Photo courtesy Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)
This weekend SAR services and vessels travelling through the waters of the Mediterranean will brace themselves for the possibility of thousands of people on over-loaded boats trying to escape across the water, calling for help as they founder, deserted by the traffickers who took their money and sent them out, hoping someone will come to their aid.
And come to their aid they will because that's what seafarers do.
We will read how the Italian Coast Guard undertook numerous rescue missions, bringing thousands of people back to safety. Risking their lives to rescue those in distress. There will be similar stories of rescues from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Malta and other countries. They will operate outside their borders, because that's where the people need to be rescued, they will operate outside their budgets, because SAR people rescue the people first and consider the cost second.
The operators in the rescue coordination centres will be invisible to the public, working behind the scenes, pushed to the limit trying to co-ordinate the over stretched resources available and get them to the locations of the rescues, these are extreme circumstances, Mass Rescue Operations on an inconceivable scale.
Merchant ships, including tankers and other vessels of opportunity will steam to help those in distress under the direction of the coordination centres, or by being hailed from the water by these sinking hulks overloaded with their human cargoes. The Masters and crews placed in a situation of uncertainty and risk, well beyond whateven trained SAR people will ever be likely to experience. But they will go to the aid of these people, they will save many, but not all, and like all rescuers, they will be changed for life by the experience.
Volunteers on the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) vessel will be patrolling the waters as they start their campaign to help with the rescues working in partnership this year with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). They will hope for the best, but be prepared for the worse, their two Schiebel camcopters will be up looking for stricken craft. The 20 strong crew back on the 40 metre vessel will be ready to respond as they did last year saving over 3,000 lives.
Rescues will be carried out in all conditions, darkness will hamper the search and recovery operations heightening the risks for all involved. Merchant vessels are not designed for recovering large numbers of desperate people from the water and will struggle to get them on-board.
The people rescued will be taken to safety as the crews of the rescue vessels manage the distress the hunger the fatigue and the anger of those they have rescued.
The coordination centres will be working hard to clear the way for the vessels to enter the ports and off-load those people, who have been rescued. Onshore services will be activated to provide reception facilities for those being landed.
Having completed the rescue the team at MOAS will restock and head straight back out because they know they will be needed again. The Coast Guards and Governmental organisations will do the same, crew changes, restock with provisions heading back out waiting for the next call from the Rescue Coordination Centre. At the coordination centres fatigued controllers will reluctantly pass over rescue operations in progress to the next shift hopeful that the work that they have done has minimised the loss of life.
While this happens the managers will look for ways of justifying the spend, will prepare for the reprimands and hope that the people that they saved will be justification enough. The fundraising team at MOAS will continue to build support to find the extra €1.3m they need to keep the essential surveillance drones in the air and even more needed to extend their lifesaving operations.
The Masters on the merchant vessels will be trying to get back on schedule, whilst coping with an exhausted crew both mentally and physically hoping they are able to leave the area without having to respond to any further calls for assistance.
The Maritime SAR community commends all involved with this massive humanitarian task. While the talking goes on, no-one should lose sight of what you are doing. Action, not words.
Written by Bruce Reid
CEO - IMRF