• A boat full of migrants, rescued on June 10 in the Mediterranean near Libya.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • The crew first spots the migrants' raft.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Migrants transfer to rescue boats.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Operations chief Ian Ruggier provides life vests.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Men rest after their ordeal.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Regina Catrambone, right, and Canadian doctor Simon Bryant aid a Nigerian man who fled Boko Haram's reign of terror.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Ready-to-eat meals.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Preparing to disembark at the Sicilian port of Augusta.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Waiting for Italian authorities in Augusta, Sicily.  Photo: Marco Di Lauro

  • Regina Catambrone looks at the navigation chart on June 10, 2015 during their mission in the Mediterranean Sea.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Can a Young American Entrepreneur Succeed Where Europe Has Failed?

As each week brings fresh reports of African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees dying on the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, a self-made Louisiana millionaire and his Italian wife have taken to the sea to save them.

Three days after boarding the 131-foot rescue vessel MV Phoenix in Augusta, Sicily, I was standing on the ship’s top deck on a warm June dawn, watching the rotor blades of a blue-and-orange-striped Camcopter S-100 drone shudder into motion. We were a few miles southeast of the Bouri Offshore Field, a patch of deepwater oil wells and drilling platforms jointly owned by an Italian company and the Libyan government, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. Lit at night by natural-gas flares and heavily trafficked by naval ships, merchant vessels, and maintenance boats, the oil field has become a beacon for refugees fleeing by sea from war and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and Syria. Last year, 219,000 of them crossed the Mediterranean in rickety fishing boats and open dinghies, a massive flotilla organized by smugglers along the coast of lawless Libya. In their desperate attempt to reach European shores, refugees have drowned by the thousands.

The Phoenix had arrived in the vicinity of Bouri the previous night, after a 30-hour sail from the east coast of Sicily. Now we had entered a patrolling pattern. We were waiting for either a summons to action from the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome, run by the Italian coast guard, or for visual contact with a refugee-filled boat by one of the Phoenix’s drones. Because those vessels are often unseaworthy, and the conditions aboard are so wretched, the MRCC encourages ships equipped for rescues to intercept the migrants as soon as they exit Libyan waters and transport them to southern Italy, the closest country that will accept them. There, they’ll remain in detention centers while their applications for political asylum are processed. 

“We consider a boat that is overcrowded to be in imminent danger,” the founder of this private rescue venture, a 34-year-old American entrepreneur named Christopher Catrambone, had told me earlier. “When you have a boat that is equipped for ten fishermen and you have 400 people on board, including women and children, without life jackets, this boat needs to be rescued.”

Christopher Catrambone on the bridge of the MV Phoenix.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the son of an oil and gas engineer, Catrambone started a war-zone insurance company, Tangiers International, that provides kidnapping, terrorism, and death and injury coverage to journalists and military contractors. Based on Malta, the Mediterranean’s only English-speaking country, it had $10 million in revenues last year. In 2013, Catrambone poured $8 million of his personal fortune into creating the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), the Malta-based NGO that deploys the Phoenix. He spent two months last year aboard the ship. During that time, the Phoenix participated in nine rescue operations and came to the aid of 3,000 migrants, carrying them to Italian ports or transferring them onto naval vessels. This spring, in its first 60 days of a six-month season, the Phoenix helped rescue 5,597 more people, and by August, the number had climbed to 8,696. 

Catrambone, however, remained on Malta this year to run his insurance business, leaving shipboard operations in the hands of his wife and partner in the venture, 39-year-old Regina Egla Catrambone, a tireless, take-charge Italian who has thrown herself into the rescue effort. On this journey in early June, there were 23 of us aboard the refitted trawler, including a Spanish captain, Gonzalo Calderon, his six-person crew, and a three-man search and rescue team made up of former members of the Armed Forces of Malta. There were also six doctors, nurses, and logisticians from Doctors Without Borders, as well as two pilots and an engineer from the Austrian defense contractor Schiebel to operate the Phoenix’s two drones. 

Regina Catrambone assists migrants.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

The S-100’s blades scythed the air as it rose and hovered above the landing pad. Banking left, it hurtled at 140 miles per hour toward the Libyan coast. In a cramped control room, the two young drone pilots and the engineer clustered around a monitor, receiving high-definition images from a sensor mounted beneath the aircraft’s nose. Around midmorning, the usual routine aboard the Phoenix—a game of Texas Hold ’Em on the lounge conference table and chef Simon Templer, an old friend of Catrambone’s from New Orleans, puttering around the galley preparing lunch—stopped suddenly as word spread through the ship: possible rescue. The drone had spotted a boat about 35 miles off the Libyan coast. The only question, Regina explained as the captain opened the throttle and sped south, was whether the MRCC would order an Italian naval vessel to handle the pickup or the Phoenix would be given the job. 

“Last time,” said John Hamilton, a rangy, sunburned member of the Maltese rescue team, “the migrants had no food or water for 12 hours.” Simon Bryant, an Alberta physician on a six-month Doctors Without Borders contract, turned to David Johnston, a grizzled logistician from New Zealand. “Time to get changed,” he said, and the two men disappeared below. 


This year is shaping up to be an unprecedentedly active one for “irregular migrants”—a description adopted by the United Nations to avoid stigmatizing them with the term illegal—journeying across the Mediterranean Sea. In 2009, according to Frontex, the EU’s border patrol, 11,000 people made the perilous journey from the beaches of North Africa to Italy and Malta. Two years later, the Arab Spring unleashed instability throughout the region, and the number of migrants crossing from Libya or neighboring Tunisia jumped to 64,300. Since then a devastating civil war in Syria, radical Islamic terror in Nigeria and Mali, forced military conscription in Eritrea, and the beginning of a third decade of chaos in Somalia have driven those numbers ever higher. Some refugees come from as far away as Bangladesh, driven by economic misery to make marathon odysseys by land and sea before arriving in North Africa. By the end of 2015, this year’s numbers could exceed 250,000 people.

The deepening woes of Libya, the main launching point for migrant ships, have facilitated the exodus. Operating in the anarchic country with impunity, human traffickers charge refugees between $500 and $2,000 for a journey that typically starts in Tripoli, where the migrants are warehoused for weeks and sometimes months before being trucked to beaches west of the capital. Some of these smugglers are astute businessmen who aspire to provide a safe service for their clients. (“I even heard about one smuggler who allows kids under five to ride for free,” Catrambone told me.) But the majority are unscrupulous operators who show migrants large and safe boats in Libyan ports, then pack them instead onto derelict fishing vessels or open inflatable dinghies with no safety equipment and no crew. The migrants are given a plastic bottle of water each and maybe a single compass for the two-day journey. There’s often no going back: dependent on rapid turnover and determined to prevent word from spreading about the bait and switch, the smugglers will typically force migrants to board the craft at gunpoint. The boats are piloted either by volunteers among the migrants or by a captain, hired by the smugglers, who avoids capture by leaving the boat in the middle of the journey and jumping to a smuggler mother ship. The boats are abandoned at sea and either recovered by fishermen and resold to smugglers or destroyed by EU naval forces. 

The refugees have good reason for hesitation. The crossing from Africa to Italy is now, according to the UN, “the most lethal route in the world,” with a record 3,419 migrants perishing in 2014, and another 2,000 by August 2015. On an icy February night, three of four inflatable rubber boats filled with migrants capsized in frigid, storm-tossed waters off the Libyan coast. At least 300 died, including 29 who died of hypothermia during the rescue of 106 survivors. Two months later, a 60-foot fishing boat full of migrants capsized when it collided with a Portuguese merchant vessel at night and the passengers all rushed to one side. A Bangladeshi survivor reported that smugglers had locked hundreds of people, including dozens of women and children, in the hold. Twenty-eight refugees survived.

In October 2013, Italy launched a $10-million-per-month rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean. The Italian Navy deployed an amphibious assault carrier, two frigates, and two search and rescue vessels just beyond Libyan waters—and saved 130,000 people the first year. Like MOAS, Mare Nostrum operated under the assumption that every migrant journey is a dangerous one, and its rescues targeted not only foundering vessels but also those that seemed to be in no imminent peril.

But the program faced a backlash from conservative Italian politicians, who protested that Italy was unfairly shouldering the burden of the migration crisis. According to European Union policy, the country where a migrant first lands is obliged to handle his or her request for asylum; as a result, tens of thousands of refugees are awaiting processing in Italy. If their requests are rejected—as happened in 21 percent of the cases in 2013—the migrants are dispatched to expulsion centers to await deportation. Many refugees, of course, leave Italy long before that point, making it across Europe’s porous borders to Germany, Sweden, and other countries, where they either work as undocumented aliens or apply for asylum there. 

Last October, Italy replaced Mare Nostrum with the far more modest Operation Triton. Overseen by Frontex, Triton is backed by European leaders like UK Foreign Office minister Joyce Anelay, who argued that Mare Nostrum’s ambitious sweep had created a “pull factor” that encouraged migrants to cross. 

Triton costs less than a third of what Mare Nostrum did, and it mostly patrols an area 30 miles off Italy’s coast. But since Mare Nostrum was terminated, the number of migrants has increased sharply. After the drowning deaths of those 300 migrants last February, Nils Muiznieks, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, declared, “The EU needs effective search and rescue. Triton does not meet this need.”


Into that multinational mess came the Catrambones. The couple first met in 2006 on a beach in Regina’s hometown of Reggio di Calabria, on the toe of Italy, where Chris had gone to seek out the birthplace of his great-grandfather, who immigrated to America in the late 19th century. They got married in 2010 and live in Malta with their teenage daughter, Maria Luisa. 

In July 2013, the couple were cruising the Med on a rented yacht. The trip was, in part, Catrambone’s birthday gift to himself after a profitable year. “I love to take my family out and get away and enjoy life, and I convinced Regina, ‘Let’s go out and explore these waters around our home,’ ” he recalled. 

One day near Lampedusa, an Italian island south of Malta that has become a purgatory for tens of thousands of migrants, Regina was sunning on the top deck when she noticed a winter jacket bobbing in the water. The Catrambones asked their yacht captain, Marco Cauchi, a search and rescue commander moonlighting from the Armed Forces of Malta, about the incongruous piece of clothing. It was, he replied, almost certainly the jacket of a refugee. Cauchi told them how, during one military rescue, he’d watched a migrant sink beneath the waves a few feet from him. “There were 29 people on this boat that capsized, and most could not swim,” he told them. “I saw those big eyes open, and I saw him go down so fast. I couldn’t reach him. It stayed with me always.”

Just a week before the couple’s cruise, Pope Francis had called for “a change of attitude toward migrants and refugees”—a shift away from fear toward building international cooperation. Regina, a devout Catholic, had taken the pope’s words to heart and has since enlisted the archbishop of Malta as a supporter. She has proved a vital ally as her husband developed a plan to buy a boat and ply the Mediterranean, doing the job that governments seemed reluctant to take on. “I’m basically the operations guy,” says Catrambone. “Regina brings in the humanitarian element.” 

He recruited Cauchi as well. “I said to Marco, ‘If I do this, will you come on board with me?’ ” Catrambone told me. “And he said, ‘You’re crazy, but if you do it, I will.’ ” 

Catrambone decided to bypass applying for grants or government aid and financed the venture out of his own pocket. “Christopher’s philosophy is carpe diem,” says Regina. “We both believed that something has to happen now, and that if you have the capability, the skills, and the money, why do you need to wait? In the meantime, how many more people will die?”

Medics hand out food.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Just the night before we arrived, the ship steamed into Augusta, Sicily, packed with 372 refugees, the culmination of the largest rescue operation in MOAS’s short history. It began the morning of June 6, the 71st anniversary of D-Day, when the sea was calm after five days of dangerously high swells. Sure enough, as Ian Ruggier, another Maltese army vet who serves as chief of planning and operations, told me, the MRCC radioed early in the morning with a report of migrants in trouble and directed the ship to a GPS point 30 miles off Zuwara, a beach west of Tripoli that is the most popular launch point for smugglers. Soon, Ruggier spotted a two-deck fishing boat packed with nearly 600 people. Suddenly, a second vessel overloaded with refugees emerged out of the mist, then a third, listing badly, two bilge pumps furiously pumping out water. “If this one had gone over, it would have been a tragedy,” Ruggier told me. “You had 500 people in the hold, and they would have had to climb out of a single two-square-foot hatch.” 

Ruggier jumped into one of the Phoenix’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) and raced for the vessel in distress. He had just reached the stricken boat when a fourth emerged out of the fog, and a fifth. My God, he thought. There must be 2,000 migrants in an area the size of two soccer pitches. 

Alerted by MRCC, support vessels began arriving. RHIBs from half a dozen ships darted among the refugee boats, distributing life jackets, taking on passengers, speeding across the water, off-loading them onto military ships and the private rescue craft. The Phoenix helped rescue 2,200 people, taking 372 aboard. By one o’clock, the Phoenix’s two decks were packed. 

Ruggier has intercepted pirates in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, and run rescue operations in Maltese waters, but never on this scale. “It didn’t feel like a rescue,” he told me. “It was more like a military exercise.”


In late March, as the Catrambones were preparing for the six-month rescue season, I made my first trip to Malta, the densely packed island nation of 423,000 where they live. A bastion of Christianity during the Crusades and a vital Allied supply station in World War II, the former British colony has been reborn as a global financial center and a popular location for Hollywood filmmakers, who like its generous tax breaks and generically Middle Eastern look. It’s also smack in the middle of the European debate over migrants. As I taxied down to Marsa, the grimy commercial port, I passed a barracks surrounded by barbed wire and filled with sub-Saharan refugees. Malta’s government says it is sympathetic to the migrants’ plight, but after accepting about 19,000 in the past decade, it insists it has room for no more. 

I found Catrambone on the aft deck of the Phoenix, surrounded by the sounds of drilling, hammering, and scraping. The hull was getting a new paint job, and the crew was blasting off the rust. “As soon as the boat came back in October, we started doing work. It’s a big steel boat, and every single structure needs to be in perfect shape for the season,” said Catrambone, a shambling man with tousled black hair, a Lincoln-esque black beard, and a trace of Louisiana drawl. Recently, after the venture began attracting media attention he hired Robert Young Pelton, the veteran war journalist and author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, as a strategic adviser. 

He led me up a staircase to the upper aft deck and pointed out two RHIBs mounted snugly on metal cradles. “Feel this!” he urged, running his hand along one of the double-hulled, 20-foot dinghies, each equipped with two 70-horsepower outboard engines. “It’s got foam filling, so even if you puncture it, it will still float.” Catrambone’s team had just moved the cradles to a lower position and installed two large pipes to guide the craft gently into the water. “Before, we were using a crane,” he said. “In Force 4 winds, it was highly dangerous.”

The refugees on board.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

The last time Catrambone threw himself into the business of boat renovation, the circumstances were rather different. In 2005, he was working as a freelance insurance-claims investigator after earning a degree in criminology at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “He had this Volkswagen Passat with tinted windows, and a video camera, and we’d go places and he’d videotape people through his window,” recalls Templer, the chef, who lived in the same apartment building in New Orleans. Catrambone was “kind of neurotic,” Templer remembers. “He was like Kramer from Seinfeld—this awkward, geeky type, but cool and laid-back at the same time.”

That September, Catrambone was on a job in the Bahamas when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Homeless, he set up shop in a three-cabin boat in a marina on Saint Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and invited Templer and another dislocated friend to join him. With $20,000 in pooled compensation from FEMA, the trio leased a decrepit double-decker paddle-wheel boat and turned it into Cajun Mary’s Riverboat Lounge, a floating bar and restaurant. “It was, in our way, our mourning for and tribute to a city we loved so much,” said Catrambone. 

Around that time, he got a call from G4S, a huge private security firm based in the U.S. It offered him a different sort of insurance-related assignment: locate medical treatment in Dubai for a U.S. contractor who had suffered a herniated disk there. That job led him within the year to northern Iraq, where insurance providers for big security companies were struggling to provide decent hospital care for contractors injured by roadside bombs. Catrambone assembled a network of secure hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan, then did the same in Afghanistan. Soon he started his own war-zone insurance company, and Tangiers International, named for his favorite North African city, took off. By the time he was 26, he was a multimillionaire. 


At the end of 2013, Catrambone left Tangiers in the hands of his subordinates and began combing through online catalogs searching for a ship broker.

“Christopher is like a hurricane,” says Regina. “Standing in the eye, it’s very calm for you, but for the people around you, he can be a disaster. He’s blowing around, people think he doesn’t have a plan, but he’s very disciplined when he needs to do something.” 

He ultimately tracked down the Phoenix in Norfolk, Virginia. It was love at first sight. Built in 1973 and originally used as a fishing trawler, then later as a scientific-research vessel, the ship had a steel hull, a deep draft, and a propulsion system built by Wärtsilä, a Finnish company known for its icebreakers. “She was a badass little boat,” Catrambone says. He bought it on the spot for $1.6 million, spent $3.5 million more on a refit, and sailed it back across the Atlantic himself, with Cauchi at the helm and Templer in the galley. At one point the Phoenix struck something, possibly a container. “We heard a noise like boom-boom-boom, and then it stopped,” Cauchi recalled. He feared that the boat’s new $1 million propeller had been destroyed. In fact the collision did break off a chunk, but Catrambone wasn’t fazed. “He was a mad dog,” said Templer. “He was like, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ ”

When the Phoenix launched in August 2014, European diplomats and journalists were dubious. “They did not give us a lot of respect,” Catrambone said. “They suspected we were rogue Greenpeace-type activists causing trouble.”

Catrambone’s doubts grew as well. “After five days at sea, we were frustrated,” he told me. “I was saying, ‘This is all a lie, the migrants are not even coming.’ ” Then, on day seven, the Phoenix carried out a double rescue of a fishing boat packed with about 300 Syrians and then an inflatable dinghy filled with sub-Saharan Africans. The MRCC took note and gave the Phoenix temporary command of three other vessels. MOAS had proved itself legit. By the time the mission ended in October, Catrambone said, “we didn’t want to leave.” They stopped only because the boat was in dire need of repairs—and because the effort was draining the Catrambones’ finances. 

Italian Ministry of Health doctors in Sicily.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

Indeed, last March, Catrambone doubted whether he’d be able to deploy the drones in 2015. Earlier the previous year, he had struck a deal with Hans Georg Schiebel, owner of the Austrian military contractor Schiebel, for the pair of Camcopter S-100’s, pilotless mini-choppers that can fly 380 miles without refueling and are used by navies around the world. Schiebel initially wanted to sell the drones to him for $5.5 million, but Catrambone persuaded him to lease them for last year’s abbreviated three-month rescue season at $400,000 per month. “I told Hans, ‘Show the world that this drone can be used for peaceful purposes,’ ” he recalled. “Hans said, ‘Deal.’” For this year’s season, Schiebel agreed to lower the monthly rate to $300,000 and kick in the last two months for free. But $1.2 million was still way too high for Catrambone’s budget. 

Now, after burning through much of his fortune, Catrambone was looking for donations. Doctors Without Borders had given $1.6 million; Germany’s Oil and Gas Invest was paying for the boat’s fuel. But he was short the $1.8 million for the drones. “We’re going to have to crowdfund for it,” he said. “Organizations like Doctors Without Borders are just not into paying for drones.” 
A few weeks later came good news: Avaaz, a global activist organization, had agreed to kick in $500,000 for the two S-100’s. Catrambone would raise the rest just in time for rescue season. 


Now those S-100’s were proving to be critical assets. Hours after the drone launched from the Phoenix’s helipad, Regina and I stood on deck, scanning the southern horizon. The Nafus Mountains rose up before us, about 30 miles away, wrapped in a dun brown desert haze. Regina guessed that the swells hitting the beaches of Zuwara would be about 18 inches high—perfect conditions for smugglers to launch their vessels. 

Approaching slowly across the water, a distant white speck came into our line of vision. Slowly, the dot took shape: a white inflatable dinghy, about 25 feet long, with a single outboard motor, packed with what looked like about 100 people.

The ship buzzed with anticipation. On the aft deck, Bryant, the doctor from Al-berta, zipped up his white protective suit and slipped on surgical gloves and rubber boots. The rest of the medical team, similarly attired, brought up 100 small blue bags from the hold, each containing socks, a towel, white coveralls, two bottles of water, and a package of protein bars. Cauchi, Ruggier, and three crewmen lowered an RHIB into the water and sped toward the tiny craft.

The Phoenix's medical team.   Photo: Marco Di Lauro

From several hundred yards away, I watched the rescue unfold: The RHIB approached the dinghy slowly, careful to avoid exciting those inside and causing the fragile craft to tip over. Cauchi, speaking English through a megaphone, reassured the migrants—all of them, it seemed from my vantage point, sub-Saharan. The team passed out orange life jackets, loaded small groups onto the RHIB, and ferried them to the Phoenix. One by one, the migrants bridged the narrow gap between the boats and unsteadily boarded the bigger ship. Four young Somali women in head scarves, the first to set foot on the Phoenix, collapsed on the deck and clasped their hands in prayer. Soon the deck was filled with refugees from Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali, and other blighted corners of the continent, 77 men and ten women—weary, grateful-looking people whose ordeals over recent weeks and months could scarcely be imagined. 

With a blue MOAS baseball cap pulled low over her brow, Regina moved confidently among the refugees, bending down to reassure a worried-looking 15-year-old Ethiopian boy traveling by himself, searching for a Nigerian who had been punched in the eye during his voyage. The Phoenix was waiting for communications from the MRCC, which would either order it to take the migrants to a port in Sicily or tell it to remain in the area on patrol. “We have such a small group, we would rather continue,” Regina told me. “But we are in their hands.” 

It’s this work with the refugees that has been most fulfilling for Regina. In 2014, she shopped the markets of Malta for sacks of rice and vegetables and, working as Templer’s assistant, cooked hot meals in the ship’s cramped galley for hundreds of hungry people. “We were using the cover of an oil container like a tray, and I was going up and down with the tray covered with rice and tomatoes,” she said. This year she’s spent dozens of hours in the onboard clinic. “I remember this Somali lady, she was with her two-and-a-half-year-old son,” she told me. “They had been 12 hours in an open boat. We took him from the dinghy, and he was not responsive.” Regina carried the boy to a bed, where a doctor administered an IV. Soon he was smiling, active, and playing with a Scooby-Doo doll and a toy Ferrari. 


As the crew awaited its orders, I fell into conversation with Abdisamat Mohammed Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Somali with a long, angular face who was leaning against the rail, staring into the sea. Born and raised in Mogadishu—“I cannot remember a moment of peace there,” he said—he had fled Somalia as a teenager and lived for six years in refugee camps in northern Kenya, where he taught himself English and Arabic. He and his wife had left to find work in South Sudan and, in April 2015, when the new country became too unstable, moved on to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, with a plan to cross the sea to Europe. Smugglers packed them on a truck for the grueling weeklong journey through the desert to Libya. When they reached Tripoli, he was separated from his wife and held in a basement cell for 51 days while he waited for his family in Nairobi to wire $500 for the crossing.

“They came in two nights ago, and they said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he told me. “They said, ‘You will go to Italy on a very nice boat. No problems.’ And they told us it would take about ten hours, but I knew they were lying.” The truck pulled up to the beach, and the migrants were ordered out, at gunpoint. “Most of the Somalis had never seen the water until that night. The women were crying,” he said. “When I saw the boat, I was shocked. I thought, ‘They have cheated us.’ ” Unlike on the big fishing vessels, which usually have experienced captains, migrants aboard dinghies are generally told to aim for the Bouri Offshore Field and left to their own devices. 

The migrants, Mahmoud said, had pushed out to sea at around five o’clock that morning. They carried a compass, which turned out to be broken, and had a half-liter bottle of water each. People cried, moaned, and prayed. “Some really thought that this was the last day in the world. I was telling them that we will be rescued, and that we will eat our breakfast in Italy,” he said.

They’d been afloat for about eight hours when Malshak Adano, a 32-year-old Christian fleeing the violence in northeast Nigeria, saw the Phoenix in the distance and began shouting and waving. Then, as Adano himself told me, “a man with a megaphone said, ‘Don’t be afraid, we’re giving you life jackets, we’re going to protect you.’ I thought, God has answered my prayer.”

The next morning we passed Malta. The MRCC had dispatched orders to sail for Pozzalo, on Sicily’s southern coast, and off-load our 77 passengers. A dozen Somalis crowded the starboard rail, silently absorbing their first view of Europe. Soon Mahmoud began peppering me with questions. Was Sicily an island? How far was it from the mainland? How long would it take to reach Rome? His first mission, he told me, was to find his wife. Once reunited they would make their way to Finland, which has a large Somali community, crossing the European Union’s generally porous borders. “I’ve heard that they have jobs there,” Mahmoud said. 

In fact, while Scandinavian countries have strong economies and have generally been more receptive than other nations to migrants seeking political asylum, a backlash is growing: in 2012, a parliamentary aide suggested on her blog that migrants wear armbands, and last May, a Helsinki city councillor called for the “forced sterilization” of African males.

We arrived in Pozzalo late in the afternoon. Mahmoud peered uneasily over the gangplank at the handful of Italian policemen milling around the port. Then, resigned to the uncertainty that awaited him, sure at any rate that the worst was behind him, he walked down the plank and was ushered to a medical screening tent. “We’re grateful to all of you!” Mahmoud shouted as he left the boat. 

What happened to the migrants next would depend largely on their resourcefulness, Gabriele Casini, a communications officer for Doctors Without Borders, told me as we stood on deck, watching. The Italian government is obliged by EU rules to keep them in the country until their applications for asylum are approved or rejected. “But they are not strict,” Casini said. “They don’t always take fingerprints, so the migrants hope to slip through and reach Germany or the Scandinavian countries.” The two of us watched Mahmoud board a bus to a reception camp and gave him a final wave. “In these centers they are free,” Casini told me. “They can take off.” 

Perhaps Mahmoud would get to Finland after all.


As this latest group of refugees confronted their new lives in Europe, Europe continued to dither over how to deal with them. In June, EU leaders hashed out a modest scheme to share 60,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers over the next two years, though the United Kingdom refused to go along. Italy has warned that without a fair deal, it would start issuing temporary visas for migrants to travel beyond its borders. Meanwhile, as word of the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing spreads, migrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are increasingly gravitating to an alternate route, traveling overland to Western Europe through Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. 

“How pathetic is it that one motivated family can change something and all these entities don’t?” Catrambone asked me one afternoon back in Sliema, Malta. The voyage was over, and he’d picked me up at my hotel in his black Range Rover. As Buena Vista Social Club blared on the stereo, Catrambone navigated through the sun-splashed streets of this densely populated Maltese tourist town on our way to lunch at the Malta Royal Golf Club, a British-built oasis that dates back to the 1880s. It was a strange choice for a man who lately has dedicated himself to the refugees of the world. But Catrambone doesn’t make any secret of his love of the finer things in life. “I’m a member, I think, but I just haven’t had time to play golf,” he said as he dug into his jeans pocket and fumbled for his ID card at the entrance gate. 

Over cappuccinos on a terrace, we talked about the future of his rescue operation. With donations flowing to MOAS, the Catram-bones are ready to step back and pass on the operation to the crew. “We kickstarted it, and now with these guys on their own, the model is complete,” he told me. “We’re saying, Take it over.” 

For the moment, Catrambone has returned to running Tangiers International—he recently purchased Malta’s biggest aviation insurance broker, making Tangiers the insurer of Air Malta and several other airlines. Business remains in his blood, it’s clear, but he isn’t ruling out another humanitarian project. 

“There is a level of civic-mindedness among millennials,” said Catrambone, one of the oldest members of that post-Gen-X generation. “They want free rice and open borders for everybody. They are thinking about solutions that benefit society as a whole, not themselves.” 

He stood up and stretched his long frame. “When you reach this point in your life, you realize what you’re good at,” he said, displaying his customary mix of charming guilelessness and brash self-confidence. “I realized that I was good at doing the impossible.”

Contributing Editor Joshua Hammer’s book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu And their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts will be published by Simon and Schuster in April 2016.

Filed To: Politics, Libya, Sailing, Italy, Nigeria, Outside Features
From Outside Magazine, October 2015