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Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks - The Salem Express


The Salem Express By Ned Middleton

Note: Ned Middleton is a professional Underwater Photo-Journalist who has published a number of articles in recent years about Red Sea Wrecks. Please send corrections to Ned Middleton here.


Day Boat

Safari Boat

Shore Dive

Snorkelling

Diving Grade

Yes

Yes

No

No

All

Location:

26 39 01" N, 34 03 48"E. Hyndman Reefs, southeast of Safaga

Access:

Day boat or Safari Boat from Hurghada, Safaga or Qesir

Minimum Depth to Wreck

10m (along Port Side)

Maximum Depth to Seabed:

30m (at stern)

Average Visibility:

35-40m


The Loss of the Salem Express

The Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is located on the eastern shores of the Red Sea at latitude 21 28 north and it was here on 16 December 1991 that the Egyptian ferry "Salem Express" was loaded with vehicles and several hundred passengers. These were mostly Pilgrims who were in good heart and dressed in their finest robes - as is always the case when returning from the holy city of Mecca.

Based in Safaga, the Salem Express provided a ferry service between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Her Captain was Hassan Moro a very able and vastly experienced Master Mariner. Widely regarded as a fine seaman, Moro had previously taught at the Egyptian Naval Academy and had moved to Safaga to work for the Samatour Shipping Company. He was appointed Master of the Salem Express in 1988.

This was a Captain who knew the route between Safaga and Jeddah, as well as any - but perhaps too well! Every time he approached Safaga, Captain Moro was in the habit of sailing between the Egyptian mainland and the treacherous Hyndman Reefs - which lie just to the south of the port. This maneuver shaved a full two hours off the journey time.

None of the other captains would follow such a route - always remaining further offshore until they were able to take the designated path around the northern tip of Panorama Reef before adopting a south-westerly course that would keep them in deep water until they were safely in Safaga. It should be noted that, in the aftermath of the loss of the Salem Express, this "safer" route became compulsory for all big ships.

On 16th December 1991, the Salem Express commenced her final journey. It was one of almost 450 nautical miles and there was nobody to question the man in charge. By nightfall, the weather had deteriorated with winds gusting to gale force. Many of those on board were deck-passengers and Moro was well aware of their discomfort on such a foul night.

Crossing the Red Sea, he deliberately hugged the coast as he made his way northwards - trying to provide his passengers with whatever protection was available from a "lee" shore. As the vessel approached the Hyndman Reefs it was close to midnight and impossible to distinguish Reef from Sea in such conditions. Moro was just slightly to the east of his normal route and that resulted in the Salem Express striking the most southerly Reef a heavy glancing blow.

The result was twofold. Firstly the hull was holed on the forward starboard side. At the same time, the impact caused the Visor on the Bows to be jolted upwards from its closed position allowing water into the car deck. Such a double blow was utterly catastrophic and, as vast quantities of water swept into the vessel from these two sources, everything happened too quickly.

An immediate list to starboard caused by the ruptured hull was worsened by the water entering the car deck and the list increased at an alarming pace. With the storm continuing unabated, there was instant panic among the passengers as the vessel stalled and continued to lean over towards an unforgiving sea. Within 20 minutes of striking the reef, the Salem Express sank. She came to rest in 30m of water on her starboard side.

A few much smaller vessels were safely moored on the lee side of the larger reefs nearby but were unable to render assistance for fear of losing their own boats. One Skipper later reported that he had watched the Salem Express approach and "one moment she was there and the next she was gone!"

Many lives were lost when the ship sank and others perished in the immediate aftermath. For some, however, the ordeal was not yet over - they were swimming for their lives. So swift had been the sinking that none of the lifeboats or life-rafts had been properly launched. These people were on their own - but at least the current was taking them towards shore. Remarkably, 180 people survived with most of them eventually reaching shore unaided.

Officially, the vessel was carrying 650 persons - 578 passengers and 72 crew. Although many people insist she was carrying up to twice as many passengers, further speculation serves no useful purpose. The official death toll was set at 470 and, in any event, it is highly unlikely that the port officials of Jeddah would have allowed a grossly overloaded boat to depart.

Naturally, relatives began demanding answers and, initially at least, the crew were criticized when it became known that most of the lifeboats and liferafts had gone down with the ship. In all fairness, however, there was little time between impact and sinking to have achieved anything - especially as the ship had adopted a severe list almost immediately. Of course, the one man responsible for everything that happened on that dreadful night was Captain Hassan Moro - and he went down with his ship.

Over the next few days, many bodies were recovered from the cabins and accommodations all along the uppermost port side, but as this task got deeper and deeper it eventually became too dangerous. A halt was called and the Egyptian Navy stepped in to seal the vessel from all further intrusion.

The answer to the most frequently asked question is, therefore, "Yes" - there are bodies still deep within the ship. That, coupled with this being a very recent tragedy, is why many Dive Guides forbid the divers in their charge from entering the wreck.

The Ship

Launched as the Fred Scamaroni in 1976, the roll-on roll-off ferry ship Salem Express was built by French shipbuilding company Constructions Navales et Industrielles de la Mediterranee at La Seyne. She was later renamed Nuits Saint George, Lord Sinai and Al Tahra before becoming the Salem Express in 1988.

She was 4,771 gross registered tonnes and her measurements were 100.29m x 18.1m with a draught of 4.92m (unladen). Powered by 4 x 8 cylinder diesel engines reduction geared to serve two propellers and directional thrust propellers forward, the engines were built by Ch de LAtlantique also of La Seyne and produced a very powerful 14,880 bhp.

Diving the Salem Express

This is one of the largest wrecks in the Egyptian Red Sea - roughly the same size as the Thistlegorm. She lies perfectly on her starboard side at an almost uniform depth of 32m from Bows to stern. The visor is still found in the raised position - just as it was so many times when loading vehicles. The large foredeck has few obstructions except for a pair of windlasses for the large twin anchors - both of which remain fully retracted into their respective hawse-pipes.

The tall forward-facing accommodation block has many rows of square windows with the upper-most belonging to the bridge. Some of the windows have been removed making it quite clear that some divers do enter the wreck from time to time. Above the Bridge is an open space occupied by the ships large mast.

The uppermost port side of the entire wreck is at a fairly uniform 10-12m throughout and a companionway runs for most of the ships length from bridge to stern. Here are many doors that once gave access to the ships interior - but all are sealed. Behind the bridge and above the accommodation, is a raised sun deck with lifeboat davits on both sides. All the lifeboats on the port side are absent.

Amidships, the divers will find twin funnels connected by a strengthening brace. On both sides of each funnel there is a capital letter "S" - very appropriately within a "wreath" of laurels.

Immediately below the funnels are four lifeboats sitting on the seabed. The after deck was where the deck-passengers were congregated. A light framework stretched over the deck onto which sheets of blue corrugated plastic were fixed in order to provide some shelter from the sun. These corrugated sheets now litter the seabed at a point where one or twopersonal belongings - such as a large stereo and suitcase, are found.

From here, the ships sides curve back slightly towards the square stern making it quite easy to swim under the wreck and emerge on the other side right next to the two huge propellers and single rudder. Underneath, the main hull is virtually featureless apart from the stabilizers towards the Bows.

At the stern, shoals of Sweetlips enjoy the shade and, elsewhere, Angelfish, Butterflyfish and Goatfish are found everywhere with Blue-Spotted Stingray close by on the sand. The wreck itself is already covered in a large number of hard corals and, being in a relatively sheltered location, will eventually become part of the Hyndman Reefs in its own right.

Comment

The very act of diving this particular wreck does attract controversy. There are those who refuse to visit this vessel altogether and some who even object to others who wish to see it for themselves. Clearly they feel the Salem Express should be placed out of bounds altogether and every opinion is as valid as the next. It is not for me to say who is right or wrong.

As a professional underwater photo-journalist, I would not wish to glorify this particular shipwreck in any way. That said, it is my job to report on the wreck and the fact that the diving community is permitted to dive this vessel without precondition.

Personally, I find it most curious that many of those divers who insist on "not" diving the Salem Express - and who feel that their views should be observed by other divers, are very happy to move on and Dive wrecks such as the Carnatic where 31 people died or the Thistlegorm where the death toll was nine! Surely our respect for those who died should be consistent whatever the size of the tragedy...

Back to Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks

Last Updated: May 29th, 2011

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