This is what the 'Open Arms Uno', the new flagship of humanitarian rescue, looks like

The vessel, which worked on oil platforms in the North Sea, is the largest vessel to operate in the Mediterranean and has a dispensary on board

5 min
The Open Arms One, the new flagship of the Catalan NGO, to the port of Borriana

BorrianaThe Borriana shipyards give off a strong smell of paint. An army of mechanics, welders, painters and other technicians are working to get the ship ready. The ship, taller than all the buildings in the area, stands out imposingly from the rest. The original blue colour of the hull is now covered with white and red and the Open Arms logo. But there is still a lot of work to be done.


Neither the pandemic nor the sea can stop migration and, with the Mediterranean becoming the most unequal border on the planet, we know that, if government policy does not change, it will continue to swallow up men, women and children every week. The NGO Open Arms wants to continue doing the work that states have abandoned: rescuing lives in danger at sea. And now it is putting the finishing touches to a new rescue ship, Open Arms Uno, which, at 66 metres long, will be the flagship of humanitarian rescue.

An NGO volunteer paints the ship's name and port of registry on the lifebuoys

Unlike the old Open Arms, the old tug that the team led by Oscar Camps converted into a rescue vessel, the Open Arms Uno was already a dedicated rescue vessel. For the past twenty years, it has worked on oil platforms in the North Sea to evacuate its personnel in the event of an accident. For this reason it has a hospital on board with thirty beds and a large interior capacity that will at least allow women and children who may be rescued at sea not to be out in the open until they can disembark in a safe port. The new boat will not have more rescue capacity, but it will be able to accommodate the castaways in better conditions. 

"We won't have to worry so much about hypothermia any more," explains Esther Camps, the rescue coordinator, who will soon be heading up operations on the new ship. "In summer we can more or less cope, but in winter, with bad weather and rough seas, being on deck is very hard. We know that from the time we rescue them until we can drop them off at the port, with all the government obstacles, we spend three or four nights at sea", she recalls. To keep the men under cover, they are looking at some kind of tarpaulin to keep them dry. 

Oscar Camps on the wheelhouse of the Badalona organisation's new ship

One of the captains, Marc Reig, stresses that "rescuing an engineer from an oil platform is not the same as rescuing a ten-year-old boy who has been travelling the world alone for three years", and he is also excited to be able to provide better care for the shipwrecked: "We will have more space and more crew, and we will also be able to incorporate new profiles. We have had deliveries on board, now we will be able to incorporate a midwife". Open Arms Uno is taller (it will be somewhat easier to spot boats on the horizon) and will have four rescue boats instead of two, which will be able to operate simultaneously if the team comes across a large shipwreck. "We are seeing wooden barges again with more than 400 people on board arriving in Lampedusa", says head of mission David Lladó. 

This is what the transformation of the new Open Arms boat has been like from a drone's point of view

The tools change, but not the operations or the way of working, which the team has perfected over six years of rescues in the Mediterranean, first on the Greek island of Lesbos and then in the waters separating Libya from Malta and Italy. When they are alerted of a boat, speedboats are launched from cranes and are the first to arrive, securing all the castaways with life jackets while they wait for the mother ship. 

Then the boats travel to bring them all on board the ship. On deck, medical triage and lateral flow tests are carried out and the castaways are washed: often the fuel tanks of the boats break and the fuel mixes with the seawater, resulting in a chemical reaction and causing extensive skin burns. Afterwards, they can put on dry clothes and drink hot tea or rice to warm up and regain their strength.

Here begins the political negotiation and the obstacle course with the Maltese and Italian governments to assign a port where people can disembark. "The problems in recent years have not been in the rescues, but in these days of waiting on deck, which have become interminable. We hope that on the new ship there will be less tension on board", Lladó points out. 

The wheelhouse of the new Open Arms ship in 360º.
The deck of the 'Open Arms Uno' in 360º.

The new boat also has a system of rigid nets that are thrown into the sea to retrieve people and bodies floating in the water. And it's not just the survivors they have to take care of: the dead, thanks to the humanitarian fleet, at least don't end up being eaten by fish. On the old Open Arms they had to place them inside the rescue boats or on the foredeck, covered with a tarpaulin: the new vessel has a small morgue. 

The interior of the 'Open Arms' in 360º.
The 'Open Arms Uno' from the outside in 360º.

In the engine room, the mechanics will not have to worry about the constant breakdowns of the old Open Arms, which has stretched its useful life to the point of exhaustion until it has been replaced. "We had been looking for a new boat for years, but the ones we found were too old, or too expensive, or didn't fit what we needed," says Oscar Camps. They travelled to Iceland, Norway, Scotland, Scotland, the Canaries, Ireland and Poland to look at vessels for sale, until last spring when they found the ship, fully operational on the North Sea oil platform. 

An Argentinian patron

Behind the €2.5 million purchase of Open Arms Uno is Italian-Argentine philanthropist Enrique Piñeyro, founder of the NGO Solidaire, which has two aircraft dedicated to humanitarian work. Together with Open Arms, he has already chartered flights with respirators and medical supplies to fight the pandemic in India, and with a shipment of food for the hunger crisis in Madagascar. "I have always been deeply affected by injustice, especially injustice that has become naturalised", he explains. "Europe has a historical and current responsibility for the plunder and pillage of Africa, and cannot expect to be unaffected by the consequences: we naturalise people drowning in the Mediterranean or destroying their bodies trying to climb the fences of Ceuta and Melilla, but this should not have to happen. It is the result of a new colonialism: the plundering continues, for example, with fishing, with Spanish, Korean or Chinese multinationals squeezing Senegal's fishing grounds, wiping out the local industry, putting people out of work and pushing them to emigrate and, as the borders are militarised, the only way is the sea".

The philanthropist, who is also an actor, recalls that he followed Oscar Camps' NGO "from the beginning" and confesses that he was impressed that "lifeguards working on the beaches of Europe reacted when they saw people drowning in the middle of the sea". Piñeyro advocates "disruptive capitalism" and puts "luxury objects at the service of bringing about change": he has put his private planes at the service of humanitarian causes and has now invested part of his fortune in buying Open Arms Uno. "Because Open Arms not only intervenes directly in the problem, but also has a communication impact that raises awareness. As Oscar Camps once said to me, 'the best rescue is the one that doesn't have to be done'".