Extract: Against All Odds: The epic story of the Oceanos rescue
Passengers Michael O'Mahoney and his wife Yvette had been sitting around on the floor of the Oceanos lounge for what seemed like a long time with no information forthcoming. Eventually Geraldine 'JD' Massyn, one of the hostesses from TFC Tours (who chartered the Oceanos) approached them. “We need women and children to follow us to the lifeboats, please,” she said. The calmness of her manner belied the urgency of the situation. “Yvette can't look after a young child and a three-month-old baby on her own,” objected Michael. “We'll assign someone to accompany her and assist with your son, sir,” Geraldine replied reassuringly.
Musician Moss Hills, who was part of the entertainment team, had by then already started loading the first lifeboat he had come upon, which happened to be Lifeboat 3. His plan was to include at least one TFC Tours or South African Airways person in each, someone who was familiar with lifeboat and emergency drills.
The Oceanos carried four rigid lifeboats each on its port and starboard sides, with two of the boats covered with a hard shell and the other six open to the elements, but with the option to erect tarpaulins on lightweight frames. Each lifeboat was able to carry 90 people, fully laden.
The covered lifeboats were powered by small yet efficient motors, while the open boats were propelled by what is known as Fleming gear. Invented by the Fleming brothers in Liverpool in 1938, the apparatus had oscillating levers coupled to a bar with cranks and shafts, which, when pushed back and forth by someone in the lifeboat, turned a propeller.
Although a poor substitute for a motor, it gave the lifeboat some form of propulsion, albeit feeble. The Fleming gear was a relatively efficient way of propelling the lifeboat in calmer waters, but in the mayhem of a Wild Coast storm it would be quite ineffectual.
Lifeboat 3 was one of the Fleming-propelled vessels.
Moss would put a leg on the lifeboat as it swung towards the ship to try and hold it as close to the vessel's hull as he could and then quickly load up a couple of passengers before it swung away again. The passengers, many of whom were scared out of their wits, had to time their leaps into the lifeboat to ensure that it was as close to the Oceanos as possible when they jumped. As the lifeboat swung away from the vessel, Moss would jump back onto the Oceanos while it was still in range. This was to be Moss's modus operandi for each lifeboat with which he assisted.
'Watch your legs as you board!' he shouted to the terrified passengers. 'Jump only when I instruct you to jump and don't fall in the water.'
The exercise became harder and harder as Lifeboat 3 became heavier and heavier. It soon became too hazardous for Moss to stabilise the huge swinging load with his leg. As the weight of the lifeboat increased with more and more passengers embarking, it started crashing heavily into the ship, with pieces splintering and breaking off.
After Michael had accompanied his family to Lifeboat 3 he helped them struggle aboard to relative safety with a throng of about 30 other women and children. The next moment they were joined by 12 crew who pushed passengers aside and jostled among themselves to get aboard.
Challenging as the boarding of the lifeboat was, it turned to mayhem as Greek sailors yelled and lashed out at one another to make room for themselves. Once aboard, the crew would not allow the lifeboat to be filled to capacity, maintaining that it would capsize in the big seas if it was full. It was about 45 passengers short of its carrying capacity. Michael and the attending TFC staff were appalled at their behaviour.
It was not clear whether this Greek initiative arose from safety concerns for overladen lifeboats or comfort concerns for themselves, but given that each lifeboat was designed to carry 90-odd people, it is hard to understand why numbers were restricted by the Greek crew to around half the capacity. It is not as if the designers would have added a caveat that the boats could carry 90 people only on calm waters. By the nature of maritime casualties, lifeboats need to be safe and fully operational in all sea conditions.
'We need to launch this boat now,' Moss told the Filipinos working with him. 'If we don't, it's going to break up and we'll lose everyone!'
By now, the lights of some of the ships that had responded to the call for assistance had started to appear sporadically in the darkness and through the wind-driven spray.
Moss called out to Lynne Greig, one of the TFC hostesses: 'You get into this lifeboat and look after the passengers.'
As they were trying to load the lifeboat, Lynne's colleague, JD Massyn, who was standing on the deck assisting passengers, saw Captain Yiannis Avranas trying to get on board.
'What do you think you're doing?' JD asked. 'You're the captain. You can't get in a lifeboat!'
'I just checking something,' said Avranas, hastily getting out again. Avranas's wife, Davina, and his 11-year-old daughter, Fay, were already in the lifeboat. Davina had boarded the lifeboat carrying a bird in a cage.
Inside the boat, Lynne's anxiety levels were rising. 'How do we start the engines?' she asked Moss, sounding doubtful.
'I have no idea,' replied Moss, 'I don't even think there are engines. You're going to have to figure it out.' He handed her a walkie-talkie and, with that, the davits were loosened.
East London travel agent Mercia Schultz, her parents and baby were already in the lifeboat. Her husband, Leon, had agreed to remain on the ship as the plan at that time was to get as many women and children off the vessel as possible.
Sometime after 1 pm Lifeboat 3 started dropping into the dark abyss below.
Moss heard Lynne shouting up at him: 'Where are we going and what do I do?
Moss shouted back: 'Head for the lights of the closest ship. You're on your own now. Good luck!'
As the lifeboat swung away from the side of the Oceanos, it dropped partially and then got stuck. Panicked crew members struggled to free the boat, dangling in the wind and crashing into the side of the Oceanos from time to time. Communications with the crew were almost impossible as very few of them spoke English; more disturbing was their inability to deal with the situation of tangled ropes and cables.
Horrified, Michael watched the launching from the ship's deck. In the meantime, Mercia's husband, Leon, had run down to the lower deck and jumped off the Oceanos into the lifeboat to try and free it.
After almost an hour of the boat dangling next to the Oceanos, the crew somehow freed it with a pole and it crashed down into the water. Leon remained on board the lifeboat with his family as he was unable to climb back onto the Oceanos.
As the steel blocks and tackle were released from the lifeboat, they swung free, clanging onto the side of the ship. One of them struck Maria Smythe, the 87-year-old grandmother of TFC Tours representative Lorraine Betts, on the head. The blow opened a huge gash, which bled incessantly for the rest of her time on board the lifeboat, despite passengers' attempts to stem the flow.
Lynne discovered very soon after the boat landed in the water that, in fact, it had no engine.
The sailors who had earlier boarded tried to work the Fleming gear to create distance between the lifeboat and the ship, but it was repeatedly sucked up against and crashed into the Oceanos, towering above and threatening to crush them with its passive, but still perilous propellers. Eventually the lifeboat drifted helplessly away with the wind.
Oceanos crew members, barman Panayotis and another called Marcos, finally managed to work the rowing mechanism properly and the boat slowly moved further away from the ship. The rest of their colleagues in the meantime passed around bottles of whisky and brandy they had brought on board. These proved to have an admirably soporific effect on many of the Greek crew, who slept away much of the uncomfortable night that followed.
This extract was taken from Against All Odds: The Epic Story of the Oceanos Rescue by Andrew Pike, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, R250.