Saving lives at sea: how a rescue works

Publié: 23 août 2016 14:51 CET

The Italian Red Cross and Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)  joined forces this month to launch a search and rescue operation aboard the Responder  in the Mediterranean Sea.

MOAS’s veteran rescuer John Hamilton explains his team works to save lives at sea.

How do you decide where the Responder will patrol?

We study available information on where the most sightings of boats have been in any given period. This allows us to pinpoint an area that a majority of the boats are most likely to cross. For example, last year most departures were large boats from the western part of Libya while at the moment we see mostly rubber boats leaving from the shores between Zuara and Tripoli. We always try to choose an area where we can intercept the boats as quickly as possible.  

How do you determine if boats are in distress?

The types of boats that are being used by the smugglers are by no means fit for a sea journey, let alone one this long. We know that the rubber dinghies are produced in Asia and are not certified or tested in any way. They are almost always overloaded, there is no trained personnel to steer the boat, many passengers don’t have life-jackets and there is rarely any water and food on board, probably because the smugglers consider it wasted space. All in all, it would be a miracle if they would make the journey all the way to the Italian shore.

Why do you patrol close to the Libyan shores?

As I mentioned, the vessels being used are not seaworthy and people gravely risk their lives when boarding. The rubber dinghies easily deflated or capsize, and even the larger and sturdier wooden boats are just as dangerous, often even more so. These are overfilled and people are forced to crowd in the space below deck where there is little air and a high risk of suffering carbon monoxide poisoning, both of which can be fatal in a short time. Thus, it is critical for us to be able to reach the boats and help the people to safety as soon as possible.

How many people can these boats carry?

Because these dinghies are not properly certified there is no way to determine their capacity - officially they are not even fit for one person. Yet, this year we’ve seen between 100-150 people on each dinghy we have rescued. The larger wooden boats also tend to carry much more than their capacity, up to 500-600 people.

How do you spot the boats?

The crew carries out a 24/7 watch by visual and radar means. Our sister ship the Phoenix assists us by deploying its drone which patrols the area from above and sends us necessary information. Most of the boats depart around midnight in the cover of darkness and reach international waters during the very early hours of the morning.

What happens when you spot a boat?

When we spot a migrant boat we mobilise our rescue team and the Red Cross medical team as quickly as possible to carry out their pre-determined tasks.

We lower one or both of our satellite boats which will speed to the vessel with rescue experts and a doctor to ensure that any critical cases are taken care of right away. Our first priority is to calm everyone down and distribute life-jackets as quickly as possible to those who don’t have them to ensure that even if the boat capsizes or deflates the passengers will stay above the water.

Approaching the boat is tricky because if you do it from one side the passengers may all try to crowd there to get out which will destabilise the boat. So we come from the back and I’m usually the one who calms the people down. The first thing I say is “We’re here to save you. But for us to help you, you have to help us.”

We then either bring the vessel by the side of our boat and help the passengers on board as quickly as possible – this is always our main priority to avoid casualties.

How many people can you rescue at one time?

In addition to the crew the Responder can comfortably carry 350 passengers for a couple of days but we’ve had situations when we’ve had over 700 people on-board for some hours.

Our satellite boats can carry 15-25 people from their vessel to the Responder at one time. But there are always exceptions we may have to make to save people’s lives - I remember this one time when we came across a dinghy with 41 people, mainly families with children, which was deflating quickly. Without thinking I just helped everyone to our satellite boat because the other option would have been to let them drown. Thankfully we made it to the Responder safely with all of them.  

What happens next?

Once the people have boarded the Responder in groups, the Italian Red Cross medical team takes over. Everyone receives a medical check-up as well as water, food and dry clothes when needed. If there are emergency medical cases they can be evacuated by helicopter. The Responder is also one of the few ships that has a morgue on-board.

We then set sail and wait for instructions from the Italian authorities who coordinate all rescue activities and will make the decision on our next steps. This means that will either bring the passengers to a port in Italy, usually Sicily, or transfer them to another ship heading back so that we can continue our work at sea.


About John Hamilton (50)

Retired from the armed forces of Malta after 26 years, with vast experience in search and rescue mostly related to migration. John has been working with MOAS since 2014 and was one of the crew members that sailed the charity’s first ship ‘the Phoenix’ from the US to Europe ahead of the start of the operation.

“I feel that I cannot turn my back on this even if this job can be distressing and I sometimes break down when I think of some of the difficult situations I have encountered. I don’t want to see more lives lost. But what I always wish is that someday this will end. Even if it meant losing my job, I would be so glad if I heard that no one would ever attempt this dangerous journey again. Until then, we have to do what we can to help.”