Search and rescue: Is it good or bad, when we don’t spot any boats?

"In 2016, 4,600 people drowned. This year, it's already more than 200, and the estimated number of unknown cases is even higher."

Since the beginning of January, Heidi Anguria has been working as a nurse on the search and rescue vessel MV Aquarius. The ship patrols the Mediterranean Sea and is jointly run by MSF and SOS MÉDITERRANÉE. Every week, Heidi blogs about her experiences...

This time my report is shorter and not quite as spectacular. But that is just the nature of our work. But as always, first things first:


Last Sunday we arrived in Messina, a harbour city in north-east Sicily. There, however, we could not disembark all our guests because the authorities were a little slow. A total of 85 people had to spend one more night on the ship.

On Monday morning all our guests were finally on solid ground. We say goodbye to everyone with a handshake or a hug and wish them good luck - they'll need it! Everybody is euphoric about their new life, but also quite nervous about what is to come.


Our guests disembark in the harbour


What do the people on board need?


People don't need much on board our ship: dry clothes, food and medical care are clearly of prime importance. But above all, they need some kind words or a hug.

The first thing that everyone does after they have been provided with dry clothes, hot tea and food: they sleep a lot. But the next day they are already a bit more euphoric.

Generally the day after a rescue people explore the ship, talk to each other and sometimes they sing and dance to express their joy. Finally they can feel safe and realise that we are taking good care of them.

The closer we get to their destination, the more the mood changes on board: people are naturally afraid of the unknown

If they feel like it, some guests start telling us their stories. They are always moving and very far from what our lives are like back at home. We also collect these stories in order to draw attention to the human suffering,  the injustice and human rights violations that these ordinary people are experiencing on their journeys.

The closer we get to their destination, the more the mood changes on board: people are naturally afraid of the unknown.

Our ship, the MV Aquarius, is only a small (however a very important) step on each guest’s  journey. They left their families behind, they have been on the road for weeks. Many have crossed the desert, have been abused and exploited in Libya. They have survived a life-threatening sea voyage and are now hoping to be welcomed in Europe - and they have no idea what awaits them.

When the weather becomes an obstacle…


On Monday, new cargo is taken on board - food, medical supplies and new rescue kits. In the afternoon we all have some spare time. In the evening I have dinner with my colleagues and of course we try some Sicilian wine!

On  Tuesday we leave to return to the 'search zone‘ as fast as possible, because in winter there are hardly any lifeboats looking for refugees. And this is when our problem starts: the weather!

The waves are about three metres high (forecasts expect up to six metres). We navigate as closely to the coast as possible. But that also means that have to go slow. Our journey is quite rocky and wobbly. So far I've been lucky, I have had no problems with seasickness yet!

We deal with administrative matters and have the final debriefing of the last rescue mission. Apart from that doing my workout is an obligatory part of my schedule now!


Was there really no one out there on the sea?  


The night is pretty rough. In the morning I'm glad to begin my day as always by going up on the deck. I really enjoy these moments. Today the whole crew is tired. During breakfast in the mess hall I feel like I‘m sitting in front of a running washing machine, as the sea water constantly washes over the portholes.

On Thursday we arrived in the search and rescue zone off Libya's coast. The sea is calm. The day passes quietly. Nevertheless, we all feel a bit of inner tension, as a boat in need of help could appear at any time. We take that thought to bed with us. However, in the end we're able to sleep through the night.

Can we be certain that nobody in need of help was out there on the sea? In 2016, 4,600 people drowned. This year, it's already more than 200, and the estimated number of unknown cases is even higher.

A boat in need of help could appear at any time

We're still struggling with the bad weather conditions. We hope that no boats are leaving the coast. Our ship is hiding in a more quiet corner near the Libyan coast. We're stuck there and can't go back to Sicily, since the bad weather is coming from that direction.

To distract ourselves  everybody engages in some form of activity. We have started our daily fitness club: first, we do a little cardio workout out on deck (have you ever tried to do rope skipping on a moving ship??), then more exercises follow inside.

On Saturday the sea is relatively calm in our area. But it seems that we won't find any more boats. On the one hand, that's a good thing. But on the other hand, we're keen to do our work.

The next day we're on our way back to Catania in Sicily. We have to return urgently, as we have to refill our supplies. According to the weather forecast, the sea around Malta will be rough ...