On the sea 69 people drift
They think they die.
The sea is a prison without walls
and with a horizon of promises.
Some are intoxicated:
so much water and die of thirst.
They launch a call that reaches where it had to go.
Who knows the paths they traveled up to here?
Who knows of the paths that await them?
That deep despair, that promise of freedom...
That is also the sea.
There are times when an instant, an event, by itself justifies all the paths you've decided to take, and all the ones you've decided to leave. Moments so essential, not only for one, but essential in itself, that one cannot doubt that one had to be there, and nowhere else.
After seeing from the sea how Etna were snowed and resisting two storms that seems sent by the imposing volcano, we decided to ride a strong north wind to cross to Greece. It was the longest course we've ever made, almost 300 miles, and if there's one thing I've learned from the sea, it's that you never, ever never know how it's going to be this time. We set off fast, with the intention of not losing that wind, we knew that an anticyclone was falling behind it and that the sea would become a trap from which one cannot escape, a still water desert full of mirages and silence. But “Tortuga” is not that fast, and we are not so skilled, and just as the sails had filled and carried us at a steady rhythm, beam reached, for about thirty hours, these suddenly fell over and we were adrift.
The earth was no longer perceived, and the days passed. Soon we were surrounded by a shoal of fishes, and a few turtles, at a prudent distance. We did some homeschool, we cooked deliciously to keep our spirits up, I tried not to pay too much attention to some auditory hallucinations that the rest of the crew couldn't hear. We learned the name of the stars of the Orion constellation when night fell. We turned on the radio two three times, but being so far from land the report was not received. Despite of that, on the third day of the drift, when it was almost sunset, Diego turned on the radio, without hope, more to do something than anything else. And then a voice appeared in the ship.
“Someone can hear me? Hello hello, someone can hear me? Can anyone hear me? Hello, hello, can anyone hear me?"
The voice sounded hopeless, a call to the wind from a space of inexorable solitude, or confinement. A scream in the night, it trembled, and he did not speak as one speaks on the radio, with the nautical codes. It kept repeating, repeating, “can anyone hear me?” Diego answered that he did hear him.
“Please, save us. We are dying. No water since many days. We are sick. Please save us.”
Diego left me the radio so that I could try to understand where they were, and he went to the deck to prepare the boat to leave. After some confusing exchanges, I managed to write down their approximate coordinates, and realized that we were four miles away from them. We started the engine, and it was already black night. As we headed there, I began to take out some drinking water drums that we had, and prepare a bag with food. And then, on the radio, I tried to understand the situation of that man. “How many are on board? How many children? Is someone very sick? Is the boat in good condition? “And so, amazed and trembling, I found out that there were 69 people on board, that the captain had abandoned them for days, that they were from Pakistan, that a woman had been intoxicated with seawater and a child had trouble breathing , and above all, above all, that they were very thirsty and very afraid. I took out all the water reserves, determined that we would boil the non-potable water from the deposit for the rest of the navigation days. Thus, with all the drums, it reached almost 90 liters for them to drink. I also opened the bilges to take out the preserves and food reserves, my bags were derisory for that amount of people, but it was what there was.
On deck, with Diego, we made a plan: we would approach and turn the boat around them to get a good look at the situation; we would approach them in the water by a dinghy. And then? The VHF radio did not reach the ground, 80 miles away. We decided not to tell them. We would try to communicate by radio with a large cargo ship, and that they help us communicate with land. And if we couldn't? We would stay with them, until it is possible. And if not, we would take them ourselves. There had to be some solution..
Seeing the bags of food and water cans, my daughter asked me what we would do if we ran out of water or food and the wind didn't come back. She took out some things, saying we had no more. I reassured her by telling her that the wind would return and that there was enough left for us, but that there were many more of them, it was logical that I give them that amount. I explain to her that a human is a human, a human is a brother. Their life and ours are worth the same, we have to share what there is. A little later, when my daughter saw the boat and saw them, she stopped asking and caring about us. And she herself put back into the bag the only bottle of milk that we had left and the last of the fruit preserves in syrup.
On the boat, everyone had turned on their cell phones, and from some distance we were trying to understand what the boat was like. As we got closer, I realized that it was a sailboat. By the radio, I explained to Farad, my radio interlocutor, that they had to keep calm. That we were a family, that we had a small boat, that they didn't have to try to get on it. I told him that we would stay with them, that they could be calm, that they had to remain calm. Farad's shaky and broken voice answered me “yes, yes, we calm down, but you will save us, right? You take us to a safe place, right? “We will stay with you, we will help you, but please listen, we are not a rescue boat”.
On deck my children watched the ship we were approaching. Many questions came up. “Why did they have to leave their country? Why did they have to navigate in such a dangerous way? Why did the captain abandon them knowing that they were so far from land and without water? What will happen to them now? And if we didn't find them? And if something happened to them, the people who love them, how would they find out? And why couldn't they come without hiding?
I only managed to answer them that they could be us. That we were lucky to be born in a country with peace. That if that hadn't been the case, we might have had to do the same thing they were doing now, and we'd be on that ship, dying of thirst and fear. That they had also had a house, work, school, friends and families, and that they had to leave everything because they couldn't stay. I told them that exile was an act of desperation and courage. And we didn't know how, but we had to help them.
The first impulse of the migrants was to try to get closer to us, but then we moved away again and again on the radio I asked Farad to let us get closer. They stood still, and then the Tortuga stood next to them, Diego got out in the dinghy, and did several round trips. First with a pack of water, and then another, then with the bags of dry fruits and preserves, and came back with the information that they couldn't cook, meaning that my other absurd bag of food was useless. I grabbed the biggest pot I had, and I started to cook oatmeal with chocolate and honey, I imagine that something hot at that moment was like a pampering for the soul. Meanwhile, on the radio, Farad explained to me what was happening to the woman, high fever, vomiting. Diego came across once more, with medicines and the hot pot. And he got on the boat. It seemed natural to him, and so did I. That he is there, sitting among them, talking about the road, about what they experienced, about what was happening... I felt that we could have been sitting with those people on the edge of the road, in their country, with our bicycle, that they could have been the who invited us to something hot or to unite around the embers, as has happened so many times. On board a woman was crying telling Diego that he was an angel. And the child managed to calm down with Diego's pampering and his breathing was regulated. They told him that they had boarded the ship in Turkey. That a few days before, the captain locked them all inside and a ship came looking for him. Meanwhile, I stayed close to the boat, and made calls on the radio. In the AIS, no one in sight. How long could we last like this? And if the sea changed?
“Pam pam, pam pam, here Tortuga vessel, we are in distress”.
Suddenly, a voice answered me. He was the pilot of an airplane, or an helicopter. I repeated the situation, our coordinates. He told me that he would contact maritime rescue on land. After a while, the 'pilot confirmed that rescue would come. That he couldn't say how long it would take, that we stay next to the other boat. He also told me that they had asked a large ship to divert, so that they could help us with sick people. The news was greeted with a sigh of relief aboard the migrants' boat. Six hours passed before help arrived. Diego came and went, the boats drifted, everything was waiting, in the black and calm night. Waiting, mumbles. Sometimes some men would say "thank you" to me and I didn't quite know what to answer, I felt that there was nothing to thank me for. I was grateful to all the decisions I made in life and that led me to that place, to be able to give them a hand, no matter how small. Some began to look inside the boat for everything that could have some value and throw it into our dinghy, to give thanks: a plate, a mattress, a life jacket...
The big boat only arrived minutes before the rescue boat and communicated with me at 5 miles. When I told them that there didn't seem to be a health emergency, they didn't come closer. It was strange when suddenly the night was filled with lights, two boats arrived, the rescue one and the patrol. The rescue took care of passing all the people on board, the patrol police took care of interrogating us. It was an absurd dialogue, with a reflector in the eyes. After a while we were alone. We thought that the police would sink the boat, but they left without doing anything. The abandoned ship now represented a bomb in the sea, a danger. And if some sailors did not see it? And if some wind or some wave threw it on a smaller sailboat? Diego and Mae got on board, seeing if they could get something out of the boat, something useful for us, the winches, the anchor. Or maybe tie the ship to ours? A black cloud accompanied by wind suddenly appeared. The sea began to change shape. It was impossible for us to take charge of the boat, without even knowing what the wind was repairing for us and with the inexperience that we have. The boys returned, we raised sail, and we saw how that danger remained there for all the sailors.
Mae was impressed. “Everything was so dirty inside, mom, I don't think I'll ever get that smell out of my throat. There was vomiting, and... my house is beautiful, how lucky I am... how can they live like this?
- They can't live like this Mae. They are like you, like me. If you were in their situation, you could put up with that too, to survive. The human being adapts to everything”.
We had been with the rescue for eleven hours, and we had to navigate. Eleven hours in which neither Diego nor I had slept. We had 165 miles to go in a straight line to land (which means more miles, of course). It was four in the morning and I asked Diego for an hour of sleep, he didn't give more. At the hour, I took the helm, and he slept. We decided to do short shifts, to recover… The sea was forming, the ship was advancing…. But all that lay ahead was a mystery. It was difficult for us to recover from fatigue, everything that one does not rest at sea, is no longer recovers during the navigation.
But the ship was progressing, and although after the first 20 hours the wind dropped a bit and the waves slowed us down, after 26 hours we were 50 miles from Greek land. That cheered up the whole crew…. When Ulysses, helped by Aeolus, saw his land appear on the horizon, he thought that he was already arriving. That episode of the Odyssey, I read it to the kids during the days without wind. But we hadn't learned our lesson: being fifty miles away doesn't mean anything more than that, it doesn't guarantee that you'll be there in 15 hours. And sure enough, a black front arose. The wind changed. He turned from the East and raised the sea. It was getting more and more difficult for us to keep up-wind, and the bow was pointing more and more southerly. "It doesn't matter," we thought, "if we don't get to that island, you get to another." We had a heading at 150 degrees, far from the 90 degrees we intended. We had two reef (the smaller mainsail size) and we still using a little size of the genoa. Despite this, the ship was keeling over. We soon realized that the storms were coming in our way, and we took everything out, tying up the biggest one as we could with the wind that was there, and setting up the storm sail. There were, during the day, two gust of strong wind, which accompanied the storms. It was strange, the sea had another face, there was a constant 35 knots, and the water was flying over the sea. And then the bursts, spaced and regular for a while. It was raining heavily, you could see little or nothing. We were taking turns at the helm with Diego, and inside the boys sang and laughed, excited by the situation. Our clothes were soaked, and I had to accept that it was better to go out to the helm with wet but warm clothes than without clothes: it was too cold for that.
Night fell, it stopped raining, and hopeful we set up the sails back on. But soon in the dark sky electric lightning was drawn again, and thunder was heard. Again, we took everything out, lift again the storm sail, and made a decision: we would tie the helm to starboard, to steer a course as "south" as possible, and we would let ourselves drift. We were too exhausted to continue outside, in the rain and storms, trying to resist the wind and the sea. All night we drifted towards the West despite having the bow to the South. We would go out every 20 minutes to see if a boat was not coming. In the morning we found that we had moved 25 miles further from our destination. Again the wind changed, this time, we could progress. The sun was out, and that in itself was a joy. We went up and down the waves of two meters 70, three meters, and some passed over us.
My daughter no longer dared to ask if it will be much longer, but tied in the cockpit, looking towards the sea, she shouted to the wind: “Poseidon, Aeolus! We are not Ulysses! Please let us arrive!" The ship was uninhabitable but our cabin, everything had fallen and it was by stepping on objects that I was trying to heat a soup or pasta, so that the crew could continue with energy.
We came ashore at night. In our cabin, Oiuna Mae and Zas, the cat, slept, all pressed against each other, and against the wall given the leaning of the ship. Diego was at the helm, and I, sitting on the ladder to protect my numb body from the wind and waves a bit, directed him with the GPS. I felt pain throughout my body. Exhaustion. And concern: it was a moonless night.
It happens very strangely, which is part of the magic of those adventures in which one surrenders to nature and its spells. It seems to me that the navigator goes far beyond his own forces when facing those forces, and when he sees the imminent arrival, he relaxes. I think it is perhaps one of the most dangerous moments. Ulysses, after nine days and nine nights steering non-stop, fell asleep when he perceived Ithaca. A friend told me about a great navigator who went around the world, and when he arrived at the port of Barcelona he fell asleep and collided with a large oil tanker that was moored there.
IIn the dark, I inform Diego that he is taking a detour, he doesn't answer me. I ask him why he diverts, it's dangerous. There's no answer. I light it up, Diego is startled: he had fallen asleep. We were 3 miles from land. Shaken by the adrenaline that the situation generated in me, I no lo It was very impressive for me, an inexperienced sailor, to enter that deep and narrow cove, the only one that offered shelter from the south wind and the waves from the east. I only managed to glimpse the huge black walls, there were three: one on each side and one in front of me. Sometimes a wave moved me a few degrees off course and I rectified, stiff with fear. I finally reached 10 meters deep, and Diego dropped the anchor. Of course it was moving, given the sea that was “out there”. But it was a good repair. We remained observing the ship, and we concluded that we were well anchored. Then I saw lightning in the distance, we heard a thunder. It was too dark to see Diego's face, but I could imagine it. I thought “we'll start the engine, we'll hold on, we won't hit the rocks”, I didn't say anything, Diego neither. We both stood still, looking towards the horizon. Another lightning bolt. “I don't know if I had a hallucination”… Diego began, “I think I saw lightning”. “Me too”, I confirmed. Diego almost seemed surprised. But there was already another one. "Then it is." he muttered. "No," I replied, absurdly determined. "It is, but it won't come here, we've had enough for today, it won't come here!!". It was almost an order that he gave to the wind. Or a plea. When we observed that the storm was moving away in other directions, we went in to tidy up the ship, and to surrender to sleep.