How can you help those in distress without endangering your vessel or breaking the law? Elaine Bunting investigates

Migrants at sea: the dos and don’ts of helping those in distress

Just before midnight, Tim Herbert-Smith was roused from his bunk.

He was helping deliver Seren, an Ovni 395, from Leros in the eastern Mediterranean to Milford Haven.

Earlier that day they had left Almeria heading for the Straits of Gibraltar.

The skipper was Stephen Johnson from North Sea Maritime, an experienced delivery captain and yacht broker.

Having called for assistance as spotting migrants at sea, Seren's crew watch as the crew of a het ski adrift in the Gibraltar Strait are rescued

Having called for assistance, Seren‘s crew watch as the crew of a het ski adrift in the Gibraltar Strait are rescued. Credit: Tim Herbert-Smith

He had seen a pinprick of light ahead and thought it looked like the flashlight of a mobile phone.

With all hands on deck, Seren drew closer.

‘Our searchlight revealed a jet-ski slowly drifting with three youths aboard dressed only in shorts and T-shirts. We couldn’t make out what language they were shouting in as they called out frantically, but we did pick up the word Morocco,’ says Herbert-Smith.

Seren was around 70 miles from the Moroccan coast and much closer to Spain.

‘We guessed they might be refugees. Now we had to consider what to do next. If we took them in tow or aboard would we risk being charged with bringing in illegal refugees? Would Seren be impounded? Despite all this, we couldn’t abandon them.’

A potential tragedy

The migration crisis exploded in 2015.

In just one year, almost a million people arrived at Europe’s door. It became a huge humanitarian catastrophe.

Young, old, families – people of all ages flocked from Syria and Afghanistan.

In the years since, the migration surge has subsided from this peak but people arrive from many more countries.

The routes have changed. The trafficking networks behind it have become well-established and highly profitable. They have created their own supply lines.

A chart showing the routes migrants at sea take

Maritime migration to Europe exploded in 2015 over four main routes. Credit: Maxine Heath

These now lie across the western and eastern Mediterranean.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the most common nationality of people arriving by land and sea is Tunisian.

Nearly 6,000 Tunisians have made the journey across the Mediterranean so far in 2021. They come from Libya and Algeria too.

Most are young men facing joblessness and political instability at home.

There are key routes from Mauritania to the Canary Islands, Morocco and Tunisia to Spain, and Libya to Sicily.

Italy alone registered 34,000 arrivals by sea last year.

Abandoned lifejackets and inflatables show the routes migrants at sea are taking and where they are making landfall

Abandoned lifejackets and inflatables reveal the routes migrants at sea take and where they make landfall. Credit: Alamy

Then there is a further leg for many: the English Channel route to the UK.

Although by far the shortest distance, it is, as we all know, busy with shipping and prone to bad weather.

The hazards along the way are high.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that, across all routes, 554 migrants died last year.

A majority drowned when their inadequate, overcrowded boats capsized.

When yachtsmen come across these boats they face a moral predicament.

Every migrant voyage is a potential tragedy.

Migrants at sea: Desperate for help

In the darkness, Seren circled round the jet-ski keeping a safe distance ‘so they would not be tempted to swim over to us.’

The official advice is unanimous: if you see a migrant boat, stand off and call for help.

This acknowledges that a small yacht crew could quickly be overpowered by a much larger number of migrants desperate to get ashore.

Three men standing in front of a yacht

The crew of Seren. Credit: Tim Herbert-Smith

Skipper Stephen Johnson broadcast a PanPan which was picked up by Almeria Coastguard.

After a lot of questions, they confirmed that a rescue boat was being sent.

It arrived 45 minutes later and the young men and the jet-ski were taken aboard.

‘The following dawn it was foggy and chilly and a Force 6-7 westerly wind came in with a choppy sea,’ recalls Tim Herbert-Smith.

Migrants at sea being rescued by a lifeboat

The youngsters were rescued before bad weather set in. Credit: Tim Herbert-Smith

‘We don’t think the lads would have had a chance in those conditions. It seems highly unlikely anybody else would have picked them up during the night.

‘Where are they now, I wonder? Sadly, we will never know the full story, but when I watched the recent French TV crime thriller Spiral, centred around homeless Moroccan youths in Paris, it made me shudder to think what could have happened to them.’

Such experiences in the Med are far from rare.

In 2019, Brian and Sue Ketteridge were sailing their Dufour 365 Dawn Surprise in Greece from Limnos to the Diaporos Islands off the Halkidiki peninsula.

The Ketteridges keep their boat in northern Evia, and normally spend their summers cruising the Aegean.

Brian is a retired Royal Marine, and Sue a former director of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency.

Men on a boat

The Ketteridges came across an open boat that had endured six days at sea and severe storms. Credit: Brian and Sue Ketteridge

They were making use of a weather window following a week of gales and were in choppy seas when they came across two men adrift in an open boat, waving frantically.

Brian called the Coastguard and eventually broadcast a PanPan.

They went closer to investigate while providing regular updates to the MRCC.

He and Sue also made detailed entries in Dawn Surprise’s log, noting times, positions, contacts made and instructions received, as well as recording their plans to render assistance.

The Coastguard said a vessel would be sent but gave no ETA. While they waited, the Ketteridges made up packages of food and water and threw it to the men.

A coastguard boat rescuing migrants at sea

After several hours, the Coastguard arrived and the crew were rescued safely. Credit: Brian and Sue Ketteridge

‘They said they were Iranian and had put to sea from Turkey six days earlier. That meant that they had been in open sea during the gales from which Dawn Surprise had been sheltering. They had no food or water left, one of the men was badly sunburnt and, given their position, they must have long since run out of fuel for their outboard engine,’ notes Brian.

‘They said they were trying to get to the Netherlands, where one of them had family. All this was entered in our log.’

After several hours, a Coastguard boat arrived, secured the migrants’ boat and took them on board.

‘As they were leaving, one of the rescued men waved goodbye, and said: “Brian, we will never forget you,” then collapsed on the deck.’

Just like the crew of Seren, the Ketteridges were deeply moved by the experience.

‘What would happen to the men now? How bad must your life be that you would risk everything and put to sea in an open boat? These men had seemed well-educated, spoke good English, and were at no point aggressive or threatening; they were just so relieved at being found.’

Reduced to tears

For the last 22 years, Michael Solano has kept his 40ft Jeanneau Julia Too in Marmaris in Turkey ‘wandering happily across the Aegean’.

He has come across migrants several times.

Seven years ago off the island of Nimos in the Dodecanese he saw ‘20 men, women and children quite literally clinging to the rocks at the water’s edge. Fortunately there was little swell or it would most certainly have had them in dire straits.

‘Our first instinct was rescue, our second was there was no immediate threat to life so we stood off, close enough to hear their appeals for help but far enough off to discourage them attempting to swim out to us. I had previously had a briefing about not taking people on board at the risk of having your own vessel hijacked by these very desperate people.’

After repeated calls and then a PanPan, a harbour authority RIB was sent to take the people to safety.

A yacht sailing in the med

Michael Solano has encountered migrants at sea in the Med on a number of occasions. Credit: Michael Solano

‘Two days later on our return to Symi town [I learned] that Turkish criminals were taking migrants overnight across the short four-mile passage in fast motor boats to these unlit, uninhabited rocks to dump their cargo anywhere in this isolated little corner of Europe.’

On another occasion, Solano came across nearly 100 lifejackets floating in the water, fully inflated but with the straps undone.

‘The impact of this sighting on both of us on board was quite unimaginable. I am not embarrassed to say that even now I still feel abject sadness at the thought of them. At the time both my crew and I were spontaneously reduced to tears. We never did find out the backstory to this.’

He adds: ‘On Samos, where even today there are some 20,000 mainly Syrian migrants, we have been politely stopped and asked for food when out walking. On Leros, where Mussolini built his leper colonies before the Second World War, these old hospitals have been converted into dormitory housing for thousands. They are squalid, filled with many families with small children and obviously destitute. They ask for very little. I once took a fellow back to Xerokambos Bay where I rowed out and returned with a rod, line and hooks so he could fish and hopefully feed his family. He was thrilled.

‘My abiding memories of all these migrants is their non-threatening attitude, though they are certainly rough-looking and penniless. Meanwhile, I have seen that the EU squander millions on new fleets of unnecessary patrol vehicles that are left to rust outside assorted island police stations.’

Swimming for shore

As Michael Solano well describes, the effects of encountering migrants at sea, or empty migrant boats, are deeply shocking.

It has become a commonplace experience around the Canary Islands, which has seen a spike in trafficking.

Last year, the number rose eightfold to more than 23,000.

Last November, Swiss couple Christian and Manuela Lücking were on their first night at sea on the ARC+ transatlantic rally when they saw a dark shadow some 100m away.

A man wearing a lifejacket on the back of a yacht which is towing another boat

Christian Lücking, pictured here assisting a fellow ARC participant, has two encounters with migrants at sea which left him shaken. Credit: Christian Lücking

When Christian called the Coastguard, they asked him to return and check.

They found a wooden fishing boat of about 10m with a 40hp Yamaha outboard on the back. It was deserted apart from a solitary lifejacket hooked on at the bow.

The Coastguard concluded it had been packed with migrants fleeing through Mauritania and abandoned after they swam ashore.

A day later, the Lückings picked up a Mayday from a boat ahead.

Enksail Noordkaper 40, a steel pilot house cutter

The Lücking’s Enksail Noordkaper 40, a steel pilot house cutter. Credit: Christian Lückings

The skipper said they were being pursued by a small motorboat.

They decided to turn upwind and motorsail for several hours, reasoning that the motorboat would be unable to keep up. Afterwards, nothing further was seen.

The two incidents left the Lückings shaken.

The second incident echoes another experience in the ARC some years ago when a yacht was chased by a migrant boat.

‘They tried to get close but the yacht motored and got away,’ says Andrew Bishop, managing director of rally organiser World Cruising.

‘These [migrant] boats are often not that seaworthy and there’s an enthusiasm to get on to another vessel that is more seaworthy than the one they’re on.’

He adds: ‘Thankfully there have not been any real problems, providing people follow the advice and stand off.’

Migrants at sea: Across the English Channel

Illegal migration into the UK has also soared in the last year. In 2020, 8,420 migrants arrived.

This year to June there have been over 5,000 arrivals. Most are making the journey in small, overcrowded inflatables.

The usual crossing point is short, 40 miles or so from Calais or Dunkirk, and these routes are monitored by the UK’s Border Force and often – but not always – intercepted by Border Force cutters.

The RNLI has also carried out a number of rescues.

It is a dangerous route.

In June the body of a 15-month-old baby was washed up on the shores of Norway.

He had been lost from a boat that capsized in the English Channel in October last year.

Rasoul Iran-Nejad, his wife Shiva and their two other children, minority Kurds escaping from Iran, all drowned.

Some of the boats seized by the National Crime Agency

The National Crime Agency has seized a number of boats of the last 18 months. Credit: National Crime Agency

Nevertheless this route commands high prices.

An investigation by the Sunday Times found that boat and lorry crossings brokered in Turkey and travelling to the UK via Italy cost between £10,000 and £15,000 per person.

Chains of traffickers operate from the Middle East to the UK and Ireland and tout these journeys, with and without fake papers.

The going rates reflect the dangers: lorry journeys cost €3-5,000 more.

Traffickers advertise their services on platforms such as Telegram and Instagram.

It has led UK authorities to warn boat owners that organised crime groups may target them to buy boats.

‘Examples of suspicious activity include cash being used in large sums to make payment, unusual combinations of boats and equipment in one transaction, enquiries about bulk purchase of equipment, lack of concern about the condition of the boat or equipment being purchased, and customers wanting to complete their transaction as quickly as possible,’ says the National Crime Agency.

Continues below…

It has also fanned the beginnings of debate in government about compulsory licensing, a topic that periodically raises its head.

Elaine Bunting

Elaine Bunting has sailed across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans and is the former editor of Yachting World

Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) confirms that the government is discussing options with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency but says the RYA has not yet been consulted and is adamant that licensing would not help.

Journeys made in inflatable boats are inherently difficult to police.

‘And why should we license boats that never leave home waters – small boats?’ asks Carruthers.

‘They can’t stop people crossing the Channel now in rubbadubs. They haven’t got the resources to stop and board each one.’

The Home Office is under pressure to choke off illegal migration.

But as Carruthers points out: ‘They are not providing more Border Force people and there are no plans to increase that. They have got cutters and intelligence systems and online systems to track people, but it is not foolproof.’

Advice for helping migrants at sea

Stuart Carruthers, RYA Cruising Manager has this advice if you come across migrants at sea:

‘Report any sightings by radio, note it in the log but be very wary about assistance. You don’t have to render assistance at sea if it puts your boat in danger.

‘It sounds harsh but a rescue could put you and your crew in danger. You could have a massive bureaucratic problem and be tied up in bringing illegal immigrants into the country.

‘Our advice is stand off and report.’


Enjoyed reading Migrants at sea: the dos and don’ts of helping those in distress?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.