Log entry #42

Portraits of The Aquarius – David and “the smiling technique”


David Hoehne, 31 years old, has the most contagious, irresistible smile ever. The young German is one of the many fantastic people I have met aboard the Aquarius over  the past three weeks. As many of us, David has taken a break from his work and occupations to volunteer for a three-week rotation with the SOS MEDITERRANEE SAR Team. This has not been his first experience on a rescue boat – previously he had  volunteered with Sea Watch. Indeed, once in the harbor of Catania, although his time had come to an end and he could finally get some rest, David struggled to get off the boat and kept coming back on board to enjoy every last minute with the crew.

David is one of those young Europeans that at some point decided to ‘do something’, to go to the front lines in order to give a hand to those in need, to temporarily leave his ‘normal’ life to experience something ‘real’: “I think there is a big need for help in the Mediterranean Sea, because the people crossing on the rubber boats have nothing. Think about it: nobody in Europe would leave voluntarily everything they hold near and dear behind, to get on a rubber boat to cross the Mediterranean… if people do, it means they really need help”, he explains.

In Berlin, David runs two music clubs. “It is very strange, in my normal life I fuel people with party and music, they come on Friday evening, party all the weekend and on Monday they go back to their normal work life. So, they can’t start a revolution because they get drunk and party in their free time and then go back to the office” he says. David loves his job and his life in Berlin, but at a certain point he also felt the need to do something else. “After a bad night at work, I read an article about Sea Watch, and other NGOs rescuing people at sea. I sent them an email and two weeks later I was in Lampedusa, on the ship”.

After that first mission, the young volunteer admits that he was quite shaken and kept crying after what he had seen and experienced. “When I came back to Berlin, I understood that I had to do something more… Of course what we are doing is not the solution to the problem, but I still think that, since I have the chance to do something I should do something. So I went to Lesvos with SeaWatch, met many people. And that is how I heard about SOS MEDITERRANEE”

During his rotation on board the AQUARIUS, David worked on RHIB1, the rescue boat that shuttles people from the dinghy in distress to the AQUARIUS. “When you go on a rescue, you feel a whole range of emotions, excitement, adrenaline goes up, you need to concentrate because getting people on board is really hard, it is slippery, and you have to focus on the most important thing, which is to avoid having people fall into the water, because it would be very hard to pull them up”. David’s advice to the newcomers : “follow the orders, trust Max the deputy SAR and trust Ralph the RHIB driver, keep people calm and everything will go over just fine”.

Only once, during one of his first rescues he felt overwhelmed by emotions. “We were on the RHIB, it was night so it was dark. I already had two children in my arms and I didn’t know where to put the third one that was coming. The mother was pregnant, she was standing next to me. I almost started crying but I thought that I had to restrain my tears, because it wouldn’t help anybody. In the end it was ok, because the photojournalist standing next to me, left his camera and took a baby in his arms, without even having to ask.”

After a while, David realised that he was doing his best, the most he possibly could, “It took me a few days to realise that: this is all we can do”. Afterwards, he started to use his “smiling technique”.
“I basically smiled at the refugees, from the moment we’d approach the dinghy. Some do actually smile back at me and this is a very strong connection, to keep smiling in the middle of this kind of situation, on an overloaded rubber boat in the middle of the sea, after hours of being seasick and fearing to drown”. Even on the boat, during the 30-hours navigation towards Italy, David kept smiling. Even when it was his turn to clean the toilets, to fill in the water filters, to make the vegetable pot, or to collect the rubbish. And even when it was time to say goodbye to the guests. “Disembarkation is a sad moment but when we arrived in Taranto, I went on to the fore deck, some of them were like chilling out, waiting for disembarkation. They seemed relaxed and I asked them, “are you enjoying the view?”, and they told me “yes, look at the sea” and added “we’re going to miss the boat”. And I couldn’t believe it… those guys had been through maybe the worst experience in their lives, risking to die at sea, and now they would miss the AQUARIUS!”. And David bursts into a loud irresistible laugh. The smiling technique.

A few hours before his own turn came to leave the boat in Catania, David admitted : “Every time I go on a mission, I never get answers to my questions, I just have more questions”. He thinks that civil organisation are essential in the Mediterranean. “We need to make people think about what is going on here. All the people who came aboard the AQUARIUS to help, will go back home and tell their stories, and this will change the people around them. It is important that as many people as possible have the opportunity to volunteer here, to go and see this and to testify”.

As the problem of Mediterranean crossings shows no sign of coming to an end soon, David will definitely try to come back on the AQUARIUS, and volunteer with the SAR Team. “SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European organisation and this is important, because the initiatives have to be Europe-wide now… and a European idea is always good, in order to keep it all together… or at least try”.

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Text: Mathilde Auvillain
Photo: Andrea Kunkl