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Seychelles remembers the survivors of the wreck of the ferry ERO

Seychelles remembers the survivors of the wreck of the ferry ERO ( Derek Savy, the contributor of features on the island's TODAY newspaper, has this week taken time to remember the survivors of the wreck of the local ferry ERO in 1975. This wooden ferry schooner using sail and motor was the mode of transport between the main island of Mahe and Praslin during its era.

Derek Savy remembers those who survived the wreck. He writes: Seychelles Bishop French Chang-Him expressed his unconditional gratitude to Luc Grandcourt at his thanksgiving mass celebrated on June 9 this year to mark 50 years as a devoted servant to the Anglican Church of Seychelles. The dedication was particularly poignant, as the Bishop publicly acknowledged and recognized the heroism of the valiant skipper of the beloved little schooner, the Ero that went down on August 12, 1975.

Starting off his mission with the Anglican Church as a young pastor, Father French was posted to Praslin as parish priest. On that fateful day in 1975, he was heading to Mahe to attend a church meeting.

He recounts his ordeal in his usual soft-spoken demeanor:

“We left Grand Anse Praslin at 6 am. I was not a good sailor, so I was huddled in the cabin trying to get some sleep. But the sea was so rough that I could not rest, and just about 2 hours into the journey, I noticed that water was gushing in past me. I thought that I was getting seasick and continued to lie down. I was getting drenched and then, suddenly, the engine stopped. It was then that Luc came to me to announce that the boat had suffered a gash and that he wanted all passengers to come on deck.

“Rallying everyone on the stricken sailboat’s deck, Luc briefed us in a very calm and collected manner. He was a real captain. He ordered his crew to make a couple of rafts tying wooden planks together with the barrels that were on board and each one of us was handed a lifejacket.

“It was about half an hour to one hour before the boat started tilting over and that gave the crew some time to prepare the rafts. Then, just as the boat started listing, Luc ordered everyone to jump in the water. There was a little 5-year-old boy who could not be found, so I alerted Luc, and he fortunately saw the rope of the boy’s life jacket and pulled him out otherwise he could have gone down with the boat. Luc then jumped in the sea together with the little boy, tied him to a lifebuoy and then proceeded to tie us all together. I blessed the little boy, and he said to me, ‘You know Father, I had five rupees in my pocket and it’s lost! When we get ashore will you give it back to me to get my ice cream?’

“We stayed in the sea for a long time.

“Some passengers were tied to the rafts and others (mostly the men) were holding on to ropes slung from the schooner. The rope that tied my lifejacket somehow got loose, and I drifted about 200 yards away. Luc was a strong swimmer, and he swam to get me and bring me back to the group. I had two saviors that day, Jesus and Luc. He later told me that when he came for me, there were a few dolphins swimming around me, and he did not want to alert me in case I thought that they were sharks.

“Visibility was very poor and it was perhaps the worst weather ever encountered. I got very tired of holding on to the rope for so long and the waves kept pulling us out to sea. I started losing hope and was prepared to repent.

“But suddenly something strange happened. I could not speak or say anything to anyone at that point. I remember that it was heavily cloudy with intermittent rain pouring down, so no sun was in sight. But I kept seeing a bright shining light on the water. I started to cry as I could feel that the presence of God was with us, and I was convinced that we would be saved. This light was a bit like the burning bush in the Old Testament when Moses saw the bush burning but it was just a glow.

“Soon after, a little plane circled over the area and spotted us. Although we were all tied together, we were not close but we could see each other. Speaking was not possible at all due to the stormy weather.

“We were finally rescued and taken to Mahe where we all went to the hospital for check-ups, but I stayed overnight and went back to Praslin after a couple of days.

“I had just gotten married only two weeks before the incident. My beloved wife was working at the Baie Ste. Anne hospital. That morning she felt unwell at work and went home to rest when some people came over to comfort her with ‘very bad news’ – ‘Madame Pasteur you know the ‘Ero’ went down and nobody was saved!’ You can imagine the panic…”

Guy Gendron was a police inspector working on Praslin back then. He had requested to be transferred back to Mahe and supervised the loading of his household goods the previous night before setting sail for Mahe aboard the “Ero” on that fateful August 12, 1975 accompanied by his wife.

He relates his story with an air of consternation:

“When we boarded the boat early that morning, there was a strong wind blowing, and the sea was already very rough as it was at the peak of the Southeast trade winds.

“Despite the harsh weather, there was a nice atmosphere on the boat with an air of camaraderie. As we got close to ‘Mamelles’ Island around 9 am, Pasteur French saw water flowing in at the bottom of the boat where the engine was located. As the water was coming in quickly, we could not do much to help. Soon, the engine was entirely covered with water and suddenly stopped working.

“It took a few hours after the water started flowing in to the point when the ship started listing to one side.

“Luc Grandcourt, the skipper, was very calm, inspiring us not to panic and started engaging the operations to abandon ship. We were handed lifejackets and the crew started making rafts with the oil drums. The waves kept battering us. Luc then ordered all of us to jump overboard, some to hold on to ropes from the schooner and others to hang on to the makeshift rafts.

“I grabbed my wife’s hand, and we jumped into the water along with the other passengers, and Luc started tying each one of us to rafts.

“I still remember the young boy, John Alcindor, who was rescued while still stuck in the boat’s cabin. Luc put him in a lifebuoy, which he tied to his arm. The brave skipper, Luc, managed to keep everyone together although with a lot of effort and difficulty.

“At around 10 am, some of the ropes broke and the people floated away. Luc had to swim back and forth to rescue them and tie them back again to the rafts. Around 12 noon, we saw what we thought was the ‘Lady Esmee’ passing by in the distance. We were all exhausted, and our hopes started to fade when we suddenly saw, out of nowhere, a small plane that circled over us. Luc shouted to everyone that we were finally saved. At around 4 or 5 pm, Mr. Ernestine and his son arrived in his boat to rescue us. All the passengers were transported to Victoria hospital where we received medical treatment.

“Luc Grandcourt stayed with his ship, which was partly under water and was rescued later on.”

Brigitte Gendron-Campbell, one of the couple’s three daughters, shared her thoughts with me from her newly-adopted home in far-flung Turkey:

“I was a teenager spending my holidays with my aunt at La Misere when on August 12, 1975 a bombshell dropped. My aunt informed me that the schooner ERO had capsized with my parents on board. They had been in the water for several hours and were both at the mercy of the raging sea.

“I felt numb and all I could think of were hungry sharks swimming around them. I felt very anxious as we got in the car and speedily drove down the winding La Misere road towards the pier. When we arrived at the end of the pier, I saw two ghost-like figures wrapped in brown blankets standing there. I recognized my mother and immediately noticed her wedding ring on her shaking fingers. Seeing both of them alive was the greatest feeling ever, and I gave them both a huge hug. We went back to my grandmother’s house at La Misere where relatives, friends, and people came pouring in, including journalists from Radio Seychelles who interviewed my parents about the tragic story.

“Very often when the family re-unites, children and grandchildren ask ‘Maman’ to tell us the story of the sinking of the ERO. And every time we listen with wide eyes and gaping mouths as she tells us how ‘papa’ helped her jump off the schooner, tied her to a barrel because she could not swim, and how she watched the birds up above praying and hoping that they were little planes and that someone would see them and help would be on the way.

“We always comment what a brave woman our mother is – definitely a survivor!”

Luc Grandcourt’s bravery and heroism on that day he lost his boat indeed merits recognition.

His brother, Robert Grandcourt, sums it up poignantly: “Many people have praised Luc for his courage, strength, and presence of mind and thought that the then Chief Minister should have recommended him for a medal. Medals will fade and disintegrate, but Luc’s courage will dwell in the hearts and minds of the people of Seychelles in general and his passengers in particular as one of the most heroic acts in our country’s history.”


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