The schedule for the first day on the Mediterranean Sea after leaving port is always busy. We call it “drill day” as there are so many different tasks to complete, which includes refreshing the skills of the whole team.
A typical day starts with a first briefing of the Search and Rescue team at nine. We meet to hear the latest information on the expected weather; important for us is the forecast of wind, wind directions, expected waves and waves on the beach of Libya for the next days.
We follow and check different agencies that publish weather forecasts to get a clear picture of what to expect in the next days. It is mainly the forecast on the swell on the Libyan coast that can be an indicator if boats are able to leave or not; and this in turn indicates whether or not we have to expect a rescue.
Drill day has lots more to offer for all teams on board: for SOS MEDITERRANEE as well as for our partner on board Medécins Sans Frontiers (MSF). One of the most important next meetings is the so called security induction training. There are several security measures in place on the AQUARIUS, because apart from rescuing people we have one other top priority: the safety and security of all crew and team members. Everyone has to know what to do and how to behave in case of emergency. It is mandatory that all on board are familiar with these procedures.
“The alarm to abandon the ship is one short and one long burst of the horn” says the Captain of the AQUARIUS, Alexander, a very experienced man that has been working on the AQUARIUS for a long time. “When you hear this signal it means something happened and you have to abandon the ship. You have to got to the meeting point and follow the instructions. We will simulate this after this meeting.”
A few minutes later the alarm bell is ringing and all team members are hurrying to the dedicated location on the AQUARIUS. The first mate confirms that everybody is there and wearing a life vest. “Check the emergency light on your vest please” demands Oleksandr the first mate. “It will light automatically when getting in contact with water.”
We also have also to try to get into the protective survival suit, a suit similar to a diving suit that will protect the body from cold once in the water. It takes a while to put the neoprene suit on, but in an emergency situation everyone only has 3 minutes to put this protective equipment on and to be ready to abandon the ship.
Our partner MSF is highly specialised in all forms of medical support for people. Mike the nurse currently working on board, will explain what the activation of the mass casualty plan means. “If we have more than one person in need of medical care we will activate the so-called mass casualty plan. I will explain the details and it also means we need the help of all of you here on board.” In the next 2 hours everyone will learn, who has what responsibilities and how to support the medical team. Although everybody on board has basic experience in first aid, we are going to practice CPR, the chest pressure reanimation techniques and mouth to mouth breathing.
Everybody is practicing these techniques on a dummy: 2 mouth breathes, 30 pumps, 2 mouth breathes, 30 pumps…. And so on… “You will be surprised how fast this has to be done. It is 120 pressures per minute. If you don’t know how fast that is, try and remember the song “Staying alive”. This is exactly the tempo in which you have to do the pumps” says Dr. Sarah from MSF.
We take a small break after these exercises, lunch and then it’s time for the next drills. We stop the AQUARIUS as the Search and Rescue team has to practice using the rescue boat, our so called RHIB-one and RHIB-two. The deputy SAR coordinator Ani is in charge of the drill on water, Yohann the SAR coordinator is supervising things on board.
“First we will launch our two RHIBs, the teams are clear: RHIB one is Max, Tonguy, Edouard and me. RHIB two: Tony, Mary and Asma. We will first practice the “person over board”-situation, then rescuing and finally bringing people to the AQUARIUS. Here we will use the stretcher to get the person on board the AQUARIUS” says Ani and so the drill begins.
For two hours the whole SAR team of currently 12 people is training the same procedures over and over again. The handling of floatable devices, the use of the RHIBS, and approaching a raft are also trained. The journalists on board also get the chance to board and get familiar with the work on our RHIBS.
After two hours this training is complete, the rescue boats are taken back to the Aquarius, all material will be cleaned and prepared for the real rescue operation that may already happen in a few hours.
The evening of our first day at sea is less busy: we will gather altogether on the half-deck for a nice dinner. We use these two hours in the evening to get to know each other a bit better, as there are some new team members on board. Everybody is aware that after this night a rescue operation early the next morning is quite possible. But everyone is now familiar with all procedures and ready to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
Text: Réne Schulthoff