Ryan Ellison didn't expect his first solo passage to turn into a rescue mission. He shares the part he played in helping to assist 319 migrants at sea off the Canary Islands
Migrants making crossings in rafts – and the often tragic consequences of putting to sea in overloaded and unsuitable craft – have become an all too common headline, particularly in Europe and North Africa.
Like many sailors cruising the Mediterranean, Ryan Ellison and his partner Sophie Darsy had discussed how they would act if they came across a raft carrying migrants. But they had never thought about the implications if there was only one of them onboard.
When Ryan was tasked by MRCC Las Palmas to stay with what he thought was one raft of people, who were drifting 60 miles south of the Canaries, he found the whole experience emotionally overwhelming.
‘I was really scared; I was scared for the people on the raft, I was scared for myself. I wasn’t under any impression that they were trying to get on my boat to be malicious in any way. But there’s always this thought: What if the boat gets swamped? What if they get too close? What if somebody jumps out of the raft to try to swim to your boat? All these thoughts start going through your head. That was the really hard part for me, how do you manage all this? ‘ he told Yachting Monthly.
Since 2018, Ryan and Sophie have cruised Scandinavia, Europe and around the Atlantic aboard their Beneteau Oceanis 40, Polar Seal, but this trip was Ryan’s first passage singlehanded sailing, and his first solo sail across the Atlantic. Sophie was in Paris, France waiting for Ryan.
He left Lanzarote bound for Antigua but one day into the passage received a VHF radio call which would change his life.
At 1630, MRCC in Las Palmas asked Ryan to sail four miles south after reports of rafts carrying people drifting in the ocean. On arrival he saw one black rubber raft with around 50 men, women and children onboard, one of them waving an orange flag.
When the rescue helicopter arrived on the scene, the crew asked Ryan to remain with the raft, as the helicopter was running low on fuel and the rescue boat was dealing with another incident. Essentially, Polar Seal would be an AIS beacon for when the emergency services returned.
‘Night was starting to set in, and I said I would stay, but I really didn’t know how I was going to keep track of them. From my perspective, it was my second night on a solo sail, I was by myself. It was not the best of conditions as I was in the middle of the acceleration zone, so it was quite windy, 25-30 knots, and 2m choppy seas. There was also no moon,’ said the ex-pilot.
‘At first I thought that the raft had some propulsion. So I was really trying to keep my distance because it was just me with my small boat, and 50 people on a 40 foot boat wasn’t gonna work. It was a very emotional sight to see that many people drifting at sea.’
Luckily, one of the migrants on board the raft had a small torch. Ryan spent hours keeping a fix on the tiny light while waiting for the emergency services to return, although he soon became disorientated; he could also see other torch lights in different directions. As the hours passed, the fleet began drifting southwest, further into the Atlantic.
The weather had also changed, and as Ryan sat in the cockpit watching for the light from the raft, a number of waves broke into the boat and down into the saloon, destroying the couple’s log book and a camera.
By this time, an emotional Ryan had contacted Sophie, and asked her to act as a liaison between Polar Seal and MRCC Las Palmas.
Cold, wet and shivering, Ryan was relieved when the helicopter reappeared at 2200; the rescue boat arrived and Ryan was allowed to continue his passage.
‘When I left, one of the helicopter crew said: ‘If you hadn’t stayed here tonight these people would have died as we wouldn’t have been able to find them.’
That’s a pretty heavy thing to take on by yourself, or at least for me it was. If I hadn’t done this, these people would have died,’ said Ryan.
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In total, 319 migrants were rescued from six rafts on 25 January 2022. The Walking Borders migration monitoring group also reported that 18 people had died while trying to make the crossing from Africa to Lanzarote although this has not been confirmed by the authorities.
For Ryan, the real impact of what he had experienced didn’t hit him until later.
Sleep deprived from sailing solo, and having spent hours reflecting on the incident, he decided to stop at the Cape Verdes.
‘I was mentally drained and the weather was not allowing me to keep going straight across the Atlantic either. It was a bit of a blessing for me. I wasn’t really sure if I was going to keep going with the solo sail. It was just a bit too much for me to process,’ he admitted.
Nurtured and encouraged by other sailors who had heard about his role in the rescue, Ryan decided to finish his solo crossing, arriving in Antigua on 2 March 2022.
Ryan and Sophie now want to share their story to help other sailors who find themselves faced with similar situations, especially as more cruisers are being asked to assist migrants at sea.
‘As sailors we have a duty to assist in any type of distress situations, but you also have to make sure that you are safe,’ explained Sophie, who runs the couple’s YouTube channel, Ryan & Sophie Sailing.
‘It is complicated, sensitive and a little bit taboo because obviously everybody wants to help. It does sound inhuman but you can’t get too close [to the raft] because you never know what can happen, and the situation can actually escalate. It’s quite heartbreaking to see a lot of people in distress and you want to take them on board and you want to give them wherever it is that you can give them, but there is this boundary where you have to stay safe. The best thing you can do is to keep a visual contact and call the Coastguard, and stay there until everyone is safe.’
As well as having a clear plan and means of communication, like a satellite phone, Ryan also recommends making sure shore support is in place when sailing offshore solo.
‘I was on the boat solo, but I wasn’t solo because I had Sophie [at the end of the sat phone]; without her it would have been totally different, and I’m not sure I would have gotten through it as well as I did. In a totally new situation – like the one I experienced – you have all these emotions and chemical reactions like adrenaline going through your body, and to have somebody on a phone that you know really well and you can trust, and who can be very calm with you is a really big benefit,’ he shared.
‘The big lesson I got from this experience was that sometimes these events will impact you in a much bigger way than you think they will. I wasn’t prepared for that. I think that was a big challenge,’ added Ryan.
Sophie and Ryan now plan to sail Polar Seal to Bermuda and then to Nova Scotia for summer 2022.
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