As I paddled through crashing waves in the darkness, stomach churning, I watched our small dinghy starting to fill up with water with a sinking feeling – it wouldn’t be long before we went overboard, and I was worried that at least one person in my boat was paddling in the wrong direction. But, then again, it might have been me: I was wielding an oar twice my size and it was impossible to tell in the frenzy.
Before we knew it the odyssey was over and the lights were back on. I emerged soaked through – with aching muscles and shot nerves – relieved to be out of the water.
This was the RNLI’s sea survival pool, used to train volunteers in the rigours of life-or-death aquatic rescue. All I had done was traverse a 25-metre swimming pool four times, but it was enough to assure me that repeating that at least 325 more times across the Channel would be a deeply traumatic experience. What’s more, it is a journey that would probably be much longer as a migrant is, in many cases, guided by only a smartphone compass.
The experience was intended to give me a sense of what it’s like for migrants crossing the Channel in small unseaworthy boats filled with up to 50 passengers, all of whom are frightened and desperately hoping that their long, difficult journeys across Europe, which have followed months or years of suffering and hardship, are about to draw to a close.
But my experience was nowhere near as fraught with peril as what they would endure. The water was 20C rather than the channel’s current 12C (which, even then, is warm compared with other times of year). We were also in a swimming pool, not one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and my four fellow sailors and I had a language in common and our flotation devices were lifejackets – and not lemonade bottles.
The main difference, of course, was that we knew we would get out alive, with clean towels waiting on the side and comfortable homes to return to.
However, even gaining a shred of understanding of what it might be like to be adrift with a group of strangers, whose experience of the sea would often be – like mine – limited, gave me a sense of how desperate anyone must be to attempt such an ordeal.
Organised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, the sea survival session forms part of its work helping the public understand and empathise with migrants’ human struggle. The RNLI’s chief executive, Mark Dowie, is worried that photographs of migrants pushing boats out on to calm seas on sunny afternoons are fuelling criticisms of their rescue work, persuading people that arriving on British shores seeking asylum is akin to a casual summer jaunt through peaceful waters.
It is this failure to acknowledge the human face of the crisis that the RNLI believes underpins the accusations levelled by Nigel Farage that the volunteer-run charity is operating a “a taxi service for illegal immigration” – rather than fulfilling its duty to save lives at sea without passing judgment on how they got there.
The RNLI wants people to understand that migrants are real people just like them, who are going through an experience more harrowing than most of us can even begin to conceive of.
I know that my brief sojourn in wild waters will leave me thinking for a long time about all those boats out there in the stormy night, full of men, women and children attempting to survive towering waves, hulking ships and the freezing cold, hoping they will soon encounter dry land and human compassion.