originally published August 7, 2013
Having never spent a moment aboard an actual cruise ship – unless watching untold hours of The Love Boat counts – I know very little about the experience. As a life-long neurotic, I would probably compile a mental list of safety precautions before buying my ticket, then run through each item before settling in to my cabin. Things like lifeboat proximity, lifejacket locations, the best place to stash my year’s supply of Dramamine, and the most direct route to the bar.
Most passengers feel it’s a special privilege to snag some face-time with the ship’s captain. He or she is the person who holds the key to your safety and the overall experience of the cruise. This is your Stubing. Your Picard. Your white-beard guy on the Titanic who went down with the ship.
Not me. I won’t leave the captain hanging if he offers forth a high-five, but I’d make it my mission to get to know the ship’s entertainment. Just ask anyone who was aboard the MTS Oceanos on August 4, 1991. The only rank the protagonist of this story carries is General of Rock n’ Roll. And in this instance, that outranks the captain.
That’s Moss Hills and his wife, Tracy. The two were employed as musicians aboard the Oceanos, a Greek-run cruise liner that operated out of South Africa. The ship was pushing forty years old by the time it set sail on that August day, and she was showing her age. Hull plates were loose, check valves had been stripped for parts and there was a hole in the bulkhead between the generator and the sewage tank. Oh well, thought TFC Tours, what could possibly go wrong? It should be noted that TFC is no longer in business.
For the two days prior to August 4, the Oceanos had been chartered for an all-night bachelor party, followed by an all-night wedding. Moss and Tracy had played both, while the ship rode waves so high it was as though Neptune had poked himself with his own trident and gone into a rabid rage. The ship delayed its departure for a few hours due to inclement weather, but eventually it set sail from East London en route to Durban, about 460 kilometers up South Africa’s eastern shore.
It was a mess.
The traditional sail-away party up on deck was cancelled, and when dinner was served the waiters could hardly take a step without almost spilling the contents of their tray. Eager for a distraction, passengers piled into the ship’s lounge to await the musical stylings of Moss and Tracy Hills. Moss was heading down to his cabin before the show when he spotted a trio of security officers racing toward the aft (that’s the ass-end) of the ship. He followed them, only to run into scads of the ship’s crew who were fleeing the lower decks, racing to their cabins and grabbing small bags of their personal belongings. Many were wearing life jackets.
Meanwhile back up in the lounge, the power had gone out. Most of the ship’s 550 passengers were waiting for some entertainment, with no clue that the liner’s crew had cranked their internal parts into full panic mode. Moss and Tracy grabbed a couple of acoustic guitars and got the crowd singing. Because nothing says, “Don’t worry, you probably won’t drown this evening” like a rousing rendition of “American Pie.”
I joke, but in all honesty Moss and Tracy were the glue holding together the collective sanity of everyone on board. Cruise director Lorraine Betts went to ask the captain if they were sinking. He flat-out told her no, everything was fine, just some engine trouble. Moss ran downstairs to check for himself and found a sealed bulkhead door – something that would not be there if there wasn’t water on the other side. When he came back upstairs, the crew was piling into lifeboats.
There was nothing left for Moss and Tracy to do but get the passengers moving toward the lifeboats also. Robin Boltman, Julian Russell, Terry Lester – these were all magicians, dancers and performers, and they were the ones steering the passengers to safety. The lifeboats weren’t well secured to the ship, so loading had to take place in the moments when they’d swing back against the hull. Finally the last boat was ready to be packed. Though it was built to hold 99, when only fifty folks had climbed aboard (the crew’s senior officers; over 220 passengers were still waiting on deck), they ordered it to be lowered.
Captain Yiannis Avranas had not yet fled the ship. He and a handful of senior officers were hiding out under a stairwell on the pool deck, smoking cigarettes and refusing to help. They were also refusing to return to the bridge to send a distress call, something Moss Hills also had to do. When the helicopters showed up to carry everyone to safety around 6:30am, the captain made sure he was on the second chopper.
The ship was sitting on its starboard side now, sinking into the ocean. Moss secured himself to the port-side railing and assisted passengers one by one into the harness that would lift them to safety. Some fell into the water, but Julian Butler – that’s the magician – was there in a dinghy to pull them to safety. There were two helicopter stations lifting people to safety over the course of the next few hours.
At one point the harness got snagged on the side of the ship. Fearing this might pull the helicopter into the water, Moss hopped over the railing and slid down the hull to release the harness – he was secured around the waist and sporting a pair of cajones the size of classroom globes, so why not?
Moss and Tracy were among the last two to get airlifted to safety. Thanks to their adept reactions, every last passenger and crew member lived to tell the horrifying story. At 3:30 that afternoon, the MTS Oceanos eased in to its new permanent home at the bottom of Coffee Bay.
Captain Yiannis Avranas and four of his top officers were found negligent in their ineffective handling of the disaster. Unfortunately, the optimum punishment of allowing the passengers and entertainment staff the opportunity to pelt them with stale vegetables for a few hours was never dished out. But while Avranas will go down in history as one of the weaseliest cowards of all time, Moss and Tracy Hills should be knighted as heroes.
Oh, and in 1994 Moss Hills was aboard the MS Achille Lauro when it caught fire and sank off the coast of Somalia. But that’s a story for another day.