Agios Gatos revisited – Yellow Boats

One week ago 9 people were stranded on this little rock in the Mediterranean, with waves threatening to push them back into the sea. We managed to get them to safety, and a couple of days ago we re-visited the site. With calm seas it is an idyllic coastline, harsh and rugged, but beautiful.

Maritime Search and Rescue for Dummies


The Yellow Boats

I’m on my way home from Samos, Greece, where the Swedish Sea Rescue Society has deployed two highly specialized 12m Victoria Class rescue boats. For reasons explained below it is necessary to do a short recap of what search and rescue at sea really means and why we are doing it. So let’s do a Search and Rescue (SAR) 1.01 just to bring all aboard this trip…

Maritime safety is the backbone of all maritime activities and has been organized internationally since the creation of the International Maritime Organization and the 1948 Safety of Life at Sea convention (SOLAS). But lets us start with another convention, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, more specifically article 98:

Article 98: Duty to render assistance

  • Every state shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers:
  • To render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost;
  • To proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonable expected of him;
  • After a collision, to render assistance to the other ship, its crew and its passenger and, where possible, to inform the other ship of the name of his own ship, its port of registry and the nearest port at which it will call.
  • Every coastal state shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of and adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so requires, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighboring states for this purpose.

This article is mirrored in the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) where it is stated in chapter V, paragraph 33 that:

  • The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization, to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly.

Just to ensure that no one misses the point, let’s point to another convention saying the same thing, the 1989 Convention on Salvage:

Article 10 – Duty to render assistance

  •  Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel and persons thereon, to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea.
  •  The States Parties shall adopt the measures necessary to enforce the duty set out in paragraph 1.

To put more emphasis on this matter there is another, more specialized convention that covers the specific responsibilities in regard of search and rescue, the 1979 SAR Convention. Parties to the SAR Convention are required to co-ordinate their search and rescue services with those of neighboring States. Unless otherwise agreed between the States concerned, parties should authorize immediate entry into their territorial sea or territory of rescue units of other parties solely for the purpose of searching for the position of maritime casualties and rescuing the survivors of such casualties.

Quite clear right? No questions there I hope, at sea we have to cover each other’s back, no matter who, where, nor why – if you’re in distress then I’m obliged to do what I can to help – and vice versa. Search and rescue is and should be a collaborative effort to, with all available means, save lives at sea and render assistance to those in distress. Anyone that has experienced the horror of drifting with an engine failure, being stuck on ground, or worse, being shipwrecked, knows how it feels… The rest of us don’t want to experience it, trust me.

In Europe we now have a situation where people venture out at sea in boats (lacking a better word for those death-trap rubber dinghies) filled with so many passengers that by definition they are in distress as soon as they let go of the moorings. Furthermore, these people are to a high extent unexperienced sailors (at best), not able to swim, and generally dangerously far outside their comfort zone. They are being launched by scruple-less “service providers” in any weather, preferably in the middle of the night, with five minutes boat handling instructions and an approximate direction to follow. At the destination they face a coastline they don’t know, with limited safe access to land, razor sharp rocks, and rough seas. That is, if they’ve gotten that far. Leaking inflatable boats and substandard engines with barely enough fuel to make the trip is just too often the case. Life jackets, yes, but of extremely poor quality often in wrong colors.

These people comes in numbers that puts a chokehold on the available resources for SAR, leading to a horrifying number of casualties at sea, a majority of which are children. And the SAR resources are not designed for the purpose, lacking equipment and training in the SAR specifics. The personnel being stretched to the limit, both physically as well as mentally having to deal with dead people basically on a daily basis.

Back to Samos, Greece, and our two Victoria Class rescue vessels, Rescue Postkodslotteriet and Rescue Handelsbanken Liv. These vessels are designed and built by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society for one specific purpose – to be an all-weather platform from which to save lives. With a top speed of 35 knots, self-rightening, a low stern from where you can work close to the water, twin water jets enabling the vessel to maneuver in tight areas, and a draft of 0,8 meter (minimum operation depth 2m under the jet intake). They are equipped with all kinds of rescue equipment and carry the most advanced technical gadgets available. These vessels are manned by internally trained volunteers with hours and hours of experience of the boat type and of rescue missions along the Swedish coast. More professional rescuers are hard to find.

Based on the above it would be reasonable to assume that ANY agency responsible for SAR, anywhere in the world, would embrace an initiative that added to the SAR system capacity and capability that there is a local lack of. After all SAR is a collaborative effort with the purpose to save lives, and ships of opportunity is a vital part of that effort, even when the opportunity is being “staged” by a non-governmental organization specialized in SAR. Not that we have hi-jacked the local Greek SAR system, just added more strength to a system under pressure. Not that we have done so covertly, on the contrary, it has been done continuously informing the Hellenic Coast Guard in Piraeus and the local office on Samos. And speaking of which, here we tie back to the heading of this little reflection; someone, somewhere, seems to have initially totally misunderstood the international obligations of a nation state in regard of safety within its SAR region. The two Victoria Class boats have for the last week and a half been grounded and not allowed to move an inch without direct permission to do so, and not without Hellenic Coast Guard presence on both boats. No training, no patrolling, no domain awareness, and no prevention etc. etc. So, how does that correspond with the above? It doesn’t. We have been fighting a wind mill that is based on a military/law enforcement hierarchal command structure. Where this is the case, no matter where in the world, the system alienates itself from the surrounding structures and thus fails to embrace all the good initiatives that should be nurtured and left to thrive. Humanitarianism and Militarism is like water and oil, they just don’t mix well. I’ve seen this in in various places; in Africa, in Egypt, in Brazil, and frustratingly so on Samos, Greece. But not all hope is out of the window, the last signals from the island just received indicates that the leach has been loosened and that the first two independent patrols have been conducted. It looks like the Hellenic Coast Guard has done the impossible, loosened the tie, rolled up their sleeves, and thrown pride, prejudice, rank, and protocol aside and joined the new world of SAR. That would be admirably strong of them and I would be the first to salute such a decision.

In Sweden, where SAR system isn’t under control by the uniforms but by the Swedish Maritime Administration, the non-governmental Swedish Sea Rescue Society responds to 70% of all distress calls received by the Swedish Joint Rescue Coordination Centre. This being made possible by 65 rescue stations and 200 boats around the coast, and over 2100 well trained volunteers. The organization is 108 years old and have never lost a rescue man during a mission. And the government pays how much for this? Zilch, nada, nema nichta, ingenting, nothing. All is paid through memberships and donations, with an estimated leverage of maybe 15-1, i.e. every Swedish crown donated delivers 15 crowns worth of social services to the country. We can do for 1 crown what the state would have to pay 15 for.

While the last chapter of this classical Greek tragedy isn’t yet written we will keep on trying to turn it to a comedy, to create that level of trust needed for the powers that be to acknowledge the gift from the Swedish people – to borrow a fraction of our Swedish SAR system for a while in support of the Greek ditto. It looks like the men in uniform have a sense of humor, and a heart, and we’re looking forward to support their SAR responsibility. And just for the sake of it, a sentence from the Quran that I have quoted before – “whoever saves a life, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely”. The “yellow boats” saved 46 people last Wednesday, many of which would have died without our help. // M