We steamed out of Malta on 17th June and headed for the Libyan coast. It takes a few days to get there so training was going on all over the ship. This drawing shows the flight controller making notes on the window of the Flight Control Room during a training exercise.
On Saturday 20th June a Merlin from 814 Squadron during its early morning sortie, spotted three migrant vessels in need of rescue.
I made my way down into the cavernous vehicle deck that runs over three quarters the length of the ship. I climbed on board one of the four landing craft to join a Navy Medic and a group of Royal Marine Commandos. I was handed a pair of surgical gloves and a face mask to wear. The entire stern of the ship was lowered and the dock section of the vehicle deck was flooded with water so that we could sail out.
I sketched as an overcrowded migrant boat came into view. Two smaller landing craft circled around the migrant boat as the Marines threw them bright orange life jackets. Below: a smaller landing craft in the foreground, the migrant boat, a larger landing craft and then the Bulwark on the horizon.
The number of people on board the migrant boat was bewildering. I tried to draw them but ended up just outlining the figures. Once the migrants put on the life jackets, the Marines loading them into their landing craft and ferried them to our bigger craft.
The relief on their faces as they stepped onto our deck, took off their life jackets, and sat down was obvious. There was a mix of nationalities. Some were barefoot whilst others looked like they’d just stepped off a plane well dressed for a special trip. There were small children, babies, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends. I was impressed by the patience and calmness of the Marines as they went about the task of loading the craft until it was almost as full as the one they’d been rescued from. I sat on some large boxes drawing as we made our way back into the belly of the Bulwark.
The large image above was sketched on a piece of paper cut down from A3 so that it fits on a board I can fit in my back pack. I added colour when back on the ship.
I had a number of drawings on the go during the journey back to the Bulwark with the large one and this smaller close-up of mother and child being the most successful.
The first thing that happens when the migrants climb up the incline onto the vehicle deck of the ship is a thorough search by men and women in white medical overalls, surgical masks and gloves. I found an excellent vantage point to overlook this from a mezzanine used as the ship's gym. I sat among the treadmills and weights finishing the larger scene as I could still see into the backs of the landing craft as they off-loaded load after load of migrants.
The sick are taken to the medical tent to be examined and treated by Navy Medics. Here is a young 17-year-old man being treated for scabies. Others are put on IV drips and issued antibiotics. Great care is taken to avoid cross infection as many of the migrants come from countries where there is little access to healthcare.
The vehicle deck fills, and with the line of chemical toilets in constant use the whole scene starts to resemble a bizarre rock festival. In the bright Mediterranean sunshine the swarm of people spreads. By the time the loading is over there are 914 survivors on board of whom 133 were women, many pregnant, and 39 below the age of 18.
During the day-and-a-half sail from the coast of Libya to the port of Taranto in Italy, I interviewed a number of the migrants. Each has their own story – all of harrowing journeys from bleak situations. This group of young men are from Eritrea and Somalia. They are all economic migrants, paid for by their families to seek work for money they can send back to their families. Mohamed has been with the people smugglers for two years. At times he thought he would never make it.
By being directly involved with the migrants in the way the men and woman of the Naval Services have been each and every one of the crew members I spoke to are proud of the work they are doing. They are committed to SOLAS - Saving Of Life At Sea. They see the migrants as the people they are – fathers and mothers with children, infants and babies. Brothers and sisters. Friends both old and newly discovered during their extraordinary journeys.