By Irma Held
Günther Pirnke is again on his way to Licata. In Sicily the Sea-Eye is being prepared for its upcoming sea rescue missions. The man from Schwandorf, Germany, supervises the works. The rescue workers will soon put to sea again. Pirnke still has time.
The retired policeman has been assigned to Mission 13 as of 3 September. The sea rescue organisation Sea-Eye will start Mission 1 on 7 March already so as to do their part in preventing the mass grave Mediterranean from filling up with ever more drowned people. A woman will sail the 200 ton boat from Licata into the international waters off the Libyan coast. Two weeks later, she will head back to Malta for the crew change for Mission 2.
Malta was chosen because it is located 70 nautical miles further south than Sicily. “This saves us 12 hours of travel,” Pirnke explains, “even though the berths are more expensive.” Last November he took the Sea-Eye to Licata for the winter works. “I started at 4 am in Malta, and at 3 pm I had reached the Licata harbour entrance. I had my mind set on taking the boat into the harbour during the day.” One reason is the harbour basin’s depth of 4.20 metres, while the Sea-Eye’s draught is 3.80 metres. Pirnke, a passionate and experienced sailor who owns a yacht in Croatia, was the right man for the job. The 63-year-old also took a donated VW van to Sicily, filled with materials for the repairs on the Sea-Eye. The car now serves as the operational vehicle in town. Once the rescue actions start, a ferry boat will take it to Malta.
“In Malta nothing is cheap.” Pirnke explains why the refurbishing and renovation works take place in Licata. The shipyard next to the harbour did a reasonable underwater paint job. But that is by far not all. The engine was generally overhauled, the kitchen renovated, the electrical installations changed to alternating current, the entire boat disinfected. “We made enormous efforts to derust and paint the Sea-Eye.” At this occasion, the word ‘Rescue’ was painted on the boat’s side in Arabic characters.
For some of the works the Sea-Eye had to be moved to dry land, but by now it is back in the water. Six to eight volunteers, including experts, have been constantly at work in Sicily. Plumbing works are still due to be dealt with, and the time is running. On 7 March, the Sea-Eye is scheduled to put to sea. Sea-Eye founder and chairman Michael Buschheuer re-scheduled the first mission from April to early March because the drownings in January did not let him rest. This year’s budget is reasonable, Pirnke says. “And I have already spent a lot of money.” Crew members have to pay their own way to and from Malta, besides sacrificing their leave days. Pirnke is not scheduled to go on a mission until September. But he expects to do so earlier. Mission 12 for example does not yet have a skipper, “and I have time,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Although he enjoys sailing his yacht and although he still plays a lot of tennis, one thing is clear: Sea-Eye does not have to beg him for long.
No corrections in the rescue plan
The EU’s Malta Declaration is no reason for Sea-Eye to change their plans. The sea rescue organisation, which is based in Regensburg, Germany, explains: “Libya is a ‘failed state.’ The governmental rule over its territory falls to at least three competing entities. In parts of the country the conditions are those of a civil war. It is doubtful whether the Libyan government is in a position to put agreements into practice all over the country. The so-called Libyan coast guard, which is now to be equipped with EU tax money, has a more than dubious reputation.” Sea-Eye informs that the coast guard attacked a refugee boat causing it to capsize.
In July 2016, the coast guard seized ‘Speedy’, Sea-Eye’s speed boat, outside Libyan territorial waters. “They stole it from us,” Pirnke says. Sea-Eye representatives say that they have indications that the Libyan coast guard participates in the trafficking and/or makes money from it. Sea-Eye considers it unacceptable to equip such an organisation. Sea-Eye presumes that people will continue fleeing to Europe. It is to be feared that new routes will be found. So far the volunteer aid workers were motivated by the conviction that one cannot let people in distress drown. Once the Malta Declaration is put into practice, their minds will also focus on not sending people back “into the hell of Libya.”