Posts Tagged ‘piracy’

Captain Phillips

Monday, October 21st, 2013

The last time I went to the cinema before this week was back in May, when I watched “A Hijacking”, a Danish movie about a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean hijacked by Somali pirates. This week it was “Captain Phillips”, a similar kind of story, this time based on a real-life hijacking in 2009. Directed by Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, United 93, Green Zone), it stars Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, both of whom turn in spellbinding performances. Even if you know how it ends, it’s a real nerve-shredder getting there. Highly recommended.

It was an interesting moment of reflection, too, for me. When I went around the world in 2002 on the 33ft powerboat Spirit of Cardiff, amongst various pirate encounters, we did have a relatively close call with Somali pirates. Back then the piracy problem was in its infancy, and we knew the southern end of the Red Sea would be a hot spot, as previous piracy attempts had basically used the natural choke point of the 17 mile wide strait of Bab-el-Mendeb as an easy place to board large ships. We’d been told that anywhere within 100 miles of the North Somali coast had to be considered unsafe, but even taking a route closer to Yemen, we still came within 80 miles.

Having been overtaken by the container ship Kota Wajar, we were trying to tailgate her – following in the wash of a large ship does mitigate the effects of rough seas somewhat. We were only able to keep up with her for around 20 minutes, and it was during that time that we spotted a speedboat about a mile off our starboard beam. They were clearly having bigger problems than us in the heavy seas. As Captain Phillips reports the approach of pirates, he says “they’re not here to fish.” Likewise we knew there was no way a boat would be out for pleasure in the conditions we were facing. Clearly they were after the container ship, but I’ve no doubt they would have regarded us as a decent runner-up prize in the ransom stakes. Ironically, Kota Wajar was subsequently hijacked and held for 72 days in 2009, later in the same year as the events portrayed in “Captain Phillips”.

Read about my epic voyage around the world on Spirit of Cardiff in “Confronting Poseidon”. Click here to download your copy.

Yacht hostages freed by pirates

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Like everyone else, I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the news that after 13 months, Somali pirates had released Paul and Rachel Chandler, snatched from their yacht in the Indian Ocean last year. I followed their story with interest, not least because during my circumnavigation of the world on Spirit of Cardiff in 2002 I had several brushes with pirates – the full story of which is related in my book Confronting Poseidon.

We knew before we set off that the hot spots would be the southern end of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, Malacca Strait and South China Sea. In fact, at the time, the advice from the International Chamber of Commerce’s Maritime Bureau was anywhere within 100 miles of the north Somali coast was unsafe. This automatically put us at risk, because from the Bab el Mendeb – the strait at the southern end of the Red Sea – even sticking close to the Yemeni coast, we were within 80 miles.

As it was our first experience of pirates in a speedboat was in the Red Sea. “Around the corner” in the Gulf of Aden, it was more Yemeni fishermen out in their skiffs trying to pull a fast one. We’d been warned to take no notice if we saw them standing up in their boats waving their arms above their heads in the sign of the international distress signal. First time we saw it happen we wondered whether to head over and see what was up. We decided against it. As we continued on our way, we saw more and more of them doing the same thing.

In the South China Sea we actually had to outrun a pirate boat. I think here it was another case of opportunist fishermen looking for bigger fish. They were in a fairly ancient fishing boat, and when we heard some rather bizarre radio traffic as they bore down on us, we decided we’d better put a bit of a spurt on and opened up our throttle. They tried to chase us for a while but we saw them drop back when black smoke started belching out of their exhaust. I guess they thought it best not to blow up their engine trying to pursue us.

In the intervening years, piracy, particularly Somali piracy, has become big business, and no longer is it confined to coastal waters. With large mother ships, they now venture out deep into the Indian Ocean. It will be very much in our minds when Alan Priddy and I make our second attempt at the powerboat circumnavigation record next year.

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Somali Pirates

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

The news about the British couple being captured by Somali pirates has a particular poignancy for me. Firstly, I had several brushes with pirates, in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and South China Sea during my epic voyage around the world in 2002 onboard the record-breaking RIB Spirit of Cardiff, the story of which is related in my book Confronting Poseidon.

But more poignant than that, I have been within spitting distance of the container ship on which the couple are now being held. We were at the southern end of the Red Sea, and the sea conditions were impossibly bumpy. For a 33ft rigid inflatable, it meant having to reduce speed in order to avoid injury to the crew as well as not wasting fuel. When the Singapore registered ship Kota Wajar overtook us, we tried to nip behind into his wash. It’s a tactic we’d used previously to great success in heavy seas.

Spirit of Cardiff in the Red Sea - sheltering behind Kota Wajar

Spirit of Cardiff in the Red Sea - sheltering behind Kota Wajar

As we drew closer to his stern we could see a lot of activity on the bridge. But nothing on the radio – ships keep radio silence as a matter of course in pirate territory. Of course, we were a small speedboat, precisely the kind of thing they would have been warned about – so the chances are they actually thought we were pirates! And so we briefly pulled out from the shelter of Kota Wajar’s wash and drew level with their bridge so they could see us better. Spirit of Cardiff was bright yellow, and smothered with sponsors’ stickers rather like a Formula 1 racing car.

Before we knew it they’d called us up on the radio asking our intentions. As it happened, they were heading for Aden, our next stop, but while we hoped we could keep up with them, 19 knots even behind them was too much for us and we had to drop back.

Meanwhile, a mile off to our starboard beam, we could see an open speedboat, making heavy weather of the conditions. This was not the place or conditions for pleasure boaters, and we knew they had to be pirates. We had a couple of rifles with us, which thankfully only came out once to show we meant business – our real asset was the fact that in decent conditions, Spirit of Cardiff would leave most boats standing – indeed, when we tangled with pirates in the South China Sea it was our speed that gave us the edge.

Piracy was pretty widespread in 2002, and we were prepared for it. Now it has become a real menace, and I hope the current situation comes to a safe and happy conclusion.