After docking in East London harbour on the Friday morning, the bachelor party guests disembarked and we prepared for the wedding guests to arrive. The weather continued to deteriorate, with very strong winds and rain squalls constantly assailing the harbour. A small army of decorators came on board and swept through the lounges and reception area, leaving a trail of flowers and festivity in their wake. I remember seeing some lavish arrangements and mentioning to the decorators that these could fall over once we put out to sea. They seemed unconvinced because, with the ship tied up to the dock, the movement was not severe, but I knew better. I had already experienced a number of bad storms over the years.
We sailed out of the harbour and into the rather daunting seas. After a few hours at sea, the bridal party decided that it was too rough to have the wedding, and we should return to the dock and stay in the relative calm of the harbour. Tugs were duly summoned, and we returned to the harbour, much to the relief of all of the staff. We knew that it would be difficult to conduct a wedding ceremony with the ship constantly pitching and rolling. Once we had entered the harbour the ship stabilised significantly and we all breathed a little easier.
However, the bride took a look around and said that she didn't want to get married at the docks. She wanted to go back out to sea. The tugs were called again and off we went, back into the storm. This really was a wedding with a big budget. It costs thousands of dollars each time a tug and the harbour pilot are used, but, when you are chartering the ship, you can do more or less as you please.
The wedding ceremony went ahead and it was certainly a memorable affair. I was on the stage, operating the sound system, and assisting the specially hired organist to keep her music, the keyboard, and herself in roughly the same spot. In between this, she kept on threatening to throw up. I moved some of the large flower arrangements to obscure us from the guests who were now seated in the lounge and watching the ceremony. Eventually she was sick. I took a large towel from the dressing room and held it for her to be sick into whilst she carried on playing. I have very clear memory of standing there, hunched over a vomiting organist, and peering through the elegant shrubbery at a glamorously dressed crowd all swaying together as if in some bizarre wedding dance. The wedding was completed without too much mishap, and the decision was taken to return to the harbour and continue the party there. This we did.
Tracy and I, along with the other band, had to keep the music going until dawn. We would perform for an hour, then one of the cabaret artists would do a short spot and then the other band would play for an hour. It really was exhausting, but that's showbiz.
Finally dawn broke, and, according to the agreement, we played our last song. They had been given their dusk 'til dawn wedding reception.
The day of the sinking: ( Saturday-Aug-03-1991 )
Tracy and I grabbed a quick breakfast and then I went into town to purchase a few things and to 'phone my mother. Tracy stayed on board and tried to catch up on some sleep. I had finished my shopping and was walking back to the harbour when the storm really started to unleash its power. The wind was so strong that I was constantly leaning into it at an acute angle. My pace had slowed right down and then the rain started to pelt me. I began to wonder if we would be able to sail. I spotted a call box and took refuge in there whilst I 'phoned my mum. I told her about the storm and she said that she had heard about it on the weather report. She expressed concern over the safety of sailing in these conditions. I said that I wasn't sure if we would sail at all but that if we did, the ship would handle things well.
Like a typical son I said," Don't worry mum."
Like a typical mum she said," Please be careful."
Like a typical son I replied, "Of course I will."
I left the 'phone booth and walked into the torrential downpour. Luckily, a middle aged couple, on their way to look at the ship, gave me a lift to the quayside. I invited them on board and, after changing into dry clothes, I showed them around. There was a feeling of uncertainty amongst the staff as to whether or not we would set sail in these conditions. Late in the afternoon, an announcement was made, stating that our sailing time would be delayed. This happened a number of times. Finally it was announced that we could sail because the weather conditions further out to sea, along our intended course, were improving. Tracy and I usually play music out on deck for a sail-away party. The weather made this impossible and we decided to have the sail-away in the main show-lounge instead. It was a great success in spite of the weather. We got passengers to dance and sing, telling them that we would provide the rock and the ship would provide the roll. After that it was time for dinner, and then a short rest before the evening cabaret.
As staff, we dined in our own private room adjacent to the main dining salon. The conversation was all about the bad weather and how much it would inconvenience the show later, especially the dancers. Dinner turned into an eventful occasion. The poor waiters were trying their utmost to keep from colliding into each other and dropping trays of food, and in this endeavour they were moderately successful.
After dinner, Tracy made her way back to our cabin, and I went to the cruise office to collect our weekly wages. The storm seemed to be worsening, and, whilst in the office, some computer equipment broke free and crashed on to the floor right beside me. This had never happened before. I decided to go up to the show-lounge to check on the equipment.
Quite a few passengers had finished dinner and were congregating in the lounge early, to obtain the best seats for the show. A few of the speakers, which were mounted on stands, looked a little shaky, and I decided to make them fast with some light nylon cord. This I did, as discreetly as possible. I did not want to arouse any fears in the passengers.
I then made my way down to our cabin, but I saw three ship security men on the port side of Venus Deck, racing towards the aft. I immediately sensed a problem, and followed them to the crew stairwell on Dionysus Deck. Crew were pouring out from the decks below and some looked wet and most had life-jackets on. They were running to their cabins and grabbing small bags of personal possessions and then racing to the upper decks. There were a couple of officers around trying to calm them down.
I ran to my cabin and told my wife Tracy to change into jeans and track-shoes and to be prepared for a possible abandon ship. I ran up to the main lounge to check on our band equipment. On the way, I was told that it had started falling all over the stage. Around this time, all the lights went out and then the emergency lights came on. It was dark everywhere, but the public areas were dimly lit. Almost all the passengers were in the main lounge because there was to be a show there at 22h00. No-one knew what was going on and the ship was pitching and rolling wildly, with chairs, tables, bottles and glasses crashing around. People were getting alarmed and confused as to what was going on. I was checking on my band equipment with Robin Boltman, another performer, and we decided to entertain everyone and keep them calm. Of course there was no power for speakers and microphones and the lights had gone out. We only had the dim glow of the emergency lights, but I played acoustic guitar and sang every sing-a-long I knew. Tracy then joined us and we kept going as best we could. In between songs, passengers kept asking what was happening, and we reassured them. Eventually we ran out of merriment and went to find out what was happening.
Lorraine Betts was the cruise director, and she had been to the captain a few times and he had told her that there was a problem with the engine and that we should prepare to abandon ship. I argued that this was too dangerous, in the dark, with such mountainous waves and with the coastline so rocky and remote. I said that unless we were sinking, then surely our passengers would be safer on board and we could wait for a tug. Lorraine asked the captain if we were sinking and he said no, there was no water coming in, just an engine problem.
I was convinced that he was lying, and decided to go down below to find out. I didn't want to go alone so Julian Butler (stage name Julian Russell), a magician on board, came with me. We went right down to the aft section and through the "Crew Only" areas. It was dark and deserted and with the ship plunging wildly it was difficult to negotiate the oily, steel stairways. We made it to the very bottom of the ship, the shaft tunnel, and it was completely dry there. Both propeller shafts are here and they go through the steel plates behind us to the propellers outside. This is many decks below the water-line and very unnerving to be there in the dark, with all the crew gone in a panic, and the sound of water on the hull outside. All we wanted to do was to rush back to the safety of the upper decks. We calmed ourselves and decided to carry on checking for signs of water.
We moved forward but our progress was halted when we came to a bulkhead that was sealed off with the water-tight doors. Why were the water-tight doors closed? We must be taking in water. The doors were holding and I couldn't find any leaks. Obviously we couldn't risk opening the doors, so another way forward would have to be found. We had been down below for quite a while and were very tense so we decided to go back up and tell Lorraine Betts what we had seen.
By now, some of the crew had lowered life-boats to the Embarkation Deck and Lorraine was organising women and children into them. Strangely, we could see a large proportion of crew getting into the boats as well, but, more disturbing, was the fact that senior officers were also getting off. There had not been one single public address announcement made, no alarm sounded and still the captain said that we were not taking in water. Launching the life-boats was just a precaution. I doubted him, especially since his crew and officers were scrambling into the boats. No-one seemed to be in charge. There were no officers around and the captain seemed more like a spectator. I was now very suspicious and, taking my video camera with me, I decided to check again if we were sinking. Once more I went below. This time no-one came with me. I went down forward of the engine room and as I approached Dionysus Deck I could hear the sound of water flowing. I turned the corner on the stairwell landing and I could see for myself. With a powerful shock I confirmed my worst fears. This deck was flooded, we were sinking.
01:00hrs Sunday morning, Aug-04-1991 ( This is an exact time )
I couldn't believe it. The captain and officers were lying. Why? I decided to video this area and I recorded the time and location. This footage, and more later, was used extensively in the subsequent enquiry, and by a number of television programmes around the world. Whilst I was filming, one of the crew, Costas, who was well known to me, came around another corner of that deck. He began shouting agitatedly that I must not video here. I kept my cool and dropped the camera from my eye but left it running. He began to herd me back upstairs and I was asking him if he saw all of the water. He just kept saying that there was no water and I was not to video anything. This footage was crucial in the enquiry, as it placed Costas at the scene of a flooded deck when he denied knowing that we were sinking until much later.
I raced back upstairs and told the others. We now knew that the captain and his officers were lying to us. It was imperative that we organise for the evacuation of all of the passengers. We worked as fast as we could, getting passengers into boats. Entertainers Robin Boltman and Terry Lester stayed in the Main Lounge, circulating amongst the passengers and keeping them calm. Tracy and I, plus Lorraine and a few other mostly female entertainment staff, carried on running the life-boat evacuation. By this time we were angry at the officers and the crew for abandoning ship with the passengers, and for the lack of command and assistance by the captain and the few officers who were still on board. We were now totally in command of the rescue operation.
Nothing was running smoothly. I had to break open one half of the double emergency exit doors, which were jammed and causing a bottle-neck of increasingly frightened passengers. Two other doors, giving embarkation access to a life-boat could not be closed after the boat was launched. This left a wide gap at the bottom of the steeply sloping deck through which anyone could fall straight into the sea. This halted the line of passengers who needed to cross this area to get to the next boat. I had to stretch myself across the opening by bracing my feet and extending my arms wide. This way I could keep my body and arms rigid and hang onto each edge of the doorway. Then people could carry on and use me as a railing. However, reason prevailed after ten minutes or so, and I decided that this was too dangerous. I spotted some rope under a stairwell. I stopped the line of passengers and tied the rope across the gap to use as a hand-rail. Then I asked Terry Lester to help me get the doors closed. We eventually did so and it was safe for the passengers to continue. We were all now really frustrated and angered at the lack of organisation and help from the crew, which was causing all of this unnecessary, additional danger.
It was around this time that the passengers seemed to stop constantly asking what was happening, and where were the officers. They must have realised that we were in charge, and trying to do our best, in a thoroughly confusing situation. From this point on, almost every passenger I encountered, listened unquestioningly to my commands and co-operated.
Getting passengers into the lifeboats was also dangerous, because the boats were not secured properly, and when lowered to the embarkation point, the boats would swing away from the ship as it rolled and then come crashing back against the side. I would stand at the edge of the ship and when the life-boat swung against the side I would put one foot on the life-boat, one on the ship, and quickly help a passenger into the boat, before jumping back onto the ship as the life-boat swung away again. Luckily, nobody fell into the sea, or was caught between the swinging life-boat and the ship. It's ridiculous that passengers should have been exposed to this kind of unnecessary danger. If the trained personnel had been running things it would have been far less risky.
Suddenly, there was only the one life-boat left that was possible to be launched. Now the true colours of the few remaining crew and officers could be seen. The life-boat could take 99 people but, when it had only about 50 people inside, the officers, now safely aboard, ordered it to be lowered. Lorraine and I argued with them, screaming above the noise of the wind and waves and the crashing of the boat against the ship's hull. We managed to delay them enough to put 20 more on with them and then they lowered themselves away with about 70 passengers in a boat for 99.
We were now left with no life-boats that could be launched, approximately 220 people, in the dark and the ship now very low in the water. I went back down below to see how much more was flooded while Lorraine and Julian went to the bridge to see what the captain was doing. When I approached the dining area, I could hear the sound of a large body of water sloshing about. When I finally rounded the corner and looked into the dining-room, the sight was chaotic. The entire dining-room was under about one metre of water. Floating in this were chairs, trays, linen and various plants. As the ship rolled, the entire lake would crash to one side and stay for a moment, before crashing again to the opposite side. The furniture was now debris, and every ornament and piece of glassware was smashed. I could see to the far end of the dining-room, and noticed that the main entrance was wide open. This door was a fire and water resistant door, and should obviously be closed to slow down the flow of water. I attempted to cross the room by waiting for the water to move to one side and then I would run across the shallow side. I made a few attempts, but the water was moving too unpredictably, and I realised that I would be crushed by the furniture and glass laden water. I returned to the upper decks a bit shaken, because I now knew that most of the ship was flooded. Almost every time that I went into the lounge, passengers would immediately start questioning me on our progress. I kept them informed, but didn't mention that the water level was now only one deck below where they were assembled. There was one group who kept asking me to check the cabin of their friend and family member, Louise. She had not been seen since the evacuation had begun. We did not allow any passengers to go down below because we wanted to have complete control over where everybody was. This would minimise the risk of losing anyone by being caught in a flooded deck or overlooked and left behind. Louise's family were so insistent that I eventually made my way down to her cabin. I knocked on her door and, incredibly, she answered. She was about twenty years old, all alone, in the dark and seemingly oblivious of the grave danger that she was in. I told her who I was and persuaded her to open the door. She was in her night clothes and was wary of my intentions. I told her that we had a serious problem, and that she must put on her life-jacket and come with me immediately. This she did and I took her to her family. This kind of situation should never be allowed to happen. The least the captain should have done was to sound the alarm and then make a clear announcement over the public address system. If he had done this, then all of the passengers could have collected their own life-jackets and gone straight to the muster station to which they were assigned.
I thought that we should now move all the passengers out of the lounge and onto the open deck. Although it was cold, and the deck was at a steep angle, at least nobody would be trapped inside as the ship went under. The passengers were mostly calm and listened to our instructions.
Lorraine returned from the bridge and asked me to come back with her. She and Julian had found no-one on the bridge and we wondered where the captain was. We went to the bridge and realised that it was unmanned and so decided to try and establish contact. It was like a scene from a movie. We grabbed the radio phone and took turns calling " Mayday Mayday" until a ship answered. From then on we were running the bridge as well. I went back to the lounge to fetch my wife Tracy. She had been at the lounge exit the whole time, guiding passengers out to the boats, checking that their life-jackets were on properly and reassuring them. The last of the passengers were out on the deck now and Tracy and Robin joined Lorraine, Julian and I on the bridge. We made and received various calls from ships in the area, and many times they asked for information that we just didn't know. We wanted to ask the captain what to do and eventually I located him and the remaining few officers on the pool-deck with the other passengers. He was keeping a low profile under a stairway and just crouched there smoking. He wouldn’t come back to the bridge. He was just like another passenger waiting to be rescued.
By radio, I spoke to Captain Detmar aboard the ship "Nedlloyd Mauritius" a few times and the radio reception was clear. Captain Detmar was extremely calm and efficient sounding and was very reassuring. At first he asked me a few technical type questions and wanted to know our exact position, how many people were still on board, our angle of lean and current strengths, etc. When I was unable to answer he wanted to know my rank. I answered that I wasn't any rank, I was a guitarist. After a short pause to digest this he came back on and was extremely supportive. In fact, South African newspapers picked up this story and ran a cartoon of me as a small figure on the bridge of a listing ship in pounding seas, captioned with "Attention, attention, this is your lead guitarist speaking". The artist sent me the original of it which I still have.
It seems ridiculous that the captain and a few other officers should just be sitting in a huddle by the pool-deck stairway and not helping us. I was back and forth from the bridge in the bow, to the pooldeck aft a number of times, to ask the captain's advice. It was a difficult journey across an increasingly steep, slippery and dark deck. The last time that I spoke to the captain, was when I again left the bridge after being asked to give an estimate of how many hours we had left afloat. The ships in the area needed to know, because they couldn't come close to the Oceanos because of the heavy swells and currents. If the Oceanos collided with another ship, it could endanger that ship and possibly send the Oceanos straight under. Therefore, the ships in the area had decided to wait in a circle around us, and as we went under, they would move in closer and rescue as many as possible from the water. Captain Detmar asked me to estimate, as close as possible, how long we had left afloat, so that they could be prepared to move in as soon as possible. I made my way back to the pool-deck and asked Captain Avranas how long we had. He said about 2 hours, or possibly 3. I again asked him to come to the bridge and handle it but he said he would just wait there. This was about 04h00. I went back to the bridge and radioed through to Captain Detmar that Captain Avranas said we had between 2 & 3 hours left afloat.
What has always troubled me is that when the choppers arrived, Captain Avranas left on the 2nd one and this was about 3 hours after he told me that we only had 2-3 hours left. His estimate was wrong but in his mind we were about to go under but he got off with about 200 people left on board. I gave up on him in disgust and returned to the bridge.
We stayed on the bridge until the choppers arrived at around 06h30 on Sunday, 4 August. When they arrived, Lorraine went to check on the passengers on the rear deck and I went to the fore-deck and Tracy came with me. We left Robin on the bridge so that he could radio back our progress. The navy divers agreed that the ship was now sinking faster and were worried that we would not all get off. We decided that one diver would go to the aft deck and set up a helicopter rescue station there. I would then run a helicopter rescue station from the fore-deck. We split the number of remaining passengers more or less in half, so we each had about one hundred and ten to try and get off by helicopter.
Julian Butler and the other navy diver then got into the last inflatable dinghy so that they would be in the water close to the ship in case we dropped any passengers into the sea. In fact this did happen, and they were on hand to sort it out.
I found it difficult to run the rescue from the fore-deck. The angle of the deck was very steep because the ship was lying on her starboard side and was rolling around. I found some rope and secured it around my waist and then tied it around the ship's port railing. Then I tied more rope to the railing and across the deck to the deck access door as a hand-rail for the passengers.
Tracy then got some guys to fasten the rope at her end. There was a lot of confusion and people cramming into a small area. A few times some people started to get panicky and one middle-aged man tried to push past people. Luckily Tracy was very firm and kept everyone under control. Tracy then organised the passengers so that the remaining women were first and then the oldest men first and the youngest and fittest last. Then on my signal she would send passengers out to me, two at a time. The helicopter harness was a double unit and this became the routine for the next five hours. With Tracy keeping control of the passengers in our section and me only having to worry about two at a time into the harness, we were able to function efficiently. Neither one of us would leave without the other and, we could trust and count on each other.
Eventually the last passengers from the aft deck were off and Lorraine and her assistant, Geraldine Massyn, came forward and told me that they were getting off. They went right into the bows and got off on the rubber inflatable with the rest of the entertainers and remaining T.F.C. staff. This was organised by the Navy diver Gary and entertainer Julian Russell. After transferring these people to a life-boat waiting a safe distance away, Julian and Gary returned and floated close to my rescue station in case any of us fell from the deck or harness or the ship went under altogether. With the deck so steep and the ship rolling about, at least 10 or 12 passengers slipped and fell as I tried to attach the harness to them. Each time I would slide down the deck with the rope around my waist and pull them up. Once, two old ladies fell together and I slid down the deck to get them but didn’t have the strength to pull them and myself up. They just hung on to me and Geraldine Massyn and the Shop Assistant, Ronan Leonard, pulled us to safety.
Another time, I had fitted the harness around another two old ladies and as usual, the chopper would wait for my signal to winch them up. I signalled to go, but somehow the ship rolled and the railing struck their legs and they swung against the bridge superstructure. The chopper was already committed to rising and the two old ladies were banged and bounced against the bridge area until they cleared it and swung free. They swung over the water and then like a pendulum they swung back towards the ship. I don't know why the chopper couldn't have winched them faster, but perhaps there was a problem there. As they swung back towards us the passengers waiting on deck screamed as they watched helplessly and the two ladies struck the ship again, but only their lower bodies. Everyone was shaken and the passengers were now even more scared of going into the harness. I decided to untie the safety rope and move it further along the railing towards the bow. This meant it was a greater distance for the passengers to go across the bow deck to reach me but it would lessen the risk of a repeat of the previous two swinging into the ship. Luckily this did not happen again.
I saw the two ladies who swung into the ship when I was at the Holiday Inn in East London waiting to fly home. They called me over to thank me and I apologised about their ordeal in the harness. They were both covered in severe bruises but not serious.
At one point, as I was trying to catch the swinging harness being lowered, it snagged on the side of the ship. There was immediate danger of the rolling ship and high winds causing the line to jerk tight and pull the chopper down, before the winch operator could free it. Without really thinking I jumped over the railing and hung across the side of the ship to free the harness. I then crawled quickly back. It was over in a flash. However, the real danger now came. My wife saw what I had done and ran across the deck to yell at me and then she returned to her post. I turned sheepishly to the waiting passengers and continued with the rescue. Eventually we were almost finished when the helicopter crew signalled me to count up how many were left. There were 12 male passengers, Robin in the Bridge, myself and Tracy, the only female left. That made a total of 15. The chopper signalled to hold on and then left.
The wait was terrible. The ship was sinking even lower and it became so difficult to stay on the steep deck that I considered moving us all over the rail and onto the side of the ship because that was now almost flat as the ship was right over onto its starboard side. After about 45 minutes a chopper came back but the ship was starting to go down in the bow. The chopper crew signalled me to move everybody back to the aft. This was a very difficult task but we all slipped and slid and made it to the rear deck. Finally the last of the passengers were off and it was our turn. We were hoisted off and it was all over.