In times of crisis, there comes the moment for each of us to consider “what can I do to help?”, but for captain Klaus Vogel, there was no such moment. If I asked you to create a picture of a ship’s captain in your mind, I can almost guarantee you would conjure a man not dissimilar in appearance to Klaus. He has the perfect combination of calm about him that instantly puts you at ease, a little weathering that speaks of experience and long months at sea, and a very genuine warmth in his eyes. But there is also a spark about him, because for all his gentleness, Captain Vogel is a man on a very real mission.
His reaction to the refugee crisis was in his words “normal. If you are at sea and there is somebody in distress, you help them. It’s not even as an obligation, it’s a normal thing that you help each other. It’s no different than if you see someone fall in the street - you help them up. I was shocked by fact that this normality was dissipated through a lot of debates and distancing. It has become so politicised that people have become afraid, and do not look closely enough to these people [refugees], they see them as a foreign group and not just as human beings who are very close and you can just do something [to help]. It’s simple. As a Seaman, I feel a special obligation to do my best as a professional, and I felt that my community did not act. I mean, it’s life or death for these people! Just one ferry boat out in the Mediterranean could go and could rescue everyone, but they don’t. No captain of a ferry goes, and no company who owns a ferry boat goes… it’s so simple but it’s not done.” The only possibility for Klaus was to fulfil his duty, find a boat and save lives.
I first met with Klaus on a particularly foggy day at the port of Sassnitz on the island of Rügen, looking out to the Baltic sea. It’s a completely average, bleak harbour with a wooden palette store, a fish processing factory and a car ferry in the neighbouring dock. There’s an overwhelming smell of the morning’s catch, and thousands of hopeful seagulls flying overhead. If you keep walking past all this, you will reach the Aquarius - a robust 77 metre long ex fishery protection vessel (a refuge and medical support for deep sea fishermen) with a blazing orange hull. There with a small group of potential supporters, captured by Klaus and his story, curious to know more, eager to help, we spent the afternoon touring the boat. A week later I had the opportunity to sit down over a coffee and talk more about how this all came to be.
Klaus has a long standing relationship with sailing. He took his first position working on a commercial ship at the age of 18, and aside from breaking to provide a more present support and stability to his wife and growing family - when he re-educated himself and built a second career as a historian - he has been on the water most of his life. And this lifelong relationship with the ocean, this integral part of his being must be at least in part why his mission came about so naturally in his mind. Speaking with Klaus about spending so much time at sea - it’s clear how ones perspective and world view is altered by the conditions. As Klaus puts it “It’s not exactly like an astronaut, but the open sea - in the middle of the Atlantic, or the Pacific - it’s a little bit comparable. You have your own vision, independent, you get your news from different places in the world as if it were a different planet, all at a distance. You’re not closer to home than any other people in - let’s say - China or America or wherever. So you are a little bit outside, and you are close to nature, even considering that modern shipping is very technical… but still it’s the weather which is stronger than the ship, and it’s the wind and the waves and the sky that are closest. Even a farmer who goes into his house at night is not so exposed to nature as we are on the ship because on the ship we are always exposed, even at night. In my cabin I feel the movement of the wind, I feel the waves… it gives me a depth and inner quietness which I wouldn’t so easily have on land where you are easily distracted.” This deep set knowledge of the overwhelming authority of nature when you are sea clearly informed Klaus in his actions, and allowed him to see so vividly how refugees get into trouble in the water. He explains the reality of the situation perfectly: when boarding the boats in Libya (which oftentimes will cost an individual or family everything they have), refugees are told that the distance is not so great - they will “cross the river” - and they board with the clear skies and calm seas of northern Africa for reassurance, believing - having no information to inform them otherwise - that these conditions will continue. But in such a vast body of water, conditions can change fast. Oversubscribed vessels ride low in the water and are often not seaworthy in the first place, and the heartlessness of people charging refugees to board knowing all these circumstances is just heartbreaking. There is no way they can send them off without being aware of the terrible fate that vast quantities of them will meet, and the numbers support this assumption: it’s estimated that around 3000 people died or went missing in the first 9 months of 2015 trying to make the crossing.
And so a team formed around the idea, and that team is SOS Mediterranee. It’s a rapidly growing collective of friends, family, financial supporters and staff, each motivated to use their skills and resources - like Klaus and his seamanship - to spread the word and make the project effective. But with only days before the maiden voyage, Klaus is still looking for a way to make it sustainable. The Aquarius will sail the shortest route around Europe into the Mediterranean, with a short call in Marseilles to collect a medical team from Médecins du Monde, and a search a rescue team all organised by the French branch of SOS Mediterranee. From there, the ship will continue to the Italian island of Lampedusa and begin the rescue effort. There they will be on standby, listening out on the radio and liaising with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to be ready to act whenever required. The need is desperately real, and the ship has the capacity to run all year round, housing 200-500 refugees at a time, but for that to happen there needs to be constant financial support, and this is of course the greatest challenge. The crew, ground teams and general civil support are all in place, but even with a modest crew, it costs around 250,000€ a month (plus medical costs) to mount this kind of rescue. Along with the rest of the SOS Mediterranee support team, I can only hope that Klaus’ motivation will inspire others to help like it did us.
“In a storm it’s like there is no future, no past, just the boat where you are in the now.”
Captain Klaus Vogel
If you would like to know more, make a donation or you have a great idea of how to help or spread the good word, you can find the information you need at: www.sosmediterranee.org
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Text and images by Ruth Bartlett