Skipper Schwandt: The courageous rescuers of the Sea-Eye.

27 August 2016.

For a seaman the mass of deaths in the Mediterranean is one of the worst facts of a terrible time. We as seamen know what it is like out there, when the weather is bad, in the wide and lonely expanse of the sea. I can barely face imagining what the people in the rubber boats must be going through. Therefore I support Sea-Eye, an organisation of volunteers who cruise the Mediterranean in an old cutter bought from old East German stock, with one single aim: to rescue as many people as possible by calling help. They have rescued 3,950 people since April.

This week I met with some rescuers from Hamburg in the ‘Haifischbar’: a young woman working as a controller, a defence attorney, a retiree, a man working in fire protection, and a social worker looking after young people. They all sacrificed their leave days in order to help, and they were risking a lot. The Sea-Eye is not among the youngest cutters, and in a storm it heels over up to 50 degrees.

Each mission goes on for two weeks, and they share the crampedness and heat on board the cutter with crew members whom they have never met before. What happens during the rescue operations is unpredictable – no one knows how the refugees will react in a panic. Or whether one of the rubber boats, which the rescuers are approaching, is holding IS terrorists after all.

“We are amateurs with poor equipment and little training,” Gunter Körtel says. A social worker looking after young refugees, he previously worked as a skipper on tankers, a real seaman. These people give me back my belief in the good in humanity due to their courage and their commitment where other institutions and the European Union often fail. “One cannot simply leave the refugees to their fate,” Nicole Hoppe says, a young woman in her late twenties, from Sankt Pauli, Hamburg.

What kind of a feeling is it when a rubber boat is being sighted in the morning twilight? “Worrying,” she says and they all nod their heads. But after a sighting they have to control their emotions, work, and yes, simply function. Hand out life vests, calm down the refugees until the navy ships they signalled arrive. One day, when the sea was particularly calm (“refugee weather”), the Sea-Eye volunteers rescued more than 700 people in distress.

“The boats that we find are getting smaller from mission to mission,” the Hamburg volunteers report. The people smugglers are sending the refugees out no matter the weather; these are suicide missions. No one knows how many people have drowned; there are estimates that more than 10,000 victims have lost their lives. Stories abound about the IS being involved in the people smuggler business, the rubber boats being delivered from China, the engines being produced in a special, small factory, some women getting raped and imprisoned for several months before going on board, because a seat on board is even more expensive for a pregnant woman. Libya, from whose coast they set off, is a state in dissolution.

Once, they say, they were providing the people on a rubber boat with life vests when a fishing boat appeared. But the crew were not fishermen, they were disguised people smugglers, who calmly removed the outboard engine from the rubber boat before they disappeared again. Another time the rescuers encountered a rubber boat which was only half filled and trying to move away from them. The people on board seemed extremely distressed. What had happened? Had there been a fight on board?

“To hero worship us would be exaggerated,” says one of the men in the ‘Haifischbar’. While worship might be too much, gratitude and respect are not. In the morning after our meeting I hear on the radio that a boat belonging to Doctors without Borders was attacked and shot at.

I am sure: this news will not put off the Hamburg rescuers from joining another mission.

Jürgen Schwandt was born in 1936 and grew up in Sankt Georg, Germany. He was a merchant seaman for many years and is living in Hamburg today. Skipper Schwandt supports the Sea-Eye rescuers.