Nikolaj was a volunteer with us in October 2017, these stories are adapted from his blog posts.
"Highs and lows: Engine service, a brief respite in the sun, Mo Chara gets hurt, and we find an empty refugee boat adrift."
Oct 6: We hit an emotional low, as one of the new engines on Mo Chara has been acting up over the past several patrols and, after some phone calls, decide to move up our scheduled engine service to get the engines looked at. The whole crew and our team coordinator are worried: We're an NGO, we're funded by donations, and getting these new engines was a big deal. The fact that one of them is acting up occasionally after less than 100 hours does not bode well. A rescue boat without working engines is of little use to anyone.
(Mo Chara is an ex-RNLI Atlantic 75 that is as old as some of the crew. The Atlantic-class boats are wonderful, well-built boats with a great history that traces back to UWC Atlantic College in Wales.)
The engine service means that we have to stand down for a day so that we can skipper the boat down to Thermi. It is warm and we wear only shorts and t-shirts along with our helmets and life jackets. There is quite a bit of wave action and wind when we depart, and the journey south along the rugged coast takes longer than hoped. Keeping the old Atlantic 75 at speed without crashing into the waves is a constant dance with the throttles and the wheel. As we go up a wave, I throttle back to prevent launching the boat into the air, followed by an application of power to the over-trimmed engines that keeps us from crashing into the following trough. Repeat over and over again, for two hours.
At some point, we have yet another engine alarm go off, but it turns out to be a service indicator that flashes the oil warning light.
A high: After we put the boat on the trailer and move all our gear into a poor unsuspecting old Suzuki, we get to spend part of the afternoon eating at a wonderful Greek restaurant nearby, just hanging out and getting to know each other better, and feeding what's increasingly looking like a crew-wide addiction to Greek yoghurt with honey. We eat like royalty under the sun and are in a great mood. The bill comes to 10 Euros per person including tip.
Another high: The engines on Mo Chara are fine, including the engine that was causing us grief. It looks like we can improve how we prep the engines for starting and how we refuel, which might make all the difference in the world. With no water-fuel separator on the boat, there's likely some water in the starboard fuel tank causing issues for the engine on the same side. (We do use a funnel with a water trap to refuel, but had been pouring the leftovers back into the fuel cans. The new SOP will be to collect the leftovers for disposal after checking them for water.)
A low: There is damage to the boat when we get it back, and to expensive bits at that. The A-frame extension with the flashing blue and forward white lights is pushed into the radar dome and cracked at the base, putting a dent into the plastic dome lid. We push the extension away from the radar and seal up the radar dome as best as we can, but seeing Mo Chara hurt is a horrible feeling. The boat is in our care and even though none of us knows how the damage happened, we feel deeply responsible. (Later on, we piece together the story from various pictures we took. The damage happened at the shop where the engines were serviced. The owner was very apologetic and worked with us to fix the damage the next day.)
Another low, followed by relief: On the way back, someone spots something unusual a way out from Thermi towards the Turkish border. When we approach to investigate, we find a partially submerged refugee boat with deflated tubes. The boat has not been in the water long and the discovery at first sends a chill down our spines: We are worried that there might be people in the water nearby. After a look around without seeing anything, we come alongside and stretch out the mangled carcass of the inflatable boat. Fortunately, there is no debris and there are no people in the water anywhere near the boat. We determine that we are looking at a refugee boat that had been beached and that had its tubes slashed to make sure it doesn't get reused. At some point, the boat must have re-floated and drifted out to sea with some air still in the tubes. We relay a latitude and longitude of the boat's location to HRC and then resume our course home. Our relief is palpable.
A high: Only a few minutes later, we see dolphins near our boat and get to witness a beautiful sunlight and sunset on the way home. We arrive back in Skala Sikamineas at dusk, tie up the boat, and refuel. Afterwards, we temporarily fix the mangled light extension that had broken off completely on the way home with some bungee cords and zip ties under the glare of our head torches. Ugly doesn't begin to describe the result, but it works and our coordinator Daisy clears the boat to go out on SAR patrol at 5:30 AM the next morning. We've already lost one day, and not losing another due to this latest problem is a good feeling.
It's the same story over and over again here: We are in an idyllic slice of heaven, at the mercy of so many things we have no control over. Highs and lows often happen within minutes of each other.