Maritime lawyer Andrew Pike had incredible insights into the 1991 sinking of the Oceanos, in 20m waves off the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, having investigated the incident.
When the 25th anniversary came about in 2016, he delivered a presentation to clients about it at his office in Westville. People couldn’t hear enough of the story of the rescue operation involving epic bravery and the hands-off attitude of Captain Yiannis Avranas. Avranas claimed he left the ship first to arrange a rescue effort, which Pike writes off as “nonsense”. After the presentation, Pike became a speaker at several events.
“I took a deep breath and started writing and interviewing people,” said Pike, whose book, Against All Odds: The Epic Story of the Oceanos Rescue, is about to hit the shelves.
Writing about it required a completely different mindset to the legal approach, he told The Independent on Saturday.
“I didn’t want it to be a history book, or something too technical or too legal. I wanted to tell the story. It’s one that is too good not to be told.
“It was something in my mind that always troubled me; I wanted to know more about what it was like in the lifeboats. The more I found out, the more I was horrified.
“For eight or nine hours people were vomiting on each other. There was a very thin line between life and death.”
The boat sat in the water with its propellers exposed, he said. Lifeboats drifted past them and were chopped up by the propellers.
“The more I heard, the more I realised what miracles were at play.”
For 15 months, Pike went about sleuthing, tracking down survivors, filling in gaps in his knowledge. Among those he tracked down was Slade Thomas, a helicopter pilot from the Air Force’s 15 Squadron.
“Thomas and one other were the first to arrive and started picking people up. He described the pattern in which the helicopters had to fly, how difficult it was hovering in a 70-knot wind. The engineer in the back had to direct the pilot because the huge masts of the ship were waving around and could have snagged the hoisting rope.
“It was no ordinary operation for a helicopter pilot.”
Then there was his account of diver, Able Seaman Paul Wylie, jumping overboard into the waves to rescue a passenger. With the currents and the wind it was “like trying to find a needle in a haystack”, and climbing on board again by picking up a rope trailing off the bow as well as swimming around the sinking ship.
“Slade records all this in the citation which nominated Wylie for an Honoris Crux, the highest military honour then to be awarded. “It all beggars belief. There are so many cameos and stories like that within the story.”
Pike found Wylie in Dubai, running a very successful diving operation, he said.
The lawyer tracked down another of the heroes, musician Moss Hill, who with magician Robin Boltman, sent out a Mayday message from the bridge, which the captain had abandoned. They were the last to leave the vessel before it sank to the bottom of the ocean. Hill is now a cruise director on a ship in the Mediterranean. “He was hard to track down but very helpful.”
He and Boltman both turned out to be on the Achille Lauro, another cruise liner that sank, in 1994.
“He must be the only magician who has made two ships disappear. Not even David Copperfield could do that,” quipped Pike.
He was not able to get much from the elderly Lynette Jacobs who, with her late husband, Boet, owned the “tiny, little hotel”, The Haven, which managed to rustle up a cup of hot soup for more than 200 survivors for whom the resort was the first sanctuary on dry land.
The Oceanos was a Greek-owned vessel. Pike said he was unable to access the Greek investigation and that he did not bother buying a copy of a book by the British wife of the captain, Avranas. He understands it to be simply a justification of Avranas’s behaviour.
“I could only find it available for R3000 and I did not need to read it that much.”
Pike said that while speaking to survivors back in 1991 he learned that Avranas had locked himself in his room on board the ship and that rescuers had to break down the door to speak to him.
Avranas remained employed by Oceanos owner, Epirotiki Lines, on ferries until his retirement, according to Wikipedia. Recalling his own experiences of the sinking, Pike said lawyers were mobilised to take statements from passengers. “The ship had been under water for four or five hours when I was called. I had to round up and put on standby a number of lawyers.”
Pike met the first ship carrying survivors into Durban at 3am the day after the Oceanos sank.
There, he spoke to the master of the ship, a Chinese sailor who had been at sea for 33 years.
“He said he had never seen waves that high, about 20m. That was consistent with the records at the oil platform at Mossel Bay. The waves there were 25m high that night.”
When it comes to the idea of a movie being made about his book, Pike believes the biggest obstacle would be high cost. And who would he like to act in it?
“My daughter, of course,” he said, referring to Jeska Pike, an actress in London, along with her South African colleague, Nicholas Campbell, with whom she put on a play at a West End fringe event two years ago.