By Robin Boltman
August 26, 1991 12:00 PM

On Saturday evening, Aug. 3, as a 50-mph gale buffeted their ship, passengers aboard the Greek cruise liner Oceanos gamely made their way to the main lounge for the evening’s entertainment. No sooner had they settled in than the lights went out. The 492-foot ship, suddenly without power, tossed in high seas off South Africa’s aptly named Wild Coast. For 361 weekend tourists, one of the most harrowing nights of their lives had just begun. The Oceanos was sinking.

Disgracefully, many of the 184 crew members clambered aboard the lifeboats ahead of some of the passengers and paddled to the safety of tankers and trawlers that had drawn nearby. At daybreak on Sunday, South African Air Force helicopters joined the rescue operation. But to the astonishment and anger of the 217 passengers still aboard, Capt. Yannis Avranias grabbed the second chopper off the ship. With no one clearly in charge, an unlikely hero emerged among the remaining crew: Robin Boltman, 31, the ship’s magician.

Giving the performance of his career, Boltman entertained and calmed passengers throughout the pitch-black night. In the morning he ascended to the bridge and maintained radio contact with rescuers. Finally, at 11:30 A.M., after all other passengers and crew had been removed to safety, Boltman was lifted from the ship by a helicopter. At 1:45 P.M. the luxury liner nosed into the Indian Ocean and disappeared under the waves.

By all appearences, Boltman is not your typical take-charge guy. He started work as a bank teller in Cape Town, where his parents still live. But counting other people’s money was hardly the right calling for a man who describes himself as “a bit mad” and “a party animal.” He taught himself juggling and magic, became a full-time entertainer in 1980 and began working cruise ships in 1985—with two seasons on the Oceanos.

Sipping a beer in his Johannesburg apartment, Boltman told his story—”like a scene out of The Poseidon Adventure only more bizarre”—to correspondent Monica Oosterbroek.

THE FIRST I KNEW ANYTHING WAS amiss was when I saw some crewmen putting on life jackets. Passengers had just enjoyed dinner and were looking forward to my show when a senior engineer called me aside and told me that the ship was sinking. Fifteen minutes later the lights went out.

The passengers reacted to the crisis very sensibly. At 10:45 it was decided to launch the lifeboats. Even those who were a little drunk from the evening’s revelries sobered up and helped line up children, their mothers and elderly people. It was a different story with the crew. Many of them practically fought little old grannies to get into the last two boats. As the boats went over the side, it was really sad watching fathers saying goodbye to their families and not knowing if and when they would be reunited.

At around 3 A.M., after the last lifeboat had been lowered, those of us still aboard began our wait for the helicopters we had been told would arrive in the morning. We were sitting in the lounge in the cold and damp, not knowing if the ship would hold till we got off. I wrapped my legs around the piano stool and tried to engage people in a little sing-along so we could get through the night more easily. We started off with popular ditties like “We Are Sailing,” but this did not seem appropriate so we sang “Bye bye, love, bye bye, happiness, I think I’m going to die.” This did nothing to boost morale, so we swapped to rude pub songs. After a few numbers, everyone was joining in and having a good giggle. Passengers—men and women of all ages, including many elderly—got into the spirit of things and started telling jokes and entertaining each other.

Once Operation Morale Boost, as I thought of it, was off the ground, I turned my attention to handing out jerseys and jackets from the ship’s clothing store. Either through remarkable presence of mind or vanity, lots of people insisted on getting their correct size. One lady refused to put on the expensive red jacket I offered her, even though she was blue with cold, because it did not go with her outfit.

When the captain—I never saw him in the lounge—left after first light Sunday morning, it became apparent that no one was commanding the ship. So I went to the bridge and took over the radio; it was very bewildering. Voices were coming at me in foreign languages, and I had to speak to helicopters, tankers, several sea-rescue units, plus liaise with the passengers and other staff helping me. With the help of radio operators on the surrounding ships, I worked out how to operate our radio set. My first words on the air were, “Goeie more Suid Afrika, ons is nou in die kak” [Afrikaans for, “Good Morning, South Africa, we are now in deep s—-.”]

The people left aboard were truly concerned about each other. When one old gran tore her dress on a steel stay, a chivalrous gentleman lent her his dinner jacket, which she secured with a necktie at her waist. Another elderly woman, who had recently undergone hip surgery, clung to a railing while she put out one of her crutches, for people who were sliding by to hang on to. There was even a tiny baby on board, and she was put into a bucket and hoisted up to the helicopter. Her mother was white with fear. But the most frightened passenger might have been Cooper, the ship’s dog. When I put him in a lifeboat, he bit my finger.

Throughout the ordeal other members of the entertainment troupe sprinted around the boat, looking after people and comforting them. With the ship listing as much as 40 degrees, passengers panicked and jumped overboard. Musician Moss Hills got into a rubber dinghy, picked them up and paddled them to a nearby tanker. As the remaining passengers were airlifted off—we were just 2/ ½ miles from shore—I kept a running tally by writing on my trousers. We were strangers at the beginning of the trip, but by the following day we had become a close-knit community. My final duty was to release the three canaries the captain kept in a cage on the bridge.

Once the helicopters dropped us at the New Haven holiday resort, it was clear that people were furious that the captain had abandoned them. When we heard him on television saying, “I ordered people to abandon the ship. If some people like to stay, they can stay,” a group of elderly ladies near me were so mad they wanted to stone him.

Nearly everything I own in this world went down with the ship, including all my magic equipment. I was delighted when a friend saved my favorite pewter beer mug. He tied it to his life jacket and gave it to me in a New Haven bar on Sunday.

The whole thing seemed like a bad dream. But the next morning, when I saw footage of the boat sinking, I was hit by delayed shock. I cried and cried for what could have happened. I don’t practice any religion, but for a few moments there, I knew that someone had watched over us.