The pirates were minutes from claiming their catch. Barricaded in a safe room aboard the MV Arillah-I, crewmen and security guards could only wait as "the monsters" tried to smoke and blast them out.
"We did what we could to stay alive, but in the last minute before the pirates were about to enter on us, the rescue team came," the engineer Mohammed Ismail recalled. "We owe them our lives."
Nearly every day another ship falls prey to the scourge that is Somali piracy. But as the daring rescue aboard the UAE-owned ship makes clear, there are answers to the piracy epidemic. What's needed now is unity and cooperation to employ them.
It's hard to understand why the loss of crews and shipments has become an expected part of doing business. As of mid-March, Somali pirates held 28 vessels and 587 crew members hostage, according to the International Maritime Bureau. The United Nations estimates the cost of piracy on the Indian Ocean between $5 billion and $7 billion annually.
Educating captains and crew on avoidance tactics may be the most immediate way of reducing the reach of Somali piracy. Maintaining high transit speeds (the EU notes that there have been no reported attacks on ships travelling faster than 18 knots), and deploying foam cannons and razor wire on the ship's perimeter have all proven effective deterrents.
Planning for a crisis scenario if a ship is boarded is also critical. In this example, crew members were able to seek refuge in a self-contained "citadel" safe room. Such enclosures may be expensive to build, but they allow a rescue to be attempted without prohibitive risk to the crew.
Equally important are the actions of owners, companies and states. The UAE's decision to prosecute pirates in federal court provides an example to other nations whose ships are boarded. Quick payouts of ransom are tempting, but they only serve to embolden future pirate strikes, not to mention provide operating capital.
But as the maritime security consultant David Mugridge wrote in these pages recently, these are solutions to manage the problem, not cure it. Sadly, international efforts have completely failed to address the root problems on the Somali mainland. A new UN plan to try and jail pirates in Puntland and Somaliland should be given the full weight of international support to reverse these trends. Of course, no effort will succeed unless the underlying causes of Somalia's poverty and joblessness are addressed.
After his ordeal aboard the MV Arillah-I, detailed by The National yesterday, the second engineer Mohammed al Saifi told rescuers that his Somali captors "were monsters, not human beings" who "tried everything to get to us". It is past time that the international community met this threat with firm resolve.