Do the right thing

37 lights blinked on the monitor. They represented 37 Automated Identification Systems (AIS) on board 37 ships in the region. (Essential for shipping, AIS broadcast the ID and location of ships) After the first distress call, the lights began winking out. In one minute, just 7 AIS signals remained. The MOAS ship Phoenix responded to the call. We helped 300 people to safety that day.

Rather than answer a call to aid a migrant ship in distress, 30 of the 37 vessels in the region turned off their AIS. In doing so, they broke maritime law, putting themselves and every neighbouring ship in danger, while simultaneously breaking the Safety of Life at Sea convention.

Why would so many ships risk physical danger and legal prosecution?

Private merchant ships make up the majority of vessels in Mediterranean shipping lanes, and do the majority of reporting boats in distress. Reporting and assessing such ships is compulsory. For a sinking rustbucket’s passengers, this means the difference between life and a watery grave.

Merchant vessels don’t undertake sea rescues lightly. They risk compromising deadlines, perishable cargo, and their own health due to disease exposure. Not everybody’s nice: pirates in various disguises still sail the high seas. Mostly, it comes down to time and money. Many sailors complain that fuel and labour costs prohibit them from changing course. Other than feeling altruistic, there is no advantage, reward, or even compensation for the help. Common law (and common decency) demands that aiding ships provide lifesaving essentials to those in need; but the bottled water, first aid supplies, blankets and life jackets are on the ship owner’s nickel.

The theory of Occam’s Razor states that the simplest answer is often the best. I applied it to the MOAS mission: People are dying at sea, let’s rescue them.

Shaving off the politics and excuses, the best way to get private vessels to help more ships is to compensate them. For their time. For their fuel. For their supplies. Rescuers want compensation, let’s pay them.

If you think about it, we’re paying for these rescues already. When an oil tanker has to stop to rescue a sinking dinghy because nearer boats have gone into radio and radar silence, what happens to the price of fuel?

Compensating the little guy keeps import costs down: a lost day or two of time and fuel doesn’t get passed on to the consumer.  Compensation makes the decision to do the right thing easy: deckhands can pay the rent and save lives.

Friday marks one year since the Lampedusa boat tragedy, which showed us the true cost of ignoring distressed boats at sea.

The MOAS mission continues. Join the journey at or on our YouTube channel.