MTS Oceanos: When vigilante action saved 220 souls from tragedy

Guest Writer: Daniel Thomas

Travellers usually relax knowing that cruise companies operate with stringent safety measures. But what if staff don’t follow protocol when disaster strikes? This is the story of MTS Oceanos. Brace yourselves

When Moss and Tracy Hills noticed the crew of MTS Oceanos hastily packing up their personal effects and slinging on their lifejackets, something was clearly – and seriously – wrong.

The married couple, both musicians from Zimbabwe, had embarked upon the MTS Oceanos as cruise entertainers several days prior, where the start of an ill-fated final voyage to Durban, South Africa, had unravelled like a bad omen.

An anonymous bomb threat had delayed departure from the UK’s East London port, while a seasick organist had disrupted a wedding ceremony held onboard. The bride very nearly didn’t wear white.

However, worst of all was the weather. Conditions had been grim for days, significantly worsening by August 3, with 40-knot winds and 30-foot swells assailing the French-built, Greek-owned luxury cruise liner as it put to sea.

The sail-away party was moved from the open deck to the cruise lounge, while progressively harsher weather caused several accidents during dinner service. As diners grimaced upon watching their meal disappear from the waiter’s grasp and onto the thick carpet, many felt the voyage was cursed.

Still, at first, it seemed that there was no cause for alarm.

The Oceanos had weathered similar conditions before and had a 250-strong crew to support its complement of 581 passengers. Yiannis Avranas, the ship’s captain, had thirty years of experience at sea, twenty of which serving as an officer.

Nobody could have predicted that it would be the Hills, among others, who would help save the lives of everyone onboard.

The MTS Oceanos photographed in 1986. Credit: Wikicommons

MTS Oceanos: Prelude to disaster

Night fell, and as the ship moved along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape Province, south of Coffee Bay, the Hills began noticing signs of flooding and panicked behaviour from the crew around 8.45pm.

Other eyewitnesses reported similar incidents across the ship in the subsequent half hour. Finally, at approximately 9.30pm, a muffled explosion was heard in the engine room.

In later investigations, a general condition of neglect and unaddressed technical issues emerged. More seriously, non-return valves in the waste disposal system had been scrapped but not replaced.

Worryingly, a 10-inch hole had been left in the bulkhead between the engine room and the sewerage tank. This led to rapid flooding when an unfitted pipe burst from the impact of a strong wave. The engine room flooded, and the generators shorted out, cutting power to the ship.

Worse was to come.

Sea water coursed uncontrollably through the gap in the bulkhead, filling the waste tank and the lack of non-return valves sent the water up the main drainage pipes, flooding every outlet connected to the system. The ship was stricken and, once the engines stopped, she began to list alarmingly.

Passengers had by this time gathered in the lounge for the evening show, but they soon began to realise that something was dangerously amiss. Ships often churn about in choppy seas, but a constant slant to one side could only spell trouble. Yet, the crew were largely mute about what was going on.

The MTS Oceanos takes on a fatal amount of water as the final survivors watch from a helicopter. Credit: Facebook/SouthAfricanCruises

Thank God for entertainment

The crew and officers began their preparations to abandon ship, starting as they meant to continue – sloppily. Their conduct provided evidence showcasing a blatant disregard for maritime procedure. Lower deck portholes were left unsecured while many passengers were left uninformed of the flooding several hours after the ship’s doomsday had started.

In the face of this abdication of responsibility, salvation for the vessel’s passengers would come from an unlikely source – the ship’s musicians and entertainers.

Moss and Tracy began to investigate any suspected flooding, along with Julian Butler; a stage magician and comedian. Butler and Moss entered the lower decks, below the waterline, to find a sealed bulkhead door and further signs of serious flooding.

Informing Lorraine Betts, the cruise director, of what they’d seen, they watched the crew organise lifeboat departures of women, children and themselves.

Senior officers were frantically piling onto the boats, after failing to issue a general alarm. The captain maintained that the ship was not in danger of sinking.

The Hills confirmed with video evidence that the captain and officers were lying about the condition of the Oceanos, but they had no time to confront anyone. Evacuation of the lifeboats had begun while the Hills, Betts, Butler, comedian Robin Boltman, and other entertainers and cruise staff (including the primarily Filipino kitchen and cabin crew), pitched in to assist.

Amid the exodus of the crew and the absence of effective on-deck leadership, the entertainers and cooks worked hard to minimise panic and maintain order among passengers.

The MTS Oceanos became a global fixation as her fate was broadcast live. Credit: Facebook

Leaving passengers stranded onboard

Boltman played music in the lounge to calm the passengers, alongside cabaret performer Alvin Collinson. In Collinson’s telling, at one point, he began playing “American Pie”, only to realise that his next line would be “this’ll be the day that I die” – and, with this, he hastily switched to a different song.

The evacuation proved difficult and unsafe. Besides dealing with unsecured lifeboats, the dark and the hazardous conditions hampered progress, while jammed emergency exits and a lack of trained personnel onboard made for rough going.

To make matters worse, the lifeboats that had been launched by the officers - only partially full in their hurry to abandon ship – left 220 people stranded onboard after the last boat had departed.

By this point, Betts, the Hills, and several other passengers had virtually assumed total authority on-deck. They decided to try and access the bridge. With no assistance from onboard maritime professionals, 220 souls now depended on the vigilante action of the ship’s entertainers.

Operating the radio phone, Moss managed to successfully contact nearby vessels, and a rescue effort began. Passing ships broadcast the MTS Oceanos' coordinates far and wide, while Moss coordinated with Captain Detmar of a nearby container ship - Nedlloyd Mauritius.

Upon telling Captain Detmar that he was a guitarist with zero maritime experience, Moss recalls hearing a short pause on the phone before the “extremely supportive” captain came back, relaying technical advice.

The captain bails

Three hours after trouble kicked-off, a flight of helicopters - 13 Pumas from the South African Defence Force – arrived to commence an airlift operation. Multiple eyewitnesses, including the Hills, report Captain Avranas boarding one of the first choppers, long before the vast majority of the passengers had been rescued.

The captain would later insist he’d only left to better plan the evacuation. Naturally, his claims were met with an uproar of criticism and scathing judgement.

Even with the assistance of two South African naval divers, the airlifts were no easier for the Hills than loading the lifeboats. Passengers were sent sliding across the steeply pitched deck, or worse still, injured in collisions with the ship’s hull. All the while, the Oceanos was sinking lower and lower.

At one point, an inflatable boat – crewed by Butler and a diver – was dispatched to rescue a number of frightened people who, out of sheer desperation, had jumped into the ocean. But Moss and Tracy met the task, setting up evacuation stations on both the fore and aft decks, tying ropes to make improvised handrails, strapping passengers into harnesses and organising them into queues.

Somehow, eventually, they made it. Every single passenger and crew member was evacuated by either air or sea. Despite the calamity, the Oceanos did not suffer a single casualty.

Moss and Tracy Hills were among the last to be evacuated from the ship, alongside the Filipino cooks, following one of modern maritime history’s most successful rescue operations.

The MTS Oceanos plunges into the depths following an extraordinary evacuation. Credit: Reddit - R/CatastrophicFailure

The MTS Oceanos finally flounders

At 3.30pm on August 4, having been abandoned to her fate following the rescue of her passengers, the MTS Oceanos finally sank beneath the waves.

Her stern turned to the sky amid a crucible of pounding waves and turquoise waters, coming to rest nearly 100 metres beneath the raging Agulhas Current.

Exhausted and disorientated, survivors of the doomed cruise ship stepped out blinking into the spotlight of the international press. An American news crew had captured the dramatic final moments of the Oceanos while the sinking was reported from Johannesburg to Baltimore.

The Hills were reunited with their 15-year-old daughter, Amber, and hailed by passengers and their fellow entertainers for their efforts.

Moss would briefly become something of a minor regional celebrity, the civilian musician who had helped save hundreds of lives at sea. A South African newspaper ran an editorial cartoon depicting the sinking, captioned: “Attention, attention- this is your lead guitarist speaking”.

The Hills eventually moved to Liverpool, where Moss would later become a cruise director himself.

The aftermath

Avranas, on the other hand, would be pilloried – condemned as the captain who abandoned his crew, his passengers and his ship – on the testimony of multiple unrelated eyewitnesses.

Investigated by the South African Ministry of Transport and found negligent by a Greek inquiry, the captain was never held personally liable for the disaster or charged with any crime. His employer, Epirotiki Line, later assigned him as captain of a ferry until his retirement.

The sinking of the Oceanos was certainly a disaster – but not a tragedy. For those passengers abandoned by Captain and crew , profound gratitude was offered to the South African authorities for their prompt rescue – but the heroes were undoubtedly the band of quick-thinking entertainers.

As they say, not all heroes wear capes, or – in this case – cruise uniforms.