This is the unlikely story of a guitarist and a cruise ship, where the guitarist literally saved all the passengers. It is a story of unlikely heroism, newly-discovered leadership ability, and bloody-minded determination, all in the face of horrendous circumstances.
When the luxury liner Oceanos started taking on water in rough seas during a voyage around the coast of South Africa in 1991, musician Moss Hills and his colleagues suddenly found themselves responsible for everyone on board. Earlier that day, gale-force winds and heavy rains had delayed sailing several times but, with no sign of conditions improving, the captain eventually decided to lift anchor and the Oceanos, with 581 guests and crew on board, sailed off into 40-knot winds and 9m-high (30ft) waves.
Moss and his wife Tracy, both in their 30s, would usually host parties up on the pool deck as the ship sailed away from port. That day the party had been moved indoors, and Moss braced his body while he played his guitar, trying to keep his balance as the ship pitched and rolled.
“The storm just got worse and worse,” Moss says.
At dinner, Tracy – who her husband describes as unflappable – decided to go to their cabin to organise an emergency bag, just in case. “Off she went,” Moss says, “and suddenly – boom – all the lights went out.”
Tracy and Moss had worked on cruise ships together for many years but, when none of the ship’s officers appeared to issue instructions, Moss, who was not easily frightened, began to feel uneasy. “You’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean, in the dark of night, in a terrible storm,” he says, “I felt this tightening in my stomach.”
Anxious guests began pouring into the lounge. Pot plants, ashtrays, and chairs were sliding around, and people had to move from their seats to sit on the floor as the ship lurched wildly from one side to the other, port to starboard.
About an hour passed, and the mood in the lounge grew tense. Moss grabbed an acoustic guitar and began singing with some of the other entertainers to try to keep people calm. But as time stretched on, Moss noticed that the ship was heeling – no longer coming back to a level position when it was being thrown about in the storm. “Something bad is happening,” Moss said to Tracy, “I’m going to try and find out what’s going on.”
Hanging on to the handrails, Moss and another entertainer, Julian, a magician from Yorkshire, made their way through the darkness below deck. They could hear excited voices speaking many different languages. Officers were running around, some were carrying bags, some had life jackets on, and some were wet. “Everyone was pretty wild-eyed and panicked-looking,” Moss says. “We were trying to ask, ‘What’s happening?’ but it was like we didn’t exist.”
Julian and Moss continued down to the engine room – the lowest part of the ship. “We were way below the waterline, in the dark, on our own, and there was no-one there,” Moss says. “That would never, ever happen, even when you’re docked.”
The thick, metal doors which acted as a safety barrier by preventing water moving from one compartment of a ship to another in the event of flooding, were tightly closed. “It sounded like there was a large body of water sloshing about behind those watertight doors,” Moss says. The Oceanos was sinking.
Moss found the cruise director who said the captain had told her they were going to have to abandon the ship. “Then we found out that one lifeboat had already gone with a lot of the crew and senior officers on it,” he says.
Moss and the others had no idea how to evacuate a cruise ship, nor how to launch the lifeboats, which hung high above the deck along each of the ship’s sides, but there was nobody more qualified around to do it. One by one, they began lowering the starboard side lifeboats down to the deck. Each heaving lifeboat, now with as many as 90 people in it, many screaming in fear, would then be lowered down to the sea on cables. But Moss had no idea how to start the engines or even where the keys were. Eventually, he realised it was too dangerous to continue. “In the effort to try and rescue people we were possibly going to kill them,” Moss says.
Moss and others made their way up to the ship’s bridge – where they assumed they would find the captain and the remaining senior officers – to ask what to do next. “We looked inside, but there was no one there,” Moss says. They took turns trying to use the radio to send an SOS.
“I was calling, ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!’ and just waiting for somebody to answer,” Moss says.
A big, deep, rich voice eventually replied. “Yes, what is your Mayday?” Relieved, Moss explained that he was on the cruise ship Oceanos and that it was sinking.
“OK. How long have you got left to float?”
“I don’t know – we’ve got the starboard railings in the water, we’re rolling around, we’ve taken on a huge amount of water,” Moss said. “We still have at least 200 people on board.”
“OK. What is your position?”
“We’re probably about halfway between the port of East London and Durban.”
“No, no, no, what are your coordinates?”
Moss had no idea what their coordinates were.
“What rank are you?”
“Well, I’m not a rank – I’m a guitarist.”
A moment’s silence.
“What are you doing on the bridge?”
“Well, there’s nobody else here.”
“Who’s on the bridge with you?”
“So I said, ‘It’s me, my wife – the bass player, we’ve got a magician here…'”
Moss was put in contact with two small ships that were close to the Oceanos. Unfortunately, they had only one lifeboat each, so there was little they could do to help. They shared the sinking vessel’s coordinates with the South African authorities who began to organise an air rescue mission.
As dawn broke, the first of two navy divers attempted to get down to the Oceanos in strong winds. More than three hours passed before the first rescue helicopter arrived and hovered above the ship.
Two navy divers were winched down to the Oceanos’ deck. They said they needed help to get everyone off before the ship sank, and Moss was given a five-minute crash course on how to run a helicopter airlift.
“Remember, the harness needs to be quite tight under people’s underarms,” the navy diver told him. “Make sure you get it right because otherwise they’ll tip upside down and fall out – you’ll kill them on the deck. Do two at a time or else we’re going to run out of time. OK? Go.”
In total, five helicopters joined the rescue mission, shuttling back and forth, carrying 12 people at a time to safety as dawn broke and the darkness lifted. On 4 August 1991, about 45 minutes after the last person on board had been airlifted to safety, the Oceanos slipped away below the water.
Everyone who had been put into lifeboats was rescued by passing ships and remarkably no lives were lost. “I’m not invincible,” Moss says, “but if I can get through that, I can get through anything.”
Again, a story worth telling.