Captain Klaus Vogel, 59 – who holds a PhD as well as his captain's license - founded a charity, "SOS Méditerranée", with a French friend after the Italian government announced it would end its "Mare Nostrum" sea rescue operation in 2014.
"From now on, even more people will be dying," Hamburg-born cargo ship veteran Vogel remembers thinking at the time.
He decided to get involved himself and has since raised €750,000 – enough to charter a ship for three months and head to the crisis zone to begin saving lives.
Vogel knows that he'll see a lot of suffering – but believes the results will give him the strength to get through.
"These are emergency missions that are demanding, but that also give you strength, because you're saving a lot of people," he said.
On Thursday, the 77-metre Aquarius will set off from Bremerhaven for the Mediterranean, equipped with speedboats, liferafts and a first aid station that will help it bring up to 200 people on board at a time – or "up to 500 in an emergency," Vogel said.
A volunteer with a lifeboat aboard the Aquarius before its departure to save refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean. Photo: DPA
Vogel and his crew will patrol the waters between Libya and Italy looking for boats in trouble.
"The sea rescue HQ in Rome will tell us where we should bring them" after rescuing people, Vogel said – just like when crews from stricken cargo or navy ships are hauled from the water. Most people rescued at sea are brought to Calabria or Sicily.
On board, a team of doctors, nurses and a translator from Médecins du Monde (MdM) will care for people once they are pulled from the water.
"Many of them are suffering from hypothermia, are undernourished, or have problems with their airways," MdM director Francois De Keersmaeker said, adding that children are especially weakened by the sea crossing.
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It's the first time MdM has sent personnel to the Mediterranean – unlike fellow doctors' charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has already saved thousands of lives.
Meanwhile, Vogel's charity is gathering funds to charter an even larger ship.
Their ultimate aim is to set up a permanent private sea rescue organization in the Mediterranean funded by donations – just like the successful German Society for Rescuing Shipwrecked Sailors (DgzRS) which is active in the North Sea and Baltic.