"So much has happened in the first short months of her life"

When MSF and partner SOS MEDITERRANEE were forced to end Mediterranean search and rescue operations in late 2018, MSF nurse Catherine thought her days at sea were over. Soon, she would be back aboard a new ship - the Ocean Viking - helping save the lives of people fleeing Libya.

Part one of two

MSF nurse Catherine Flanigan

Of all the MSF projects I’ve worked in, search and rescue is the most difficult to avoid, even if you want to.

After finishing on the Aquarius after their last rescue in 2018, I selfishly wanted nothing more than to stop thinking about search and rescue, about the boat that had no flag, that was closing, with no other NGO boats in the area.

To try and stop myself thinking about the flimsy, overcrowded rubber boats we knew were out there but couldn’t see, off the coast of Libya floating on the waves, with limited chance of rescue.

It felt like it was absolutely everywhere in the media, a reminder every time you looked at the news or opened your phone.  

Aquarius dismantled

Around Christmas 2018, while I was in another project in South Sudan, a friend sent me some photos of the Aquarius being demobilised – all of the adjustments that had been made were being taken back so the shipping company could use Aquarius for other means.

I opened the photos eagerly but then found them surprisingly difficult to look at. Photos of everything being dismantled and packed down. All those items that we’d used with rescued people.

The lifejackets SOS MEDITERRANEE had distributed to keep people floating. Medical equipment we’d used to give people care – sometimes the first medical treatment they’d received in months or years.

Seeing the showers we’d installed being craned off the ship, the showers where people had their first chance to properly clean themselves after many hours on the open sea and possibly after weeks or months in overcrowded unsanitary conditions in detention centres in Libya.


Search and rescue ship, Aquarius, was grounded by an EU campaign to stop humanitarian action in the Mediterranean
Search and rescue ship, Aquarius, was grounded by an EU campaign to stop humanitarian action in the Mediterranean

The roofs and walls installed to keep hundreds of people sheltered and dry as they waited on deck to be granted a port of safety, wrapped in blankets and exhausted.

The mass casualty boxes, full of supplies to help multiple drowning patients at the same time. The same boxes that had been pulled out and thrown open during the last mass casualty a year earlier, where another team onboard had performed CPR on nine people dragged from the water not breathing – boxes always carefully restocked and ready to go.

All of this being packed up on a pallet and stored away in a warehouse somewhere. I put my phone down and walked back out to the dusty South Sudanese hospital, feeling powerless, trying not to think about it.  

Return to sea

Then in July 2019, almost unbelievably, a new ship - the Ocean Viking - went back to sea and in December. Even more unbelievably, I found myself heading for Marseille to join them on board.

Somehow, one cold evening, I’m standing on the dock with another ex-Aquarius nurse, both of us staring wide-eyed up at this strange red ship.  

We walk with trepidation up the gangway, taking it all in. It’s strangely familiar.

For people fleeing Libya, nothing has changed at all.

The boat landing, where we meet rescued people for the first time, look them in the eye and welcome them on board. The bags of life jackets. The same rigid-hulled inflatable boats up on deck and ready to go.

Most amazingly, instead of an open deck, there is a huge shelter built for the men, with heaters and lights and doors. I remember people vomiting off the sides of the Aquarius covered in sea spray and I am so happy for this shelter.

There are showers! Indoor showers! Then, finally, the part we are both most curious about – the new clinic. A small, cosy midwife clinic. A large area to keep patients under observation. And stacked up in the main clinic are the exact same mass casualty boxes, all stocked up and ready to go.  

“I hope we're ready”

Over the next few days, we head south, preparing to arrive in the search and rescue zone. There is currently no other NGO search and rescue vessel in the area, and only one that is operational in this area at all.

We do CPR training, rescue scenarios, practice carrying people on stretchers, drills with the rigid-hulled inflatable boats in the water.  It’s at once very familiar and very strange.


Catherine (left) ready for a rescue
Catherine (left) ready for a rescue

We fill the days with our usual routines as we head to international waters off Libya. And finally, more than one year later, I let myself think about the rubber boats off the coast of Libya.

It’s an incredible and selfish luxury to be able to think about other things and go to other places in the meantime. But of course, the flimsy rubber boats are still going to be there.

For people fleeing Libya, nothing has changed at all. I hope we’re ready.  

Golden hour

I’m standing at the door to the women’s shelter, holding a baby girl. Her dribble soaking into my T-shirt. She’s bright-eyed, looking around at her strange new surroundings. 

We rescued 112 people from a rubber boat at five o’clock this morning. We found it in the dark.

The white boat ghostly in our searchlights before drifting into the dark again. The front of the boat damaged, the guys at the front of the bow holding the deflated rubber up with their hands to try and keep the water out. The people on board exhausted, scared and agitated.

Luckily it went smoothly, people offloaded to a raft, everyone eventually safely onboard the Ocean Viking, blinking in the sunrise. 

People talk a lot about the “golden hour”, the first hour people are on board after a rescue. A lot gets done in an hour. We greet people and welcome them on board. We take a headcount, we do a quick medical assessment of everyone, deal with the critical cases if there are any.

Rescue kits with juice and energy biscuits are given to each person. Dry clothes, a warm blanket, a quick welcome speech to let people know who we are and what’s happening. Then you see the adrenaline finally start to wear off, the hours awake at sea finally catching up with them, not to mention the weeks and months of what they’ve been through before stepping onto that beach.

And one by one, people curl up in their blankets and fall asleep. The men and women in their respective shelters. From the sound of cranes and radios and 100 voices, 100 bags opening and water bottles sloshing, people greeting friends and celebrating or stressing, finally silence and everything stops.

The floor rocks in the waves and people sleep.  

A wish for a baby girl

In the women’s shelter, the baby girl’s mum holding her, happy but struggling to keep her eyes open. We don’t speak the same language but I hold my arms out to her baby as a question. She smiles, hands her over and finally closes her own eyes and lies down.  

My new small friend and I stand by the door as the women sleep. She arrived cold and soaked through from the sea, and she looks funny in the dry jersey we gave her, which is a few sizes too big.

We have a view over the deck to the sea. She’s mesmerised by the sea and by the bright red of the ship. If I turn away she twists and wriggles and grumbles till I turn her towards it again.

I don’t know yet her story, where they came from, what they’ve already been through to get here. She looks like she has a skin infection common in detention centres – we’ll have to see her later in the clinic – but otherwise, she looks well.

We stare at the sea. I wonder what stories her parents will tell her about the sea, about what they fled from, about how they knew they were risking her life to cross. So much has happened in the first short months of her life.

I wish for her sake, but I don’t have much optimism, that life will get easier for her. She stares at the sea until her head gets heavy on my shoulder and she sleeps. For now, the whole ship sleeps, but it’s going to be a long day.