Günther Pirnke (skipper of Sea-Eye mission 7): thoughts about our rescue operation off Libya


Günther Pirnke, skipper of mission 7, is a retired police officer from Schwandorf, Germany. He has already done approximately 100,000 nautical miles and has crossed the Atlantic.

What drives people to put themselves into such mortal danger? The most difficult living conditions, utter poverty, persecution, hopelessness…

The people smugglers take advantage of these facts, promise the refugees a better life in Europe and take their last money. They crowd the people into rubber boats, up to 140 on one boat of 7 by 2.5 metres and send them onto the open sea with a 50-PS-engine, telling them that they will soon be spotted and taken on board by a rescue boat.

But the rubber boats are not made for so many people. They are absolutely unseaworthy.

Usually the rubber boats start around midnight, accompanied by the people smugglers on their own motor boats. Provided the weather is good and the winds favourable. If the wind blows strongly from the north, a start from the flat Libyan coast is impossible as the waves would make any rubber boat capsize. If the northern winds are more moderate (up to about 2 bft), a particular wind system develops at the coast. This thermic wind system causes a land wind close to the coast, blowing out to sea. It starts around midnight and ends around 05:00 am. It is exactly this land wind which is used for the start. However, this wind is only a coastal phenomenon. It usually ends a few nautical miles further out.

There the boats are exposed to the conditions of the open sea, with high waves and stronger winds. Due to the heavy load, the boats usually get bent in the middle. This poses an enormous danger to peoples’ lives, especially since none of the refugees is provided with a life vest. Whoever goes overboard drowns miserably.

Starting at about 14 nm off the coast, the people on their unseaworthy rubber boats can hope to come across a private rescue organisation or a battle ship. Any boat in distress before the 14 nm limit that is not sighted has no chance to be rescued.

When you know that, as a rule, rubber boats – most are the same size – are filled with up to 140 people, you can imagine what has happened when a boat is found holding only 112 people…

They say that for 27 survivors there is one who did not make it.

I was on the Sea-Eye, together with my eight-member crew. We were mission 7, from 7-21 July 2016. During the first week we were facing strong northerly winds and there was no rescue operation. During the second week we had more moderate winds. There were three days when dramatic rescue operations were taking place.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

05:50 Aquarius (a private rescue organisation) asks for support on channel 16. They have located a full rubber boat at position 33.27 N, 013. 27 E. We head there.

08:20 Distance to the position is about 19 nm. On arrival, Aquarius is still attending to the rescue of 112 people, including women and children. Our support is no longer needed.

12:00 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Rome asks us by satellite phone to head 20 nm north to search an area of about 20 by 20 miles for a wooden boat, with up to 500 refugees.

16:30 MRCC Rome tells us to stop searching for the wooden boat. No further explanation.

On this Monday, 18 July 2016, during the hours from 04:00 and 15:00, the five private rescue boats rescue approximately 3,200 people from 21 refugee boats. The number of people who did not make it remains unknown.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

04:00 Position 33.17 N, 012.57 E

04:20 Radio message: sighting of rubber boat on position 32.08 N, 012. 23 E. Start engine and head there.

05:40 Radio message from rescue boat Astral: three rubber boats sighted at a distance of 16 nm from our position.

08:00 Our GPS fails. From now on we navigate by hand on the sea map.

09:20 Sighting of two small wooden motorboats, with two people on board. Probably people smugglers, looking for their refugee boats to recover the outboard engines after the rescue.

10:15 Sea Watch 2 asks for life vests. We head towards Sea Watch 2. Distance about 7 nm. My crew prepares the dinghy operation.

10:30 Sea Watch 2 reports two further rubber boats in our direction, at a distance of about 4 nm. We reach the position 30 minutes later. Bourbon Argos and Astral are already there and have provided the refugees with life vests.

17:00 Engine off. Position 33.14 N, 012.39 E, drifting into the night.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

03:00 Start engine. We are about 24 nm off the coast of Libya, west of Tripolis. Start search for refugee boats.

07:50 Own sighting of two rubber boats. Position 33.04 N, 012.37 E. Let dinghy to water via suspension. Dinghy crew, consisting of previously appointed chief operations and two others, moves towards refugee boats, equipped with rescue materials and hand-held radios. We call the near-by Astral for support.

Together we provide the 244 people on board the two boats with life vests and bottled water.

The Phoenix, another private rescue boat, arrives. All dinghy crews cooperate and take the refugees, including many women and children – now secure in their life vests – to the Phoenix, which is able to take them all on board.

Once we get back our 200 life vests, our operation is finished.

Our mission 7 has ended successfully. We head towards our current home port, La Valetta on Malta. It takes us about 28 hours to do the approximately 200 nm.

We, the eight Sea-Eye guys, are very happy with our mission. The Sea-Eye contributed to the rescue of about 3,550 people, directly rescuing 244 of them.

I will never forget the overwhelming joy in the eyes of the rescued. Their gestures of happiness. Their gratitude when they received the life vests.

One of the two rubber boats was already filling up with water. Many refugees were trying to bale out the boat. It would not have lasted much longer…

This boat held 128 people. All of them young and hopefully heading towards a better life than the one they left behind.

Personally, I am experiencing a deep feeling of contentment which I have never felt before in such an intensive way during my 63 years of life. I am grateful for that. It is the reward for this somewhat dangerous mission. My crew is feeling the same. We will set out again to rescue people who are hoping for a better life.

My wish is that the big governments of this world finally do something to end this kind of suffering. Unity is needed.
Günther Pirnke