Moss Hills, a musician and his fellow crew members suddenly became responsible for all aboard the Oceanos luxury liner Oceanos when it began to take on water in rough seas on a 1991 voyage around South Africa's coast.
Moss Hills was shocked to learn how severe the storm was while eating dinner. The ship's staff, who are usually very adept at transporting food and drinks without spilling any, were having a hard time. Moss, a Zimbabwean guitarist, was onboard the cruise ship with his wife Tracy, who is a bass player. He had never seen waiters drop trays before.
Gale-force winds and heavy rainfalls had caused delays to the final leg of the cruise towards Durban many times earlier in the day. The conditions were not improving so the captain decided to set anchor. The Oceanos with 581 passengers and crew sailed into winds of 40 knots and 9m high (30ft) waves.
Both Tracy and Moss were in their 30s when they would host parties on the deck of the ship's pool deck. The party was moved indoors that day, so Moss held his guitar while he braced for balance.
Moss states, "The storm just got worse,"
Tracy, Tracy's husband, described her as being unflappable. She decided to leave dinner to organize an emergency bag in their cabin.
Moss said, "Off she went, and suddenly - boom! - all of the lights went out!"
Moss began to feel uneasy when he realized that none of the officers on board were giving any instructions.
He said, "You're on board a ship in middle of the sea, in darkness of night, in an awful storm," and he felt a tightening sensation in his stomach.
Moss went to the lounge to inspect the instruments on stage when the emergency lights turned on. There were also cymbal stands and microphones scattered about. He suddenly realized that he couldn’t hear the constant, throbbing background noise of engines. The ship was losing power and slowing down.
Soon, the Oceanos of 153m (502ft), was drifting sideways on the crashing waves.
Moss said that the ship was being hammered.
Anxious guests started to pour into the lounge. People were anxious to get in the lounge, so they had to move from their chairs to stand on the floor. The ship was bouncing from port to starboard, and pot plants, ashtrays and chairs were all sliding about.
After about an hour, the lounge atmosphere became more tense. Moss took out an acoustic guitar to sing with the other entertainers, to calm everyone. As time went by, Moss realized that the ship was not returning to its original level after being tossed about by the storm.
Moss told Tracy that something was wrong. "I'm going try to find out why," he said.
Listen to Moss' story on Life Changing, 6 April 2022 at 0900 on BBC Radio 4 – or download the podcast.
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Moss and Julian, a Yorkshire magician, held on to the rails as they made their way below deck. There were excited voices in many languages. Officers ran around with bags, life jackets, and wetness.
Moss said that everyone was "very wild-eyed, panicked-looking." Moss says, "We were trying desperately to find out what was going on." It was as if we didn't exist.
Julian and Moss continued to the engine room, the lowest point of the ship.
Moss states, "We were far below the waterline in the darkness on our own and there wasn't anyone there." Moss says, "That would never, ever occur, even when you are docked."
The metal doors, which were thick and closed tightly, acted as safety barriers by stopping water from moving between compartments of ships in the event that flooding occurred.
Moss said that it sounded as if there was water running around behind the doors.
The Oceanos was sinking.
In the lounge, there were no announcements regarding what was happening. Moss met the cruise director, who told Moss that the captain had informed her that they would have to abandon ship.
He says, "Then we discovered that one of the lifeboats had already been lost with many of the crew members and senior officers."
Moss and the other crew members didn't know how to evacuate a cruise vessel, or how to launch the lifeboats that hung high above each side of the ship. However, there were others who knew how it was done.
They began to lower the port side lifeboats onto the deck one by one. Moss was unable to hold the lifeboats steady while people were moving so he sat on one leg on the deck and the other on a boat.
Moss had to get back on the Oceanos every time the ship turned to starboard. This created a gap of about a metre and allowed the lifeboat to swing away. Then, he swung back with such force that it broke apart the ship's hull.
Every heaving lifeboat would be filled with up to 90 people, some screaming in terror. Then, cables would be used to lower them down to the ocean. Moss didn't know how to start the engines, or where the keys were.
He said, "We'd let the them go, off into night, and then they would drift away into the pounding waters." "The lifeboat crew had a difficult time. They were being drenched in spray, it was cold, and it was completely dark. But we had to keep going until all the starboard lifeboats were launched."
The Oceanos began to take in more water and was now heeling more to the starboard side. It was almost impossible to safely launch the remaining lifeboats from the port side.
Instead of being dropped to the sea after they were full of people, the lifeboats would stay on the ship's side until the next wave came in, tipping it enough to allow them to dangle.
Moss explains, "And then gravity would suddenly lower the lifeboat three to four metres (13 feet) in one shot, almost tipping people out onto the open water. It was horrendous."
He realized it was too risky to continue.
Moss states, "In our effort to rescue people, we were possibly going to to kill them."
The time was running out.
Moss and others were unable to launch more lifeboats but hundreds of people needed to be rescued. They made their way to the bridge of the ship, where they thought they would find the captain, senior officers, and asked what they should do next.
Moss said, "We looked in the mirror and saw no one." "That's when it hit us: It's only us."
Moss was unable to see the orange-red lights in the darkness. They tried to use the radio to send an SOS.
"I called, 'Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!' Moss adds, "Mayday!
Finally, a deep, rich, and large voice replied. "Yes, what's your Mayday?"
Moss, relieved, explained that he was aboard the cruise ship Oceanos and that the ship was sinking.
"OK. How much time do you have left to float?"
Moss stated, "I don’t know – we’ve got the starboardrailings in water, we’re rolling around and we’ve taken on a lot of water." "We still have at most 200 people aboard."
"We are probably halfway between East London and Durban."
"No, no. No, no. What are your coordinates?"
Moss didn't know their coordinates.
"What rank do you hold?"
"Well, I'm not rank - I am a guitarist."
One moment of silence.
"What are your activities on the bridge?"
"Well, there's no one else here."
"Who's on that bridge with you?"
"So I said, "It's me, it's my wife - the basse player, we have a magician here
Moss was connected to two small ships, which were very close to the Oceanos. They instructed Moss to locate the captain and get him on the bridge. Moss didn't know where he was.
He says, "I knew he wouldn’t be down below as we were sinking." "I was checking the water level on a regular basis, and found that one deck below me was flooded.
Moss eventually found the captain at the back of his ship, smoking in darkness. Moss stated that they urgently needed his assistance.
Moss said that he was looking at me wide-eyed, vacantly, and saying, "It's unnecessary, it's unnecessary,"
"I believe he was in deep and deep shock."
There was nothing they could do for the Oceanos ships that were close by. They had one lifeboat each. They shared the coordinates of the sinking vessel with South African authorities, who organized an air rescue mission.
Moss and Tracy sat in near darkness praying for help as the storm continued to batter the ship.
Moss told his wife, "I believe the ship is going down"
Tracy and he had a 15 year-old daughter, Amber. Amber was onboard the Oceanos for the holidays, and disembarked only days before. Amber was now at her South African boarding school.
Moss recalls Moss saying, "She can't lose both of her parents." "No matter what we do, we have to ensure at least one of them gets off."
It took more than three hours before the first rescue helicopter arrived.
Two Navy divers were winched to the Oceanos' deck. Moss was then given a five minute crash course in helicopter operation.
The navy diver explained to him that the harness must be tightened under the underarms of the person wearing it. You don't want them to tip over and fall off the deck. You can only do two at a given time, or we'll run out of time. OK? Go."
Tracy and Moss were to organize a second rescue helicopter at the ship's front. As the ship began to sink beneath the waves, panicked people started jumping from the deck. A rigid inflatable was needed to launch into the sea to rescue them.
People Moss was trying save were caught in mid-air by the helicopter cable and were being blown against the ship's parts by strong winds. Moss lost his nerve and couldn't tell how badly they were hurt. He realized he couldn't stop going with all the people aboard.
Five helicopters were involved in the rescue mission. They shuttled back and forth carrying 12 people to safety, as dawn broke and the dark lifted.
Tracy and Moss were exhausted and drained when they finally got into harnesses.
Moss said that "as we hovered above the ship, it really hit me." He also stated, "I could see that the Oceanos was in a very serious situation." We could see waves breaking against the bow, where we were rescuing people.
Cruise passengers ran to Moss' helicopter and cheered him on, reaching out to hug him.
Moss said, "I began to choke up sob," and then collapsed.
The Oceanos disappeared below the surface on 4 August 1991, just 45 minutes after the last person was airlifted to safety. Passing ships saved all those who were placed in lifeboats, and it was remarkable that no lives were lost.
Tracy and Moss, now living in Liverpool, worked as entertainers on cruise ships for many years. Tracy, who lives in Liverpool, prefers to not talk about the sinking nor dwell on how close they came to losing all their lives three decades ago.
Moss, who has been asked many times about the Oceanos, finds it therapeutic to talk about. Moss is relieved to look back at what happened.
Moss said, "I'm not invincible, but if I can overcome that, then I can handle anything."
An inquiry was conducted in Greece and found that the captain of Oceanos, along with four other senior officers, were negligent in the sinking.
All images courtesy Moss Hills, except where noted.
Listen to Moss Hills' Life Changing - produced by Thomas Harding Assinder
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