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  • Mike and Helen

'Peril on the sea'

You may recognise this fragment from what is often known as the Mariners’ Hymn, ‘Eternal Father strong to save…’hear us as we cry to the for those in peril on the sea'. You may even have sung it long ago. It contains a plea for those challenging the ocean in fragile craft. Some form of the prayer has probably been uttered many times in the past few days as the ultimately unsuccessful search for the submersible Titan continued against the clock – a search which has attracted world-wide media attention.

The loss of the craft and five lives with it raises many questions - some technical, some human, some moral. Many surround the safety of the craft, and they will not be quickly resolved. Then there are questions about what makes people engage in such high-risk projects. Can we blame the men involved for their risk-taking? What of those who are left behind to mourn them? What of those who may risk their own lives in rescue attempts? What of the enormous cost of such endeavours – might that money not be better spent? Were these very wealthy men explorers or tourists?

The question we want to ask is of a different order and about a different marine vessel. Just a few days before, an arguably much greater tragedy had unfolded on a different seaway when a fishing boat, the Andriana, carrying up to 750 migrants sank in the Ionian Sea off the coast of SW Greece, with great loss of life. It is one of the greatest losses of life in the Mediterranean in living memory. To be fair it does seem that the Greek authorities did attempt to provide some assistance. But in this Refugee Week, we must ask: why were such enormous resources of marine equipment and manpower invested in the search for five rich men on the submersible and so little on the 750 migrants?

The details about each vessel will only emerge as investigations proceed but the question remains: why did the fate of the Titan attract so much media attention and that of the Andriana much less?

Maybe the first answer is that the Titan disaster is a first of its kind. Refugee disasters have almost become commonplace. The Titan story allowed us to focus on just five persons with names and faces and stories. It is much easier to relate to these few than to the anonymous crowd aboard the Andriana. Then there is something iconic and romantic about the Titanic which the Titan was going to investigate. Any exploration of the fated ocean liner carries with it the label of ’research’. We do not know yet whether the five victims on the Titan were truly engaged in any research or was it just tourism? Was it just a special Fathers’ Day adventure for the lost father and son involved? The passengers on the Andriana, mostly men, were mainly economic migrants.

But here is the most difficult question. Is there some sense in which, certainly here in the wealthy West, we believe that the lives of the passengers on the submersible were somehow more valuable than those on the clapped-out fishing boat? Do we somehow think that the crowds aboard the Andriana were somehow more expendable than those on Titan? One of those on the submarine was after all a billionaire and had led a productive life, another a skilled submariner.

Tradition has it that William Whiting, a master at Winchester college, wrote the Eternal Father hymn for a pupil who was very fearful about his forthcoming voyage across the Atlantic. Whiting himself had had a brush with death at sea shortly before and was perhaps well placed to offer support.

There are many unknowns in these stories which will take a long time to resolve. We can at least allow the stories to confront us with a couple of difficult questions. One is about our attitudes to strangers and outsiders en masse. The more profound may be whether we believe the prayer: ‘O hear us when we cry to Thee’ goes unanswered.

Photo: NBC

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