She gives and she takes away….

Please note: This is a hard post to read, some content may be emotionally distressing to some. I have tried to capture the moment as I remember it but I simply can’t do that in words…..

I love the Ocean, if you have read any of my posts to date that is kind of obvious. I cannot sit here however and tell you that every moment is a golden one, filled with warm water, breeze and sunshine. The Ocean has a dark side too, one which to some is so great that it precludes them from going in the water at all. People often ask if I am afraid of the Ocean, well, I am not. I do however have an enormous respect for her and am acutely aware of where my limits are. She can be a cruel  mistress though, taking away everything.

From 2005 until the end of 2008 I worked for the Spanish Red Cross in Tenerife, Canary Islands. My initial interest was fueled by a desire to be an Ocean Lifeguard, one more string to my proverbial bow and one that would make me a more complete waterman. I started of as a volunteer in 2003 and gained qualifications as a Lifeguard, Emergency Medical Technician along with other certificates and what was a part time thing become a full time job in 2005 when I started working as Head Lifeguard for our area, covering 3 beaches year round. This job was quickly overshadowed by a more dramatic phenomenon, one which as also linked to the sea, that of clandestine immigration from Africa.

For years small boats, known as ”Pateras”, had been arriving in southern Spain and the more easterly Canary Islands. These flimsy vessels left from Morroco, each carrying around 15 to 20 immigrants from both northern and sub-saharan Africa. Men, Women, children and even new born babies who where willing to risk all in a desperate attempt to make it to European soil. As the EU, Morroco and Spain took ever increasing measures to stem the flow of these boats the mass of migrants on the African shores moved south, looking for the chink in the armour that would allow them to make it to the islands without being intercepted and returned to Morroco. By the beginning of 2006 we where starting to see boats departing Mauritania and later Senegal and Gambia, this time heading for the more westerly and altogether more southerly islands of Gran Canaria and mainly Tenerife.   By the end of 2006 the Red Cross had attended to the medical and humanitarian needs of over 30.000 migrants, 17.000 of them arriving in Tenerife. The boats leaving from these new areas where bigger, some carrying up to 180 tired, hypothermic, dehydrated and desperate souls. ”Cayuco” was the name given to these boats. These people paid fortunes to organised people smuggling gangs, years of wages just for the chance to risk their lives for a better future for their families. The look in their eyes is one that will haunt me forever. We will never know how many boats never made it here, hundreds of sea miles against prevailing wind and waves in open boats meant that thousands drowned chasing a dream…..That phenomenon here in the Canaries has largely subsided now, mostly do to increased patrols and repatriation of those who arrive. Sadly, this does not mean that these people’s desperation and willingness to risk it all to escape poverty has vanished, it just means we don’t see it.

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A typical Cayuco from senegal, imagine 700 nautical miles in that…

My duty phone rang at around 3.00am, the coordination centre informing of another ”Cayuco”. This one had slipped through the surveillance cloak that enveloped the islands and was spotted just meters from the shore. Now the Police had it alongside the dock and where waiting for our arrival to disembark. ”Hurry, they are in a bad state”, words you dread to hear. My mind was in overdrive, my body on automatic as I threw on uniform, boots, grabbed car keys and raced to the Toyata Pick-up that I had whilst on duty as Team Leader. I flipped the button and the eerie orange glow from the revolving light bar reflected off the empty tarmac as the siren wailed like a banshee at the cross roads and roundabouts. The engine gunned and I sped towards the port, stopping briefly an-route to pick up our team doctor and nurse. The few minutes it took to arrive passed as an eternity, in my mind I played through the various scenarios that I might face and how I would deal with them. Are there any children or women? How long where they at sea? hypothermia? dead?………. The phone rang in an incessant buzz as journalists constantly called, each trying to get the scoop, each ring adding to the mounting anxiety.

Finally we pulled into the port, I told the medical team to grab their gear on the fly and start a triage, I would organise the volunteers as we set up the pneumatic field hospital and aid stations. I swung the truck around, we piled out and the doctor and nurse headed immediately for the dockside. Seconds later I heard the call, the one that put you into overdrive and sets the world into a spinning slow motion… ”Austin, we need the defribrillator”…… That can only mean that one of the immigrants was in cardiac arrest. I later learned that he literally stepped off the wretched boat, not more than 8m long with no shelter and a bucket for a toilet, and dropped dead. I grabbed the resuscitation gear and sprinted the few paces to where he lay prostrate on the dock. CPR was already in progress as I pulled open the gear, then taking over chest compressions as the doctor intubated the person lying before us. I say person as that is what he was, he was a brother, son or lover to someone…. from his features he was little over 18. The defribrillator would not allow us to shock him, his heart rhythm being in a non shockable rhythm…. CPR continued, I could feel his sternum under my hands as I pressed down, counting to myself as I did so. Around us police watched as we tried to return life to this boy. Behind us a bright mural depicting local sealife streched across the inner sea wall, its vivid colors contrasting sharply with the tradgedy of the moment. 1-2-3-4-5-6…. my arms start to ache as sweat form on my brow despite the chill of the pre-dawn.

We worked for 40 minutes on him but he was too far gone. After days of no food, almost no water and hypothermia the ocean had taken his life. He had come trying to find hope and a future for his family, now he lay there in silence. He took one step on Spanish soil and that was it, after braving hundreds of miles of open ocean it was over, forever.

We dealt with the rest of the occupants, sending several to hospital with varying degrees of hypothermia and or dehydration. The rest received first aid for varying maladies, dry clothes, blankets and hot tea. You never forget the looks they give, the look of desperation mixed with hope. Every now and then one will smile, thanking you…..and it breaks your heart. I can’t really begin to describe the things I have seen doing that job…I just don’t have the words.

We finished up and headed to base, everything had to be checked and re-stocked ready to go again. My teams shift ended that morning at 8am. We handed over to the new team, said some a very tired goodbye to one another and headed to our homes.

As I drove I could feel anger inside me, we hadn’t been able to save him and he had died trying to help his family…. He was so close yet so far. I was exhausted but knew that I would be unable to sleep. I headed for the beach instead. The waves were pretty poor, nobody had even bothered to go out. I paddles out anyway, feeling the ocean wash over me, cleansing me. I caught a few waves and let others flow by as I contemplated the nights events. Then it dawned on me the irony of what I was doing… there I was enjoying the ocean, seeking solace in the big blue when she had taken the life of that young man just hours before……

Back in my Red Cross days. La Tejita breach, 2006.

Back in my Red Cross days. La Tejita breach, 2006.