Life on board the Phoenix is challenging. It requires courage and stamina to make it through the voyage without breaking down. Living space consists of small compartments. Brushing your teeth and taking a shower require holding handles to prevent falls. Water fluctuates from cold to hot in an instant. Standing on deck is risky - you can be swept away by a wave to an almost certain death. Piracy is a reality. Lack of sleep is the norm.
I had the privilege of spending one week on board the Phoenix as a guest of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a private Malta-based organization that engages in search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. During that week, I witnessed 146 men, women and children being rescued from the dangerous Mediterranean crossing that they had made in search of a better life.
From this moving experience, I came away with a deep admiration for the professionalism of the MOAS team members and the pride they take in saving lives. In their rescue efforts they have witnessed suffering and death first hand - including the sight of those children who did not survive the journey. For this they will always have my deepest and most sincere respect.
The Phoenix is a mechanical beast whose job is to scout the area between North Africa and Europe, and rescue the many victims of conflict, persecution, and poverty whose only available route to Europe involves unscrupulous smugglers who place them at great risk in unsafe boats on a dangerous journey.
Moved by the Lampedusa tragedy in 2013 in which 366 people died at sea, Chris and Regina Catrambone founded MOAS in 2014, with their own personal funds. They purchased a rundown ship in Virginia which needed six months of repairs to transform the vessel into a seaworthy craft. The Phoenix rose, because that is what a Phoenix is meant to do - rise from the ashes.
The Phoenix was the first private rescue vessel to operate in the Mediterranean in 2014. The MOAS story is well documented on its website (www.moas.eu) which also acts as a platform to raise funds (MOAS operations cost around 1 million Euro each month.). Since its establishment, the organization has saved over 33,000 lives in the Mediterranean. "We are on the frontline," notes Franco Potenza, the Director of Operations with 35 years of experience in the Italian Navy.
Indeed, experience is crucial for such operations. Some of the crew onboard the Phoenix have worked for decades with the Maltese, Italian, and US military forces. Others have vast experience in private industry, working on oil rigs and trawlers. From the captain to the steward, everyone's role is crucial for the success of the operations.
"When we started everyone thought it was impossible," notes Marco Cauchi, Director of the MOAS Search and Rescue Operations. "I thought that it couldn't be done," he adds.
Mimmo, as he is affectionately known by the crew, is a Maltese national who makes the first contact with the refugees and migrants during rescue operations. He has been directly involved in the rescue of over 25,000 people since 2014. His job is to drive the rescue rib (rigid inflatable boat) and approach the distressed boat, providing life jackets and then taking them onboard, usually in waves of 25. "Some people might be fortunate to have the chance to save one life in their lifetime, I do it all the time," he says proudly.
One evening I noticed Mimmo listening to a recording of one of his three children. He explained that the most touching and difficult moments in this job are those seeing children in such distress. "What is the difference between my children and these children," he asks. "You try to give them that extra bit of love."
As the Phoenix landed in Pozzallo near the southern tip of Sicily to disembark those it had rescued - including a mother and a child - I reflected on the extreme poles of humanity - the cruelty but also the abundance of love. And it was on the Phoenix that I saw these two faces of humanity fiercely collide together during a two hour rescue operation.
It is only fitting that the Phoenix's second life is dedicated to saving the lives of thousands in need at sea.
Text: Fabrizio Ellul
Photography: Giuseppe Carotenuto