[3 QUESTIONS TO] Marc, SOS MEDITERRANEE sea rescuer & instructor

Marc worked as a professional diver before joining SOS MEDITERRANEE in 2017. Since then, he has participated in eight missions on board the Aquarius and the Ocean Viking. After completing his first missions at sea, Marc and three other rescuers and Operations Managers developed theoretical and practical sea rescue trainings to maintain and further develop the professionalism of the SOS MEDITERRANEE teams.

1/ How can one be prepared for an emergency rescue?

You can never be completely prepared for rescuing people in distress at sea. Each situation is different. The type of boat, its condition, the number of people, their physical and mental health, the weather conditions… Many factors have to be taken into consideration. I never feel ready enough. Moreover, when I start to think that I know how to do it, I normalize our mission. Before any other consideration, I think it is essential to remember that our work and our mission should not exist.

However, we have gathered a lot of experience and know-how during our four years of operations in the Central Mediterranean Sea. So, we have developed trainings based on these experiences in order to equip our sea rescuers with practical tools and enable them to be able to think quickly and take the best possible decisions according to the context. There are always things that can go wrong during a rescue. As soon as we approach a boat in distress, the situation can get out of hand. People in distress can panic and destabilize their already fragile boat, for example. So when talking about rescues, we first have to establish what falls within our “scope of influence”. It helps us understand and remind ourselves that we cannot control everything. Sometimes, even though we have followed all of our procedures to conduct our operation as safely as possible, a rescue can turn critical. But if we’re able to rely on the tools we have set up, in such a situation we can maximize our ability to save lives.

2/ How does SOS MEDITERRANEE train its rescuers?

First of all, there is a lot of reading to be done. We have written a manual called Offshore Mass Rescue Guidelines. Every SOS MEDITERRANEE rescuer has to read them before coming on board. Several of us rescuers have worked on it, we put in all of our experience to make these guidelines as complete as possible. The word “Guidelines” is actually very important: Each rescue is different, so we don’t go embark on a mission with strict rules or procedures. We leave with principles, recommendations and a common mindset.

Our aim is to convey a way of thinking. We want each member of the team to be as prepared and flexible as possible so that we can react quickly and be able to adapt to any situation.

This booklet is not only for new rescuers. Experienced rescuers should read and reread it before each new mission as well. We have also produced a short version of the key elements in a pocket-sized, water-resistant format so that each rescuer can carry them on him or her during operations.

But this manual is only a first tool to convey the basics. Before each new mission, and while we are on our way to the search and rescue regions of the Central Mediterranean, we organize theoretical and practical work sessions on the Ocean Viking and with our RHIBs at sea, to put what we explain in the manual into practice. This is an opportunity for the teams to simulate rescues, to practice the gestures that we need to know, to learn how to maintain the material and equipment, and to allow everyone to imagine themselves in the situation.

These joint work sessions also help build the team spirit. This is a major element for the success of our mission. Once we are in operation, we need to trust and understand each other instantly.

3/ Does SOS MEDITERRANEE plan to share its training with other seafarers and ships?

Yes, absolutely. Our intention is for the manual we have created to be useful to as many people as possible. In fact, we are currently working towards making it public.

We update it on a regular basis. The context at sea is changing quickly and in many ways. We have been seeing different types of boats in distress since August 2019 with the Ocean Viking. We need to be as informed as possible about the types of boats that are used to attempt the crossing and about the languages spoken by the people fleeing via the Central Mediterranean to be able to interact in the best possible way. It is so important to interact with people in distress during a rescue operation, it is not only about the equipment and evacuation techniques.

We approach each type of boat differently too. Their size, the material, the number of people on board or the condition of their structure influence our modes of operation. For example, we know that rubber boats have a high risk of deflating or breaking in the middle, while wooden boats have a higher risk of capsizing. We have developed approaches and techniques of evacuating people in distress based on these characteristics. Weather conditions can also greatly influence our decisions.

All our training courses were designed on the basis of our mistakes and successes. This can be useful to many seafarers, whether or not they are professional rescuers. We have already shared our know-how in the past, with the Italian NGO Mediterranea and their ship, the Mare Jonio. I am sure that our experience can be useful to many ships and organizations. The crew of the ship Maersk Etienne* certainly never imagined that they would be in a situation to rescue people from a fragile wooden boat on the brink of sinking, but we did. I believe it is important that we share our experience to help save more lives.

* A commercial tanker waiting for weeks for a safe place to disembark 27 people in distress rescued on 4 August.


Photo credits: Hannah Wallace Bowman / MSF