Hands Across the Water

Sea-Watch tries to save the migrants Europe ignores

Sea-Watch tries to save the migrants Europe ignores

The distress call comes at 10:30 a.m. Ragino Fagner, a tough looking medic tattooed from shoulder to ankle, rings the ship’s bell. The ragtag crew gathers in the mess. A few nautical miles away, but out of viewing distance, are more than 100 people crowded onto a rickety rubber raft, desperate for help. They are migrants on the perilous journey from lawless Libya toward the Italian coast. Once in international waters and beyond the reach of Libyan authorities, they call for help with the satellite phone provided by their smuggler. The ship, a 98-year-old former houseboat called Sea-Watch, picks up speed and pushes toward the position the migrants radioed.

In recent years, unprecedented numbers of refugees and migrants, fleeing conflict, persecution and economic turmoil, have crossed the Mediterranean for Europe. In 2013, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 60,000 people arrived in Europe by sea. In 2014, that figure more than tripled to 219,000. And the numbers continue to rise: From January to June, 137,000 migrants made the journey, an 83 percent increase compared with the same time last year. Most are Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans; roughly half departed from Libya, the other half from Turkey.

In October 2013, after at least 360 migrants died when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy launched an extensive search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum. But after saving an estimated 150,000 people in less than 13 months, the government halted the program, citing overwhelming need and a lack of financial support from other European Union members. The program that succeeded Mare Nostrum, known as Operation Triton and run by Frontex, the border agency of the EU, had a vastly different mandate. It was tasked not with saving migrants, but securing Europe’s borders.

The Sea-Watch sails in the bay of La Coruna, Spain, in May, on the way to the Mediterranean. The 98-year-old ship was formerly a houseboat before being re-commissioned for rescue missions. “Everything on the ship is dangerous,” says Johannes Bayer, a sailor on the Sea-Watch. “It’s an adventure.” (Click to enlarge images)

The results of this policy change became evident earlier this year as death tolls continued to break records. April saw the single deadliest disaster of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean when an estimated 800 people drowned 60 miles off the Libyan coast. In an emergency meeting 10 days later, the EU decided to extend Triton’s mandate to include rescue operations and triple its funding. Still, it doesn’t match Mare Nostrum; Amnesty International called Triton “a face-saving not a life-saving operation.”

In the meantime, a number of private aid organizations have stepped in. Doctors Without Borders has chartered two ships. Christopher and Regina Catrambone, an American-Italian couple who made a fortune in the insurance industry, run the nonprofit Migrant Offshore Aid Station from a ship called the Phoenix. But perhaps the most unlikely of these private rescue operations is Sea-Watch. Started at the end of last year by a German furniture entrepreneur, the operation is run from a ramshackle, 69-foot-long ship by a rotating crew of eight volunteers that includes professional offshore rescuers, physicians and idealistic seafarers. Still, they are able to make a small difference off Europe’s deadly shores.

Out on the Mediterranean, the Sea-Watch crew continues its search. The ship only reaches 7 knots (just over 8 miles per hour), too slow for a rescue operation, in which every minute counts. So the crew prepares to launch the ship’s gray, rubber speedboat, known as a tender. It’s a precarious procedure. Five people are needed to winch the rubber boat from the deck, up over the ship’s railing and into the sea. Reinier Boere, a locksmith from the Netherlands, leads the operation. While the speedboat dangles from the crane, the Sea-Watch has to slow down to allow hoisting it into the water. As the ship drifts parallel to the waves, it starts to swerve. On the deck, the crew is struggling to keep the 1,300-pound speedboat under control. It swings back and forth. Finally they manage to get it into the water. Fagner climbs on board along with Thomas Lenzen, a physician, and Meik Schöpping, the speedboat’s pilot. They cram bags with 140 life vests onto the boat and race toward the horizon.

At top, Johannes Bayer and Philipp Hahn take down the ship's sails as it travels off the coast of Spain. The ship sailed to La Coruna, where it took on supplies (left) and made last-minute preparations (right) before transitioning to rescue missions in the Mediterranean. (Click to enlarge images)

Sea-Watch is the brainchild of Harald Höppner, who has made modest riches from his business selling furniture online. Inspired to make a difference in the migrant crisis but without a clear sense of what he was getting into, Höppner decided to buy a ship. “People drown by the thousands and you don’t do anything,” he says of EU inaction. Together with his wife, Tanja Höppner, and his business partner, Matthias Kuhnt, he scraped together 140,000 euros ($153,000). Finding a suitable vessel on their budget was difficult. The ships Höppner looked at became a running joke among the first volunteers to join the project. “He didn’t know anything,” says Johannes Bayer, an avid sailor who is studying naval architecture and joined Sea-Watch in February during a break in his studies. Eventually, with the help of two knowledgeable skippers, Höppner decided on the 100-ton steel ship that is now the Sea-Watch. Built in the Netherlands in 1917, it was last used for sportfishing cruises. Equipped with a beer tap, but no up-to-date navigational equipment, it was hardly ready for the high seas, let alone daily rescue operations. Höppner bought it for 60,000 euros; the rest was set aside for repairs and operational costs.

Bayer and other volunteers worked on the ship for months. They welded masts onto the deck, installed communication equipment, put in more bunks and got rid of the beer tap. They had to ponder even small expenditures and made more than one trip to the junkyard for materials. But the financial situation changed in mid-April when Höppner appeared on a prominent talk show in Germany to discuss the Mediterranean migration crisis. Ignoring the host’s protest, Höppner pressed for a minute of silence to commemorate the migrants who had drowned. He gained celebrity and the donations started flowing. Höppner has raised 300,000 euros to date — enough for operational costs and better equipment, but not enough for a new boat.

The Sea-Watch can hold no more than 80 people, it’s low to the water, and it rolls heavily from side to side even on the moderate waves of the Mediterranean. “Everything on the ship is dangerous,” says Beyer. “It’s an adventure.”

A day before the ship was scheduled to embark on its third excursion toward the Libyan coast, its motor started leaking oil, the winch used to hoist the speedboat was broken, and the speedboat itself made only clicking sounds when the engine was turned on. When the speedboat finally started, its motor produced too much power and blew its radio.

One crew member decided to drop out of the mission. Others, though, said they’d known what they’d gotten themselves into. “For this project, I throw my workplace security measures over board,” said Fagner, who normally works as a medic on offshore wind parks. Like many of the volunteers, he said he signed up for this project because of idealism: “I can’t accept that we keep looking away.” After last minute repairs, and two days behind schedule, the Sea-Watch finally left the harbor.

Knowing the ship’s limitations, Höppner was initially less interested in conducting rescues than making a political statement. He calculated that with a boat of do-it-yourself rescuers patrolling the waters, the European Union might be shamed into committing more resources to search and rescue missions. “We Europeans go there as a bait,” he said. But once the Sea-Watch left the dock, things turned out differently.

Live: Sea-Watch's Current Location

After an hourlong search, the crew still hasn’t found the rubber raft. Schöpping, the speedboat pilot, radios the Sea-Watch’s captain, Bruno Wolf. “The coordinates don’t make sense,” he shouts. “Can you confirm the coordinates!” In the distance, a cargo ship is visible. Sailing under the flag of Panama, it’s on its way to Algeria. “Can you see the cargo ship?” asks the captain. “It’s there!”

The ship has been sent to the area by the Italian, state-run Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, based in Rome, which handles all distress calls in this part of the Mediterranean. The MRCC identifies vessels close enough to provide aid; all ships are legally required to come to the rescue of those stranded at sea unless doing so would endanger their crew. Schöpping races toward the cargo ship, the Shaya. Finally they find the rubber raft. It is crowded with 104 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea, including 26 women and three children. The motor is broken, and the compass they were given by their smuggler is lying unopened and unused in its packaging.

Most of the boats used by smugglers are rubber rafts of the same make, seemingly built for no other purpose than to transport as many people as cheaply as possible. The motors are unreliable and the fuel is often stretched with water. Some are so crowded that those on board have to stand in order to fit. The skippers, usually refugees themselves, lack navigational skills. In previous years, smugglers would transport migrants in sight of a shoreline, but now they often take them just into international waters and leave them with a satellite photo. Rescue operations have become part of the smugglers’ calculus. On social media, many accuse Sea-Watch of aiding human smuggling and, by their rescue activities, actually encouraging refugees to take the perilous journey. But the crew says there is a moral and legal duty to save people from drowning and that human smuggling is a symptom of unregulated migration and not the cause.

This particular raft is in relatively good condition, and the migrants say they’ve only been at sea for 17 hours. The speedboat crew distributes the life vests and then pulls the rubber raft toward the cargo ship. The Sea-Watch is equipped to save migrants from drowning, but it is not big enough to transport large numbers of people to shore. For that, the crew has to rely on warships, dedicated rescue vessels or cargo vessels like the Shaya. But now, the Shaya’s captain refuses to take the migrants on board. The cargo ship has too little food and water to accommodate all the migrants, he says. Finally, under pressure from the MRCC, the Shaya’s captain relents and allows the migrants to board.

Schöpping pulls the speedboat alongside the rubber raft and maneuvers it to the side of the Shaya. Then the ship’s crew throws down a rope ladder. Seeing a path to safety, the migrants struggle for it. Fagner senses that panic is about to erupt. This is the most perilous part of the rescue operation.

In April, the MRCC called a Portuguese cargo ship, the King Jacob, to rescue a steel-hull fisher boat with an estimated 850 migrants aboard. As the King Jacob approached, chaos broke out on the fisher boat and it capsized. Most of those aboard drowned. Why the boat sank isn’t clear, but one theory is that the desperate migrants crowded to one side as they saw the King Jacob approach, causing their ship to tip over. This is a scenario the Sea-Watch crew wants to avoid under all circumstances.

Fagner decides to jump aboard the rubber raft to take control of the situation. Before he began working as an offshore medic, he was a nightclub bouncer in Hamburg’s infamous red-light district, Reeperbahn. That experience comes in handy now. After ordering the men and women to wait, he climbs the ladder onto the Shaya’s deck. Fearing that the weakest among the refugees don’t have the strength to cross, he radios the Sea-Watch: “Twenty-six women and three children will not board. I just went on the ship. It’s too dangerous. I can’t take responsibility for that.”

While in the Lampedusa harbor, the Sea-Watch crew takes a moment of silence for refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean. (Click to enlarge images)

He climbs back down onto the rubber raft and orders the migrants to line up — three from the stern, three from the bow and so on. The situation is tense, and some of the migrants start to yell at each other. Fagner asks two of the refugees to assist him. One of them, a taxi driver from Mogadishu, is among the troublemakers. That’s why Fagner picked him: Tasked with assisting his fellow travelers, the man calms down. Fagner and the two refugees get most of those aboard to queue and climb the ladder one after another.

Soon only the women and a few men too weak to climb the ladder are left. Then, the Shaya’s crew lets down the gangway, the metal stairs used to board the ship in harbors. It’s now easy to board. The Sea-Watch crew wonders why those aboard the cargo ship didn’t think of this earlier; perhaps they were either reluctant to help, or simply too lazy.

After the last refugee is aboard the Shaya, Lenzen, the Sea-Watch physician, checks if the migrants have any urgent medical needs. Once Lenzen is done, Schöpping picks up the team in the speedboat and shuttles them back to the Sea-Watch. Following orders from the MRCC, the Shaya sails toward the Sicilian coast. There, the migrants will be handed over to Italian authorities and can apply for asylum.

Back on the Sea-Watch deck, the crew exchanges fist bumps and hugs. They’re excited, and relieved, that the operation was a success. It took nearly seven hours, much of it spent in the blistering midday sun. Everyone is exhausted. That night, Ragino wakes up with an intense headache. For almost an hour he sits at the entry of the ship’s command room to get some air. Finally, he falls asleep.

In the days that follow, the Sea-Watch continues its search off the Libyan coast, zigzagging from east to west. During the previous trip, another Sea-Watch crew conducted six rescue operations in seven days, saving 587 migrants. Most were adrift on rubber rafts the crew spotted before distress calls came in. This mission is much quieter. The crew wonders why that is; could it mean that fewer migrants are departing? “Maybe there were 10 boats on a day and [the last crew] missed nine,” speculates Boere. “Maybe at the moment there are five a day and we miss them all.”

After three days without any sightings, some of the crew sit together at the breakfast table. Out the backdoor, one of the crew members spots a deflated rubber raft, about 30 yards away, evidence of a previous rescue mission in the area. “If we didn’t spot this one earlier, how can we be sure we didn’t miss another one passing on the horizon?” asks Boere. Frustration and anxiety mount.

At night, the men gather in the ship’s mess to discuss strategy. “The first day has shown that this crew has potential,” says Schöpping. "We just have to get it out." They agree to change the search pattern. No more zigzagging, but a straight course 24 nautical miles from shore, along the line that separates Libyan from international waters.

Early the next morning, the next distress call comes in. It’s from a wooden fishing boat carrying an estimated 450 people. The MRCC instructs the Sea-Watch to locate the boat and then wait for bigger ships to help. But after the crew hoists the speedboat into the water, its motor fails. In the meantime, the MRCC calls back with updated information on the raft’s position. This one is roughly 10 hours from the Sea-Watch, too far to intervene. One of the Doctors Without Borders ships is closer by and rescues them instead. Sea-Watch has slowly gained the trust of these other operators. “They proved very, very efficient, especially when it came to finding boats. I am very impressed what can be done with such a limited amount of resources,” says Alexander Buchmann, a former emergency coordinator on one of the aid group’s ships.

At night, the Sea-Watch parks in the sea slightly northwest of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Boere succeeds in fixing the speedboat’s starter, and the crew expects to continue their mission the following morning. The waves are gentle and there is a pleasant breeze. But the calm doesn’t last. Just before midnight, the generator dies. Without it, the crew can neither hoist the speedboat nor produce freshwater for showering and cooking. Schöpping and Philipp Hahn, the two mechanics on board, try to resolve the problem. A crucial screw broke, they discover, and with no replacement, they try to glue it back together, a temporary solution at best. They’ve spent much of their time aboard struggling to keep the ship running. Schöpping has bruises and burns all over his body from working in the hot, narrow engine room. “You fix one thing and then the next one breaks,” he says.

As expected, the glued screw doesn’t hold and despite hours of effort the generator remains dead. With a broken generator and the freshwater supply low, the Sea-Watch sails back to its base in the harbor of Lampedusa. Midway, it encounters another rescue mission, this one led by the Italian coast guard.

In the morning, the ship arrives at harbor. “I am happy that we are back safely,” says Fagner, “but I feel we could have done more.” Boere has a more positive outlook on the week at sea. “We did a good mission,” he says. “People think that we are crazy, but we do it. And they talk about us. They see us on TV and say, ‘These stupid f---ers still manage to pull people out.’ Even if it’s negative, what they say about us, they think about what is happening here.”

Correction: This version of the story corrects the spelling of Meik Schöpping's name and clarifies the nature of the medical care Thomas Lenzen provided to the migrants.

Ragino Fagner smokes a cigarette on the vessel's aft deck after a rescue mission. (Click to enlarge images)

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