SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European maritime and humanitarian organisation for the rescue of life in the central Mediterranean. It was founded by citizens in May 2015 in response to the deaths in the central Mediterranean - the world’s deadliest maritime migration route. In this months’ blog, Jérémie, SOS MEDITERRANEE Search and Rescue (SAR) Team Leader on the Ocean Viking talks about the organisation’s work and the challenges they face.

I am one of the SAR Team Leaders on the Ocean Viking and have worked with SOS MEDITERRANEE since May 2018.

I have always worked in the maritime sector, but this job really requires no explanation, what justification do you need to save lives at sea?

SOS MEDITERRANEE is a maritime humanitarian organisation, formed in 2015 by citizens from across Europe, all responding to the loss of lives in the central Mediterranean and the failure of the European Union to prevent these deaths. 

We work as a European network, with teams in Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland.

Together our teams have financed and operated our rescue ship Aquarius from February 2016 until December 2018, and have financed our second rescue ship Ocean Viking, which has been fully operational since August 2019.

Since 2016, SOS MEDITERRANEE has rescued 34,074 survivors on our ships (as of 17 September 2021).

Between May 2016 and April 2020, Ocean Viking operated in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières and from September 2021, our crews were joined by teams from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC).

The IFRC team will provide post-rescue support, including first aid, medical care and psychological support as well as food, dry clothes, blankets, toiletries and information to the people who have been safely brought on board the Ocean Viking.

The team will include medical doctors, a midwife and professionals who can provide psychological support to help those who are particularly vulnerable and in need of extra protection, such as unaccompanied minors and victims of human trafficking.

About the Ocean Viking

The Ocean Viking is a 15 metre wide and 69 metre long ship, designed for mass rescues, as an Emergency Response and Rescue Vessel (ERRV) which is a stand-by offshore vessel for rescuing a large number of passengers and handling mass casualties.

She has a Norwegian flag and is very robust and stable, built for the harsh conditions of the North Sea. She can navigate up to 14 knots and can also manoeuvre quickly with bow and aft thrusters, which is very helpful when approaching boats in distress. 

The bridge provides a 360-degree lookout, which is essential for locating boats in distress in the vast area of sea that we operate in. There are two radars to help us and equipment for night searches, such as a FLIR camera. Ocean Viking is equipped with two rescue boats on davits and one additional boat on a crane, which makes them easy to launch even in rough weather. The vessel used to have a large empty aft deck before being chartered by SOS MEDITERRANEE, but in 2019, in collaboration with our then partner, Médecins Sans Frontières, we installed a container-module to accommodate, provide care and protect survivors when operational at sea in this area. Using adapted containers, we installed a shelter for men, and a separate one for women and children, separate toilet facilities and a medical module. The latter includes a reception room, a consultation and examination room, an observation room and a midwifery room. We have further storage containers on deck for SAR and medical equipment and sadly, a refrigerated container which can be used as a morgue if needed.

SAR Missions

Each mission at sea can be divided into at least four separate phases. The maintenance and resupply phase, the training phase, the patrol/rescue phase and the post-rescue phase.

Once the ship is ready, crewed and equipped for a mission, the team undertakes extensive training for our operations. This includes drills at sea to practice manoeuvres, theoretical training to review and elaborate on rescue tactics, and medical training to practice basic life support techniques.

All of this training is vital preparation and it contributes to what we call a “shared mental model” ensuring that we all have a common understanding of our priorities and a shared language for the challenges we encounter.

During the patrol and rescue phase, we are in what can be described as an “active standby”. The team operates in shifts, which includes SAR duties, lookout shifts from dawn to dusk, maintenance of equipment, and mental preparation to ensure readiness.

There are different ways we locate distress cases in our area of operations. We can either spot a casualty vessel in the vicinity of our vessel while keeping lookout from the bridge or we can receive an alert to a distress case.

These alerts can come from maritime rescue coordination centres through established means of maritime emergency communication (NavTex, Mayday relays, etc.), or from other civil organisations operating either with airborne assets in the area of operations or relaying distress alerts from shore.

In reality the majority of alerts that are relayed to the relevant authorities and to dedicated rescue assets in the central Mediterranean - such as the Ocean Viking - come from other civil society organisations due to a lack of information-sharing and coordination by maritime authorities.

During the patrol and rescue phase, rescue operations can be launched at any moment.

Because of the different ways of locating boats in distress, we have to be ready to be operational within 15 minutes in case we spot a casualty vessel from the bridge of our ship, while also being prepared for several hours of navigational search, after receiving an alert about a distress case that could be dozens of miles from our current position.

Our day-to-day activity therefore varies enormously. Sometimes we might spend days on active patrol without any interventions, and then we might perform six rescue operations within 36 hours.

Once we have taken survivors on board, our schedule changes entirely to focus on caring for potentially hundreds of men, women and children rescued from distress at sea, many of whom have escaped dire living conditions in Libya and have not had access to medical care for months or years.

Mass Rescue Operations

While each rescue operation is different, all of our interventions can be described as mass rescue.

We generally encounter severely overcrowded and inherently unseaworthy boats, often in critical conditions.

The rescue operations themselves can be divided into different phases: Locate, assess, stabilize, transport. Once we have located a distress case, we perform a thorough assessment, first from the bridge and then from our RHIBs, to identify the greatest risk factors for the particular operation.

Generally, our aim during an intervention is to avoid drowning by distributing life-saving appliances and if necessary, bringing mass floatation devices (including centifloats and rescue rafts), to prevent crushing inside the casualty vessel by offloading as much as possible, and to prevent panic with specific crowd control measures.

Photo Gallery

Blog: SOS Mediterranee Saving Lives in the Mediterranean

You can also view the photos on Flickr.

Our Crew

We have three teams onboard the Ocean Viking: the SOS MEDITERRANEE team, the IFRC team and the marine crew who are composed of nine members (employed by the shipowner of the Ocean Viking).

The SOS MEDITERRANEE team is responsible for all rescue operations, while the IFRC team provides post-rescue support, such as medical care, psychological assistance, protection and basic necessities, for the people who have been safely brought onboard the Ocean Viking.

Altogether these two teams are composed of 22 members.

All the SOS MEDITERRANEE and IFRC team members are extremely experienced in their field of activity and specifically trained for their individual tasks and each team member completes extensive further training in order to prepare them for operations onboard the Ocean Viking at sea. 

During operations at sea, each team member is vital and contributes hugely to of SOS MEDITERRANE’s three mandates: Rescue, Protect and Testify.

Once rescue operations are complete, we often have to wait for several days at sea for instructions from the relevant authorities about disembarking survivors in a place of safety.

Covering the basic needs of survivors on board, providing medical care and continuously advocating for the respect of maritime law becomes the focus of our operations. The shipowner’s marine crew oversees the running of the ship and the navigational aspects.

And the Impact of COVID …

  • Since its emergence, we have been concerned that COVID-19 would severely disrupt the maritime sector and European states would respond in unpredictable ways to the global crisis. In March 2020, we decided that the Ocean Viking would temporarily berth in the port of Marseille while our teams worked towards the resumption of safe and responsible SAR operations. Ocean Viking resumed its SAR activities in June 2020, operating with extensive COVID-19 protocols to minimise and mitigate the risk of transmission and identify and manage any suspected cases onboard.  As you can imagine, it’s been massively complex.
  • The first step has been to ensure that there are no infections among the crew at the time of departure. Our crews have been quarantined and tested before embarking onboard, they wear personal protective equipment and respect preventive measures at all times during rescues, onboard the ship, and following rescue operations.
  • The second stage is to minimize the risk of spreading potential infections once rescued people are on board, to do this, survivors have been provided with masks and have been advised of the COVID-19 preventive measures.
  • The third stage includes contingency measures that will be taken where a suspected case is identified on board.  Generally, all survivors rescued at sea are subjected to temperature and symptoms checks and asked to respect thorough hygiene measures up until the point of disembarkation to keep the risk of infection and cross-infection at a minimum. If someone with symptoms is identified, they can be immediately tested with rapid antigenic test and if found positive, immediately isolated.  

Greatest Challenge

With only one vessel, our greatest challenge is having to prioritize all our individual actions to save as many lives as possible.

If we find we are faced with several critical situations simultaneously, we have to adapt our response to rescue as many lives as possible within the limited means that a single rescue vessel can offer. 

The bare fact is that there’s a lack of rescue assets and lack of support for SAR operations in the central Mediterranean.

We are filling a gap left by State actors and we’re covering a huge area with a dire lack of aerial and naval assets and no effective coordination of SAR operations.