“Reports are sketchy at best, but it appears that Captain Yiannis Avranias and the crew have abandoned ship.” Jeff Wolden announced to his fellow band members.
“You’re kidding me. Tell me you’re joking,” said Hendrik, the bass guitarist, “The ship is sinking and the captain’s fled?”
“Looks that way,” Jeff affirmed.
Jeff had looked forward to this gig all winter. July in East London could be nippy and when he was hired as solo pianist for the Greek cruise ship Oceanos, sailing from East London to Durban, he jumped at the chance. He didn’t expect this, and certainly not on the very first day of the cruise.
“What are we going to do?” asked Hendrik.
“Well, I can tell you what we’re not going to do and that is panic. An SOS has already gone out, but the trouble is an oil tanker to the south of us also hit a reef, and the coastguard was called there first.”
The men looked at one another in wonderment – could this really be happening? Could it get any worse?
”What about lifeboats?” the drummer asked.
“Some crew members are loading passengers up, but there’s not enough boats. When the captain took off, several other crew members escaped with him, each taking a lifeboat.”
The murmuring from the band grew in intensity as the full extent of the tragedy hit them, along with the stupidity and downright cowardice of the captain.
“Right boys. Let’s move. There are young children on board, and their parents are frantic. Remember the Titanic? We’re going to be the calm in the storm. We’ll play upbeat, up-tempo music, and make sure you keep a smile on your face. I don’t care how scary things get, don’t stop playing, got it?”
Jeff stared at each man, daring them to back down from the challenge he’d just issued. He didn’t know any of them, but he was not disappointed. Each face that looked back at him was filled with resolve, determination and most of all, courage.
They seized their instruments, the drummer grabbing a pair of bongo drums and made their way to the upper deck, where passengers milled around, directionless. Of the 150 original crewmembers, only 10 remained, the rest had legged it along with the captain. Passengers helped fellow-passengers to the remaining lifeboats.
Up above, the buzz of helicopters could be heard. The South African Air Force had been galvanized into action when it was learned that the Coastguard couldn’t make it in time. Some pilots flew for over seven hours to connect with the distressed ship. They had just reached it, and were now airlifting people to safety.
Over the noise of helicopters, cries and commands, Jeff and his band set up, and began to play top 20 hits, something familiar to the families, something to help take their minds off what was happening around them. Survival was not a surety in these waters, notorious for shipwrecks, and rough seas.
“Where’s the captain?” was a question asked repeatedly by confused and stunned passengers. This was the first day of a pleasure cruise for goodness sakes! It was 1991, not 1912. This was the Oceanos, not the Titanic, things like this didn’t happen; and captains certainly didn’t abandon their ship and passengers to their fate.
On August 4th 1991 the Oceanos slipped under the water, resting 92 metres below. Five hundred and eighty passengers and crew were rescued in a matter of hours, and not one life was lost, no thanks to Captain Yiannis Avranias, who when interviewed later said, “When I give the order ‘Abandon Ship’, it doesn't matter what time I leave. If some people want to stay, they can stay.” Like they had a choice!
In later months the full bravery and leadership skills of Jeff emerged as the passengers described how he not only played on deck, but also directed the crew on the best way to get to shore, and helped young families board the lifeboats. As a result, Jeff, his band and several South African pilots were awarded medals of valor.
Captain Avranias returned to Greece, a cloud over him and his career, and he never sailed again.
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