High Sea Suspense

Watching and waiting to see what will happen to the rescue vessel Aquarius as it idles roughly 43 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily. June 12, 2018. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli

Dear Blog Readers –

It has been a rocking and rolling week in Italy as the new populist government decided to take a tough stand on migration or “raise our voice” according to Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.  The new policy is to block any ships that are not Italian from disembarking migrants in Italian ports.

It started on Monday when Italy refused to provide a safe port for a French ship carrying 629 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya. The rescue vessel, the Aquarius, run by the French non-profit SOS Mediteranee, was stopped at sea more or less half way between Italy and Malta as the drama unfolded.  The migrants were seated on deck and included 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and six pregnant women.

The SOS Mediteranee rescue ship Aquarius idles 43 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily while a Coast Guard boat transfers migrants to a navy ship. Freeze frame of video shot by cameraman Gino Maceli for AP Television. June 12, 2018

AP Television sent me down to Sicily to try and find a way to get out to the ship.  I was working with our Catania based freelance cameraman, Gino Maceli, who has a great sense of humor and a Sicilian way of getting things done.

At first, we were going to rent a helicopter to fly over the ship but since SKY Italia beat us to that, we decided to rent a boat to take us the 35 nautical miles out to sea to where the Aquarius was idling.  Colleagues from the British Television Broadcaster, Channel 4, agreed to split the hefty cost of the boat.  The problem was finding one.  The closest port was Pozzallo in the South of Sicily.

Finally, Salvatore Cavallo, AP’s freelancer photographer in Sicily, found a boat in Pozzallo to take us out.  Gino and I started racing down there – an hour’s drive from Catania.

Gino has the hair-raising habit of driving extremely fast and getting right up behind other cars, so the bumpers almost touch, and flashing his headlights.  He does this while answering phone calls and writing text messages.

I pointed out to him several times that there were speed trap warning signs (autovelox) all along the highway and he was sure to get ticket.  “They’re fakes,” he declared happily pressing the pedal to the metal, “it is all a big fake, not a single real one along here.”

I heaved a sigh of relief when we finally pulled off the highway onto smaller two-lane roads, but that was short-lived.  Gino, one hand on the wheel and the other on his phone, began overtaking cars on hills and curves, roaring past as I gripped the dashboard uselessly declaring, “you’re not supposed to pass on a curve!!” “This is a hill, Gino, a hill, you can’t see what’s on the other side!”

At one point, as we were overtaking a small car, a medium sized truck was coming the other direction, “What are you doing Gino???” I gasped, “we are going to hit that truck head on!!!!!!”

Gino steered right down the middle line and we went smack through the space between the truck and the car going opposite directions.  Gino laughed, “Treeeeeshaaaa, what are you so worried about, a huge truck could have fit through that space.”

We finally got to the port, alive, to find our boat waiting with our canny captain and his fishy first mate friend and the team from Channel 4 which included their friendly reporter Paraic O’Brien, their Rome-based video-journalist Luca Muzi, and a taciturn cameraman who said only four words during a six-hour trip, “Hi, I am Stephen”.  And that was in the first 3 minutes on board. There were eight of us total, 7 men and me.

Our canny captain and fishy first mate. Photo by Trisha Thomas off the coast of Sicily, June 12, 2018

We figured out the coordinates of the Aquarius, in international waters roughly 39 nautical miles out and off we went.  Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate warned us that the sea would be rough, and it wasn’t long before we were flying along at 18 knots and bouncing on waves that were about 1 meter high (about 3 feet).  Whee-boom-splash, Whee-boom-splash.

Salvatore Cavalli, Luca Muzi, Gino Maceli, Paraic O’Brien and our Crew. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli. June 12, 2018

Before I got out of cell phone reach, I got a couple calls from my Rome boss Karl Ritter.  He was fretting about whether our boat was seaworthy and worried that I might end up bobbing in the water clinging to a life-vest and needing to be rescued rather than reporting on migrants.  I wasn’t even sure there were life-vests on board.

The last we heard before getting out of cell phone reach was that the migrants would likely be transferred to Italian Navy and Coast Guard ships.

It took about two and a half hours of flying up and then smashing down on the water, bang, bang bang.  We discovered that the best technique was to stand at the back of the boat and told on tight and let one’s legs and knees work as shock absorbers.

The sky was cloudless and a perfect day for a trip out to sea, except that we weren’t on vacation.  We are on a mission and I knew my office was expecting us to get to the Aquarius and convince them to let me get on board and interview migrants, the captain and rescuers.

Rescue vessel Aquarius with Italian Navy ship Orione behind it at sea between Sicily and Malta. Freeze frame of video shot by Gino Maceli for AP Television. June 12, 2018

We hardly saw any other ships as we headed South towards Malta – bam, bam, bam – a sailboat while we were still near Sicily, and a gigantic container ship at one point.  Finally, in the distance, we started to be able to make out the Aquarius with its distinctive orange hull and white top.  To its left was a large metal grey frigate that we later discovered was the Italian Navy ship Orione, P410.   A Coast Guard covered dinghy was loading migrants off the Aquarius and taking them over to the Navy ship.

Canny Captain became increasingly anxious as we got closer.  “I am going to drive straight past,” he told me,  “and then we will go back to port”.

I consulted with Gino and we agreed that the best strategy would be to pass around the back of the Aquarius then turn towards them while I contacted them on the radio using Radio Channel 16.  We had been told by colleagues that we could initially contact the Aquarius on that international emergency/distress channel and ask them to switch to another channel for a private conversation. Although it is for safety emergency, one can also use it to establish contact and move to another channel.

We had already told a spokesperson for SOS Mediterranee that we were going to attempt to reach the ship and were hoping that the captain would be open to letting us come near and get a better idea of the situation.

Gino urged Canny Captain to move forward and put us in a position where we could film the boat properly and see the migrants. But Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate were becoming increasingly jittery and the Captain revealed to me that his “Matricola” type of license only allowed him to go 12 nautical miles out to sea and since we were 43 nautical miles out to sea he could get in a lot of trouble, so he was going to turn around and go back.

Arguing with the Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate after discovering that their boat was not intended to leave Italian territorial waters. Photo by Salvatore Cavallo, June 12, 2018

I got mad.  I told him I was a journalist, I did not know what “matricola” he was talking about but it was certainly too late to start raising these issues.

We were interrupted from a call from the Aquarius on radio channel 16 asking who we were.  We recorded the rest of the conversation as I spoke to them:

Me: We are journalists, we would like to come closer to the Aquarius so we can find out what is happening. Can we talk on a private channel with you?

Woman on Aquarius: “I kindly ask you to stay away from the Aquarius not to complicate our situation.   Thank you for understanding.”

Me: “We don’t want to complicate your situation at all, we are just trying to see what is happening and if these migrants are going to be taken to Valencia or there is continuing to be a stand-off and if they will be stuck here for longer.”

Woman on Aquarius: “This is an emergency channel so please stop this communication.”

We did stop the communication with the Aquarius and moved to about 500 meters from the vessel where we tried to film the transfer of migrants.

Transferring migrants from the SOS Mediterannee Ship Aquarius to a Coast Guard boat. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli, 43 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily, June 12, 2018

But then a small grey dinghy- known as an RHIB – Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat – emerged from the Navy frigate and charged towards us.  There were two men on it in white hygienic suits.  We thought they would come up close and were eager to explain to them that we were there not to interfere just to see what was going on.

We got out on the front of our boat with cameras and microphones ready to talk to them. But they stopped a little ways away and then turned and sped back to the frigate.

Waiting on the front of our boat as a navy rhib (rigid hulled inflatable boat) approaches us. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli, June 12, 2018

But they stopped a little ways away and then turned and sped back to the frigate.

Italian Navy Rhib – turning away from out boat after racing up to us. Freeze frame of video shot by Gino Maceli for AP Television. June 12, 2018

Then we noticed that a large Coast Guard Patrol ship was charging down on us from the opposite direction.

Our canny captain and fishy first mate were becoming apoplectic. Gino and I told them not to move that we would talk to the Coast Guard.  We would explain that were journalists doing our job.  But the Coast Guard Patrol boat just raced towards us then swooped to our right as two sailors stood on deck staring down menacingly.

Italian Coast Guard Patrol ship bearing down on us. Freeze Frame of video shot by Gino Maceli for AP Television. June 12, 2018

At that point, we realized things could get a bit ugly and did not want to get ourselves into a messy situation with the Coast Guard or the Navy.

One of the basic rules of journalism is to report the story not become a part of it.  We also did not want to interfere in the delicate operation of transferring  migrants  between ships at sea.

So, we decided to head back. The Coast Guard did not follow us, but our antsy crew was out of there in a flash, speeding full force towards Sicily.

Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate reminded me of my wimpy cocker spaniel Set when he sees a German shepherd at the park, he takes off running in the opposite direction tail between his legs.  When he gets about 50 meters (yards) away, he glances back fearfully to see if by any chance he is being followed.

I pulled out my computer and attempted to edit video while sitting facing backwards in the cabin area – bam, bam, bam – hurtling forward and then plunging down on the waves.  I felt like my vertebrae were getting crushed like garlic cloves in a mortar on every bounce.  And while the boat was rushing headlong towards Sicily, I was trying to scan through video, that was  bouncy and out of focus, to find the parts that could be edited.  It was dizzying.

Trisha Thomas editing the video of the Aquarius on a boat about 43 nautical miles off the coast of Sicily. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli, June 12, 2018

While I was doing that, I heard Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate launch into a diatribe with Gino and Luca about how they should get 1000 more euro because of the risks they took.  Good grief!  They wanted cash in hand before we got to port.  Unbelievable! Gino handled it with typical Sicilian flare – raising his voice, gesticulating, cajoling and coaxing.   He promised to do a wire transfer once we were back in our office – something our crew was not interested in.  They wanted hard cold cash. Finally, Gino pulled out his own wallet and declared that from the kindness of his heart he would give them everything he had, and emptied it of several bills. In the end, they accepted that.

I managed to put together four minutes of material and then began to write up what I could. As soon as I got back within cell phone range, I transmitted the images to my AP colleague, Paolo Santalucia, back in the Rome bureau.  It’s a miracle I didn’t lose my lunch.

AP Television team of Trisha Thomas and Gino Maceli hanging on as the boat goes at 18 knots back to Pozzallo, Sicily. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli, June 12, 2018

We arrived in port at 7pm after a 6-hour journey.  I was feeling discouraged as though it had been a wasted effort, but later we learned that 146 broadcasters used AP Television’s material.  And Salvatore got good pictures for AP photo. We did not get a scoop, but it wasn’t a complete loss.  Just another day on the job.

NOTE: The Aquarius, accompanied by the Italian Navy Frigate Orione and Coast Guard Ship Dattilo spent the rest of the week crossing the Mediterranean and docked this morning in the port of Valencia, Spain. The Aquarius stand-off has sparked a major crisis in Europe over how to handle the migrants who continue to attempt the sea crossing from Libya to Europe.  European nations are bickering over who saves them, where they are taken to disembark, and where they will end up.  It promises to be the central issue on the agenda at the EU summit coming up on June 28-29.

14 thoughts on “High Sea Suspense”

  1. Roger Widness

    Thanks for sharing your adventure, Trisha. Have a feeling this immigration mess is the beginning of a “sea change” in world politics and economic policies. Too many people and too many of them (us) are poor. One thing your story tells me that hasn’t changed
    since my first trip to Italy in 1960: The crazed Italian male driver. His car runs on testosterone!

    Stay safe. If there’s a next time with Gino, remind him you’re the mother of three and the wife of a vengeful husband.


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Well Roger, you are the only one who noticed the crazed driver part. The funny thing is my husband is almost as crazy as Gino. It really is an Italian male thing. Also, Gino has children too!
      And yes, we are seeing a “sea change” in the world and migration seems to be the most visual result.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Sweden maybe? But as an American I don’t feel like finger-pointing at Europe right now given that in the US we are separating migrant parents from their children. Despicable.

  2. Joan Schmelzle

    Wow, Trisha! What an exciting read. That’s about all I can remember about what I wrote on my tablet, forgetting that for some reason I can’t comment via that. I’m so glad that after all your work that your info and pictures were used by lots of news outlets. Of course, I had read about the ship, but your first hand experience made it much more real even if you didn’t get to talk to anyone on the ship.
    I keep up with Italy politics and life a bit with “The Local” and another English language daily newsletter so I know a bit about what is going on. Always glad to find Mozzarella Momma in my emails.
    Right now I am planning a January trip to Rome to finish my flu-ended trip of last winter.
    A presto, Joan

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Joan – you must come by and have a coffee with me in January! Glad you are still reading my blog and grateful to you for your comments.

      1. Joan Schmelzle

        Hi Trisha,
        I have your AP email so I will get in touch about that coffee in December before I leave. Since I will be there all of the month from the 3rd on, I hope we can have that coffee.

  3. Holy moly, Trisha! What a great post! I can’t believe the adventures you get into. When I read about this in the news, I was amazed that it happened, but not really surprised given the new government in place in Italy. Today’s news about the possibilities of the expulsion of the Roma make me think there will be more headlines like this in the future. I am just wondering where this all is headed. Unfortunately I don’t think these decisions are being made singularly on the basis of “Italy cannot economically afford to sustain the influx of immigrants when we cannot provide jobs and take care of our current citizens” but from a different perspective (if you get my drift).

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hi Kay – yes, this are going a bit crazy here. Yesterday we were working on the story of the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini targeting the Roma people. This afternoon Salvini is holding a press conference with his Austrian counterpart…just waiting to see what he says today. We are all wondering where all this is headed. Sigh.

      1. Well, look on the bright side, you are in Italy, so you may have a whole new government next month! :-)

        1. Trisha Thomas

          Yeah, but the idea of covering another round of political negotiations or elections is depressing! It took them 3 months to form this government. Oh bother.

  4. Thanks so much Trisha, you are a dream to me reporting on the migrant crisis at sea. (Sorry you had to suffer so much!) I love you more than ever for what you share with your readers.

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