TRACY HILLS - MY STORY OF THE SINKING
The Oceanos Sinking
(Statement by Tracy Hills Sep 1991)
We left Durban on 28 July 1991 bound for Cape Town. The weather was terrible the whole way, and we hardly slept at night as the sea was so rough. We were tossed around in our beds all night. We are experienced sea travellers, so all bottles and small objects were packed away or put on the floor. Trying to shower was a joke, with body, curtain, and water at 20 degrees! When we left Cape Town to return to Durban via East London, the weather hadn't abated, if anything it was worse. The pilot had great difficulty getting off the Oceanos and on to the pilot boat once we'd cleared the harbour. The pilot boat would either disappear in the troughs of the huge waves, or be completely drenched as the waves broke over it. It was impossible for the pilot boat captain to hold the boat steady so that our pilot could embark. We all feared for their safety.
On arrival in East London on Thursday, 1 August 1991, our relieved passengers disembarked and went to the Fish River Sun hotel resort for two nights. The ship had been chartered for two days by Winston Sahd for his daughter's wedding on Friday, 2nd. That night [1st] the stag party was held on board. Both nights the weather was incredibly rough, and on the day of the wedding we sailed out to sea and then returned to harbour, as it was too rough to conduct the ceremony. An understandably dismayed daughter said she couldn't bear to be married in the harbour, so once again we put out to sea. Moss was very involved with setting up music equipment, keyboards, music stands and p.a. system for the ceremony. During the service, green-faced guests and bridal party alike were all swaying about in unison as if doing some strange wedding dance. The organist was very sea-sick and kept throwing up whilst trying to play. Moss got a large towel with which to mop her up with and he kept the two of them partially obscured by a huge bouquet of flowers.
The music that night was to run non-stop from around 20:00h until 06:00h next morning. Moss and I [a duo] and the Green Dolphin Band would alternate playing for 1 hour each with one of the cabaret artists doing a spot in between. By dawn we were really exhausted, especially as we had spent all day helping with the décor, setting up and running of this wedding extravaganza, as well as having had very little sleep during the previous couple of days. Moss and I looked forward to a rest once the wedding party disembarked. It was only a one night cruise from East London to Durban next day and we had arranged to see our 15 year old daughter Amber and some of our family while we were docked in Durban harbour. Amber and her cousin, Shayne Walters, had been on board for a couple of weeks during the school holidays and had luckily disembarked before we had set off for Cape Town. Amber was in a boarding school in Pietermaritzburg just outside Durban called Girls' High School. She was staying with my sister in-law Janet Hansen for the week-end and they were going to drive down to Durban and meet us at the harbour on Sunday.
We docked in East London and the wedding party disembarked. Moss went in to town to do odds and ends for various cruise staff, but most staff stayed on board to sleep and some to prepare for embarkation of the passengers sailing to Durban.
The weather hadn't improved but we were given the okay to set sail. Moss and I normally played on deck for the festive sail-away party but due to the conditions we played inside the main lounge. The party was a great success and Moss and I soon had the crowd singing along and forming a conga-line led by some of the staff.
Moss could see Lorraine at the entrance to the lounge surveying the merriment with detached satisfaction. Another cruise going according to plan. Whilst most of the passengers were nervous about the rough conditions, we were not, as we'd been through much worse and had been fine.
After the sail-away party we took a short break and then had supper. It was a crazy affair with plates and food sliding everywhere. The table-cloths had all been dampened in a futile effort to keep the crockery and cutlery on the table. It was hilarious to watch groups of people trying to walk straight. As one, they would all stagger to the left and the next moment they'd all be running to the right.
Still exhausted after the previous night's marathon, I tried to have a nap before our next performance which was after the main show at around 23:00h. Unfortunately Moss wasn't able to have a rest as he had to work during the show. At this stage he'd been awake for at least 30 hours. He also secured all the speakers - which were elevated - around the lounge with cables to prevent them falling onto passengers. It was really getting rough.
Our cabin was situated on one of the lower decks, and up until this point, when the occasional wave had broken across our closed porthole, the water had trickled through. We were in no way alarmed by this. When I returned to our cabin that evening I was shocked to discover the porthole constantly pounded by waves, with a steady stream of water oozing through the porthole. My bed which was situated beneath it was soaking and so was part of the floor. I wedged towels all around the porthole and although somewhat alarmed, I was so tired I lay on Moss's bed and dozed fitfully.
Just after 21:00h a tremendous lurch flung cabin contents around, including three heavy steel trunks which flew about 2 metres through the air and crashed into the opposite wall spilling the contents all over. This had never happened before. The cabin was in a shambles and the noise of pounding sea was terrific. The cabin was also in darkness as the electricity had also gone off. I felt the first real fingers of alarm begin to tighten. I opened our cabin door, and the emergency lights were on in the corridor. I left the door open to keep the cabin dimly lit.
Then Moss came running in and said he'd seen crew members racing up from the lower decks with life-jackets and small bags with personal possessions. Moss told me to change and be prepared. "Just like during the Astor emergency" we joked. Once again, I changed and packed sun-screen, lip ice, hats, warm clothes and also a camera and compact video camera. Then, Julian, on his way to his cabin, rushed in to say that our equipment had all crashed over.
Moss ran out to check up on it, hoping that nothing was broken because at this stage we all still expecting to do the show. Julian also left to check on things in his cabin and I was alone again. Around this time the Chief Engineer hurried past on the way to his cabin which was next door. We were friendly and often chatted at each other's cabin door or around the ship. This time it was different. He looked wild-eyed, with hair in disarray. He saw me through the open door, but said nothing, went to his cabin, got some things and left. As he passed me, I asked him what was happening. He ignored me. He didn't even warn me of impending danger, or to collect my life jacket and go up. The next we heard was that he had left on one of the first few life-boats. He knew we were doomed but didn't even tell us!
Luckily most of the passengers were situated in the lounge as they were waiting for the evening show. Moss was now involved in calming these passengers down. Julian, on his way from his cabin, saw me standing all alone in the dimly lit corridor. He then suggested I get my life jacket and go up to the main lounge. We now knew that this was serious. I looked around the cabin. This was to be a 7 month season aboard the Oceanos. Everything to make it comfortable and homely was there. T.V., video machine, summer and winter clothing and our precious family photo albums. As I left I wondered if I would ever see them again. I didn't.
There had been no emergency signals given at this stage, but a few of the Oceanos crew and TFC staff were going to all the cabins to retrieve the life jackets. Up in the lounge there was much activity and I joined a few other T.F.C. staff and began distributing the life jackets. Most passengers had no idea on how to don them as they hadn't even had the emergency drill yet. We had only been at sea for 4 or 5 hours. I moved around the room helping passengers put on their life-jackets and trying to put them at ease.
Lorraine asked a few of us to gather mothers with children and then the old and infirm. We had to try and not be conspicuous, as we didn't want to cause a panic. These passengers were to be asked quietly to proceed out of the lounge and from there they would be taken to life-boats. This we did with the minimum of fuss.
I waited at the exit of the lounge, assisting passengers when necessary and preventing others from trying to go down to their cabins. I basically sat in the hall and reassured people in my immediate vicinity. One of the passengers broke open the bar, and I handed out cool-drinks to as many people as possible. Moss and I tried to find alternative toilets, as the ones where we were situated were in a disgusting state by this time. They couldn't be flushed, and we had hundreds of sea-sick passengers retching in there. The toilets were overflowing and the floor was thick with vomit and excrement. The most nauseating smell permeated the air. If you hadn't felt sick going in there, you soon would have! Unfortunately the only other toilets were on the deck below us, so this was obviously out of the question. At the front of the lounge were the entertainers' dressing rooms. Moss found a couple of buckets and rigged up a make-shift toilet for the elderly passengers who we felt just wouldn't cope with the conditions in the toilets.
Moss was in and out of the lounge all the time. Out to life boats and back and at one time rushing to the stage to fetch his tools to break open a door which had blocked passengers' route to the next life-boat. I was now getting worried, and each time Moss hurried by, I would try and establish a meeting point and plan of action should the ship suddenly go under. Moss kept saying that we still had time but he had to rush now. He suggested that I should just wait there and he'd come and get me. I sat in the dimly lit lounge frantic, knowing Moss was risking his life all the time.
On one occasion, a life-boat was filled and lowered, and then the two doors that opened from the access passage into the boat were left open. This posed a great danger because of the angle of the deck. When the ship lurched suddenly, whoever was in the queue opposite the gap could slip and fall out straight into the sea.
The queue to the boats was moving very slowly past this point and passengers, especially the older ones, were very reluctant to move at all. At this point Moss grabbed one side of the opening and stretched his arms across to the other, telling the passengers to be careful and to hold onto him. This they did but had anybody fallen against him, he would have fallen into the sea. When I heard about what was going on I freaked. During a lull while the next boat was readied, Moss found some rope and stretched it across the gap so that passengers could use it as a handrail. Then he asked entertainer Terry Lester to help him to close the heavy doors which were hanging open towards the sea. This they did. By now I was in a frantic state. I knew that Moss was making regular visits on his own into the depths of the ship to check on the rate of rising water. Plus he had been jumping repeatedly from ship to life-boat and back again and now he had been hanging across an opening with the crashing sea below. I resolved to stay close to him to make sure that he didn't do anything else crazy. I had to resort to crying crocodile tears to get him to agree for me to tag along.
Moss then took me up to the bridge with him and I waited there while he, Lorraine, Julian and Robin made calls. At one point Moss and I were completely alone on the bridge and we discussed the imminent danger. We decided that if we were to go down, we would stick together and tie some spare life-jackets together to hang onto. We were both glad that at least our daughter, Amber, had got off the ship a few days earlier. I prayed that at least one of us live to look after Amber.
When the choppers arrived at first light, Moss immediately went to organise the fore-deck and Lorraine went to the rear. I was again worried because Moss would put 2 people into a harness at a time and as the chopper jerked them up, the flailing bodies and legs would knock him in the face or stomach and he was regularly winded and sent sliding down the deck towards the starboard railing. He eventually found some rope and tied it from a railing and around his waist. This made sure he didn't slip right into the sea but I was still very worried. At this stage Moss had been awake for at least 40 hours, and was absolutely exhausted but he continued to give 100%. Lorraine had split the remaining 220 odd passengers into 2 groups and told one group to head to the fore-deck where we were. This meant about 110 passengers were gathering and I began to organise them into women first, then oldest men, followed by the youngest guys. This became the routine. Moss out at the railing and then on his signal, I would send out the next two. Apart from a few difficult men, who I had to be deal with firmly, it was amazing how they all just did as they were told. I was very moved at how brave all the frail elderly people were. Lots of them needed walking sticks etc. to get around , and now they were expected to walk across a wildly pitching ship at a ridiculous angle, and for a brief while have no contact with either the ship or Moss, while they lifted their arms in the air to allow Moss to slip the harness over them. They behaved very courageously and courteously, thanking us as we got them through the various stages.
Then near disaster! Moss was trying to catch the next wildly swinging harness when it snagged on the side of the ship. There was no way the pilots could free it. The harness was ensnared, anchoring the chopper to the ship. Moss quickly jumped up and hung over the railing, on to the edge of the ship, to free the harness before the plunging ship pulled the helpless chopper down on to it. Once the harness was freed, Moss climbed back on to the deck. It was all over so quickly but I saw red. He had a wife and child - it wasn't necessary to risk his life even more than he was already. I ran across the pitching deck, - without using the rope we had strung up to aid passengers to get to Moss - yelled furiously at my brave husband to stop being so reckless, and then ran back to continue organising passengers. Moss turned to the two waiting passengers and apologised for the outburst. "I'm being wifed", he said! In retrospect I realise he prevented what could have been a major disaster.
Finally, at 10.20 am, all the women were off and then Geraldine and Lorraine came and said that they'd done all they could and they felt that they had to leave now. They went off with others in the rubber dinghies being organised by Julian and Gary Schoular. I was now the only female left on board, but I refused to go without Moss. The rest of the rescue ran smoothly. I'd send two out to Moss and get the next two ready. I couldn't believe it because people still seemed to be coming out of the woodwork! Every-time I'd turn around somebody else would be arriving. It seemed to go on forever with the ship listing more and more all the time, and the bow sinking deeper, and no end in sight. I was getting more and more scared. It seemed impossible to be able to get them all off in time. Eventually the chopper pilots signalled to Moss to count up how many left. There were 12 male passengers, Moss, Robin and me. 15 left on board. There were no passengers left on the stern. The chopper signalled that we were to hold on, and left.
The wait was terrible. It was the closest we felt to actually going down. What was taking so long? We later learned that they had gone to refuel. We could no longer stand at all, as the deck was now almost a wall, and we were hanging on for dear life. Moss and I told the passengers that if the ship rolled over on to it's starboard side, then we should all climb over the railing and get on to the port-side. Hopefully we would be airlifted from there.
Finally, at about 11.30am, the choppers returned, but the ship was beginning its final gradual nose-dive, and they couldn't lift us from our precarious position in the bows. The pilot signalled Moss to get everyone to the rear. I couldn't believe it! I almost gave up, and told Moss that no way was I moving from that spot! It was impossible to walk on a deck that was listing at almost 45 degrees and in the swells it would lurch to almost 90 degrees. I was terrified I was going to slide right into the sea. Moss kept encouraging me, and, inch by terrifying inch, we manoeuvred our way to the stern.
Then, at last, it was my turn to finally get air lifted, and together 'till the end, Moss and I got hoisted up in the same harness. We arrived at The Haven to a stirring chorus of ' For they are jolly good fellows', and passengers yelling at Moss that he was a hero.
Moss was put on a drip, due to dehydration and exhaustion, but otherwise we were both well and grateful to be alive. It was over.
We, along with four others, were nominated for the Wolraad Woltemade Award, S.A.’s highest award for civilian valour, and received an award from the Rotarians.