Skye Mountain Rescue Team volunteer on duty in the Aegean

Written by Gill Houlsby

I’ve been part of Skye Mountain Rescue for five years now but a few weeks ago I travelled south to be part of a different type of search and rescue team in the Aegean.

My new colleagues prepared me with friendly warnings that I was going to a tiny place. The nearest cash machine was 30 minutes’ drive away and there was only one shop. Just like home, I thought. Swap the distillery for an olive oil factory, add in a couple of tavernas and Skala Sykaminias is not far off the Greek version of Carbost. Skala Sykaminias, or Skala for short, sits on the north shore of the island of Lesvos, one of the Greek islands closest to Turkey.

The nine km stretch of water in between doesn’t seem that far, but it has become notorious. Since 2009 several hundred thousand people have arrived in Skala, fleeing conflict and persecution in countries further east. Initially the local community mobilised with fishermen, shepherds and village grandmothers all playing their part.

When arrivals peaked in 2015, the United Nations, the European Union and international NGOs came to assist. Amid an assortment of brightly coloured fishing boats a decommissioned RNLI Atlantic 75 is moored in Skala’s harbour.

She’s called Mo Chara, meaning ‘My Friend’ in Irish Gaelic, and belongs to Refugee Rescue, the only NGO now working on the water in the area. The scene is poignantly overlooked by the small white chapel of Panagia Gorgona: in translation, ‘Virgin Mary the Mermaid’. Mo Chara is on service 24/7 and follows the RNLI tradition of being crewed entirely by volunteers.

On board, or never more than five minutes away, you find an eclectic mix of seafarers, lifeboat crew, SAR personnel and humanitarians from around the world, brought together by an unconditional willingness to assist anyone in trouble at sea.

One night Hellenic Coastguard called us for assistance. 36 people were helped on board the coastguard vessel and Mo Chara was tasked with recovering the rubber boat they had been rescued from. None of the refugee boats I’d seen during my six weeks’ service could be described as good quality but this one was especially poor.

The beams of our head torches lit up felt pen and scissor marks, where homemade handles had been stuck onto the inflatable tubes as if a slapdash school project. There was nowhere on the entire boat strong enough to tie a tow rope.

I boarded the dinghy with another Mo Chara crew member and we held the line ourselves. The flimsy structure was no match for a choppy sea and the thin rubber base sagged under our weight. At times we were up to our waist in water. Sections of what had been a wooden floor floated around in the dark, nagging at the backs of our legs.

We held on tight while Mo Chara’s skipper skilfully crept through the waves. Barely able to reach two knots with the rubber dinghy in tow, we reached port an hour and a half later. It must be terrifying for the people and families travelling in boats like this. I was kitted out with a lifejacket, a helmet, a dry suit, a head torch and roped to a lifeboat.

The people in the dinghy were cold, wet, defenceless, some injured, some sea sick, not knowing if they would make it or not. Fifteen of the 36 passengers were minors, many of whom were travelling alone. What hell these people have come from to attempt a crossing like this is hard to imagine.

Whatever your thoughts on refugees are and however much their stories are entangled with unhelpful references to migration and terrorism, no one who has spent time at sea could look the other way.

Skala locals share this sentiment; they have a strong sense of duty to help other humans in distress. Further west from Skala, off the beaten track, is what’s become known as the ‘lifejacket graveyard’.

An unnerving reminder of the thousands who have risked everything in search of safety. Some of the life vests here, apparently offering protection, are fake. The bright fluorescent fabrics are slowly fading. Journalists have been accused of ‘selling pain’ and others of romanticising the smiling faces of refugees as they are pulled from wrecks. I’m not trying to do either.

What seems clear though is that no one fleeing from harm should have to face the additional peril of perishing at sea.

Gill Houlsby is the secretary of Skye Mountain Rescue Team.