“The chance of finding any survivors is now close to zero.” Julia, Communications officer onboard the Ocean Viking

Every Search and Rescue mission brings new challenges, physically and psychologically. How do rescuers find boats in distress?  How can rescue operations be conducted in complete darkness? Julia, Communications officer onboard the Ocean Viking looks back at four operations conducted a year ago, in October 2019, during the Ocean Viking’s third mission in the Central Mediterranean. Within six days, 280 women, children and men were rescued by the SOS MEDITERRANEE team. 

 

The first operation the Ocean Viking was involved in in October 2019, was not a rescue, but a search. On the morning of October 7th, while on our way to the Search and Rescue regions in the Central Mediterranean, the Search and Rescue Coordinator on board Ocean Viking offers assistance to the Italian Maritime Emergency Operations Centre: the evening before, a wooden boat with about 50 people capsized south of Lampedusa. 22 people were rescued and 13 fatalities were recovered during the night. The survivors report that there are several children among the missing. On this Monday morning, October 7th, the local maritime authorities provide the Ocean Viking with coordinates within which the ship conducts a search pattern while the SAR team scans the sea surface and the horizon with binoculars. The weather is particularly bad with waves of up to three meters and 35 knots of wind. On the first day of searching, we have to interrupt the search at sunset. The visibility is too bad at nighttime in these conditions. The next day, the Ocean Viking is assigned a new search area where we continue our lookout until we eventually have to abandon the search with a heavy heart: the waves are too high for the ship to carry out the close-meshed search. The chance of finding any survivors is now close to zero. A hard blow for the rescue team, which had not given up hope until the very end. Days later, the sad certainty comes: divers recover the last 12 fatalities of the shipwreck from the bottom of the sea. 

 

A difficult search in darkness and troubled sea  

The first rescue this October came four days later in response to an emergency call that the hotline Alarm Phone informed the authorities and the Ocean Viking about. In the afternoon of October 12th, an email with information about a boat in distress with 74 people on board some 40 nautical miles away reaches us. Estimated time to the last known position of the boat: three to four hours. While we sail to the area where we suspect the distress case, the sun sets.  

Finding those small boats in the vast area of the Mediterranean in which we operate is extremely difficult, even in daylight. When the last known position of a distress case is from hours ago, we start our calculations based on the information we have: do we know whether the engine of the boat in distress is still working? How are the weather and wind conditions? What’s the most likely course the boat might have taken? All these parameters are used to calculate an approximate position of the boat in distress to then set a course for the Ocean Viking. The search for a boat in distress is always a challenge, but even more so in the dark. The only light sources on the unseaworthy boats on which try to cross the Mediterranean from the Libyan shore are often the cellphone torches of the people on board.  

According to our calculations, the boat we are looking for this time should be near the Al Jurf oil platform, a good 50 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. The proximity to the oil platform poses a new problem: a multitude of light sources, such as navigation buoys, the big FPSO (a floating production and storage unit) and the flames on the drilling platforms burning excess gas, make it hard to discern a possible boat in distress. The waves are not high on the evening of October 12th but the sea is choppy, so that lights rise and fall close to the sea surface. 

 

Successful rescue despite obstacles  

Finally, the captain of the FPSO calls the bridge of the Ocean Viking via VHF: “Good evening, Ocean Viking, I have a visual on a rubber boat in distress. Are you coming to rescue?” – The captain gives us permission to come as close as one nautical mile to the platform to then launch the RHIBs from there. 

From the low height of the RHIBs, the visibility is so poor that we have to be guided from the bridge via radio to find the boat. As the overcrowded dinghy with 74 passengers appears in front of us, we immediately notice a strong smell of petrol. Luckily, our initial fear that the people on board might have suffered severe skin burns due to the mixture of petrol and salt water inside the boat will not be confirmed later. However, it soon becomes evident that they have inhaled a lot of fumes. As a result, the people on board are disoriented and do not seem to understand us, although they speak French and English. We hardly manage to ask if there are any injured or unconscious persons on board. The 74 men are frightened – we can only imagine how they must have felt while their unseaworthy boat drifted in complete darkness in the threatening scenery of the oil field for hours.  

Once the situation on the boat has calmed down enough for the distribution of life jackets, the transfer of the 74 people to the Ocean Viking goes smoothly considering the weather conditions. EASY 2, the smaller RHIB that I am on, remains with the boat in distress during the whole operation. The crew keeps an eye on the dinghy and reassures those who have to wait while the larger speedboat, EASY 1, takes 25 people at a time to safety on board the Ocean Viking. Half an hour before midnight, the rescue is completed and the crew is exhausted but relieved.  

Another challenge: heavily overcrowded rubber boats  

The next two rescues of the mission in October take place in daylight. In both cases, the biggest challenge is not the search, but the condition of the boats in distress. With just over a hundred people on a rubber dinghy in the rescues of October 13th and October 18th, we are clearly dealing with overcrowded unseaworthy boats – and in both cases, there are heavily pregnant women, babies and small children on board. 

On such overcrowded boats, there is a high risk of crushing and suffocation when handing out life jackets. On top of that, the unseaworthy rubber boats are unpredictable, tubes can suddenly burst and the structure of the boat can collapse under the weight. For both rescues, the SAR team uses additional life rafts: once the women and children have been evacuated from the boat in distress, 15 men are equipped with life jackets and transferred from the rubber boat onto each of the life rafts to offload and avoid crushing or suffocation during the rescue. All went well and the survivors are brought to safety on board the Ocean Viking without any incidents.  

 

However, as per maritime law, a rescue is only complete once the rescued people reach a place of safety. After the first two rescues on the evening of October 12th and the morning of October 13th, Taranto in southern Italy was assigned as a place of safety within 24 hours to disembark the 176 survivors. Once the disembarkation was complete, we returned to the central Mediterranean where the third rescue took place on October 18th. This time, the 104 survivors had to wait 10 days before we were finally assigned a place of safety.

More than by any of these operations, I was marked by the people I had the honor of meeting and speaking to on the Ocean Viking a year ago. Hearing the stories of some of the 280 people we rescued last October, sharing our hopes and fears, I remain humbled by their resilience and dignity in the face of adversity.

 

Pictures: Fabian Mondl / SOS MEDITERRANEE, Julia Schaefermeyer / SOS MEDITERRANEE and Stefan Dold/ MSF