Who remembers the fine work done by merchant ships after the Vietnam war, with the “boat people” fished out of stormy seas and carried to safety? There are probably memories of the fine work of Captain Rinnan of the big Wilhelmsen ro-ro Tampa, who rescued an enormous number of people from a sinking boat and then faced down the Australian authorities who were giving him a hard time as he sought to safely land them.

He went down as a hero, twice over, although his company and flag state (Norway) gave him plenty of moral support on the day.Merchant ships are back on the Search and Rescue front line again, most notably in the Mediterranean, where the “official” Mare Nostrum operation to save the lives of refugees has ended, being replaced by a far more modest EU affair that will operate far closer to the coast. There has been a great deal of moralising and breast beating about the scaling back of coastguard operations, ostensibly because of cost, although it has been whispered that people who are less sure of being rescued might be deterred from attempting the voyage.

It does not seem to be a move that anyone can be particularly proud of, in a year that has seen 150,000 refugees rescued from leaky boats in the Mediterranean, where it is believed that at least another 3,000 have perished.There has been rather less publicity about the role of merchant ships in this continuous rescue mission, and the fact that with the coastguards standing down, it will be left largely to those aboard these vessels to provide the main lifeline for these wretched escapees and victims of people smugglers. It is not that they will have any choice, regardless of longstanding traditions to rescue those in distress. Both SOLAS and UN refugee conventions prescribe legal obligations for those aboard the ship which cannot be ignored. If people needing rescue are sighted, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about these responsibilities, although it is said that those aboard some ships will studiously look in the other direction as they steam past.

It is one thing for a coastguard cutter, with a relatively low freeboard, large crew trained in emergency operations to cope with a refugee boat packed with distressed people. It is something rather different for a large merchant ship, with a long climb onto its deck and a tiny crew, to provide succour to 200 or 300 desperate souls.The fact that many ships this year on passage through the Mediterranean, have done just that, their crews showing both seamanship and humanity, has been insufficiently recognised. It clearly has not been easy and not a skill set that will feature in the training of the average merchant mariner. They have seen terrible sights, with corpses in the sea and in the bottoms of the refugee craft. They have found themselves facing great mobs of desperate people, far more than can be easily controlled.They have to consider the safety of their own ships; think on the suitability of a laden chemical or gas carrier as a passenger vessel! They may have to face armed traffickers, while the refugees themselves might be carrying weapons, even infectious diseases. And as winter sets in, there will be no let-up, for every situation which set these armies of people on the move remains unresolved.For all their seamanship and skill, probably they will receive very little recognition or even thanks for their humanitarian endeavour. The ports to which they divert to land their distressed people will not be overjoyed when they arrive, such is the climate of the times in which we live.

Author: Michael Grey                                                 Source : seatrade