The night a guitarist, a bassist and a magician saved 581 people from dying on a cruise ship that was sinking on the high seas

They were part of the entertainment squad of MTS Oceanos, a luxurious ship that sank in 1991 off the coast of South Africa while their captain fled in terror

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On August 3, 1991 Moss Hill and his wife Tracy played like every night in the social lounge of the cruise ship MTS Oceanos. They were part of the ship's band, he played guitar and she played bass, but that night something would happen that would change their lives forever.

Around 8:30, the ship began to lean to one side, minutes earlier a heavy storm had started and the raging sea was raging with violence, making it difficult for even the experienced waiters on the cruise to keep food and drinks on the plates.

For Moss and Tracy, it was not an easy night either, the movement of the ship made it difficult for them to play, but they were clear that the show should continue, especially since little by little the lounge where they were being filled up by the passengers of the cruise ship, who, bewildered by the movement, were looking for the company to pass the turbulence.

What the musicians, waiters, and passengers did not know was that there had been an explosion in the engine room of the cruise ship, and with every minute that passed they were closer to sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Suddenly the lights of the cruise ship went out, and fear began to take hold of the 581 people on board, including passengers and crew.

“No one knew what was happening and the ship was swaying and nodding wildly, with chairs, tables, bottles and glasses crashing. People were alarmed and confused,” says Moss Hill on the website where he commemorates the event.

Los pasajeros en el salón del crucero durante las horas de zozobra en las que no sabían si iban a poder ser rescatados.
Los pasajeros en el salón del crucero durante las horas de zozobra en las que no sabían si iban a poder ser rescatados.

He was reviewing the band's equipment along with Robin Boltman, another artist, and to try to calm people down he started playing his acoustic guitar and singing all the songs he could remember from his repertoire.

It was past 10 pm and there was no sign that the energy would return, nor was there any news from the captain or crew officers, so Moss and Robin decided to go out and find out what was going on.

According to the Captain, it was all due to engine failure, but there was no cause for concern, people were safe on the boat and at any moment everything would return to normal.

The explanations did not convince the Zimbabwean guitarist, who decided to go to the engine room in the company of Julian Butler (stage name Julian Russell, the wizard of the cruise ship) to investigate for themselves what was happening.

On the way they found the deck officers going from one place to another, wearing life jackets and all wet, speaking different languages and clearly altered. They didn't seem to notice his presence, so they went on their way.

The lower they went down, the darkness took hold of them, they were alone, there was no one else, something completely abnormal even in the worst situations. With difficulty they were able to verify that the metal doors that functioned as a safety barrier to prevent water from entering the ship in the event of a flood were closed, but they also noticed what appeared to be a large body of water behind the doors.

There was no doubt, the Oceanos was sinking.

EL MTS Oceanos viajaba desde el puerto East London en Inglaterra hasta Durban en Sudáfrica.
EL MTS Oceanos viajaba desde el puerto East London en Inglaterra hasta Durban en Sudáfrica.

Improvised heroes

A few days before that fateful night, Moss had on board the cruise ship his 15-year-old daughter, Amber, who returned to her boarding school in South Africa shortly before MTS Oceanos set sail for their last voyage.

Now, in the midst of darkness, the storm and a shipwreck in the making, she didn't leave her head. It was clear to Moss that Amber couldn't be left helpless, so he had to survive, or at least make sure that his wife Tracy did.

This was undoubtedly the motivation that made him the hero of this story, especially when returning to the lounge with the passengers it was clear that neither the captain nor the officers on board were interested in telling that the ship was sinking.

On the contrary, they were the first to abandon the cruise ship in lifeboats, and only the most senior members of the crew were aware that evacuation was required.

There was no time to lose and Moss took matters into action. Although I had no idea how to evacuate a cruise ship, how to launch lifeboats into the water, and how to arrange passengers to board them, there was no one on board capable of doing so.

With one leg on the boat and the other on the lifeboat Moss tried to stabilize the escape vehicle while looking for a way to lower it without it falling into the dark waters.

Tracy y Moss siguieron tocando en cruceros durante años después de la terrible noche en la que se hundió el Oceanos.
Tracy y Moss siguieron tocando en cruceros durante años después de la terrible noche en la que se hundió el Oceanos.

These were moments of extreme tension when the guitarist and his partner, the magician Butler, did their best, but they quickly realized that no matter how hard they tried, there was a very good chance that the people who boarded the boats would end up drowning in the middle of nowhere, or die from an accidental and ironic fall of the lifeguards where they placed their hopes.

“Fortunately, no one fell into the sea or got caught between the lifeboat that swayed between the water and the boat. It's ridiculous that passengers have been exposed to this kind of unnecessary danger. If the trained staff had been running things, it would have been much less risky,” says Moss.

Moss Hill encima de uno de los botes salvavidas ayudando a llenarlo de mujeres y niños.
Moss Hill encima de uno de los botes salvavidas ayudando a llenarlo de mujeres y niños.Andrew Monfoort

Around 3:00 a.m. the lifeboats ran out and there were still about 220 people on board the Oceanos. Moss then went to the bridge of the ship, where he hoped to find the captain... he was wrong, there was no sign of him, again, they were alone.

Not knowing how to handle the radio, he began to desperately repeat “mayday, mayday”, hoping someone would respond. Minutes passed and the tension became unbearable.

Finally, a voice on the other side of the radio responded to his SOS, asked him what was going on and where they were.

Moss tried to explain as best as possible that the MTS Oceans was halfway between East London Harbour (England) and Durban (South Africa), but he was unaware of navigational coordinates or indicators, nor did he know for sure how much longer the cruise ship could stay afloat.

“But what rank do you have,” the voice asked him on the radio. “None, I'm the guitarist of the band,” he said desperately. “Who else is in the cabin with you?” , they answered him after a silence. “Well, my wife who is the bass player and the wizard of the cruise ship.”

Everything was absurd, Moss knew that he had nothing to do in that cabin, but there was no sign of the captain, so he begged again for help.

The South African guitarist was put in contact with small boats nearby, which could do little to help because they barely had a lifeboat each and there were hundreds of people on board. They had to find the captain, his life could depend on it.

They divided the boat to look for it, they knew it had to be on deck or in the rooms because the lower part of the ship was already making water. That's why Moss decided to head to the back of the cruiser, where he finally found Captain Yiannis Avranas smoking in the dark.

El MTS Oceanos se hundió finalmente en la mañana del 4 de agosto de 1991.
El MTS Oceanos se hundió finalmente en la mañana del 4 de agosto de 1991.

He was in shock, and he just repeated that he was “not necessary” at every request for help.

A miraculous rescue

According to Captain Avranas' estimates, there were between two and three hours left before the cruise ship finished sinking, barely enough time for a rescue operation to deploy.

The rescue had to be by air, because the nearby ships could not reach the Oceanos because of the storm, there was a great risk that they would collide and not only endanger the rescue ship, but would precipitate the sinking of the cruise ship.

Fortunately, they were able to confirm the coordinates of the shipwreck, but it took at least three hours for the helicopters to start arriving. Avranas' calculation was wrong, but he didn't know it, neither did anyone on board, so the wait was gloomy, literally a face-to-face with an imminent death.

Moss Hill ahora vive en Liverpool (Inglaterra) y ahora dirige cruceros.
Moss Hill ahora vive en Liverpool (Inglaterra) y ahora dirige cruceros.

The most outrageous thing, in Moss's own words, was that the captain boarded the second helicopter, still convinced that the ship would sink at any moment, and he didn't care that there were hundreds of people left to be evacuated.

Miraculously, the ship endured, and it only sank 45 minutes after the last passenger was evacuated. It was the morning of August 4, 1991.

Moss, Tracy and James were among the last 12 passengers to be rescued, as they helped everyone else board the helicopters, and saw from the air how the cruise ship sank in which they could lose their lives.

Moss Hill y su esposa Tracy fueron de las últimas personas en ser rescatadas porque se dedicaron a ayudar a salvar a los demás pasajeros
Moss Hill y su esposa Tracy fueron de las últimas personas en ser rescatadas porque se dedicaron a ayudar a salvar a los demás pasajeros

Incredibly, 585 passengers aboard MTS Oceanos survived that traumatic experience, largely thanks to the heroic performance of a Zimbabwean guitarist who became a rescuer, ship captain, and leader.

They say that it is the moments of crisis that define the great characters, Moss could agree, although in the dozens of times he has told the story since then, he has never been praised more than the account. For him, remembering what happened that August night is something cathartic, which has helped him to face all the adversities that life has faced since then.

Moss and Tracy continued to work as cruise ship musicians for years and currently run cruise ships.

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