Guillaume is an SOS MEDITERRANEE rescuer currently onboard the Ocean Viking for his second mission. He tells us about his daily life and work on board.
“Marseille has arrived and Marseille has left. The Ocean Viking is sailing in a sea that hesitates between horizontality and verticality. We are like puppets wobbling on board between our beds and our seasickness medication. The light of December brightens up the Calanques of Marseille in the morning. This is the first day of mission. Other days will follow. We start from the beginning: trainings, meetings, maintenance work, checks… Stretcher trainings, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). We double-check what has been checked, we prepare for the worst. When the Mediterranean Sea allows us to do so. 31 crew members get accustomed to life at sea and go with the rhythm of the sun and moon. Forget Saturdays, Sundays… all days are alike. The weather offers us a few hours of training with our rigid-hull inflatable rescue boats in the water. Overalls/lifejacket/boots/helmet/headlamp/gloves. We are loyal to the UHF radio installed on our chest. We look straight ahead; we must speak loud and clear.
I am part of the deck team, in-between the bridge (coordinating the operations) and our rescue boats intervening in the water. If the team needs a “banana” (flotation device), we will launch a “banana”; if they need a raft, we will throw a raft; if team members need to embark or disembark from the rescue boats, we will be here for them. Each of one of us knows and trusts each other. Corsica and Sardinia are not far away, the Libyan search and rescue area a little more, after Good Cape. That’s where we’re going.”
“Today is a sunny day. We have stained the blue carpet of the sea with our orange lifeboats and flotation equipment. Dozens of life jackets, “bananas” (flotation devices) and rafts are like pixels mixed with the reflection of the sun’s light on the water.
From the deck of the Ocean Viking, where I am in charge of preparing the necessary equipment for the rescue team at sea, I look forward to training on the water too one day. I observe the comings and goings of the rescue boats and keep a sharp ear out for my radio in case the rescue (simulated this time) gets complicated. Together with my teammates Massimo and Jean, we’re on the lookout on deck. On the water, everything is quite intense. One training in the morning, one training in the afternoon. Some of us will sleep like a baby tonight!
On the following days, we complete the preparations and I am still impatiently waiting. There is a long way to go coming from Marseille. As much time spent out of the Libyan Search and Rescue region doing what we can. We passed Lampedusa last night.”
“It’s five o’clock in the morning. While Paris and Berlin are waking up, others haven’t slept. A crowd huddled together in the rear end of a partially deflated rubber dinghy hopes to come out of the dark. Today’s emergency exit is red and has “Ocean Viking” written on it in white letters.
The sun shines brightly on 112 people while they are handed life jackets by Basile who coordinates the rescue operation on the water. Even though the bow of the rubber boat was ripped open and deflated, the survivors were safely transferred to the rescue rafts and fast rescue boats. On the boarding ladder of the Ocean Viking, I reach out my hands that become wings. Infants, buried in tiny life jackets, find themselves in my arms. Their eyes show no signs of judgment, they are as round as the world and radiate innocence. Massimo and I take turns lifting the babies on board. We both want to look into these eyes.
Then the survivors’ hands and our hands join again and again in life-saving grips to hoist them aboard. I tell them “welcome on board” and “bienvenue à bord”, just in case. I have to learn it in Arabic too. Dawn is over now, the SOS MEDITERRANEE team is packing up the gear, MSF takes over now. Even though seasickness is widespread, the ship’s deck is still sparkling with smiles. The Ocean Viking is a peaceful interlude. People are trying to forget what happened before. And what will happen afterwards, no one knows.
The same day, at night, another rescue. In a sea churned by storm, a wooden boat filled to the bursting point with people appeared in the ship’s halo. The boat zigzagged in panic and its bow struck the steel hull of our mother ship, which was now only a couple of feet away from theirs. Some tried to hold on to our ship, putting the balance of their fragile craft at risk. Our two fast rescue boats attempted a perilous side-by-side approach with the wooden boat, and soon the three small boats were rolling side by side, crushed against the Ocean Viking. Lifejackets have not yet been distributed. With each wave, the wooden planks screak.
We manage to stabilize the boat with our semi-rigids, a few meters from the Ocean Viking, to finalize the distribution of the lifejackets. I hear Basile’s voice in the crackling of the UHF radio through the sounds of panic and destress. Basile then announces how the transfer from the wooden boat to the semi-rigids is to be done, first to the one he is on (Easy 1), then to the second one (Easy 2), now alongside on the other side. The night, the wind, the swell… worse comes to worst in a perfect storm. And yet after going through hell, perhaps they finally found their lucky star at sea when they made it onboard the Ocean Viking alive? Their legs barely hold them, their hands, their arms, their eyes tremble, all their exhausted bodies scream in silence. Escaped from Libya, from the sea, from the night, eternal fugitives. But who is it that is hunting them?”
Photo by Johan Persson.
“The winter and its westerly winds pushed us into the sheltered waters east of Sicily. We were one hour from Catania (Sicily) when we requested medical evacuation for one of the 162 survivors aboard the Ocean Viking. In 40 knots of wind, during a night that was starting to be rough, we had to proceed by helicopter. The lady was evacuated together with her baby and her sister.
The maritime world is changing, it’s falling apart. The ports are closed for these men, women and children. That same evening, after 2 days of waiting we finally learn that we can disembark in Taranto (Puglia). During 18 hours of transit, passing Calabria from the South, we will no longer be protected by Sicily. And the wind continues to increase.
Every night we take turns together with the Médecins sans Frontières team to keep watch on deck for two hours in pairs. The survivors who are lying in the men’s shelter occupy every square meter. There are only two doors. One is closed because it is too exposed to the waves. At the other door, when going to the bathroom is absolutely necessary, we clutch the person’s arms firmly while crossing the few meters to the lavatory. The men’s shelter is not entirely sealed off from the reach of the sea, its arms find tiny passages to creep in from above and below.
There are coughs in the humid atmosphere, I step over bodies to reach those who become seasick and distribute bags and/or pills to them. Waves hitting the container sound like mountains crumbling. The eyes of those who cannot sleep meet mine to see if I’m still calm. Outside, the deck is flooding. At 4 in the morning, Alessandro and Massimo take over for Pablo and me. To brave the rest of the night in its 50 knots of wind raising waves of 5 meters.
Day comes. And at last, the Gulf of Taranto. The Ocean Viking moors alongside a quay. Customs, Coast Guard, police, they’re all there. The Red Cross and a medical team from the Italian Ministry of Health as well. They’ve got paper masks on their faces, just in case. They also have shoes to donate. The procedure and goodbyes take a few hours and then the ship is silent.
Later us teams leave the ship for a drink. I walk on the quay, which is not yet deserted because the transfer of the survivors by bus to a shelter has not yet been completed. The last ones are waiting in small groups behind fences, survival blankets on their backs. I walk on this quay with the clothes I like, my warm jacket, my passport in my pocket. No one stops me. No one controls me. I walk past them and greet them one last time. I cannot help but feel ashamed.”
“There was Taranto on December 23, to disembark the rescued people; and to stretch out our legs. There was Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. José and Juan Paolo, the two cooks of the crew, set up the banquet and we did like Asterix and Obelix did at their home with the wild boars. No matter the port, no matter the sea we were in, we were a family. The days unfolded in the disorder of the waves so that I no longer knew which ones had passed and which ones are yet to come. There was a wooden boat, devoid of people. And then there was a Libyan coast guard boat en-route to Libya; full of people. There were trawlers; what did they fish? The weather of these days; bad, an additional boundary for those who wish to flee from it. Winter pushes the risk towards fatality. That’s why we are here.
The Sea-Watch 3 ship (of the German NGO Sea Watch) has been able to go back at sea on December 30 and is also currently patrolling in this gigantic puddle that is the Central Mediterranean. From the first lights of the sun to the last ones, we continue the visual lookouts shifts on the bridge. Mine takes place from 8:25 am to 9:25 am each morning. I stick my eye sockets on the lenses to breathe in the binoculars following the rhythm of a sloth. The waves are styled unanimously with white crests. There are fringes of sunshine coming down between the clouds to cool their feet. The ship’s radar shows red, yellow or blue depending on the thickness of the rain showers. Far away, on the horizon, I perceive smokes of shipwrecks.”
Photo by Laurence Bondard/SOS MEDITERRANEE
Guillaume is a 33-year-old French member of the SOS MEDITERRANEE team onboard the Ocean Viking. Before becoming a seafarer, Guillaume worked in paramedical centres for rehabilitation through sports for physically or mentally ill people. He believes this experience gave him the opportunity to get close to people in need, to feel their sensitivities, understand and help them. In the past two years he has been a seafarer and a skipper working on charter boats and delivering sailing boats across the Atlantic. Aside from this, he also had different professional fishing experiences as well as sailing traditional ringing sailing boats in Brittany and Normandy, which he did until he joined SOS MEDITERRANEE in 2019. Guillaume became part of the Search and Rescue team on the fourth mission of the Ocean Viking in November 2019.
Photo credits: Faras Ghani / Al Jazeera