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THE STORY OF A REFUGEE BOAT

Words by Richard Fleury

Photos by Pete Smith and Lucy Wood


Overshadowed by the grand Thames sailing barges, boxy houseboats, and expensive pleasure yachts moored along Faversham Creek, one small wooden boat is easily overlooked.


Painted a colour particular to North Africa sometimes called ‘Qadaffi green’, this tiny wooden fishing vessel was sailed singlehanded, all the way from the Mediterranean, by a brave and remarkable woman.


Artist Lucy Wood made the 4,000-mile solo voyage from the tiny island of Lampedusa, between Tunisia and Sicily, to London back in 2013 as part of a humanitarian art project. Her epic journey, highlighting the plight of trafficked migrants and refugees, spanned six different countries and lasted four months. Along the way Lucy endured danger, loneliness and physical hardship. With just a damp, cramped wheelhouse to sleep in (“sleeping on deck was a bit dangerous for a woman alone,” she says) and a bucket for a toilet, she spent every day out in the elements.


Lucy not only funded the trip herself but completed it despite the efforts of corrupt officials, anti-migrant fascists and a local priest who obstructed her request for the Pope to bless the boat during a visit to Lampedusa. The alien sight of an African refugee boat in European waters sometimes triggered anger and even violence and Lucy defied threats to herself and the boat and even attempts on her life, to finish the voyage.


“There were a lot of scary moments,” she says. “But I thought if something happens to me, at least I was doing something worthwhile that I enjoyed.”


Originally owned by a Libyan or Tunisian fisherman called Ribh Innouri, whose name remains scrawled in arabic on the wheelhouse, the boat was stolen by people traffickers and sailed across the Mediterranean with 36 refugees on board including children and a pregnant woman: a human cargo worth 300,000 Euros.

An overcrowded North African migrant boat arrives in Lampedusa harbour

At its destination, Lampedusa, it was impounded by customs and given the number TO6411. Then it was dumped in Lampedusa’s harbour, like hundreds of discarded vessels before it, some stacked on the quayside like broken toys. That’s where Lucy first saw the boat, still covered in its passengers’ handprints and littered with their abandoned belongings.


“Each arriving boat becomes a crime scene,” explains Lucy. “The passengers are taken away leaving clothes, food and possessions behind, even the charcoal cookers they used to heat up pasta on the journey. I wanted to keep it all as part of the project. The boatyard people thought I was mad.”


It took two years of persistence for Lucy to persuade island authorities to release a migrant boat for her project. A bigger boat would have been safer and more comfortable. But local officials begrudgingly offered her a choice of three small fishing boats.


“They tried to make it hell for me. What they gave me was basically a raft,” she says. “But of course I took it because I knew I wasn’t going to get anything else.”


Since the early 2000s, Lampedusa has become a prime European landing point for North African migrants. Lucy’s plan was to sail to London in one of their vessels: a journey she says was inspired by “the shock I felt when I witnessed the first migrant boat landing on Lampedusa”.


As many as 1,200 people can be crowded on board boats arriving from Africa. Conditions are appalling, the traffickers ruthless and many migrants do not survive the crossing. No one knows how many die but local fishermen often find body parts in the water and human fingers inside fish they catch.


In September 2013, a few months after Lucy left, the inevitable tragedy struck Lampedusa. Around 360 people were killed when their boat sank just a mile off the island, making headlines around the world.


TO6411 had made the risky voyage from Africa with water pouring through its holed bow, one of the many problems Lucy had to fix before embarking safely on her trip. “Everything metal had been stripped and sold for scrap, even the fuel tanks and pipes,” says Lucy. “Instead the diesel was carried in plastic jerry cans hooked up to the engine with plastic washing machine hoses. Leaked diesel and salt water make a caustic mixture and many passengers had severe skin burns.’


Lucy lived on Lampedusa for nine months, repairing and preparing TO6411 for the journey, often in the face of hostility from locals, from grasping boatyard owners to fisherman ‘joking’ about burning or sinking the little boat.


“They never offered to help. There was always this underlying feeling that you’re an outsider and if you have a problem with one of them, you’ve got a problem with everyone on that island,” Lucy says. “But I didn’t really care. I just thought ‘I’m going to do it anyway’. It just made me even more determined.”


Some islanders’ resentment toward refugees grew in the wake of 2011’s Arab Spring, when 5,000 migrants began to arrive on the island, followed by aid organisations, the Pope, Hollywood celebrities including Angelina Jolie and emergency funding.

Hollywood’s Angelina Jolie meets Lampedusa dignitaries including mayor Bernardino De Rubeis (wearing sash) who was later jailed for corruption

Lucy set off on 20 June 2013 – World Refugee Day – ill-prepared and inexperienced. The constant threat of theft meant her little boat’s safety equipment and electronics had to be fitted the day before departure.


“When I left, I had never sailed it before. I had never been round the island on it. I didn’t have a bloody clue – I was like a lamb to the slaughter!” she laughs. “I wasn’t used to steering it and I had never used the chart-plotter. I was zig-zagging everywhere and crashing into things.”


A concerned engineer friend helped Lucy sail from Lampedusa to Sicily. After that, she was on her own. As she set out to sea, Lucy and TO6411 were surrounded by a large pod of dolphins. “It brought tears to my eyes, nearly out of sight of land and all these dolphins squeaking and jumping. Quite an experience when you are alone,” she wrote in her blog.


TO6411 dwarfed by an Italian patrol vessel

Near the Italian island of Elba, Lucy narrowly survived one of the diciest episodes of her adventure.


“The wind got up and I was absolutely terrified,” she recalls.”The waves were going right over the boat. I thought it was going to tip over. I tied myself on with a huge rope. I couldn’t see anything and the chart plotter gave up. I wanted to set off my beacon and call the coastguard but I knew they would take me off and leave the boat and that would be that. You end up talking to yourself, out loud, trying to calm yourself down: “It’s all right Luce, calm down...”

With the weather worsening, Lucy reached a small harbour and safety for the night. But at other ports, unfriendly officials turned her away after an exhausting day at sea. Shortly after she was kicked out of upmarket Amalfi, a group of large motor yachts tried trying to drown TO6411.


“These massive boats were coming at me, literally trying to push me out because they saw it was a refugee boat and were being racist,” she says. “That happened a couple of times. It was horrible.”


Yet just along the coast at Positano, people were warm and welcoming. “It’s an old hippy place,” she says. “Everyone was amazing.”


Travelling alone, Lucy found strength in “the comfort of others, even strangers, You become close to people really quickly.”


Strangers often offered help and support when she needed it. Like the time someone tried to gas her on a French canal.


“A big motor launch came along driven by guy with a a little Hitler moustache,” she says. “He saw it was an arab refugee boat and started going absolutely bananas, shouting about migrants in French and going ballistic at me.


“The next day he came past again and started revving his engine, filling the whole area with exhaust fumes to the point where I couldn’t breath and started choking. He was ramming his boat into mine and I was in the middle of nowhere, on my own. I was coughing and delirious, trapped in this great fumey cloud. I couldn’t even see my hand!”


About to vomit and with a pounding head, Lucy crawled off her boat and on to the towpath. The attack was witnessed by French canal officials and another boater, a GP from Ireland, who ordered a taxi to take her to hospital. Badly shaken, she was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Police offered to arrest the man but Lucy decided not to press charges and instead continued with her journey. “It was a really down moment. But I didn’t want to let him ruin the trip and I was desperate to get back to London because it was getting colder and colder on the boat,” she says. “So I told myself: ‘Get up, get on that boat and get driving.’”


Journey’s end as TO6411 approaches Tower Bridge, London

TO6411 on show in London

Lucy and TO6411 finally made it to London’s Tower Bridge at 5pm on 15 October 2013. Moored at nearby South Dock Marina, the refugee boat became a floating exhibition and public art exhibition, telling its story to anyone wanting to come aboard. In future, Lucy hopes it will one day be displayed in a gallery or museum but, until then, it will stay here in Faversham.

Lucy and boat on Faversham Creek


LUCY WOOD


Born in the UK, Lucy grew up in New Zealand before returning to London to study at the Camberwell School of Art. She has exhibited widely at home and overseas.


Global migration and borders are recurring themes in her work: in particular the idea that migrants are trapped economically and politically at home, but also remain trapped en route and at their final destination.


Lucy currently lives in Broadstairs but is considering a move to Faversham, where TO6411 is moored and, here at the Eye at least, we already consider her an honorary Faversham resident.


Read more about Lucy’s journey on her the project’s website:

www.to6411.com


And Lucy’s blog: http://thechroniclesoflampedusa.blogspot.com


Find our more about Lucy and her work at:

http://lucywood.net