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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Rescue of SS Lakemba
by David Howard

Introduction: David Howard worked for Cable and Wireless as a seagoing marine engineer from April 1964 until July 1969, serving on CS Mercury, CS Retriever (5) and CS Cable Enterprise (2) On 4th October 1967 CS Retriever went to the rescue of a sinking cargo liner off Fiji, where the cableship was stationed at the time.

See also David's stories: Losing a Buoy and The Gentleman’s Game, and his photographs on the CS Mercury page.

--Bill Burns

David writes:

Retriever in those days spent most of her time in Suva Harbour - either tied up alongside or swinging round the hook. We very rarely had anything to do, apart from routine ship’s maintenance (and drinking a lot of beer), so the call for help was a welcome change to do something useful. It wasn’t very far for us to go.

CS Retriever

CS Retriever’s Ship’s Movements log provides a very brief account of the rescue:

4th October 1967: Left Suva to assist passenger vessel on reef close Suva.
5th October: 150 survivors taken off S.S. Lakemba. Standing by as skeleton crew on board Lakemba.

These extracts from a newspaper account at the time give more details:

Liner Aground On Reef
Crew Stand By As Holds Flood

All 62 passengers from the cargo liner Lakemba which struck a reef off Fiji early yesterday were landed at Suva late last night by the cable ship Retriever.

The passengers, mostly American and Canadian emigrants bound for Australia—four of them women in their eighties—were tired but unhurt.

The drama began early yesterday morning. The Mt Victoria shipping signals station reported picking up messages from the Lakemba saying she had hit the reef and needed assistance. The Retriever, based at Suva, was unable to get her crew together for some time and did not set out until about 7 a.m.

At Suva, passengers spoke highly of the officers and crew and of the way passengers were transferred to Retriever in lifeboats.

The colour photographs below are ones that I took of the rescue; the aerial ones are courtesy of the Fiji Times.

SS Lakemba on the reef


CS Retriever’s lifeboats on the way to SS Lakemba


Retriever’s lifeboats carry Lakemba’s passengers to safety on the cable ship

A few days after the rescue, SS Lakemba slipped off the reef and sank.

It's fortunate that the Lakemba’s captain had the presence of mind to keep the engines going ahead after she struck the reef, otherwise she would have slipped off and sunk quite quickly—possibly with loss of life.

The reefs off Suva harbour were at the time a magnet for small Korean fishing boats and they quite often would drive onto the fringing reef during the night. Our morning scans of the horizon might see one or two high and dry, waiting for help. Usually they would float off with the tide but some had to dragged off by a tug. It’s amazing how far onto the reef they would be from deep water!

This video on CS Retriever (5), released by PK Porthcurno in 2019, also describes the rescue:

David Howard also recalls that there was a story going around about SS Lakemba having a deck cargo of a couple of Volkswagen Beetles that had floated off and were bobbing around on the ocean. Certainly it had a deck cargo of timber and there were lots of that seen floating after she sank. I think the Beetles were on top of the timber.

In 2014 the Fiji Times published an update on the story of SS Lakemba. Here are two brief extracts:

It was also reported then that about £300,000 ($F932,202) worth of Canadian timber on board had started to break loose from the deck. Also, it was reported that there was no sign of two cars that belonged to passengers.

Beaches on the northeast coast of Vatulele Island were reportedly stained with oil and littered with expensive Canadian timber from the SS Lakemba.

Last revised: 22 June, 2022

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