A Timeless Odyssey

Allures 45 (a thing of great practical beauty)

Special blog. A humanitarian crisis, a first hand account

We finished a crossing from Cephalonia to Valletta last week, it was 338Nm (626km) and it was sublime for the first day and first night and then full-on for the next day and next night with up to 32knots of wind abaft and a steep mushy Mediterranean sea. The boat and the First Mate were fantastic but we were a tad sleep deprived and shaken on arrival……..but that is not what I wanted to talk about.

There were a lot of warships patrolling, NATO, American, Italian and Russian. This is obviously mostly related to the Ukrainian crisis and I would speculate that there is fear of a Black Sea or Mediterranean blockade. So there was some interesting radio traffic but for me the most interesting and scary bit was how real the human trafficking issue is out of Africa. On two consecutive days we listened as the Maritime Patrol Aircraft, call sign, Eagle One, went about their duty. We could only hear one side of the conversation, which was all on VHF 16, this is because, of course, they are at altitude and the other boats involved are not and are transmitting from far less powerful sets. These guys were utterly professional and what became clear after listening to two incidents on two consecutive days, is that they are past masters at dealing with what is essentially a humanitarian dilemma and a clear maritime obligation to offer assistance. This is partly speculation but what happens is the traffickers steal a boat in Europe and take it to Africa. They then sell seats on it. The one boat apparently a yacht (of unknown size) had 200 people on it. The so-called Captain takes them into Italian waters quite close to the coast and then bails, probably being picked up in a fast RIB and tells them to call a Mayday. Perhaps this is even part of the upfront arrangement where he assures them they will be rescued and get asylum. Eagle One hears the Mayday and talks to them asking them for Co-ords. The first time they get them wrong and the plane circles above some blue sea asking them what format the Lat Longs are in and which projection are they using. The most common is obviously WGS84 but Eagle One can’t assume that. Even from only one side of the conversation it is clear the people on the boat are clueless but after some lost in translation sucking blood from a stone type conversation they establish a position for them. About 20 minutes later they find them and go through a whole affirmation process, are you a yacht with XYZ and 7 people standing on the foredeck, are there women and children onboard (answer yes), etc. Then, they ask, what is the nature of the distress, do you have a working engine, do you have a working rudder? It later becomes clear that the captain left and no one on the boat can take command, so they are a vessel, by maritime definition, not under command. Eagle One tells them that they have to climb to conserve fuel but don’t worry they will stay with them as long as possible. Eagle One calls the Italian Coast Guard and gives them co-ords. They are at least 100Nm out to sea, so it is going to take them a while. Eventually Eagle One has to bail because they say they have been assigned to another task, they make a major effort to assure the boat that help is coming. Probably one of the friendly warships will help the Italian Coastguard crash boat with the rescue and if they are lucky will end up in an asylum centre in Italy. Perhaps, in the current circumstances, one of the more interesting aspects of this whole saga was that a Russian Warship was in the vicinity and offered assistance, which Eagle One tactfully declined (but would have had to accept if the threat to life was greater and there wasn’t already help on the way). The second day, a very similar scenario evolved but this time the weather was getting edgy and with an overloaded boat it had the potential to turn quite quickly into a tragic outcome. I don’t want to imagine the scenario with women and children crammed like sardine below and people terrified and getting seasick.

You can read about this stuff in the news but when it is happening around you, it is chilling what some unscrupulous humans will do for money and the desperateness that conspires to let people get led into these situations is frightening. It is not all plain sailing. I thought it was a story worth telling.