air. Apart from the compensations for loss of personal effects, the bodies were conveyed to their villages by selected delegations of NNSL staffers who joined in the burial ceremonies. As the first and only time such a tragedy befell the national carrier and the country, it took rigorous mourning and condolence activities by the company to achieve official closure on the incident. In hindsight, it could be said that River Gurara’s sinking was an early warning of the looming corporate death of the company.


Ames, P., “Atlantic Storm Kills 16, Leaves 25 Missing at Sea”, AP, February 26, 1989. https://www.apnews.com/418408733211438fcd049b518fe56789 retrieved March 4, 2014.

Awuletey, O.A., Oral Interview, March 12, 2011

Azubuike I., Oral interview, March 2011

Hill Dickinson Davis Campbell Solicitors (JRH/LW/HD.12116), Letter from, to NNSL (Attention: Ibrahim Hassan), “”River Gurara”  Loss of Vessel off Portugal 26.2.89”, February 14, 1992.

Hucket A., “Nigerian National Shipping Line Ltd. Part 2”, Ships in Focus Record 42, March 2009, London, 93-102.

Ibia C. I. U., Oral interview, March 2011.

Marine Board Enquiry into Mv “River Gurara” Casualty of 26/02/89, Official Visit to the United Kingdom”, February 8, 1993. 

Mordi, P., “NNSL boss blames sinking of Mv Gurara on carelessness”, The Guardian, Vol. 16 No.4591, January 19, 1990.

Mordi P. and Ndiulor, T., “Engineer listed Mv Gurara’s problems before disaster, board told”, The Guardian, Vol. 6 No. 4590, January 18, 1990. 

Nigerline,  “M.v. River Gurara was Seaworthy – Uguna”, Vol.19 No.2 AprilJune 1989.

Okoroanyanwu, E., “Captain’s wife, children saved from sinking NNSL ship”, The Guardian, Vol. 5 No.4064, February 28, 1989.

Olubajo A., “Historical Excursion”, Nigerline, Vol. 14 No. 1, January/June 1984.

Report of The Salvage Association, Lisbon Office, Edificio Alvorada Avenida, 25 de April 10 Letra D 2750 Cascais of 5th April 1989.

The NNSL Ltd 1972 Report and Accounts, 13th AGM, 22nd March, 1973.