Fieldset
"The people have no lifejackets, the black sea is heaving"

On board the Ocean Viking search and rescue ship, MSF nurse Catherine and the team are fighting rough seas and fast-moving events to save people from a small boat caught in the chaos.

Part two of two

Survivors pile into the rigid-hulled inflatable boat during a rescue by Ocean Viking

Continued from part one...

MSF nurse Catherine is caring for a baby girl on board Ocean Viking, while her mum gets some well-deserved rest after being rescued from a rubber boat floating in the Mediterranean. The next morning, she is busy running the medical clinic – but the search for vessels in distress never stops. 

I don’t even remember being called for this rescue. We’ve had 112 rescued people on board since 5 am.

We ran the medical clinic all day, cared for people with medical problems, old and new. We gave out hot dinners, cups of tea. We sat with people, played with their kids.

Some told us their stories, some stared off into space. We gave out seasickness pills and advised people to drink more water. People were starting to go to sleep, the day was winding down.  

The wooden boat

Then somehow, at about 10 pm, we’re back on the water, trying desperately to make contact with a wooden boat. It’s completely different from the peaceful darkness at 5 this morning – the waves have picked right up, the wind is stronger, it’s loud.

I’m sitting on the side of the fast rescue boat known as Easy 2, the waves come up past my field of vision, I only see the other rescue boat in flashes.  

We are anticipating people in the water. My heart is in my throat.

Then I see it – a blue wooden boat with low sides, completely packed with people. It’s rolling and pitching wildly in the waves, I have absolutely no idea how it hasn’t capsized already and am terrified it’s about to roll right over any second.

The people have no lifejackets and the black sea is heaving. They’re standing up, gesturing and shouting, making an already unstable boat even worse. They have a wild energy, fuel intoxication and terror combined. 

Like a nightmare

“Open the lifejacket bags!” shouts Oscar in the wind. “Open the horseshoes!”  

Horseshoes are a flotation device used to throw to people in the water – he’s expecting the worst. We struggle with the tightly knotted bags and I start stuffing lifejackets onto my arms, as many as will fit, ready to pass to the boat leader.

We are anticipating people in the water. My heart is in my throat.  

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Easy 1 and 2 try to stabilise a wooden boat in distress
Easy 1 and 2 try to stabilise a wooden boat in distress

Easy 1 and 2 are driving around, trying to assess the situation and get into some kind of configuration where we can bring the people on board; the deputy is trying to shout to the people to sit down, to listen. Lifejackets are passed and thrown.

The people are screaming, shouting, throwing things overboard. Someone is holding up a baby.

With the black sea and dark sky, it looks weirdly like the wooden boat and rescue boats are spinning in the dark like a mobile, attached to nothing but invisible strings. It’s like some kind of nightmare.  

Chaos

But everything is moving too fast and the wooden boat is swept up towards the huge red sides of the Ocean Viking. It rams the metal side with a crunch, still pitching wildly from side to side. The people are screaming, shouting, throwing things overboard. Someone is holding up a baby.

We are all imagining tipping, then capsizing, then crushing, any second. There is a lot of swearing on our boat as we speed towards them. We throw extra bags of lifejackets overboard to make space.

The crew on Easy 1 is trying to stabilise the wooden boat, clinging on to its sides for dear life. Peering down from high up on the Ocean Viking, I see the MSF team with a megaphone, trying to give the same instructions as we are but in Arabic.  

We try and manoeuvre to the other side of the wooden boat, to stabilize it, but it’s too tight, the waves are pushing it against the Ocean Viking. Leo has to reverse out before we’re crushed.

Somehow, in the chaos, the deputy has come up with a plan to manage this and the crew starts bringing people on board Easy 1 over the sides as they hold onto the pitching wooden boat with their hands.

An impossible rescue

“Easy 2, Easy 2, can you come along our starboard side,” we hear on the radio. 

 “Coming!”  

“Ok, I want you to come next to us and offload the people, and take them to Ocean Viking.” 

We come alongside and line up, grab hold of Easy 1, then pull people from their rescue boat to ours. Somehow the drivers are managing to keep this set-up stable in these waves.

People pile over the sides one by one. I grab them by their wet clothes and push them into a spot, try and get them holding onto something. We can start to shuttle people back to the safety of the boat landing of Ocean Viking.

Maybe it’s insane but I try and smile at them, try and tell them they’re safe now. They need a lot of help getting up the ladder to the deck, some of them are shaking and shivering. But finally, they get their feet on something solid.  

Drenched but safe

We shuttle back and forth as fast as we can until the wooden boat and Easy 1 are empty.  We retrieve our floating bags of discarded lifejackets in the dark. Finally, I get back on Ocean Viking, as the SOS MEDITERRANEE team stays to crane the rescue boats out of the water and sort all their equipment out.

There are 50 people outside on the main deck. It’s 1 am. The MSF team has already got them mostly changed out of their wet clothes and people are huddled in gold rescue blankets, which are flapping everywhere in the wind.

My brain is spinning and I think I’m completely high on adrenaline. I find my medical team leader and ask what I should do. She’s busy with people and says: “Can you go around and check everyone for hypothermia?” 

With the black sea and dark sky, it looks weirdly like the wooden boat and rescue boats are spinning in the dark like a mobile, attached to nothing but invisible strings. It’s like some kind of nightmare.  

Because the Maltese authorities were coordinating the rescue, we are expecting the Maltese coastguard to come and collect the people in about an hour, to do a transfer at sea, so I check them all out as fast as I can. We try and do what we can for them in an hour, rather than settling everyone for the night.

The logistician is trying to get everyone changed and dry, and organise space and supplies for them. We have two Arabic speakers who are trying to calm down a group of guys, high on adrenaline and fuel exposure from spilled fuel in the boat, who are moving around the ship and climbing on things. Our doctor is seeing a couple of unwell people.

We try and get an accurate count of men, women, children, babies. I move around the people one by one, trying to deal with hypothermia, seasickness, pain, wounds. 

We don’t all speak the same language but we share stares, handshakes, hugs. Unspoken acknowledgments of the crazy rescue and what they’ve just been through. 

Permission denied

At some point we get the news that the weather is too unsafe for a transfer – it’s crazy to go back out in the little rigid-hulled inflatable boats in these waves. We ask for permission to move closer to land to shelter from the weather.

I’m in the middle of filling up hot water bottles in the ship’s galley when I hear that, for some reason, this permission is denied. After all these people have been through, they have to stay out in the middle of the sea, in this weather. I take a minute to let my rage out on the hot water bottles.  

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Survivors and the Ocean Viking crew endured rough conditions at sea after being denied permission to move closer to land
Survivors and the Ocean Viking crew endured rough conditions at sea after being denied permission to move closer to land

Back out on deck, it’s calmed down a bit. We’ve told the people they’re staying at least for the night. It’s nearly 3 am – people seem ready to crash. I guess their adrenaline is finally wearing off.

Some people have moved inside to the shelter, a few of the guys prefer to stay outside away from the crowd. It’s wet and windy outside; they curl up in bright orange plastic rescue bags.

I search for a man I was concerned about earlier – not as young and not as big as the other guys, and not really making eye contact. I find him in a corner outside in his blankets, crouched in a ball in the wind, and pass him a hot water bottle. He meets my eyes and mouths:  “Thank you.”  

I think “I don’t know what he’s thanking me for”. He’s still outside on a pitching deck, in the wind and spray in the cold, no safe place to take him. It’s hard to say “You’re welcome” for that. “I’m so glad we got to you guys when we did,” I say instead.

He smiles. At least he’s out of the wooden boat. At least he’s not underwater. He’s safe. But he’s still got a long way to go.  

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Read more: from our team on board Ocean Viking

Abdul the barber and other stories from the Ocean Viking

"This story has affected me to my core": Life on board the Ocean Viking