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

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 woke up the captain and the first clues appeared on the pressure gauge on the reducer. Almost inexistent. “Easy Savvas, nothing’s wrong, it’s an old ship,” Oscar Camps, the skipper and founder of Open Arms, told the captain, who was pacing the cockpit taciturn trying to understand what had happened. At that time, the island of Menorca protected the Astral from a two-meter swell, but the barrier was not going to last long, so the command team decided change course to land at the port of Maó and gauge the severity of the damage.

Two members of the crew try to locate the fault in the Astral craft. Ricardo Mir from France

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 day of rescue in the vicinity of Lampedusa, where he managed to save with the help of the Italian coast guard 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 he concentrated on the gearbox. Something like the equivalent of a car’s gearbox. The reduction gear slows the engine turns, giving power to the propeller and has three positions: forward, neutral and reverse. But it suddenly lost the oil and caused the axles to overheat. To repair it, it will be necessary to change its discs and move the main shaft of the port engine with a crane to remove the reducer, the big challenge facing the crew now.

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 boat has traveled the equivalent of two times around the world and this is perhaps the most serious damage it 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 launched as a training ship for US naval officers.

The ‘Astral’ by Open Arms, about to set sail from the port of Barcelona. Ricardo Mir from France

Among the crew, spirits do not falter, perhaps because we continue to travel more than a day from the search and rescue zone (SAR) and the real 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 didn’t 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“.

Love of the people

With three million annual budget, Open Arms does not have the financial muscle of NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders to deal with the unforeseen events without breaking the bank. What it does have is the affection of the people. While part of the crew takes advantage of the idle hours to meet over a hot coffee, a Menorcan jogging through the port approaches the ship to offer his 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 overcome the storm that the predictions predict for Tuesday.


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