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Saved at Sea: A Millionaire's Mission to Save Stranded Migrants

Special to Polo Lifestyles by Giles Tremlett

A few years ago, Christopher Catrambone, a garrulous American entrepreneur who had spent almost a decade traveling the world to build a multi-million-dollar company, decided to take a break.

Tangiers Group, which Catrambone runs with his wife Regina, provides insurance in conflict zones – to US military subcontractors, NGO workers, journalists and missionaries, among others. The business, rooted in such war-wrecked countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, was flourishing. But that summer, Catrambone decided, the company could take care of itself for three weeks.

Catrambone and Regina, along with Regina’s teenage daughter Maria Luisa, set off from their home on the Mediterranean island of Malta, aboard a glistening white 24-meter chartered motor yacht with Burmese teak decking and varnished Tanganyika walnut joinery. As they motored out of Valetta’s spectacular Grand Harbour – past the Che Guevara 2, a sleek 30-meter super-yacht that belonged to the family of the deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi – a Maltese armed forces veteran, Marco Cauchi, was at the wheel, and an old friend of Catrambone’s, the Texan chef Simon Templer, was there to cook and have a holiday. “I love going out on these yearly cruises with my family,” Catrambone said. “We can’t escape each other and get on our iPhones.”

Malta, one of the European Union’s most southerly points, was an ideal starting place for a three-week cruise to Tunisia and along the coast of Sicily, not far from Calabria, the southern toe of Italy. This is where Catrambone met Regina nine years ago. He had gone to search for his family roots in the place his great-grandfather left for America in the early 19th century and ended up living down the road from Regina’s mother.

In July, they sailed away from Lampedusa, a small Italian island southwest of Malta that lies even closer to North Africa. A business meeting in Tunisia prevented them staying to see Pope Francis celebrate a mass on the island, devoted to the migrants who made the dangerous crossing to southern Europe from Libya in cheap inflatable motorboats and rickety fishing vessels. Some 500 had drowned en route in 2012 alone. Pope Francis lambasted the rich world for its indifference to other people’s suffering: “It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business.”

As they headed south, Regina spotted a beige winter jacket bobbing in the water. Cauchi, who had once run Malta’s maritime search and rescue operations, told her it may have come from a sunken migrant boat. Such tragedies were not new, and only a few months later, the pope’s warnings would be confirmed yet again, when 380 refugees – many from Syria and Eritrea – drowned over the course of only eight days, most within a quarter-mile of Lampedusa. Migrant deaths became an obsessive topic of conversation on the yacht, and Catrambone, typically, found himself looking for a solution. “It makes you think like: ‘Wow! Look at me out here cruising on my boat, at the same time people are out there dying,” he said. “So, our heaven is their hell, right? Our paradise is their hell.”

Catrambone’s business includes, he says, both caring for “heroic” wounded conflict-zone workers and being part of the financial arm of war. He is coy about his worth, but Bloomberg reports he made his first $10m by the age of 30. His company covers everything from healthcare to emergency evacuations to kidnapping, while Catrambone styles himself “a humanitarian, entrepreneur and adventurer.” After graduating from a local university, McNeese State, at the age of 20, he was hired and trained by a company that investigated insurance claims. By 26, he had worked as a private eye, a political campaign manager for a Louisiana court official, as an aide in Congress, and as the co-owner of a Cajun riverboat bar serving high-octane bloody Marys, jambalaya and gumbo in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On the yacht, Cauchi – an amiable, stocky, sun-weathered 48-year-old – told Catrambone stories of rescues. Bodies fished out of the sea can haunt you. Martin Xuereb – a former brigadier who had been Cauchi’s boss as head of Malta’s armed services and would later work with the Catrambones – still recalls watching a body bag being unzipped on a patrol boat several years ago. “It was this child, maybe seven or eight, with his fists clenched next to his face and his eyes wide open,” he told me. But what could one individual, or one wealthy family, do? Money buys many things, but can it stop people drowning in their hundreds and thousands?

By the end of the cruise, Catrambone had decided to set up his own search and rescue operation. As he saw it, he was already in the business of saving lives in conflict zones: “I rescue people for money in my other job,” he told me. “I know what to do.” His Tangiers Group is privately owned, making it hard to check his claim that it gives “the best medical treatment in the world;” he brushed off questions regarding a few old complaints I had found on the Internet from employees of U.S. defense contractors about his company’s investigative methods, citing confidentiality.

But there is certainly nothing phony about Catrambone’s passion for saving migrants. He once lost a home in a natural disaster, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans’ Ninth Ward in 2005, flooding the building beside the St. Charles Avenue tram line where both he and Templer lived.

Catrambone saw the migrants as either desperate, entrepreneurial, or both – not too different from his own great-grandfather. He also knew many of the places they were escaping from. “Every major economy has had their hands in Africa, and they have had their hands in the Middle East as well,” he told me. “Our policies have an equal and opposite reaction. You go in. And now they come in.” But Catrambone is not interested in politics or advocacy. For him, the problem is saving lives, based on a simple and typically candid analysis. “If you are against saving lives at sea then you are a bigot and you don’t even belong in our community. If you allow your neighbor to die in your backyard, then you are responsible for that death.”

Since that summer on the yacht, Catrambones has sailed some of the roughest international waters in the world, rescuing immigrants off the coasts of some of the most desperate countries in the world. All that requires a lot of money. Catrambone knows one of his problems is that, unlike many other wealthy individuals, he is at the action end of the philanthropy chain. Most set up foundations to finance political advocacy or donate to existing NGOs, many of which have large memberships. He and Regina are wary of being seen as an eccentric millionaire’s hobby, making it harder to raise money and awareness.

“We are not bored, we are not old, we have a lot to do,” said Regina, who has increasingly turned her attention away from their business and toward the rescue efforts. And with a large, well-organized NGO like Doctors without Borders sending its own boats this year, there is now an element of competition for raising funds. Cooperation, Catrambone says, is the future. Catrambone has also thought of seeking funding from the merchant marine industry, which loses money every time a cargo vessel or oil tanker is ordered to a rescue.

Whatever the future holds, nothing can change the fact that the Catrambones – initially self-financed, freelance operators – have set both a precedent and, having never lost a life, a standard. Those who care about migrants drowning, Catrambone insists, no longer have to wait for governments to act. He had already told me that if the family business ever went down, he and Regina would have no regrets about spending so much time and money. “A lot of people say: ‘Oh, look at the millionaires! They’ve spent a lot of money’,” he said. “I’ve invested my life into this, and my family has invested our savings. This is important for us, and we believe in it. And you know what, if I am poor one day and I’m out in the street, well so be it. But we did this. And we are proud of it. I will never take anything back.”


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