On-board diary (II): A mechanical breakdown forces the ‘Astral’ to make a stopover in Menorca

  • EL PERIÓDICO embarks with Open Arms and you will sail on the ‘Astral’ ship for 10 days in search of people adrift in the middle of the Mediterranean

  • The boat docks in the port of Maó after suffering a mechanical problem on its second day of crossing

It had not yet dawned when a pungent smell of burning oil invaded the command bridge of the ‘Astral’. They were little more than the 06.00 a.m. on Monday and all the crew slept in their cabins except for the three members in charge of the watch. Until then, the night had given to listen to the miseries faced by the NGOs dedicated to maritime rescue in the Central mediterranean by little cooperation from the authorities of its two shores, which have not only criminalized these organizations, but have often ignore ransom notices or they put all kinds of obstacles so that they can disembark in their ports to rescued people. “What’s going on? Can you smell the smell?” Someone said before the three watchmen jumped into action.

They inspected the deck and the cabins. There was no trace of fire, but there was an intense stench that rose from the engine room to sneak into all the rooms of the ‘Astral’. The skipper stealthily awakened the captain and the first clues appeared on the reducer pressure marker. Almost inexistent. “Take it easy Savvas, it’s okay, it’s an old ship,” he said. Oscar Camps, the pattern and founder of Open Arms, to the captain, who was pacing morosely around the cabin trying to understand what had happened. In those moments the island of Menorca protected the ‘Astral’ from a swell with two-meter waves, but the barrier was not going to last long, so the command team decided to change course to land on the Maó port and calibrate the severity of the failure.

It is not the first that the ‘Astral’ has suffered in its 88 missions nor will it be the last. Last September he had to return to Barcelona after his first rescue day in the vicinity of Lampedusa, where he managed to save with the help of the italian coast guard to almost a hundred Tunisians crammed into three boats. If that time the problem was in the cooling of one of the two engines, this time it was concentrated in the gearbox. Something like the equivalent of a car’s gearbox. The gearbox slows down the engine turns, giving power to the propeller and has three positions: forward, neutral and reverse. But suddenly lost the oil and caused the axles to overheat. To repair it you will have to change your discs and moving the main shaft of the port engine with a crane to remove the gearbox, the great challenge now facing the crew.

Two round the world

The captain hasn’t eaten all day. He is more worried than anyone since the ‘Astral’ arrived at port in the morning. He has also practically stopped talking about anything other than the mechanical problem. “This ship has traveled the equivalent of two times around the world and this is maybe the more serious fault that has suffered “Savvas Kourepinis says after calling various supply centers for parts. The ‘Astral’ has been stumbling around the world since 1970, when it was initially put to sea as training ship for officers of the US Navy.

Among the crew, spirits do not fade, perhaps because we continue to travel more than a day from the search and rescue zone (SAR, from its acronym in English) and the true work of the ‘Astral’ has not yet begun. If there are no setbacks, the replacement parts should arrive this Tuesday. “We did well to go to Menorca. It is better to be at home to solve these kinds of problems,” says Camps with grease-stained hands. “I did not think something like this would happen because we did a maintenance repair before the mission, although this ship needs 100,000 euros to get it ready.”

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Love of the people

With three million annual budget, Open Arms does not have the financial muscle of NGOs as Doctors without borders to cope with the unexpected without messing up your hair. What it does have is the affection of the people. While part of the crew takes advantage of the idle hours to meet in front of a hot coffee, a Menorcan jogging through the port approaches the ship to offer your house to the crew to spend the night or take a shower. “I’ll leave you my phone for anything,” he tells them from the dock. They won’t need it. There is no lack of beds or food on the ship. It just lacks a bit of a lucky star to repair the fault and get around the weather predictions predict for Tuesday.


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