x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Freed sailors say they were not mistreated

The five British sailors freed after being held for six days by Iran's Revolutionary Guard revealed that they had not felt endangered.

From left, Sam Usher, Luke Porter and Oliver Smith are among the five crew members from the Kingdom of Bahrain.
From left, Sam Usher, Luke Porter and Oliver Smith are among the five crew members from the Kingdom of Bahrain.

DUBAI // The five British sailors freed on Wednesday after being held for six days by Iran's Revolutionary Guard revealed that, despite their ordeal, they had not felt endangered. The men arrived in the emirate after their release from an Iranian base on Sirri Island, 65 miles off the UAE coast. The skipper, Oliver Smith, 31, said Wednesday although initially there were "plenty of moments" when they were concerned, they had not felt they were at serious risk while being held.

"The guys on the ground there treated us very well, and obviously it was a fairly tense situation to start with in the first couple of days. But the longer we were there and they got to know us, it did relax a little as we went along," Mr Smith said. He said "a door and a padlock" kept the men from leaving the room where they were held and interrogated. Occasionally, however, they were escorted outside to check on their boat.

He said they were even given a chessboard and darts to pass the time and after a few days were allowed outside in the evenings. "They would leave the door open while we ate to get some fresh air," he said, adding that although the guards were armed, he and his crew were not held at gunpoint. Mr Smith blamed poor navigation for putting the crew in the wrong place at the wrong time. "It was our mistake to end up there; we didn't want to end up there. It wasn't clearly marked on our charts," he said. "We had no intention of upsetting anyone.

"We were just trying to get here to start a yacht race." The men were arrested on November 25 by officers from the Iranian coastal patrol after accidentally straying into Iranian waters. They were en route from Bahrain to Dubai to take part in the Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race with their vessel Kingdom of Bahrain. After their arrest, they were escorted to Sirri Island, where they were held in a room and questioned about their reasons for entering Iranian waters.

The ordeal had begun when navigational problems and a faulty propeller caused their 60ft yacht to drift into Iranian waters, where they were approached by two Iranian Navy vessels. Several soldiers boarded the yacht, but after checking their documents, the sailors were initially told they could go on their way. However, the yacht was stopped for a second time and the crew instructed to head for Sirri Island. Two soldiers remained on board while Mr Smith sailed the yacht towards the island. The other crew members were blindfolded and kept at the back of the boat.

All of their equipment, including laptops, phones and GPS devices, were confiscated. Initially, the men were allowed to stay aboard their ship, guarded by two soldiers. An Iranian general was flown in to question the crew. "We explained that we were only sailing, all our papers were there, we didn't deliberately want to come close to their island," Mr Smith said. Afterwards, they were told they could leave. But as they began to sail away again, they were called back and told to anchor close to the island because it was not safe for them to continue.

"We were hoping that would be it and we could leave in the morning," Mr Smith said. However, the next day they were told to take the yacht into dock, and were then led, blindfolded, on to Sirri Island and into the Revolutionary Guard base. Crew member David Bloomer, a Bahrain-based radio presenter, said as a resident of the region, he felt a sense of responsibility for his fellow sailors. "All of the Iranians, once they discovered we had no ill intent and it was a genuine mistake, went out of their way to be friendly to all of us," said Mr Bloomer.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, came the news they had been waiting for. "We were already thinking they were a little late bringing breakfast and they opened the door and said 'You're free to go'," Mr Smith said. "I felt relieved, but I wanted to actually be [in Dubai] before I was properly relieved." The yacht was towed into international waters by the Iranian navy, and the crew then sailed it into UAE territory.

Their vessel remained anchored offshore Wednesday night and the crew were brought to the Dubai International Marine Club. The five crew members - Mr Smith, Mr Bloomer, Oliver Young, Sam Usher and Luke Porter - were all due to return home last night. However, Nick Crabtree, the director of Team Pindar, the boat's sponsor, said the men's ordeal had not put them off competing in the Gulf. "We will be back to Dubai and will be doing more races," he said, adding that the team were likely to return to Dubai in February for the Al Maktoum Trophy.

zconstantine@thenational.ae