As we haven’t met before, I would first like to introduce myself. My name is Nick, I am one of three Search and Rescue Coordinators (SARCo) in charge of the team and operations on board the Ocean Viking.
In 2018, I had the sad job of being the last SARCo on the Aquarius, and in testing circumstances. The mourning period had to be kept short as the importance of finding another vessel was felt by everyone. Months of intense search, visits and meetings ensued until we finally found the Ocean Viking, tucked away in a Norwegian fjord quietly waiting for us. The then monumental task of getting the ship ready for our specific type of operations started. The thrill of taking the ship to sea on the transit from Poland to Marseille after months of intense teamwork is indescribable. Feeling the ship move under my feet after months being stuck on land for months was a joy in itself. Finding our positions on board and figuring out our new procedures was a challenge.
Fast forward to August, I had the stressful privilege and honour of being SARCo on board for the first mission back in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region with a team composed of veterans from the Aquarius and a few new and fresh faces.
Upon leaving Marseille, we sail south, past Corsica, Sardinia and then into the Straight of Sicily north of Tunisia. During these two and a half days, the radio and other communications equipment are never quiet. There are radio transmissions, navigational warnings and quite often Search and Rescue (SAR) alerts which are dealt with quickly by the authorities and the vessels nearby. We then arrive in the waters South of Malta and Lampedusa. There are very few other vessels around, the radio is silent and there are no alerts. The Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR) is a vast black hole. It’s quiet. Upon arrival in this region, lookouts are doubled, and a heightened readiness can be felt. In an age of digitisation and automation, things become a little primitive aboard in this area. GPS no longer works due to jamming, the AIS (Automated Identification System) – the ship’s transponder – will usually not work, the anti-collision radar will not work. We are electronically blind. We go “old school”. The Mark One Eyeball is king, scanning for objects on the horizon with the use of powerful binoculars. Navigation become tediously manual, plotting on paper charts, manually tracking targets on the radar and constantly listening out on the radio for the slightest sound that something bad may be happening.
On the first night we receive notice from another NGO that there might be a boat in distress to the South East of our position. We inform the maritime authorities of our intentions and proceed to search. Some reply, some don’t. (We inform the authorities via satellite phone, radio and email upon every information received and every action taken. Every time. For the purpose of the narrative I will not repeat that we contact them each time we start a search, or launch rescue boats, but we do). We search the whole night and at one point launch our rescue boats to investigate a light. Nothing. Next morning after a long night, we spot an aircraft on the radar screen approaching us. One of the lookouts confirms it to be an EU military aircraft. We continue to track it on radar and notice that at around 20 nautical miles from us it has started to orbit over a fixed point. Upon contact with them they confirm that they have found a rubber boat with approximately ninety people onboard. This will also be our last verbal exchange we have with information about people in danger. We alter course and increase speed.
For the next four days it is nonstop. The Ocean Viking covers hundreds and hundreds of miles searching and rescuing boats one after another. Three out of four are spotted by EU maritime patrol aircraft. Only one of those aircraft contacted us.
Four rescues in four days. The first boat we rescued had reportedly been at sea for four days itself. They left while we were still in Marseille. There was no one there to rescue them. They drifted with nowhere to go. The second was at sea for three days and the next two reportedly left from the same spot to the west of Tripoli and had been at sea for fifteen hours. The last rescue came seconds before a disaster. Lifejackets had just been given out when the rubber boat broke. Around 10 to 15 people ended up in the water. All were recovered safely, but had the Ocean Viking not been there and reacted so quickly, I am sure there would have been loss of life. Not everyone was as lucky. On the 5th day we overheard radio chatter in a mixture of Arabic, Italian and English. Fishermen had found a small rubber boat adrift far to the west of our position. This boat had left Libya with fifteen people on board trying to reach Europe. They spent eleven days at sea, only one person survived, rescued by the Maltese.
How many other people go missing without any trace? How many families are in limbo not knowing what has happened to loved ones? It has been clear to all of us who work on the Ocean Viking that our mission is as important, maybe even more important, than when we started back in 2016.
Of course, our teams remain highly motivated and are operational all year round. We remain resolutely apolitical in a hostile environment. We are giving a voice to those fleeing Libya and, through them, we point out the dangers of decisions taken here in Europe.
But the challenges ahead are immense. We constantly struggle to preserve the humanitarian space in which we operate, to ensure the safety of our teams and to have the financial means to continue. Every day at sea with the Ocean Viking costs €14,000. I would like to thank you in advance, on behalf of all my fellow rescue sailors and on my own behalf, for continuing to support us for as long as it is necessary! They need us and we need you.
Thank you for being by our side in 2020,
Search and Rescue Coordinator onboard the Ocean Viking