x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Adventure and money' lure sailors to dangerous waters

In the first of a three-part series on piracy, a crewman recounts the four months he endured held for ransom by Somali pirates, and why even those who have experienced the worst return to sea.

In the first of a three-part series on piracy, a crewman recounts the four months he endured held for ransom by Somali pirates, and why even those who have experienced the worst return to sea.
In the first of a three-part series on piracy, a crewman recounts the four months he endured held for ransom by Somali pirates, and why even those who have experienced the worst return to sea.

Second mate Anupam Bhattacharji heard the shots before he saw the pirates hook their ladder onto his ship and climb aboard.

The deck of the MT Sea Princess II - loaded down with oil and travelling off the coast of Yemen - floated just a metre above sea level.

The boat was a small type of vessel known as "low and slow" - textbook prey for the Somali marauders.

One crewman ran into the galley to hide and a bullet flew through the door and killed him. He had only joined the Sea Princess, his first vessel, one day earlier.

The rest of the 17 Indian, Yemeni and Iraqi crew obeyed the pirates' orders to turn the ship towards Somalia.

For the next four months of 2009 their food, water and occasional calls home would depend on this gang, often high on qat (a tropical plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant) and fighting among themselves.

The pirates, meanwhile, were negotiating with the owner of the ship how much he would pay for the men's release.

"Why would it have taken so long?" asked Mr Bhattacharji, 27, speaking on the phone from Mumbai.

Yet these days four months is considered a short time for hostages to be kept captive.

Piracy has grown from a nuisance to a global threat that outmanoeuvres the world's best navies, which means more crews are being held longer.

Some 680 seafarers on 30 vessels have sat hostage off the Somali coast for as long as 10 months, according to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre.

"If over 600 airline passengers had been hijacked there would be news coverage 24/7," said a shipping manager who declined to be named.

"But the shipping industry is low-profile in the eyes of the average land-based person."

Five of the vessels had been travelling to or from the UAE and four belonged to Emirati firms. On the UAE-owned MV Iceberg I, which has been held since last March, one of 24 crewmen died of malnourishment.

The seafarers are usually in their 20s and 30s and from India, the Philippines and other developing nations.

Many earn the minimum $545 (Dh2,000) a month set by the International Transport Workers' Federation. But at other firms - often in the Gulf - they earn as little as $100 or, since the recession, no pay for months.

Some spend their first few years paying off fees to agents who arranged their employment.

Many of the low-paying firms trade in the Gulf and North Africa "since this part of the world is not as closely regulated", said Reverend Stephen Miller, who directs the Dubai-based Mission to Seafarers and has assisted seamen here and in Europe for more than a decade.

The group receives 15 calls a week from seafarers in Dubai who face salary problems.

These low-budget operators also often cannot afford the protection of armed guards or piracy insurance, which pays the ransom if the crew is kidnapped.

"So we are stuck," said Sanjiv Singh, the 28-year-old Indian chief officer of a small Iraqi-owned vessel loading cargo at Hamriya Port to deliver to Somalia. "Just we can pray - nothing else."

Despite the dangers, like most seafarers Mr Singh is sticking to his job at sea.

Part of the appeal is the thrill of travelling the world, though that has been dampened by shorter, busier stops at port.

Even better is the promise of promotion. With a few years of clocked time at sea and a set of exams, seafarers can become officers who earn thousands of dollars a month. After a decade, they might become captains on high-value ships and collect $15,000 (Dh55,000) a month.

Even on his low-paying ship, Mr Singh, who started 10 years ago at $250 a month, now gets $3,800.

"We need to work just because of money. Adventure and money," he said.

Even Mr Bhattacharji, despite being captured for four months, is joining a new vessel to help support his family.

During captivity he spoke with his loved ones several times, though always in front of a pirate who knew Hindi. In that and other ways the Somalis treated them with care and control - and occasional abuse.

Sometimes the crew played cards and shared family photos with their captives. Other times the pirates stole their clothes and phones and vowed to kill everyone.

They provided food, but as negotiations dragged, it dwindled to onions and potatoes. Crewmen began plotting fanciful escapes, knowing their boat was too slow to outrun their captors. Finally the men's release was arranged.

Mr Bhattacharji returned to India and soon he will head back to sea.

"I think everybody has gone back to sea," he said. "This is our job, you know. These things happen."

chuang@thenational.ae

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