Over the past year the skipper of the Rathlin Island ferry has been using his seafaring experience to rescue boatloads of refugees in the Mediterranean.
Michael Cecil’s work as part of a rescue team alongside Belfast musician Joby Fox in Greece features in a BBC NI documentary which will be broadcast this evening.
In 2015 Mr Fox was among the volunteers in Lesbos waiting for boats of migrants to arrive from Turkey when he set himself the mission of funding and operating a rescue boat.
For this he enlisted the help of Mr Cecil through a mutual friend – art curator Jude Bennett.
Mr Cecil spoke to the News Letter ahead of the True North programme which features their story. He said: “I got a call to say, ‘we’ve got a boat, we understand you work on boats, can you show us how it works?’ I said, ‘it’s not that simple, but I’ll come out and see what I can do’.”
He added: “We sat down and put together a professional plan of what we would be doing as a search and rescue operation.
“The first time I was out was for three weeks in January 2016. It was so surreal. A refugee boat had just arrived and just seeing 65 people coming off a boat was quite traumatic at the time.
“But what really stood out for me was there was no police, coastguard or ambulance there, just volunteers. That was normal and has stayed normal to this day. The authorities don’t really get involved in any of this.”
The 47-year-old father of three has been to Greece five times to lend his personal support to the rescue operation he helped set up.
Of his experiences he said: “The media focuses on the disasters, the drownings, and you don’t really see that so much. There were some occasions that you would see bodies washed up on the beach, some young children, that was quite difficult.
“There were times you were dealing with rubber boats coming in in bad weather during the night, that could be quite intense because you have people clinging on to rocks.
“These people are fearful of authorities. If they see us coming with a boat with lights on it, and our kit on, we do look like port police or customs, so it takes the first five or 10 minutes to get their trust.
“They have no idea they have actually made it to Greece, for all they know they may have ended up back in Turkey.
“Within an hour or two we have all that under control and we’re able to bring them safely ashore and get them warmed up.”
• True North: The Crossing which follows the team in their inflatable boat named ‘Mo Chara’ (‘My Friend’) will be broadcast tonight at 10.40 on BBC One NI.