BERBERA, SOMALILAND // The shipping forecast for the Gulf of Aden is troubled. In the past week, heavily armed Somali pirates have been intercepted by warships from Sweden, Italy and Canada. Emergency conferences have begun in Cairo and London to address the piracy crisis, while at least 15 hijacked ships languish at anchor off the coast of Somalia with some 210 sailors held hostage. Many others have been released.
Two of those were Jurgen Kantner and Sabine Merz, held for 52 days in a cave in the mountains, until their release last year after a half-million-dollar ransom. And yet, against the backdrop of such an ominous forecast, the pair are about to set sail again, in the same boat and with the same ambition; to sail to Asia. "If you have a car and you have an accident you don't stop driving, you get back in again," said Mr Kantner, 61. "The boat is my home. I live in my home, I had to come back."
He says this while standing on the deck of his reclaimed yacht, the Rockall. A 30-footer with a battered yellow hull, it is moored to the solitary pier left in the shattered harbour of Berbera, Somaliland. It is hard to imagine a more intimidating place in the world to retake the helm. Somaliland's largest port was once a prize, jealously contested by superpowers at the height of the Cold War. Today it is a half-abandoned ship graveyard with a scuttled tanker, snapped in two like a child's toy, rusting into its waters.
When the couple were released a hundred kilometres or so south-east of Berbera, in the Puntland region of Somalia, this is where their beloved boat was towed. And this is where after only five months back in Germany, the former restaurateur turned yachtsman flew to in search of his floating home. With wild white hair and a beard framing his tanned and weathered face, Mr Kantner could pass for a pirate himself. He has been at sea for 32 years, a love affair born from a trip in his late 20s on a friend's boat that convinced him to sell up and sail the world.
"I love the life on the boat - you are free. You can stay at a port and if you don't like your neighbour you can just move on. "You could get a camper van but when you get to a beach you will find another camper van there. You won't find a place where no one has ever been. "Here, for example there's never been another yacht," he says with a smile. Berbera, like much of Somalia, was destroyed during the civil war which eventually toppled the dictator Siad Barre in 1991. All that is left of the once mighty Russian naval base are broken buildings and a Tomahawk missile stripped for parts, lying on the beach.
Freedom and exploration have their downsides as the couple discovered in June last year. Sailing as close to the Yemeni coast as they could, they thought they were safe from pirates. That illusion was shattered when they were caught and boarded by a gang of young men armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers. Initially the Germans was told they were to be used as a decoy as the pirates were hunting a larger prize and Mr Kantner tried his best to make friends.
"I cooked for them, I even fixed their ladder [they use to board ships]." The bigger ship never appeared and after two days the pirates became nervous and demanded that Mr Kantner make for the Somali shore. A bluff that the engine was not working led to the first of several mock executions as a rope was put around his neck and the sailor was told he would be hung. "Sabine kept taking the rope off my neck," Mr Kantner said, grinning, but his girlfriend, Ms Merz looked haunted at the recollection.
The standoff ended when more pirate crafts arrived and the yacht was towed to the cliffs of northern Somalia. Once they were transferred to the mountain cave, the self-reliance of the veteran sailor resurfaced. The pirates had no idea how to convert their hostages into cash. "They thought we'd have $2 million (Dh7.2m) in our bags," he said. "They said if you don't have it, then Germany should pay but they didn't even know how to make contact."
Eventually Mr Kantner had to act as the go-between in his own ransom negotiations, phoning officials in Germany and teaching his captors basic English phrases, like "we want". The former hostage was less than impressed with his compatriots' response. Having smuggled a GPS device with him from the Rockall, he exploited the Somalis' lack of German to reveal their exact location, in the mountains of the northern breakaway Somaliland. "I asked them to send a helicopter. I told them how many guards. They always said they were doing their best but they did nothing."
As days turned to weeks with no progress the pirates became frustrated and the threats increased. On one occasion Ms Merz was taken out of the cave and Mr Kantner was handed the phone to speak to the negotiators. As he repeated the captors' demands shots were fired outside the cave. "I didn't know if they had killed Sabine," he said. The ordeal ended with the payment of $600,000 delivered in cash by officials from the semiautonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia. Ms Merz remembers that the pirates had brought along cash-counting machines to verify the ransom.
From the Puntland city of Bossasso they were flown by private jet to Nairobi - a flight they later received a bill of more than $26,000 for. From Kenya they were flown back to Germany and into the glare of media attention and Mr Kantner is bitter about their subsequent treatment. "Everyone thought it was our own fault." And so after five months, the couple are back in Somaliland and gearing up for a voyage to Asia and a new life.
The Rockall, they discovered, had been stripped for parts and emptied of all supplies. The refitting job has stretched even the energetic Mr Kantner and the yacht now has a sail fashioned from two windsurfs. There is only one piece of equipment left to purchase: an automatic rifle. * The National