29th Sep 2021

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Adrift at sea: an empty wooden boat

  • A sign of what lays ahead for the Ocean Viking (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The small wooden boat first appeared as a tiny dot on the horizon 25 nautical miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, in Malta's vast search-and-rescue zone.

"Luisa, Luisa, I have something. A visual," announced the Ocean Viking bridge over the radio on Thursday morning (1 July).

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  • Ocean Viking entering Libya's search and rescue zone (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

The team jumped into action for the possible first rescue.

But aside from candy wrappers and crushed water bottles, the boat was empty.

"We always check in case of any doubt," said SOS Mediterranee's rescue coordinator Luisa Albera.

Its sudden appearance came as the first ominous, haunting, sign of what lay ahead for the Ocean Viking.

Alone in the vast emptiness of the sea with no discernible land mass on the horizon, the boat soon disappeared in wake of the Norwegian-flagged search-and-rescue vessel.

Within moments, the Italian coast guard chatter announced a second boat had been found.

"There is another one," said Luisa. The Italian coast guard was on to it, launching a rescue.

But the circumstances surrounding the small wooden boat remain unclear. Authorities may mark the boats, notifying others of a rescue. This one appeared untouched, its likely outboard motor also missing.

Were they rescued by a fishing boat? Were they intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard? Perhaps it had been adrift for days or even weeks.

But the Libyans are also known to have ventured into the search-and-rescue zones of EU states.

On Wednesday, the NGO's aerial asset Seabird, a small propellor plane, saw the Libyan coast guard fire shots into the water of a boat in distress, inside Malta's search-and-rescue zone.

Only last week, the EU claimed human rights are an integral part of the training it gives to the Libyan coast guard.

"The EU trains to the standards that we give ourselves also in the European Union," a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels.

Yet somehow the boat spotted by Seabird still managed to evade the EU-trained Libyans and was located some 35 nautical miles from Lampedusa.

Later that same evening, a Mayday was made after a wooden boat capsized 32 nautical miles from the island. All those on board were rescued by a passing fishing vessel.

Then around midnight Wednesday, the vessels, maritime-coordination centres and the Ocean Viking received an alert from the NGO rescue hotline Alarm Phone.

Another boat had been spotted some 19 nautical miles south of Lampedusa. "They were 75 miles from us," said Luisa, noting those onboard had made it.

Although a northerly wind may make it more difficult to leave the Libyan coast, the overall weather conditions are ripe.

A race is now underway to rescue people before they are intercepted by the Libyans. The odds are stacked against Ocean Viking.

A Maltese air force drone is currently somewhere on the west side of Tripoli, and most likely coordinating with three Libyan patrol vessels in the same area.

The Ocean Viking also has aerial support from Seabird and Pilot Voluntaries.

But its max speed is 11 knots per hour, while the Libyans can hit 30.

"This is the unbalanced reality," said Luisa.

Author bio

Nikolaj Nielsen, an EUobserver journalist, is embedded on the Ocean Viking for the coming weeks, reporting exclusively from the boat on the Mediterranean migration route.

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