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Trip Report: The Wreck of the Salem Express

Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive on the Red Sea’s Salem Express, which is considered one of the most controversial wreck dives in Egypt. Tragically more than 460 people lost their lives when the ship capsized. Storms has the details.



Text and images by Kurt Storms

Salem Express
One of the Salem’s two propellers

The story of the Salem Express — which now sits about 30 meters below the surface of the Red Sea — started in France in June 1965 when she was launched as a roll-on, roll-off ferry for vehicles and passengers in the Mediterranean. Initially named for Fred Scamaroni, a member of the French resistance of WWII, the 115-meter-wide long and 18-meter-wide ship endured a fire in the engine room before sailing her first route in June 1966 between Marseille-Ajaccio. It was the first trip of many she would make over the next nearly 25 years before her final voyage resulted in the tragic loss of many lives. Today, the Salem Express is considered the most controversial wreck dive in Egypt.

The ship’s owner, Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, sold her to the Samatour shipping company in 1988 under the new name, the “Salem Express.” In 1991, she began sailing her usual 450-mile route from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga, Egypt. It was a standard trip, expected to take 36 hours and ferry about 350 passengers to Safaga before heading to Suez. This time, though, the ship’s departure was delayed for two days in Saudi Arabia because of a mechanical fault. Those two days put the Salem Express in the middle of a storm with gale force winds.

In front of the captain’s bridge

On Dec. 14, 1991, the ship was returning from Jeddah with hundreds of pilgrims who had just been to Mecca. The storm was raging, drenching passengers on the outer decks, so Captain Hassan Moro – who had commanded the ship since 1988 — decided to attempt to cut time off the journey by staying closer to shore rather than sailing the standard route along the outer reefs. Unfortunately, the captain misjudged their position, and at 11:31 p.m., the Salem Express ran out an outer pinnacle of Hyndman Reef. The result was disastrous.

Not only was water coming in from a hole in the starboard side, but the hard impact caused the bow-loading door to open, letting in thousands of liters of water. Almost immediately, the ferry started to list over to the starboard side, making it impossible for the crew to deploy any of the lifeboats.

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The Salem Express sank within 20 minutes of hitting the reef, trapping many people inside. Others had to swim to shore as the storm and location of the tragedy occurred, more than an hour from the port, delayed rescue boats. 

The first survivor, Ismail Abdul Hassan, was an amateur long-distance swimmer who worked as an agricultural engineer. Hassan stood on the ship’s deck as it went down and followed the lights of the port to shore, surviving eight hours in the water. He intended to lead two other men to safety, who held onto his clothes, but they had trouble keeping their heads above the water and after two hours struggling they drowned. 

The red Toyota

Loss of life was considerable. The official figure provided by the Egyptian government is 464, but rumors suggest the ship was overloaded and the death toll may have been closer to 1,200. Many bodies were recovered after the sinking, but eventually a halt was called due to the danger involved and the wreck was sealed with plates welded across openings. 

Though it’s allowed to penetrate the wreck, the guides will not go far inside, because a large area where people were trapped inside and died is welded shut, and they consider it to be a seaman’s grave. In addition, because the wreck is unstable, penetration through the narrow passages is difficult for recreational divers. As a result, the guides will only penetrate in the back cargo rooms.

Salem Express
Diver on one of the side-doors of the ship

Diving the Wreck

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We reached the wreck of the Salem Express, lying on its port side in 30 meters/100 ft of seawater, and made our way around the stern. Visibility was good, and we first saw the two giant propellers and the rudder. We took some pictures and headed to the decks, where we saw a lifeboat. In the past there were two; it’s unclear what happened to the second.

I like wrecks, but I don’t like lifeboats on the bottom of the ocean. Lifeboats are supposed to carry people when the ship sinks, and bring them to safety. They can’t do that when they’re on the bottom.

At the back of the ship, I saw a radio and television set laying in the sand. This must have been put here by divers before me, because this was not a natural movement. We went further toward the bow and saw the big exhausts, full of life. On the side of the ship, you can see the name, Salem Express. Lots of coral has grown in the years since the ship sunk.

Salem Express
Sideway passsage from front to the back of the ship
Salem Express
Wheel barrow 

Further to the front is the captain’s deck. I penetrated the wreck, and swam into the room of the captain and saw his bed. There were not many instruments left. I found the exit by a door and continued on my way, via port side, and entered the cargo zone via an open hatch. I descended into the hatch and swam into the corridors of the ship, where you can still find remnants of cars.

Captian’s bridge from inside

It was still grim, knowing that many lives were lost in this tragic accident. On the way, I came across a few wheelbarrows with mattresses in them, and suitcases. From afar I suddenly saw the light penetrating back into the wreckage. After emerging from the wreckage, I looked for a way to the restaurant.  I went through an opening in the restaurant and adopted a stable position, so that I could take some photos. The tables were still standing, but the upholstery had deteriorated bit by bit over the years.

It was time to say goodbye to this beautiful wreck and discharge my decompression duties. Once back on the boat, everyone was quiet for a moment. They all think it was a beautiful wreck, but it will always remain a cemetery, and we must show the necessary respect.

Old radio beside the ship

Salem Express – Wreck Data:

Location:Near Safaga, Egypt
Coordinates:N 26 38.375, E 34 3.695
Length:115 meters
Width:17.83 meters
Draft:4.92 meters
Power:14,880 hp
Top speed:20 knots
Vehicle capacity:140/230
Cargo capacity:192 LIM (Lanes in metres)
Passenger capacity:1 256 (day)/1 120 (night)
Crew:11 officers and 63 seamen

Additional resources:

InDepth: Trip Report: The Wreck of the MT Haven by Kurt Storms

InDepth: Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave by Kurt Storms

Kurt Storms

Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgian military, an underwater cave explorer, and an active technical /cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He is also an ambassador for Divesoft and Ursuits. He started his dive career in Egypt on vacation, and the passion for diving never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving. He dives several CCRs such as AP Diving, SF2,  and Divesoft Liberty SM. Kurt is also one of the push-divers documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives.  In his own personal diving, Kurt’s interests are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also an enthusiastic cave diver. In his free time, he explores Belgium’s slate mines, and often takes his camera with him to document the dives.


A Brief History Of Sidemount

From sumping through Wookey with a pair of repurposed, WWII Bomber O2 tanks filled with air; to wearing side mounted, bailout rebreathers enabling explorers to logistically conduct lengthly sub-100 meter cave penetrations. And let’s not forget the “Reccies” making holiday sidemount dives in Bonaire. It’s fair to say that sidemount diving has come a long way over the last half a century. Here is a brief history supplemented by talks by Lamar Hires, Bill Rennaker and Patrick Widmann. Grab two singles and dive in.




Adapted from Wikipedia and YouTube resources by InDEPTH. Special thanks to Michael Thomas for the historical CDG images.

One of Mike Boon’s original sidemount cylinders that was recovered from Sump 9 in Swildon’s Hole cave in 1972. He was actively exploring the cave in 1962.  The cylinder is now mounted on the wall of the Wessex Cave Club. The cylinder was obtained from the Ministry of Defense after WW2. It was originally an oxygen cylinders on bomber aircraft during the war.

The Beginning: UK Sump Diving

The idea of mounting cylinders on the diver’s chest and sides, originated from cave diving in the UK, during the 1960’s. During the original explorations of Wookey Hole, or other cave systems, explorers encountered submerged passages (sumps) that created an obstacle for further exploration. To bypass these sumps, they started bringing basic scuba equipment specifically to progress beyond the -mostly short and shallow- submerged areas. However, because these caves were mostly very confined spaces, and also because most of their exploration was primarily through the dry parts of these cave systems, their original needs were met with great success using small, minimalist configurations, which reduced bulk and weight that needed to be carried along.  

British cave explorer Mike Boon (1941-2014) , is generally credited with being the first cave diver to mount his diving cylinder on his side rather than his back to explore sumps in the early 1960s. Boon also advocated using only 1/4 of one’s air supply for the inwards dive reserving 3/4 for the exit and any emergencies. This pre-dates the modern thirds rule which is usually attributed to Sheck Exley. Photos courtesy of the Wessex Cave Club .

This early implementation of sidemount allowed cylinders to be easily transported individually, but also easily removed and replaced, therefore allowing these explorers to retain the ability to squeeze through the tightest restrictions. The remoteness of these submerged areas, and the nature of these dives -done often in very silty sumps- did not call for the need of perfect buoyancy control or efficient  propulsion techniques. Only the minimum needed equipment was carried. A mask, cylinder, regulator, method of attaching the cylinder to the body and on rare occasions a set of fins. Some of these early explorers started using a sturdy belt, with attached cam-band. That made it possible for a cylinder to be carried alongside the side of their body. With this system they could walk or even crawl through the dry cave sections, preserving a reliable and safe method of cylinder attachment when dealing with the submerged areas. Trim efficiency, reduced water resistance and buoyancy control were not taken into much consideration due to the morphology of those systems. This approach to the sump kind of cave exploration was generally called the English System at the time.


The Evolution (1970’s, Florida)

During the 1970’s the original English system was adopted by American based cave explorers, primarily in Florida.The Florida caves were mostly flooded systems and involved prolonged diving, thus more focus was needed to be paid towards developing the diving performance of the system, in particular buoyancy and trim. Divers required proper buoyancy control devices for extended time therefore moving the cylinders from the thigh, up towards the armpit. These explorers were the original cave divers as we know today. They started making their own home-made gear. Modifying off-the-shelf diving equipment, and creating new configurations from scratch. Most of their creations were using webbing harnesses and improvised bladders for buoyancy.

Telford Springs 1988 Woody Jasper. Photo by Tom Morris

The First Commercial Rig (1990’s)

In the mid-1990’s Lamar Hires designed the first commercial side mount diving system which was then manufactured by Dive Rite. It focused on the newly released Transpac harness. Even with a “proper” option available in the market, many cave divers continued to manufacture their own DIY configurations. At this time, the use of sidemount was used only by a small number of exploration-grade cave divers.

Mark Long and Wes Skiles 1996

Cave Diving Becomes Popular and with it So Does Sidemount (2000’s)

Brett Hemphill designed the Armadillo Sidemount harness in 2001. This innovative system brought several new features that would be used in many future sidemount designs. To name a few: BCD inflation was now located at the bottom of the harness instead of the top, butt-anchoring rear attachment pad, cylinder bungee attachment, bungee straps used for faster location of primary bungee. The widespread popularity of sidemount did not truly emerge until the mid-2010s though, when a parallel growing popularity of technical and cave diving started seeing the benefits of what it could offer. Spreading mouth to mouth but also for the first time because of the internet, sidemount was offering an alternative approach that mimicked a Hogarthian minimalism and functionality style, but with the added advantage of comfort, trim control and even if it was not accepted by everyone as a valid argument at the time, safety.

But there was no way to stop the wave that was coming, and was coming hard towards the calm diving waters. An unstoppable increase in interest for sidemount diving “motivated” many manufacturers -and some brilliant individuals- to design and sell their own versions of sidemount systems. OMS, Hollis and UTD developed equipment, while Steve Bogaerts released the incredibly popular, minimalist Razor system which became an instant game changer. With Razor we also saw for the first time, training aimed at a specific diving rig.

2006 Sidemount and CCR Bailout systems merge

The Rise of Sidemount Closed Circuit Rebreathers (CCR) (2010’s – today)

Even if Sidemount was not anymore a cave-only strict configuration, a great deal of it was still used primarily in overhead diving (cave and -more recently- mine diving). It was no surprise that after having found a solution with it to push through restrictions along the way, cave divers now needed the gas to reach further. The time for sidemount rebreathers had come. Initially faced with issues of breathing resistance, among others, CCR manufacturers started developing multiple units. The most popular design consisted of a unit worn on one side of the diver with the diluent on the opposite side. But competition brought innovation, and today we have a variety of different configuration options when it comes to Sidemount CCR. Divesoft introduced the Liberty Sidemount version, a fully autonomous unit, just slightly longer than an s80 cylinder, that includes diluent and oxygen cylinders in one compact design loaded with tech. KISS, after the success of the Sidekick, revolutionized design with the Sidewinder, the first unit that was worn “on top” of a complete Open Circuit Sidemount configuration, adding the benefits of CCR to it. And the list goes on.

YouTube: Lamar Hires – The History of Sidemount Diving (2017)

Lamar Hires of Dive Rite is considered to be one of the pioneers of sidemount diving. In this hour-long presentation, Lamar talks about the history of sidemount, how it came to be, and its evolution over the past two decades.

YouTube: Sidemount and Cave Diving History with Bill Rennaker and Lamar Hires (2018)

On October 27nd, 2018, Bill Rennaker and Lamar Hires were kind enough to talk to a group of cave divers at NFSA event and speak about the history behind sidemount diving and cave diving. The purpose of this video is to catalog and preserve the history of these prominent explorers. Part 2 will be posted soon.

YouTube: Sidemount History From The POV Of Patrick Widmann (2020)

Patrick talks about the history of the Sidemount Diving and shares his experiences which ultimately lead to the creation of the xDeep Stealth 2.0.

Please take a minute and complete our new: Sidemount Diving Survey. We will report the results in a coming issue.


Outside MagazineDeeper by Bucky McMahon. To the peerless Moles, practitioners of the gloomily claustrophobic sport of freshwater spelunking, the ultimate accomplishment is finding a virgin cave (1996) Sidemount – History of the Diving Equipment Configuration

Wikipedia: Sidemount Diving

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