My name is Francis. I am from Accra, Ghana, and work as a bosun and coxswain on the Aquarius. A bosun is in charge of all maintenance on deck, and a coxswain is someone who is in charge of driving boats, such as the RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) we have on board here. I have been working for Jasmund Shipping, the shipping company that owns the Aquarius, since 2014, which is also when I first set foot on the Aquarius.
Air or Sea?
I have been a seaman for 22 years now. When I was in high school, my dream was to become a flight attendant. I signed up for a training school for flight attendants after I graduated. However, one of the requirements was to learn German and French, which was my death sentence – my French is absolutely hopeless! That was one thing that led me to seafaring, the other was my mother’s friend who was working in the offshore oilfields and who told me that they were hiring staff to work on supply vessels. I listened to her advice, and got my Basic Safety Training, which included certificates for things such as firefighting and personal survival training.
So there I was, on my first job as a seaman at 21 years, out at sea. I did not enjoy it. I got sea sick, and I lost my enthusiasm for the job in the two months that I spent at sea. I said to myself, you better pull yourself together and study French so you can get that airline job after all! But once I was back on land, everybody was so proud of me for having worked on that ship, everyone told me how awesome that was. So when my mom’s friend asked me if I wanted to do it again, I said yes. I went off to work on a supply vessel, in a different role than the first time, in the oilfields off the coast of Angola.
Around the World in Different Roles
I started loving my job! It was an exciting adventure for me, I loved seeing different cultures in Africa, and I was comfortable in my role. I worked on Ghanaian vessels for about five years. Then, in 2006, I started working for an Iranian shipping company on a general cargo ship, leaving from Asaluyeh, a small port town in the Persian Gulf. We used to traverse the Indian Ocean to discharge in India, and continued on to China, Korea and Australia.
It was with that company that I’ve experienced some of my most bizarre incidents at sea: Once, we had just left Singapore and were close to the Strait of Malacca, and the engine room caught on fire. We managed to extinguish it – so that firefighting certificate sure came in handy. Another time, close to the end of my contract, we finished a roundtrip and were at the port of Bandar Abbas, Iran. On the ship, we heard the captain call everyone to come to the officers’ mess room. When we got there, the captain and the first officer were tied up, and next to them was a guy with a gun, and the captain said: “This is not a drill.” We were being hijacked! One of us managed to call the Iranian navy for help, and me and one other colleague managed to disarm the guy and hold him in check until the navy arrived. That was pretty intense!
After a break in Ghana, I went to Denmark to complete a coxswain course, and then signed up as a RHIB driver with a Dutch shipping company that specialises in emergency response and rescue vessels (ERRV), where I stayed from 2007 to 2013. We were working in the North Sea, providing services to client vessels working in the offshore oilfields in case of fire outbreak or man-over-board incidents. I always spent 28 days at sea and 28 days back home.
Nice to meet you, Aquarius!
In 2014, I joined Jasmund Shipping and started working on the Aquarius for the first time. It was before SOS Méditerranée was founded. Back in those days, our loyal Aquarius used to have quite a different job: she was a survey ship, that examined the water depths for dredges in the Arctic Circle, near the port of Sabetta, on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia. “Dredging” is an excavation activity, used to make waterways navigable. There is a plant for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Sabetta, and the otherwise shallow waterway needed to be deep enough for large Chinese vessels to access the plant. Back then, I was on the Aquarius from July to November.
After that, the Aquarius was berthed in Germany for a year, as Jasmund was looking for new charters. In the meantime, I worked on a sister ship, also a Jasmund survey ship, that was deployed to Poland. Until one day, I received an email that we had a new project, a rescue mission, and that I would be transferred to the Aquarius as a RHIB driver. I was excited when I read it, because I felt a new adventure was starting.
Aquarius and SOS Méditerranée
I was with SOS Méditerranée right from the start, right here on the Aquarius, when we first took her from Germany to France, then to Palermo, Sicily, and then on to the search and rescue zone in the Central Mediterranean. I will never forget my first rescue. It was in March 2016: We rescued 98 people (CHECK); it was our very first rescue experience as an organisation, we did our best, and everything went smoothly. I was so, so happy to save lives. Amongst the rescued was also a guy from Ghana, so that left a special impression on me. We kept in touch for a bit, but have lost contact since. I wonder how he is doing.
Another rescue I will never forget was the rescue of a large wooden boat last summer, carrying many Moroccans and West Africans (CHECK). We were in the process of distributing life jackets, when the boat leader shouted to us that there was a mother with a baby attached to her. I thought, okay, a mother with a baby in her arms, sure. What I did not expect was a baby literally attached by its umbilical cord to its mother, who had given birth on the wooden boat! I wept on the inside – but I had to focus, I had a RHIB to drive. So we evacuated them first, and she received the care she needed on the Aquarius. I had so many rescues, but that one was unique and special.
A sad memory I have is from one night when I was on deck duty. The rescued people were all sleeping, but one guy kept sitting up and gesticulating, then laying back down again. His health seemed poor so I offered him a vomit bag, and let the SARCO (Search and Rescue Coordinator) know that he was feeling sick. But he was actually in the process of dying. We called the doctor right away, but there was nothing we could do, and he passed away on the Aquarius.
My wish is to keep doing the job I am doing on the Aquarius. I would be sad if I was transferred to another ship. I was here from the very start and I would like to be here until the end of everything, until SOS Méditerranée and Jasmund part ways.
Oh, and my French is still not the best.
Translation: Lea Main-Klingst
Photo credits: Yann Levy