Who pays the ferryman when disaster strikes at sea?

The series was about a former soldier who returns to Crete to take stock after his boatbuilding business is bought out. It’s thirty years since he fought alongside the local resistance (andartes) during the Second World War, and he finds the ghosts of the past waiting for him and a cast of people who wish him ill.

The ‘ferryman’ in the title refers to Charon, the Ferryman of Greek mythology who carried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron to the underworld, Hades. The fee for the journey was a single coin—the custom was to place a low-value place coin in or on the mouth of the deceased so they could pay Charon’s fee. Charon served Hades, the god of the dead and king of the underworld, who judged the souls entering his domain, deciding where they would spend eternity depending on how they lived. As well as the dead, Charon gets into all sorts of trouble with Hades by ferrying legendary heroes such as Hercules, Orpheus, and Odysseus to and from the underworld, which is supposed to be closed to the living. 

This somewhat macabre train of thought and the question Who Pays the Ferryman?, which still haunts me, got me thinking about disaster at sea and two very different examples that happened back-to-back last year, one playing out in Greece’s maritime territory, where Charon might have been lurking, waiting for his fees. It’s hard to believe these tragedies happened nearly a year ago, and I’m sure I won’t be the only writer to comment on their anniversaries.

Disaster at Sea #1: The Adriana

On June 14, Adriana, a rust bucket of a fishing trawler, left Tobruk, Libya, heading for Italy stuffed to the gunnels with about 750 assorted Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian people seeking a better life in Europe. Its journey ended in an infamous and possibly preventable disaster at sea. As I’m sure you’ll remember, three days out of Tobruk, the dangerously overcrowded ship became stranded in Greek fishing waters with minimal power. Ultimately, as people panicked and rocked the unstable boat, Adriana capsized and sank in the middle of the night of June 18. Only 104 of the 750 men, women and children on board were found alive, making it one of the worst sinkings the Mediterranean has ever experienced. 

“Everyone knew the migrant ship was doomed. No one helped. Satellite imagery, sealed court documents and interviews with survivors suggest that hundreds of deaths were preventable.”

Martine Stevis-Gridneff and Koram Schoumali, New York Times (July 1, 2023)

Adriana’s story of disaster at sea is a harrowing one of neglect, brutality and lethal inaction. When it capsized, there was only one Greek Coast Guard ship to act as a witness. According to Stevis-Gridneff and Schoumali, passengers, some of whom had talked to humanitarian workers by phone, “waited and waited for help that never came.” Officials watched and listened for 13 hours via sonar, radio and telephone on ships and aircraft … and did nothing other than to instruct two nearby vessels to offer food and water and despatch the Coast Guard vessel to play a waiting brief. This small ship couldn’t have saved everyone on board, even if it had instructions to intervene. The whole thing was complicated further by Adriana’s captain refusing help—he and his crew would likely have only been paid on arrival in Italy. 

Who pays the Ferryman?

The reluctance to get involved by the Greek authorities in this unfolding catastrophe and with so many others experienced by European nations is that smugglers pack the boats, holding our hope for the desperate passengers who accept the conditions and pay money they’ve scraped together to get on what can only be described as ‘death boats’. Some of Adriana’s ‘passengers’ spent $4K plus for their place; the collective total was around $3.5m. The smugglers rely on European marine authorities to rescue people if things go wrong. The maritime authorities are hesitant to intervene and go to the rescue if, by doing so, they encourage the smugglers to despatch more people on ever less substantial ships. It’s a chilling, vicious cycle. 

Nine Egyptian survivors from the Adriana were arrested and charged with smuggling and causing the sinking. From sworn testimonies and interviews, survivors said that many of the nine brutalised and extorted passengers—another $50 could get you a relatively ‘safe’ spot on deck. 

Disaster at sea #2: The Titan

Then, on June 18, the second disaster at sea hit our news feeds just as Adriana was heading into crisis. The submersible craft Titan set off on a journey to the bottom of the ocean for a once-in-a-lifetime dive to see the wreck of the Titanic resting in Stygian darkness more than three kilometres (two miles) below the surface. Forty-five minutes into the two-hour dive, the support boat on the surface lost contact with the Titan. After a massive search operation during which seemingly the entire world held its breath, hoping against hope for a happy ending, wreckage from the Titan was discovered on the North Atlantic seabed near the Titanic. This confirmed that the submersible had suffered a “catastrophic implosion”, severing communications with the mother ship, and instantly killing the five people on board.

“It was perhaps the very unlikeliness of that outcome (rescue) that increased the appetite to see it realised”. 

The Guardian Newspaper

The Titan’s plight gripped the world as it unfolded in real-time via round-the-clock news stories. It somewhat took the oxygen from the coverage of Adriana’s investigation. But why did one eclipse the other so strongly? After all, they were both disasters in progress, with people in peril as the world looked on. Why did the Titan pull so much harder at people’s heartstrings and attention?

For starters, there was the absolute horror of the thing. I remember being appalled as I thought about those poor people spending their last hours crammed in the claustrophobic interior of a craft the size of a minivan, knowing communications were down and there was only so much oxygen to sustain them through to rescue. They were on a trajectory towards the ocean floor where the sub would have to withstand pressure 400 times greater than at sea level, which it could only do for a limited time. We agonised with their loved ones. We didn’t know until six days into the search when hope had all but been extinguished anyway, that the implosion had spared them that fate. 

The people involved were a source of voyeuristic fascination. The five were two wealthy businesspeople and one of their sons, a French explorer, veteran of 30 similar dives, and the CEO of Titan’s operator OceanGate. The price of a seat for this fatal dive was a cool quarter of a million dollars. The sheer bravura of the dive, combined with a price few of us could afford, only increased the fascination.

Who pays the Ferryman?

The stakes were raised by celebrity filmmaker (Titanic, among others) and deep-sea explorer James Cameron and several other marine dive experts criticising the owners for their lack of safety protocols and testing in their quest to move quickly and ‘disrupt’ what they saw as an over-cautious sector. 

The Titan tragedy continues to dog the submersible industry. According to Patrick Lahey, an expert builder of and advocate for submersibles (who repeatedly warned a friend who was one of the passengers not to make the dive), order books remain full. Still, questions abound—given the amount of regulation that governs watercraft, how could the tragedy have happened? It might now be a little harder for operators like OceanGate to bend the rules … you’d have to hope.

It seems not All disasters at sea are equal

The Titan disaster was a thoroughly first-world tragedy, whereas the Adriana was only a boat full of human flotsam shining an unwanted mirror at us, and we mostly turned the other way and went with the better and more immediately horrifying drama playing out. The Adriana had one small Greek Coast Guard boat to witness its end; the sea search for Titan had five well-equipped marine search vessels and significant air support. The Titan’s passengers had agency and choice, however badly it played out for them. Adriana’s victims were desperate and prepared to risk everything for a better life. 

However you view it, no one should die in either circumstance—both of these disasters at sea could arguably have been prevented. But the reality is that refugee boats are very far outside most people’s comfort zones. In contrast, Titan’s unfolding story was familiar from disaster movies and other real-life catastrophes in which we’ve got similarly caught up. One example is the “Houston we have a problem” near-disaster for the Apollo 13 Space Shuttle. It had similar dynamics with a small number of people trapped in a malfunctioning ‘tin can’, but Apollo’s crew still had open communications with Ground Control, who were able to help the astronauts do a patch job and get the shuttle back to Earth with no loss of life. 

We were appalled, shocked and saddened with Titan, but we understood the rules. It was happening to people like us who had choices and for whom the dive was a wealthy person’s quest to boldly go where few had gone before. With Adriana, we were appalled but didn’t understand the rules—it was an alien situation to us, happening to a boatload of seemingly alien people with few choices left. I truly do wonder who pays the ferryman for such people. Or was it just another disaster at sea that was easier to close our eyes to?

Illustration Copyright

The illustration of Charon the Ferryman from Goethe is by Luise Duttenhofer (1776-1829). It is in the public domain in any country or area, including New Zealand, where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/01/world/europe/greece-migrant-ship.html