Podcast 4: Preparing for Sea

Welcome to the MOAS podcast where we want to include you in what we do, to explore different angles of migration, and help you to better understand the people we save.

Every fortnight we will bring you updates on our mission, tell you about the technologies we use, interview experts to discuss wider forced migration issues, and, most importantly, share with you the stories and experiences of the people we rescue.

This week we bring you a podcast from the MOAS vessel, the Phoenix, as the crew prepared for the 2017 Central Mediterranean Mission.

It’s about 7.30 in the morning on Saturday. This is launch day for Phoenix, the MOAS search and rescue vessel. I’m walking through Manoel Island right now and I’m surrounded by a series of large and small fishing boats and yachts. It’s still quite cold in the air but the sun’s just coming up and in about an hour or two’s time it’s going to be quite warm.

Looking out in the distance, across the quay I can see Phoenix. It must be about 100 steps from me right now.

We’re just coming up to the MOAS boat now in its navy blue, red, white and orange decals with MOAS painted on its starboard side.

The crew are hard at work stowing water below deck, just one of the jobs left on the to-do list.

This is MOAS’s fourth mission rescuing migrants from the Central Mediterranean and the job only gets tougher.

At this stage of 2017 over six hundred people have died making the crossing…

The Phoenix is a forty-foot trawler turned rescue vessel bringing together a wide mix of people, from former military to merchant sailors and emergency responders.

Among its veterans is Rescue Swimmer Paul.

P: So this is my changing room… So this is what all of the stuff is packed into. There’s a little black box and there’s some bits and pieces in there still… most of it is in here ready to go. There’s a dry bag with a little throw line, fins… some bits and pieces so I’ll put some water and maybe some food in there so that goes with me. Boots.. so they’re quite sturdy boots… buoyancy aid, knives and that sort of stuff… wet suit, gloves and a helmet with a light for night time stuff.

When we know there’s a rescue operation about to start I still get nervous and I think that’s a healthy thing. It sounds strange but I get nervous almost up until the point that we see the boat and then we see the boat and it might be a rubber dinghy with 150 people on board and that point I don’t say that I switch off but I’m somewhat more relaxed because by that point I’m already know what we’re dealing with and it’s something we’ve dealt with it before. So up until we see it and kind of almost smell and hear it, I’ve got the butterflies in my stomach every time.

There are some new faces in the MOAS crew, one of them is Zach Micallef. Zach has been made Second Officer responsible for the equipment and maintenance of the vessel.

Z: I have the 12-4 watch. I am mainly situated in the bridge and when we’re maneuvering to go along side or to get the ship moored I’m normally on the aft station helping out with communication, bridge to aft communications with the crew. I transfer the communication given by the master to the crew in order to maintain a safe operation. I’m delegated to be in charge of safety equipment also on board so I have to make sure everything is up to standard, nothing expired, everything is in good condition, certification… double checking, triple checking insuring of everything.

Helping the Post Rescue Care team is a group of experienced doctors and paramedics. Joining the clinic for the Phoenix launch is Annie. As a clinical paramedic, she’s used to working inside the cramped conditions of an ambulance, a quarter of the size of the Phoenix clinic.

G: How have you mentally prepared for this?

A: I try not to because you can actually get into your head too much if you over think it. You literally just focus on your clinic and ‘do I know where things are?’ When I have a patient I need to be just going on automatic because that’s how we all operate. Your training just kicks in. So that’s been my only focus, just making sure I know where everything is and I know what my role is in the team and I know what I will be doing with each and every patient. Once I’m comfortable with that, that’s as mentally prepared as I do it.

If you start asking too many questions and ‘how many body bags do you normally take?’ and it can actually get into your head too much and for me anyway I can start to lose sleep. You deal with what you deal with, there’s no point trying to freak yourself out and ask ‘what if I see this?’ Like I said, with the ambulance, you get to a car crash and it could a really nasty car crash or it could be a run-of-the-mill car crash. You treat your patients exactly the same, the more severe patients obviously need more care but you just know that I’m trained, you know where things are and if it’s a big rescue, little rescue we can cope.

Feeding over 20 crew members and almost 400 migrants isn’t easy. The galley just off the main cabin is the domain of steward Santosh and the Head cook, Simon.

Sa: Usually we give the migrants biscuits, water and sometimes some tea, sometimes noodles. We make the morning tea in 4 or 5 large pots, its fresh. Last year the boss said we should make food for the migrants. We made rice for them.

G: So I guess there’s got to be a lot of creativity in the kind of things you make.

Si: Oh yeah absolutely. You can start with kind of an idea, a game plan but its going to get altered throughout the week and you end up utilizing what’s left and what’s the least amount and get rid of that, what’s going to go bad first, you need to use that stuff up and then it’s kind of like putting a puzzle together – but it’s fun. You do get creative out here especially when you see that OK, you’re not going to be back in port for at another week but you’re running real low on this or that then you’re brain will start to do trouble shooting.

G: So I’m now standing in what is now being called the Monkey Island which is a purposely built observational tower on board Phoenix and the centerpiece of this observational tower is a set of very large, high performance, top of the range binoculars. Now I understand from speaking to the crew that these binoculars will allow them to not just see boats out in the distance but also to identify people who are in distress day or night. Now I’m having a quick look through the binoculars. I can see a church in very high definition. In terms of distance it must be about two and a half football pitches from us.

Returning Captain of Phoenix Gonzalo Calderon explains more about the initial rescue process.

Go: As soon as we site it we call everybody to go to their positions to their duties, some people on deck, the rescue team prepare the RHIB for launching, their own equipment. The medical team they prepare the clinic and they put on their safety suits and boots and everything. We continue approaching and when we are pretty close, maybe one mile, we send the RHIB to contact them. The RHIB is the source of information.

G: So here we are next to one of the RHIBs that are deployed to go and rescue migrants. They can normally hold up to about 20 people at once. So if you imagine a boat normally takes about 150 to 200 people overloaded, then these things are probably doing about 7 or 8 trips.

Go: So then we know what’s the condition of the rubber boat or wooden boat, how many people, if they have some difficulties, if there’s some gas or flames around. As soon as we have the situation under control we start transferring people from the boat to Phoenix.

G: Standing next to the RHIB and looking over at what looks like almost two dozen full bags of adults and children’s life jackets, there must be at least 400 here.

G: Mimmo drives the fast rescue boats for MOAS and he tells us what happens migrants come aboard.

G: We’re on the starboard side, the RHIB’s there, we have 20 migrants on it. What do you do next, you’re puling them out.

M: How we work is we have two people here that can help the people come up, they pull them up. When we walk from here we have the paramedics that check the temperature. Then the next step if they’re OK is they move back here.

G: So we’re moving to the back of the boat now.

M: We tell them to take their place here because they’re more comfortable here. We give them water immediately, we give them space blankets. Then after a short while we see who needs medical assistance.

G: So I’m now walking across the drone pad, that’s the top aft deck of Phoenix. It’s a large orange-coloured space with a white crosshair. This space is used to accommodate up to 200 men after a rescue and there are tarpaulins on its port and starboard sides and these can be deployed to shelter the men from the sun.

G: Davide is leading the Post Rescue team for the first stage of MOAS’s mission. He explains that the ship has the capacity to take almost 400 people.

D: The lower deck can accommodate more or less 130 to 140 people. We try and save some space for women and children there, so they can stay in the most protected area on lower deck. This doesn’t mean that split families; we try and keep the families together, it’s important to leave husbands and fathers with their families but if we have other men who are not with the families we try and use this space as well. This space is much larger, it can accommodate about 300 people, which is a lot but we have to use all the space we have.

MOAS receives its instructions about rescues from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, and once Phoenix takes on two or three rescues, the crew will get orders to take them to a port in Italy. It takes some time to get there. So how do you keep the people comfortable?

G: sometimes it takes a day, two days, maybe two and a half days to get to Italy.

M: At the beginning, when they come all they want is to feel safe so what have qualified people that even just talking to them we make them feel that they’re safe, that’s the most important thing. The second thing is we leave them to rest because after what they have been through they need to rest. Then we give them food, water all the time we’ll give them and even the kids we give them some toys.

It’s finally time. Friends and family of the crew are standing on the quay side as we slowly watch Phoenix and her crew leave for the operational area.

Join us in a fortnight when we will be discussing how gender intersects with forced migration. For all the MOAS news and updates sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page. You can support our rescue missions by following us on social media or giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea.




This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained.