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Shell tanker ss Mactra - London
Ships and Harbours
No: 900   Contributor: Kees Helder   Year: 1969   Manufacturer: Kieler Howaldtswerke A/G, Germany   Country: Germany
Shell tanker ss Mactra - London

Shell Tanker ss. Mactra, Imo 6903058, 206.885 ton, callsign GYKR, built in 1969 by Kieler Howaldtswerke A/G Kiel Germany buildingnumber 1200 for Shell Tankers UK. In 1974 sold as "Mactra" to Societe Maritime Shell France, In 1980 demolished at Kaohsiung. Sistervessel ; buildingnumber 1133 "Murex"".
Picture added on 28 January 2007
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I remember that there was an explosion on board the Mactra in early 1970. Two (??) crew members were killed. She called in at Durban and temporary repairs were effected to enable here to go on to the far east for final repairs. I think the ship repair yard in Durban was Dorman Long, more latterly Dorbyl.

Added by John Smith on 11 February 2007.
The ship that was first on the scene after the explosion was HMS Chichester, a Type 61 diesel frigate. We were on Beira patrol at the time (it was early January 1970) and undergoing a RAS (replenishment at sea) when the distress call was received. After an emergency break away we proceeded at full speed to her location. As we approached Mactra I always remember seeing the whole midships portion bent upwards by the explosion, like a banana - a dramatic site. We were led to believe that the explosion may have been caused by static electricity igniting fumes during tank cleaning.

We sent an emergency team over with our PO medic to render first aid and provide emergency supplies. I do recall there were some injuries and fatalities (I think one was a women sunbathing on the uppper deck and caught in the explosion). After rendering aid we resumed our patrol before sailing to Mombasa for a well earned break.

Added by Mike Doyle on 23 February 2007.
I joined the vessel as a steward in January 1970. We carried out temporary repairs which enabled the vessel to proceed to Japan for permanent repairs.She sailed from Durban on the 23rd of June 1970 escorted by the german salvage tug Atlantic

Added by John Pegden on 07 September 2007.
i was a galley boy on mactra from durban to yokahama my first trip at sea was quite an experience at 16 thanks to all the crew on that amazing journey i will never forget it cheers guys.

Added by Will Hitchcock on 28 September 2007.
I sailed on this ship 3 times as Cheif cook in my with career with Shell Tankers - Bringing it out new from Keil in 1969 - joining it again in 1971 and 1973. I left this ship early to be bestman for my brothers marriage just before the explosion, it was rather a sobering thought as every day we use to go for a walk around the deck at midday and again in the evening -- so I might not now be here to tell the tail today.

Added by David Nesom on 03 November 2007.
I'm surprised at how little there seems to be on the web about the Mactra explosion. She was one of three supertankers that blew up in quick succession around that time, and was the only one to stay afloat. As I recall, the investigations did conclude that the cause was static electricity generated by tank cleaning water jets. This effectively created mini-thunderstorms in the tanks, and the vapours from the oil residues ignited when they reached an explosive concentration and a discharge occurred. My uncle, Capt. Jim Palmer, was the ship's master at the time of the explosion, and he had a superb collection of photos of the aftermath and the temporary repairs. Unfortunately I don't know what became of them.

Added by Tenlad on 05 May 2009.
Capt Palmer (Known as Peddler palmer) was captain when she sailed from Durban to Japan for permanent repairs.

Added by John Pegden on 28 September 2009.
At the time of the disaster I was the Radio Officer o/b of the shell tanker Capisteria. The explosion occurred approx 15:00 local time and our distance to the vessel was approx 7 miles. We rushed to the scene and were appointed by Shell International to keep as close as possible to the ship. There were two more vessel at the that time. Two people were killed (3rd off. in the lifeboat and one sailor on his way to the accommodation aft ship) en 3 man jumped overboard because between the accommodation and the forecastle a blazing inferno took place. They were picked up by the other 2 vessels. We transferred two serious wounded crew members. They were 2 ladies sunbathing on the monkey island and hit by the flames. On request of London we contact the hms Chichester were arrived 1.5 day later on the scene and transferred the wounded crew members. We accompanied the MACTRA to Beira where we arrived January 1st 1980 and were relieved by London to proceed on our voyage to Lands End for orders. I had some contact with the Sparks and one of the engineers afterwards.

People interested to get more info pls contact me (


Radio Officer ms CAPISTERIA Shell Tankers

Added by Cor van der Ploeg on 07 October 2009.
remember seeing her in durban about a month after it happened couldnt believe what we were looking at.what a mess,i believe these tanker explosions brought about the use of inert gas use during discharge.
don taylor

Added by Don Taylor on 25 October 2009.
I was a traine deckhand on her in 1972. I signed on for6 months it was a great ship with a cracking bunch of guys. They often mentioned the explosion. But when I was on her you wouldn't have known it by the look of her. They fixed her up real good. By the way all the super tankers were named after seashells.

Added by Tony murrell on 15 February 2010.
I surveyed the vessel in Yokohama at a Taifun mooring in August 1970 after that she had arrive from Durban's temporary repair. It was a scary sight with the strengthening web-frames welded across the deck but HDW Kiel were building strong vessels. I had been sent out on a mission from Shell to establish the damage done to the tank cleaning system in order to enabling them to order replacement equipment. It was a lot of investigations carried out. Much of it at Shell Thornton but also around the world by various maritime bodies. Despite the very tragic accident, it was no doubt that the fixed installed tank cleaning equipment had come to stay and so also Shell believed. As I remember, later after all the extensive investigations, Lloyds List had a frontpage where the system was cleared and OK to be used again. Inert gas system was the solution the then IMCO (now IMO) established that all tankers for oil above 20,000dwt must be fitted with an inert gas system.

Added by K-G Lewerth on 12 March 2010.
My father, Capt JV Thistlethwaite, was Shell's Marine Superintendent in SA at the time of the explosion. I remember him spending a lot of time in Beira, and I remember when Mactra came to Durban, and my Daddy was interviewed on the radio.

Added by Janet Thistlethwaite on 25 September 2010.
The third Officer who died was Russ Gardiner from Tadley in Hampshire. I didnt know him but was friendly with his sister Val. I was at the time 5th Engineer on Hindsia, later sailed with the 2nd Eng when I was 3rd on Gadinia. I may have more info if anyone is interested

Added by Chris Wallace on 10 February 2011.
I was third engineer on the 'Clan Ranald'at the time. We drydocked in Durban when the 'Mactra' was in port and the hole in the fore deck of the Mactra was almost large enough to fit the 'Ranald' in. We were there about a month after the explosion occured and at that time 'they' were still finding cleaning up. Not a nice thought.
I later became a 'Lloyd's Surveyor' and know of the resulting Inert Gas regulations that came about as a direct result of the three explosions (2 to sister vessels). In addition to IG earthing arrangements to butterworth (tank cleaning) hoses also came about.

Added by David (Fred) Field on 24 March 2011.
I've posted shots of OCEAN BRIDGE which was involved in a similar incident.
See picture #16914, picture #16915 and picture #16916

Added by Paul Strathdee on 25 March 2011.
I sailed with the pumpman later on who was then the bosun on the Opalia, couple of corrections the Mactra was one of three ships to explode while tank cleaning, at the time they were amongst the biggest ships in the world. The explosions were caused by static electrical discharges akin to lightning strikes, it was the research after into cause that led to the introduction of inert gas systems on VLCC and ULCC. I heard an apocryphal story that the bosun on the Mactra rejoined his next ship and as he boarded there was a lightning strike on a gas riser which caught fire, he turned around and never went back to sea again.

Added by Chris Warlow on 17 July 2011.
Mike Doyle's account is very much as I remember it, except the ship was HMS EURYALUS, F15, Captain James Pertwee, on route to Australia to escort HMY Britannia on her Capt Cooke celebration tour.
We took casualties on board, at least one was female, and I think the Captain, s wife, who although badly burnt, survived.

Added by Paul Tucker ex leading Stores Accountant on 21 January 2012.
Interesting comment from Paul Tucker. Don't recall HMS Eurylaus being there (she may have been at the same time or shortly afterwards and I missed that)

But HMS Chichester certainly was there and responded to the SOS. I know because I was serving on the ship at the time. We were on Beira patrol and somewhere I have the dramatic pictures of MACTRA's twisted shape to prove it!!Two things stay with me - the devastation of the ship as we arrived on the scene and the shocked face of the PO Medic when he returned on board after rendering first aid to the crew. He just couldn't speak about it for a time. Can just imagine the scenes the poor man must have witnessed.

Added by Dr Mike Doyle, ex Shipwright apprentice

Added by Mike Doyle on 22 January 2012.
Re:Paul Tucker's post, it definately wasn't the captain's wife (my aunt Molly, who was safely at home in the UK at the time.

Added by Tenlad on 26 January 2012.
I don't know about the Chichester being around but HMS Euryalus certainly was. We were on Beira Patrol ( we had to do extra time due to our relief having broke down ) and we just missed out on a salvage payout.
John Cherrington
now in Switzerland

Added by John Cherrington on 27 January 2012.
I agree with Mike, Chichester was involved, we were half way through a fuelling RAS and had to do an emergency break away in response to the SOS could not believe the damage to the Mactra when we finaly arrived at her position.

Added by Pete Kearsey on 29 January 2012.
Thanks to Paul, John and Pete for clarifying things. It would now appear that both HMS Eurylaus and Chichester were involved in assisting MACTRA, but in different ways, and at slightly different times in that period immediately following the explosion.

Thankfully, such incidents now appear to very rare (if at all)- mainly due to the 'wake-up call' that MACTRA and the other tankers which suffered similar explosions around that time - gave to the industry.

However, it might be cruise ships that are the next type of ship needing assistance - assuming that there is still a Royal Navy with enough ships to do the rescuing!

Added by Mike Doyle on 30 January 2012.
Yes both ships were involved as we were the beira patrol ships at the time Chi was on the 'Hope Line' whilst Eurylaus was on 'Joy Line' as you say Mike thankfully these occurances are now few and far between

Added by Pete Kearsey on 30 January 2012.
I can confirm that HMS Chichester was involved with the MACTRA incident because I happen to be the Medic.on HMS Chichester at that time.
The casualties had been transferred to the Texaco Trinidad from the MACTRA .The Medical Officer from RFA Tidepool and myself were transferred to the Texaco Trinidad by seaboat from HMS Chichester to treat the casualties, the most serious being the wife of one of the Officers on the MACTRA suffering severe burns.
The following day the casualties and M.O.were flown by the Wasp Helicopter from HMS Euryalus to Beira, and I returned to HMS Chichester.

Added by Wally Crowe on 04 April 2012.
see my former message 07oct2009. After the explosion o/b the Mactra at approx 15:00 local time the ss CAPISTERIA was approx 7 miles from their location. Flames as high as the monkey deck were clearly visible from approx 2 miles. When we arrived at the Mactra the captain requested us by vhf to take care of all external communications because he was afraid the danger of more explosions existed when the mf/hf transmission eqpmt was used. So as radio officer o/b the Capisteria from that moment I took care of all external communications. Because both vessels were Shell Tankers owned vessels we were requested by Shell to supply all required services to the Mactra. Which we did of course.
Two wounded (burned) wifes were transferred to the Capisteria because we had a qualified nurse o/b. At that time except ss Capisteria also the Texaco Trinidad and the Franfurt were on location.
One ab jumped the ship and was picked up later by the Texaco Trinidad. Later on I was informed by Shell That the HMS Chichester was onher way to the Mactra and that she carried medical people in order to take care of the wound women. I contacted the HMS Chichester and at approx 21:00 the HMS Chichester arrived and some medics boarded the ship. They complimented the nurse for the good help she had given to the wound women.
Thereafter the women were transferred and both vessels (Mactra and Capisteria) started their voyage to Beira. The Mactron dead slow steaming under her own power.By that time both other two vessels at the scene had resumed their voyage.

Added by Cor van der Ploeg on 05 April 2012.
Mactra. The explosion was 2.35pm 29th Dec1969. The 3rd.mate, he was lost, at the time he was checking the stores in the portside lifeboat, the other guy was gradeone seaman John A Lincoln, from York, killed instantly. 5centre tank was were the explosion fisrt occured. The first ship to arrive was the Caltex tanker, followed by a old Russian cargo vessel, she was the ship which picked up the other, and only crew member to go overboard while fighting the fire. The seriouly burned wife was the 2nd.engineers lady, along with all members except 10 volunteers were transfered to the Caltex tanker. The first rescue vessel to arrive was the Statesman 1, United Towings tug, she came from Durban, at the time she had just been bought off Moran Towing Co. and sailed to S Africa to go on station. Capt.Palmer, was a "First Class" captain, Second to None, As were all the other members on Mactra.HMS Euryalus was the first navy ship to arrive. At the time....well never mind! I was lifted off by the helicopter once we were off Beira, as I recall this was 3/4 days later, 1st. or 2nd Jan.The main deck collapsed in, down, from the foot of the bridge to the samson posts amidships, we nicknamed it the "Pit" The deck did not go up!

Added by Mr R Carmichael. on 06 July 2012.
I was stationed at Durban Radio at the time of the incident mentioned above. When the Mactra docked I went on board and I was told by an officer on deck that the explosion occurred as a result of static electricity caused by a crewmember removing his comb from his pocket supposedly to comb his hair.
That was the last that the eyewitness saw of him and the others that were gathered around him. If my memory serves me correctly four people lost their lives because of the explosion.
The vessel underwent temporary repairs. Temporary
steel girders were welded across the gaping hole, the size of a football field! From there, and I stand under correction the vessel was supposed to go into drydock in Lisbon. Reading an earlier comment reference was made that she instead went to Japan for repairs.

Added by Chris Nagel on 28 September 2012.
I can confirm it was japan as I sailed on her to Japan

Added by John Pegden Asst Steward on 28 September 2012.
Cargo tank cleaning is accomplished by machines that look like and work like enormous lawn
sprinklers. These gadgets shoot a revolving high pressure jet of sea water around the tank, in theory
blasting the surfaces clean of oil. Two of the tankers involved, the Marpessa and the Mactra were
Shell ships. The third was the brand new Kong Haakon VII. The Marpessa, on her maiden
ballast leg, sank killing two crewmen. The Mactra and the Kong Haakon VII had a large portion of their main decks blown away but survived.

Added by Alex on 27 November 2012.
I was Second Engineer at the time of the explosion and my wife Barbara suffered 60% second degree burns. She still has the scars to show for it. There were two other badly burned crew but, contrary to what is written above no other wives. I spent the next six weeks or so visiting them in a hospital and eventually flew home with them. The Second Mate's wife, Sylvia Brodie did sterling service in looking after them.I cannot remember the Chichester being involved but I do remember the Euryalus and it was her helicopter which took my wife from the Texaco ship to the Euryalus and then to shore in Beira. Barbara was sick all the way. Pedlar Palmer was indeed the Master of the ship, Peter Redfearn Mate, Angus Brodie was Second Mate and Rus Garner, who was killed was Third Mate. The real hero, if such there was, was the Chief Engineer, Hyton Edmonson. It was said that he had been a Battery Sergeant Major at Dunkirk and he was certainly in his element in a crisis. The ship burned for something like twelve hours and when we finally got her going I did the 4-8 watch on my own. I was cupping my privates in a handful of Savlon when I was relieved and the mechanic did likewise. An unusual handover.

Added by Ken Hart on 12 February 2013.
I was Shell & BP Supplies Manager (Cape Town) 1969-1972. Remember the incident and tragedy well - visited Durban during the temporary strengthening - with colleague Capt Thistlethwaite. Void was adjudged as large as the GP product tanker then in use on the coast. Only point to add - the intense negotiations before SA Govt allowed Mactra to enter Durban Harbour (after Shell indemnity) - view concern she might block narrow entrance with 38ft draft at that time.

Added by Alexander on 02 April 2013.

This is a wreck report concerning the Mactra.

Added by Valerie on 05 October 2013.
My brother Andy Clark was on the mactra when it blew up

Added by on 15 February 2014.
I sailed with Ken Hart twice and met his wife. I remember them with great fondness.

Added by David Mac on 20 June 2014.
Very interesting comments. No mention of HMS London being on site. The London offered medical assistance but the offer was turned down. Obviously the Chichester was sent to the Mactras assistance. I was on the London at the time and have an excellent photo of the vessel taken from the London's helicopter. As a crew member on the London which was also on the Beira Patrol rumours spread quickly that the Mactra had blown up whilst leaving the Port of Beira!!!!

Added by Paul Wilde on 25 August 2014.
I was on board the Mactra when she exploded. I was the Third Officer's wife.
As a nurse I attended the injured and we were transferred to the Trinidad and awaited the arrival of the HMS Eurayalus. Myself and the injured were then transferred by helicopter to the Eurayalus. From there we were helicoptered to Beira and I stayed in the clinic with the injured until they were well enough to be flown home. My husband (deceased) stayed with the Mactra and continued to Durban. If anyone is interested in photos I have quite a few.

Added by Sylvia Brodie on 02 October 2014.
I had better amend my post, my husband was Second Officer

Added by Sylvia Brodie on 02 October 2014.
I was on the Mactra when its tanks exploded. I was transfered to another ship and ended up in hospital in Beira, arrived back in the uk in the beginning of Jan in the snow.

Added by Ray Miller on 13 December 2014.
Mike Doyle can't remember Euryalus but I do as I was also serving on her ---- and Sylvia obviously remembers us being on the scene. I still think of this incident and tell the story when asked about my time in the Royal Navy.till living in Lausanne Suisse

Added by John Cherrington on 17 December 2014.
My brother John.S.Lincoln was serving on the Mactra .He had just got married seven weeks previously and my family heard about the explosion via the BBC news.Two York men were missing and we had to wait days before learning of his death.I have often wondered about the circumstances having only received slivers of information.We understand that his body was found in the tank after arriving in Durban.Any information would be welcome as his memory is very dear .

Added by Chris Lincoln on 04 January 2015.
Looking through my late father's things I found his seamans record card, says that he was on the Mactra in Durban and on the leg to Tokyo as a catering boy and an asst steward. Though may have been on the Murex when the explosion happened potentially. His name was Vince Geddes, would've been about 19 or 20 years old. if there were anyone who remembered him at all please do get in contact, I don't know much about his years at sea and would love to find out more.

Added by Tom Geddes on 11 February 2015.
I have pictures I took from the bridge as the fire in the tanks were burning , I was taken to another ship then on to hospital in Mozambique . I returned from sick leave and joined the lightning ship Drupa

Added by Ray Miller on 23 August 2015.
I would just like to mention my brother in law was on this tanker at the time of this horrific accident his name is barry fallon who later received medal for active bravery.

Added by David Mears. on 26 August 2015.
I remember Barry Fallon very well. He got a well deserved BEM. He went down onto the main deck and shut the master valve to the shattered fire fighting system thereby allowing us pressure to fight the fire.

Added by Ken Hart on 02 September 2015.
I wondered about that. One of the design improvements that arose from this was the inclusion of a block valve in the fire main between every hydrant and this feature became universal in vessel design after that event. He was a brave man.

Added by David Mac on 03 September 2015.
If my memory serves me correctly, I always believed that Hms Euryalus was the first naval ship to go to the Mactras assistance. The site and smell of charred bodies lying on the wardroom flat floor will live with me for ever. The ships medic who was leading medic Minter told us later that he had run out of morphine trying to stem the pain that these poor souls were suffering. Our helo flew the injured to Berra hospital and the pilot I believe was a Lt Woods. The Euryalus was on Beirra patrol at the time along with Hms Chichester. Who were due to be relieved and return to Mombasa. Am relieved to read that all the people that lay there on the stretchers that day all survived all be it with serious scars and injuries.

Added by Ex Leading Radio Operator Colin Joy (Hms Euryalus) on 10 January 2016.
As I have always understood it that the Euryalus was one of the first if not the first RN vessel on the scene of the explosion. The smell and the sight of those black charred bodies lying on stretchers on the floor of our Wardroom flat will stay etched in my memory forever. Our medic was a Lsba Minter who told us that he had used up the ships supply of morphine trying to ease the pain. Our helo pilot who was a Lt Woods I believe ferried the injured to Beirra Hospital. The Euryalus and Chichester were both on Beirra patrol at the time .Am relieved to read that all of those people lying on the floor that sad day survived there injuries all be it with serious scarring . I was a Radio operator on the Euryalus and will never forget it.

Added by Colin Joy on 10 January 2016.
I will never forget the Euryalus and the kindness of all on board. I can still picture the helicopter pilot who flew us to Beira. I never had the opportunity to thank them all as I stayed with the injured in Beira.

Added by Sylvia Brodie on 12 January 2016.
My father worked at Shell Thornton Research Centre at the time. I believe other tankers had also had similar incidents. He was one of the team who devised the 'load-on-top' method of tank cleaning which, I believe, solved the problem. I was 12 or 13 at the time but remember him boarding tankers and travelling to S.Africa to try and find out what was happening.

Added by Jane Fallows on 25 September 2016.
My farther was Captain J E Palmer on the Mactra at the time of the explosion I have wonderful memories of this man unfortunately he is no longer with us I have a lot of his Navy records but would like to find out more .

Added by on 09 February 2017.
I heard about Captain Palmer during my early years with Shell.

Added by on 09 February 2017.
I joined the Mactra as relief 4th Engineer and was on board during the repairs and trip to Japan.

Added by Don Wyllie on 31 March 2017.
I sailed with Captain (Peddlar) Palmer on 2 ships in 1965. A real character and a great Master, sorry to hear of his passing.

Added by Dave Howden on 02 April 2017.
I'm Captain J E Palmer's eldest son and must agree with some comments above that he was certainly a character. He would always insist on filling the car at Shell petrol stations because Shell petrol was better. He also would display a red ensign outside the front of the house whenever important guests were arriving or leaving. His knowledge of the rules of the road however, was not as good as his knowledge of the rules of the sea. One day he and my Mum we were driving on the newly opened M3 motorway and pulled up on the hard shoulder to get the burner out and brew a cup of tea. Suddenly he remembered the rules and said something like "strewth, we're not supposed to stop on these roads", quickly packed up the gear and drove off.

Added by Graham Palmer on 12 April 2017.
To Graham Palmer
Please go on Facebook there is a Shell site. It is a closed group (Shell tankers UK ltd) and you can request to join. The site has over 1600 members most are ex Shell employees. Lots of pictures posted and anecdotes of members time at sea. your fathers name has often come up. I served three good years at sea with Shell and did hear your fathers name mentioned. Hope this is helpful especially to ex Shell crew.

Added by Gerald Wood on 22 April 2017.
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