Over the span of ten days, beginning in January, Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguards Nicole Emerson and Vasili Pleqi joined a six-person ocean rescue team working near the Greek island of Lesvos. The island happens to be much closer to Turkey than it is to Athens, making it a de facto destination for the multitude of Syrian refugees escaping an ever-worsening civil war raging in their homeland. The team of lifeguards was compiled by the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA), a non-profit organization based out of Huntington Beach, California, with a mission to “advance professional lifesaving development to areas in need around the globe,” according to the organization’s website.  

Greek, Turkish and Australian lifeguards joined Emerson and Pleqi in conducting dozens of rescues accounting for thousands of refugees. The discrepancy between the number of rescues and the number of actual people helped is so wide because, in many cases, small vessels are dangerously overloaded with people.

“My first day there, a small boat was carrying over 200 people and almost capsized,” Emerson shares. She adds that there were no docks or piers upon which to safely tether.  “The area where these boats were arriving was rocky and surrounded by cliffs; the water was very cold,” says Emerson.

Precarious situations often became exacerbated by the fact that many of the people driving the boats had little to no experience as captains, and thus were unable to keep their vessels steady in the rough waters, even as the team of lifeguards tried to execute boat-to-boat transfers. 

“We were performing rescues in Nor’easter type conditions, sometimes at night” says Pleqi, who was born in Greece and is fluent in Greek. The five-year veteran of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue, who is also a trained emergency medical technician (EMT), says that the plight of the refugees came onto his radar as he was watching the news. From there, he reached out via Facebook to lifeguards in Athens and on Lesvos and began sharing rescue techniques with them. “When I saw posted pictures of drowned refugees, it really bothered me, and I had to act,” Pleqi says. “This was my chance to help.”

Most days were busy, Pleqi shares, and any downtime was spent updating and translating techniques for the local lifeguards. “Some of the simplest lessons were to smile at the people in the boats and give them a thumbs up to let them know you are there to help.  They are frightened and most have not slept or eaten in days,” he notes.  

“Our job was to save people and keep people dry,” adds Emerson. She says the training she received and continues to augment with the Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue was critical to her being able to help. “I felt capable and prepared in the water at all times.”

Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue Captain Rob Emahiser confirms that all his guards receive hundreds of hours of training and, at minimum, are trained as first responders for critical emergencies. 

“Emerson and Pleqi certainly have enough experience to get the job done,” Captain Emahiser says. “The Volunteer Lifesaving Corps has been training our guards to be the very best since 1912. All of us together added some cold water training to further prepare them and worked on IRB (inflatable rescue boat) transfers.”

Other than the lifesaving skills they have honed over the years, Emerson and Pleqi took very little else with them. “I didn’t have any expectations because I didn’t know what I was going to find. I simply prepared for the worst and hoped for the best,” Emerson says. 

Prior to her departure, Emerson was shocked when a few people asked why she was going over there to help terrorists. Out of the many intense experiences surrounding this commitment she made to help others, statements like those were some of the most overwhelming for her, but that she countered those questions by stating that “we are all humans. These folks (refugees) were leaving everything behind, leaving a war zone and heading out into the unknown. There are no politics when I am up to my neck in freezing water and trying to keep a baby dry by holding it above my head.”  

For Pleqi, who began with Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue because he thought it would be a cool summer job, this opportunity was a chance to affect change on the world stage. “You simply have to take the politics out of it,” he says.