Lakonia Cruise Ship Fire 55 Years Ago Today

Funchal Maderia
Funchal Maderia

Lakonia Cruise Ship Fire 55 Years Ago Today (see video below) – On this day in cruise history 55 years ago today on December 22, 1963 passenger ship TSMS Lakonia, sailed by Greek Line, was sailing on a Christmas cruise on December 22, 1963 around 11 pm while the ship was about 180 miles north of Madeira when fire broke out.

A total of 128 people died in the Lakonia disaster, of which 95 were passengers and 33 were crew members. Only 53 people were killed in the actual fire. The rest died from exposure, drowning and injuries sustained while diving overboard.

Evacuation of the ship was extremely difficult. Some lifeboats burned before they could be lowered. Two of the lifeboats were swamped, spilling their occupants into the sea; one when it was lowered only by one end, and the other when its davits broke off. Chains had rusted in many of the davits, making boats difficult or impossible to move.

In the end, just over half of the lifeboats made it safely away from the Lakonia, some of them less than half full. Several people who dived overboard struck the side of the ship on the way down, killing them before they hit the water.

There were 646 passengers and 376 crewmen on board: a total of 1,022 people. All but 21 of the passengers were British citizens, and the crew members were mostly Greek and German. The captain of the Lakonia was 53-year-old Mathios Zarbis.

Captain Mathios Zarbis
Captain Mathios Zarbis

Soon after the first reports of the disaster reached Gibraltar, the Norwegian salvage tug, Herkules, set out to cover the some 500 miles to where the Lakonia lay. It managed to attach a towline to the Lakonia and with the assistance of a Portuguese tugboat, Praia da Adraga, set off for the Rock with the Lakonia on tow. However, every day, the ship’s list began to become more severe and on December 29, at 2.00 pm, just 250 miles from Gibraltar, she rolled over her starboard side and sank stern-first in only 3 minutes.

Lakonia had originally been the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt operated by Netherland Line and later by Holland America Line.


The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is an international maritime treaty which sets minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships. The convention requires signatory flag states to ensure that ships flagged by them comply with at least these standards. The current version of SOLAS is the 1974 version, known as SOLAS 1974, which came into force on 25 May 1980.

SOLAS 1974 requires flag states to ensure that ships flagged by them comply with the minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships.

NTSB Report Survival in Cold Water

“The present requirements for lifejackets, life floats and buoyant apparatus have proven adequate in all studied casualties where water temperature was 15ºC or more”. This might have been the case in this study, but it is still possible to die from hypothermia and post rescue collapse as in the case of the Lakonia in 1965 that sank in 17.9ºC water off Madeira.”

The facts about the dangers of immersion in cold water are as follows:
(a) There are four clear stages of immersion in which death can occur. These are:
1. Cold shock (kills within 3-5 minutes after immersion).
2. Swimming failure (kills within 30 minutes after immersion).
3. Hypothermia (kills after 30 minutes of immersion).
4. Post rescue collapse (kills at the point of rescue or up to several hours afterward).
(b) The cause of death associated with each stage respectively is:
1. Drowning, heart (circulatory) and respiratory problems.
2. Impaired physical performance leading to inability to self-help,
swimming failure and drowning.
3. Deep body cooling leading to hypothermia and drowning.
4. Collapse of arterial blood pressure leading to cardiac arrest.

About Maderia

Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, is an archipelago comprising 4 islands off the northwest coast of Africa. It is known for its namesake wine and warm, subtropical climate. The main island of Madeira is volcanic, green and rugged, with high cliffs, pebbly beaches and settlements on deltas of the Fajã River. Its total population was estimated in 2011 at 267,785.

The capital of Madeira is Funchal, which is located on the main island’s south coast. The capital Funchal has botanic gardens and is known for its harbor and a large New Year’s fireworks show.

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Other Cruise Ship Sinking

Video: Lakonia Disaster – Fire At Sea (1963)


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