Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not so jolly Roger

The part of my sea journey from Port Kelang – with all our ports visited, and a month and more of open sea in front of us – is always my ‘quiet’ period. Reading, writing, a jigsaw puzzle from time to time, fresh air and lazy sunshine on the upper decks.

Somehow, this year, on this oh so atypical voyage, that hasn’t quite happened.

First of all, on leaving Kelang we hit brutally hot weather. Thirty degrees in the shade before breakfast, and a good deal more by midday. Humidity weighty enough to stifle a frog. My favourite corner of the deck became unbearable, my computer screen and my spectacles misted up, each in turn, and I felt altogether very disagreeable. I wasn’t the only one, either. The atmosphere on board, usually so extravagantly jolly, fell with a steamy squelch, and we (most particularly, I) fell with it. Jollity fled. I swooned at the lunch table and got foolishly sozzled on Famous Goose after dinner. I was not born for excess heat. I would have been hopeless in the Raj.

The excesses were just calming when we hit the next hurdle in our path. Pirates. Yohoho, Jolly Roger, Johnny Depp and Captain Hook? Don’t you ever believe it. The pirates of the 21st century are just as foul, cruel and despicable thieves as their romanticised corsair predecessors, nothing better than a bunch of murderous robbers equipped with 21st century weapons and enough drugs to give them the Somali courage and disregard for life (their own included) to do their dirty work.
Modern-style pirates have been around for yeas now, but suddenly (perhaps thanks to the large ransoms paid out for captured ships) they have escalated the game. Whereas, before, we sailed these waters with just a slightly wary eye, now crossing the Gulf of Aden has become a major exercise, patrolled by NATO warshipa, through a limited ‘corridor’, and at no time safe from attack by the motorised, equipped and armed (by whom?) skiffs which the thieves use to board ships.

We had been warned that we would go on Pirate Watch from 1pm, as we entered the guarded corridor, but the weather was fine, the seas were calm, and the seaway shit-stirrers were out in force. I was deep in the nineteenth-century, typing away on my corner of the bridge, at 11am, when the alarm came. A pirate attack on the ship directly in front of us, which had just come out of the corridor. The elderly tanker, unable to muster more than 10 knots, was just 13 miles away from us – almost, had it not been for the sea wrack, visible to the naked eye. That’s how close we were. The NATO helicopter was quickly on the scene, and as we hove into view could be seen on the radar, out to port side, pursuing (or, rather, keeping an eye on) the attempted rapists. Would they come back, we wondered? Would they take another shot at the tanker or, indeed, at us?

The crew’s daily jobs were forgotten. They had scuttled immediately to main deck and their emergency stations, and readied their water cannon and other weapons. On the bridge, we could do nothing but stare endlessly, sentry-like, at the blue sea and the musky horizon, waiting, and hoping that the cry ‘small craft approaching fast from portside’ would not come.
But it did.
Thankfully not from us.

The ship’s radio was red-hot with calls for identification and assistance being sent to the NATO warship into whose area of influence we were sailing. The waters were obviously lousy with ill-intentioned small craft. I listened in horror as a gentleman called (or his ship was) something like Gian Battista Bottiglione (they made him spell it, for cripe’s sake!), recounted in his broken English the approach of two speedboats … over the horizon and swiftly to within 2 miles of his ship. The warship urged him to get in closer to her, but Gian Battista wasn’t receiving them properly. And, then, before his problems were settled (and I never did find out how they were settled) another ship came in, reporting three craft descending on him, and the sighting of a mothership and skiffs at a distance of 4.5 miles … And so it went on. It was simply aghastmaking.
Finally, we hasteend at an effortful 14.6 knots into the corridor, and were able to drop our full alert, but as we sailed on through the afternoon and into the next day, that radio was never silent. And, as the world knows, that same morning the American ship the Maersk Alabama was taken. I have yet to find out just how far from us she was at the time, but I think the answer is ‘not very’. As I write, we are still waiting to know how that saga will end.

I think ‘piracy’, with its mixture of straightforward financial greed and human kidnapping, is one of the most despicable crimes in existence. And I shall never again think of Somalia and of those of its people who venerate these nasty little sea-thieves with any kind of sympathy or respect.

And now we are past Djibouti, and into the Red Sea. It is Easter Friday. We are sailing towards Mecca (although, of course, since it is inland, we don’t go there). The sky is blue, the wind is embracing, and I am back in the bridge-corner. It could all be as if the past days hadn’t happened. But they did, and I won’t forget them.

So, onwards to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and Europe. To Hull – for Hamburg has, unbelievably, been cancelled – and then to Antwerp from whence, instead, shall make my way to Berlin and my rendezvous with friend Kevin…

PS Since I wrote this, our sister ship the Boularibank (on which I travelled some months ago) which was following on behind us has been attacked by these precious pirates. At the price of a 35 minutes battle with planks and water cannons, she got away.. but .. BUT. It appears our ships may travel by the Cape of Good Hope next year. That will make the Suez Canal officlals hopping mad (no cartons of Marlboro!!) and maybe they will join Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton (huge bravo to two politicians I never thought I'd say bravo to) in suppressing these pitiful criminals.

No comments: