The Ill

Book Made By My Gran`s Husband Colin Darch. Mostly About When We Got Captured By Pirates By Somalia.

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4. Chapter 4

On the way down the Red Sea the “Busse” suffered a major breakdown in her air conditioning system, beyond repair with the equipment available. Whereas our normal company crew would probably have continued without it, sleeping on deck if necessary, the owners’ men were noisily complaining that the heat in the accommodation was intolerable. Aden and Djibouti were considered unsafe as ports of refuge, so “Busse” was directed to Salalah in Oman, and I was told to continue to Singapore. The tugs parted ways on 30th January which I entered in my diary as a Red Letter Day! So relieved was I at ridding myself of the burden of handling all the “Busse’s” correspondence.

My euphoria was short lived. On Friday 1st February at around 1600 pirates attacked.
We saw a white plastic skiff approaching fast, and sprang into action. I changed from auto to manual steering control, increased engine speed and propeller pitch to maximum, while Berezovskiy sounded the general alarm, pressed the secret button to alert a control centre in the U.K. which would also activate a tracking device, and put out a “MAYDAY” call on the VHF (which nobody answered). Alexander went to the engineroom while Ted and the seamen joined us in the wheelhouse having secured the steel maindeck doors from within. We were ready to repel boarders, let battle commence!

They approached fast on the starboard quarter, five dark men, heads swathed in white rags, armed with Kalshnikovs except the man aft on the outboard engine. As they came level with our stern I turned the port thruster control 90 degrees to give our stern a three thousand horsepower lurch towards them. Just in time they veered away, circled and came again, only to be forced away once more. I was gaining in confidence that I could keep them off, but in case I actually hit and sank them I called on Ted to take pictures to prove they were armed, not innocent fishermen run down and sunk. On the next attempt they fired shots, “Crack! Crack! Crack!” We all ducked but standing up to steer I was relieved to note no broken glass. Their shots were to intimidate, not kill. Then Ted shouted that only four pirates were in the boat. Had the other boarded us? No! The bowman with boarding ladder had fallen into the sea and was swimming back to his mates. I considered running back over him, but rejected that idea as they would certainly have fired on our wheelhouse, and I was not yet mad enough to kill. They appeared to give up, and we lumbered away east with Ted tweaking the revs and pitch for top speed, about twelve knots.
Then to our dismay we saw a second boat arrive with four gunmen, and they approached simultaneously, one on each quarter. Deep down I knew we were doomed, but I was suddenly furious, and determined to smash one boat hoping the other would stop to rescue swimmers, and then perhaps overloaded and sluggish I could sink the other. In they came, bouncing over our wake, firing sporadically, and I threw the stern violently side to side. In a welter of white water we rolled and surged, wallowed and plunged, yelling and swearing in English and Russian, excited, terrified, murderous, no time to think! Until a shout, “They’re aboard!” The fight was over. I dropped the revs and pitch to zero and brought the thrusters together, stopping our tug in the water, which now subsided to a glassy calm, while a hush fell over the wheelhouse, and a crescendo of shots and shouts clattered up the steel stairways to the bridge.

First to appear were a short stocky one with bulging eyes who announced he was Andrew and the hard looking middleweight beside him was “Omar, our Captain”. We were to take orders only from them. Was I the Captain, and what name? I gave my first name “Colin” and ever after was “Captain Colin” in good times and bad. Others sidled into the wheelhouse and indicated with their Kalashnikovs that the Russians were to sit on the deck. Ted and I stood together listening intently to a harangue on the sad state of Somalia, with no government or public services for seventeen years. The emergence of “militias” to fund their lives through hijacking and ransoms, and assurance that unless we sabotaged their efforts we would be unharmed. But Andrew warned, “We are muslims! We don’t afraid to die, and we don’t afraid to kill! I myself have killed two men!” But I doubted he had ever killed a rabbit. Omar, on the other hand, was full of dark menace, and others were shouting and glaring wild eyed. “They are angry because you fight them,” said Andrew. “Me fight? What with? You have the guns!” I replied indignantly. “No, no, but you try to sink our boats!” he persisted. My answer, “It is my duty to prevent armed robbers from boarding my ship,” when translated appeared to be accepted. It puzzled them that we had no cargo or passengers, and a crew of only six.

Their first priority was to hoist aboard the skiffs so I dispatched Nikolai and the seamen, shadowed by gunmen, to deploy the crane and fetch rope for slings. The first boat being half flooded was abandoned after its engine, ammunition and assorted luggage, was transferred to the second, which already had its own outboard plus a spare, three 48HP Yamahas. With slings placed the last pirate jumped aboard the tug and signalled to hoist. Komkov complied, even when the skiff rose from the water at a crazy angle, and continued to heave until it cleared the water and the weight, all at one end, parted the sling and everything plunged to the bottom, a mile deep. Ted and I exchanged glances thinking of Spike Milligan’s character Eccles, but dared not laugh at the pirates’ misfortune.

“Never mind!” says Andrew, “We didn’t need that, full ahead!”

The first named destination was Caluula, seventy miles away on the Somali coast, which they said they had left two hours before. Ted and I were determined to go at our economical speed of eight knots, and when they protested at the slowness Ted scrolled through the monitor until he found red lines indicating high temperatures, high pressures, so we remained slow. On the understanding that I would be shot if tricks were played the crew were permitted to leave the bridge for toilet calls, coffee and snacks. On return they reported that the cabins were being ransacked for cash and valuables, especially anything electronic which could be used for communication with the outside world. Several times Omar stabbed a finger at the chart indicating a new destination, away from Caluula, to Cape Guardafui, then towards Hafun, and on down Somalia’s east coast. When I enquired politely through Andrew where our ultimate location might be I was advised insolently to just follow Omar’s orders. We continued our normal six hour watches, making standard log book entries, keeping as much control as possible.
When my turn came to sleep I found the cabin a shambles of clothes, papers, books, my briefcase looted of personal cash plus a substantial sum of Company’s money, the toilet full of faeces, and a pirate in my bunk. Rudely awakened, he bolted out the door.

During my next watch we encountered stronger monsoon wind, with consequent rolling. A pirate was sea sick down the flight of wheelhouse stairs and I told Kimochkin to clean it up. His attitude was that the pirate should do it himself, but my will prevailed.

Acting as my eyes and ears Ted reported that the Russians were considering jumping three pirates for their weapons, and shooting the other six. I strongly vetoed this desperate plan, and had a few words with Berezovskiy. I explained that none of us knew how we would get through this difficult period, but our best ploy was to conform with the wishes of the gunmen, not to provoke them into violence, but to treat them with reserve, even respect, and hope that we would be treated likewise. We would need their cooperation in the conserving of provisions, especially water, the maintaining of hygiene, indeed the preservation of the ship for future service, and they clearly needed us to operate the ship. I was confident that a ransom would eventually be paid for our release. Berezovskiy at once averred that Putin would not pay one rouble for a Russian life. Fortunately it would not be up to Putin. Most importantly I expected Nikolai, as Mate, to assist me in controlling the Russians, all owner’s men.

I asked Ted if he knew that Kimochkin translated as Curmudgeon.

This first night passed with our little tug proceeding without lights down the east coast of Somalia. As a soldier Omar urged us in close to the breakers where he felt comfortable, smelling the sand. Berezovskiy and I preferred to stay outside the 10 metre sounding line, fearing isolated dangers, rocks or wrecks which could cripple our thrusters. Somali coastal lights are unlit as no one pays the lighthouse keepers. We ran off the edge of our paper chart, not having made provision for a deviation along these shores.
So I was obliged to rely on the electronic charts Berezovskiy had bought in some St.Petersburg backstreet, a complete world set for £100, highly illegal and years out of date. The owners had installed the instrument to display electronic charts but without charts. All this was noted in the Official Log Book. Piracy notwithstanding a ship must be operated as closely as possible in compliance with the law, and continuity in her records maintained.

On this day, Saturday the 2nd February 2008, there was a noticeable thaw in pirate crew relations. We were allowed more freedom to move about the ship, and I got permission for the two seamen to clean the accommodation. Better to be working than brooding. Berezovskiy was in a bad way, depressed and morose. Lichkunov reported that after his watch he had swallowed a lot of pills and taken to his bunk without a word, so I left him sleeping for part of his watch. Ted asserted his authority over the engine room and his right to make checks, to transfer oils, change filters, and other routines. He reported that though gunmen always escorted him there and back they invariably stayed on the top landing, not liking to descend among the hot noisy machinery. An observation he later put to good use.
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