Prime Position SEO General The guitarist who rescued hundreds of passengers from a sinking cruise ship

The guitarist who rescued hundreds of passengers from a sinking cruise ship

When the luxury liner Oceanos began taking on water in rough seas during a voyage around South Africa’s coast in 1991, musician Moss Hills and his colleagues found themselves suddenly responsible for everyone on board.

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During dinner, Moss Hills became aware of the severity of the storm. The ship’s waiters, who are normally experts at transporting drinks and food without spilling anything, were struggling. Moss, a Zimbabwean guitarist working on the cruise liner with his wife Tracy, a bassist, had never seen waiters drop trays before.

Earlier that day, gale-force winds and heavy rains had repeatedly delayed sailing for the final leg of the cruise to Durban. With no sign of the weather improving, the captain decided to raise the anchor, and the Oceanos, with 581 guests and crew on board, set sail into 40-knot winds and 9m (30ft) waves.

Moss and Tracy, both in their thirties, would usually throw parties on the ship’s pool deck as it sailed away from port. But the party had been moved inside that day, and Moss braced himself while playing his guitar, trying to maintain his balance as the ship pitched and rolled.

“The storm grew worse and worse,” Moss says.

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Tracy, whom her husband describes as unflappable, decided to go to their cabin after dinner to prepare an emergency bag.

“She took off,” Moss says, “and then – boom – all the lights went out.”

Moss, who was not easily frightened, became concerned when none of the ship’s officers appeared to issue orders.

“You’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a terrible storm,” he says, “and I felt this tightening in my stomach.”

Moss went up to the lounge to check on the musical instruments on stage when the small, dim emergency lights came on. There were microphone and cymbal stands all over the place. Then he realised he couldn’t hear the engines’ constant, throbbing background noise. The ship had lost power and was starting to slow down.

The 153m (502ft) Oceanos soon found itself drifting sideways onto the crashing waves.

According to Moss, the ship was being pounded.

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Guests filled the lounge with trepidation. As the ship lurched wildly from one side to the other, port to starboard, pot plants, ashtrays, and chairs were sliding around, and people had to move from their seats to sit on the floor.

After about an hour, the mood in the lounge became tense. To try to keep people calm, Moss grabbed an acoustic guitar and began singing with some of the other entertainers. But as time passed, Moss noticed that the ship was heeling, or not returning to a level position after being tossed around in the storm.

“Something bad is happening,” Moss told Tracy, “and I’m going to try to figure out what it is.”

Moss will tell his story in a new series of Life Changing on BBC Radio 4 on 6 April 2022 at 0900, or listen to the podcast.

More from Life-Shifting:

• ‘As a child, I witnessed the plane crash that killed my sisters.’ • ‘The near-death experience that propelled me to fame as a musician.’

Moss and another entertainer, Julian, a magician from Yorkshire, hung on to the handrails as they made their way through the darkness below deck. They could hear excited voices in a variety of languages. Officers were running around, some carrying bags, some wearing life jackets, and some were drenched.

“Everyone looked pretty wild-eyed and panicked,” Moss says. “We tried to ask, ‘What’s going on?’ but it was as if we didn’t exist.”

Julian and Moss continued down to the engine room, the ship’s lowest point.

“We were way below the waterline, alone, in the dark, and there was no one there,” Moss recalls. “That would never happen, even if you were docked.”

The thick, metal doors that served as a safety barrier by preventing water from flowing from one compartment of a ship to another in the event of flooding were tightly shut.

“But it sounded like a large body of water was sloshing around behind those watertight doors,” Moss says.

The Oceanos was going down.

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There had still been no announcements about what was going on in the lounge. Moss tracked down the cruise director, who informed her that the captain had informed her that the ship would have to be abandoned.

“Then we discovered that one of the lifeboats had already gone with a large number of the crew and senior officers on board,” he says.

Moss and the others had no idea how to evacuate a cruise ship or launch the lifeboats that hung high above the deck along each of the ship’s sides, but there was no one else who could do it.

They began lowering the starboard side lifeboats to the deck one by one. They didn’t know how to keep them stable as passengers boarded, so Moss improvised by standing with one leg on the ship’s deck and the other on a lifeboat.

But every time the ship rolled to starboard, Moss would have to jump back onto the Oceanos before the lifeboat swung away, leaving a couple of metres gap, and then swung back, slamming into the ship’s hull with such force that bits of it splintered off.

Each heaving lifeboat, now carrying up to 90 people, many of whom were screaming in terror, would be lowered to the sea on cables. Moss, on the other hand, had no idea how to start the engines or even where the keys were.

“We’d let them go, off into the night,” he says, “and they’d just drift away into the pounding waves.” “The people in the lifeboats had a torturous time – they were being pelted with spray, it was cold and pitch black, but we just had to keep going until all of the starboard side lifeboats were launched.”

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The Oceanos was now taking in more water and heeling sharply to the starboard side. It was nearly impossible to safely launch the remaining lifeboats on the port side.

Instead of being lowered into the water, the lifeboats would cling to the ship’s side until the next big wave rolled in, tipping the ship enough to let them dangle freely.

“And then gravity would drop the lifeboat three or four metres (13 ft) in one go, almost tipping people out into open water,” Moss recalls.

He eventually realised it was too risky to continue.

“We were going to kill people in order to try to save them,” Moss says.

And time was ticking away.

With no more lifeboats available and hundreds of people still in need of rescue, Moss and others made their way to the ship’s bridge, where they expected to find the captain and the remaining senior officers, to ask what they should do next.

“We looked inside, but no one was there,” Moss says. “That’s when we realised it’s just the two of us.”

In the darkness, orangey-red lights blinked, but Moss had no idea what most of the equipment was for, let alone how it worked. They took turns attempting to send an SOS over the radio.

“I was just calling ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!’ and waiting for someone to answer,” Moss explains.

A large, deep, and rich voice eventually responded. “Of course, what is your Mayday?”

Moss, relieved, explained that he was on the sinking cruise ship Oceanos.

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