Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Captain's storytime

Post-breakfast, we're grateful to be in the air-conditioned comfort of the small, polished-mahogany lounge. On the deck, some crew members are performing routine maintenance in temperatures of thirty degrees or more.

There are far more chairs than necessary for the dozen or so passengers who have gathered to hear the billed "Captain's storytime". Nobody seems quite sure what to expect, even the passengers who have experienced this cruise before.

Captain Sergey enters. His smile seems shy at first, but it quickly becomes clear that he's quite a showman at heart. In fact, with his lean physique, moustache and pristine white uniform, he resembles an older, but still charismatic, Freddie Mercury. Instinctively, his audience move closer to one another, in order to be closer to the speaker.

It does not start promisingly. "What would you like me to talk about?" he asks, before revealing that he used to be an acupuncturist before becoming a seaman. Several audience-members exchange glances. While he's explaining his theory of holistic medicine, a couple of people slip out, not as inconspicuously as they hoped.

But suddenly he's talking about the worst storm of his sailing career: as second officer aboard a cadet training ship, in swells of 25m. We were scared, he says,  until we realised that we were going to die. Then we weren't afraid any more. The kids realised they were going to die, and they were also no longer afraid.

Every time the bow went under the waves, we didn't think it was going to pop back out. We had two cadets on the ship's wheel, but we had to replace them every few minutes, because it was so exhausting and painful. The wind blew salt into our faces so hard that we were bleeding. It took three months for my skin to grow back.

Someone asks whether he's ever taken this ship, and its passengers, through such a storm. He laughs.

No, nothing like that. Not this ship, not with passengers.

The worst thing we had to deal with on this ship was the pirates.

Our route used to take us through the Indian Ocean, past the notorious Somali coast. Pirates were a real threat. We took precautions: razor wire and 10,000 volt electric fences welded around the hull of this ship, this beautiful ship. Screens so that attackers couldn't see where the passengers were on deck. All the watertight doors closed, all the time. Safety muster areas within the bowels of the ship.

Back in the present, the carpenters start noisily sanding the deck outside. The captain excuses himself, disappears, shouts. The noise stops. The carpenters scurry sheepishly past the window of the lounge.

The captain bounds back in and continues.

The owner offered to fly any passengers who wanted to disembark; we would pick them up again in Goa in a couple of weeks. Eventually, he insisted upon it - it was just too dangerous. We took a look at our radar system. We had to calculate its effective range at picking up the small, fast boats used by the Somali pirates. We worked out how long it would take to identify a threat and sound the alarm before the pirates were within firing range. We thought we'd have about thirty seconds to get every passenger below decks. It wasn't really feasible with a full ship.

But we did make the passage once, with passengers. There was a Spanish MP on board. We were protected by the international naval coalition who patrol the corridor. A Spanish warship took special interest in us, because of their MP. We had a small escort boat of British commandos as well.

And they gave me a machine gun. Just one, and a thousand rounds of ammunition.

The British commandos followed behind us, the Spanish warship some distance behind them. The crossing was going OK until we saw an unexpected blip on the radar. A small, fast boat, just like the ones the Somali pirates use. It was heading right for us. We radioed to our support vessels. The Spanish warship started accelerating to catch up.

The unknown boat didn't respond on any of the normal radio frequencies. It got closer and closer. It fell behind us, in a direct line between us and the British commandos. This is exactly what we feared might happen. A wrong decision now could be very serious indeed.

A warning shot from the commandos would be the most appropriate signal to pirates that we were not to be trifled with. But if they started firing back, we couldn't defend ourselves; the unknown boat was on a direct line between us and the commando boat.

At the last moment, a call on the radio.

They weren't pirates; they were Yemeni coastguards.

Yemen didn't participate in the international naval coalition, but they did like to protect their own waters, and they liked doing it their own way. They had seen the British commandos' boat and assumed it belonged to pirates, just as we had assumed that the Yemeni boat must be pirates. If somebody had opened fire, it would have been very ugly indeed.

The captain glances at his watch. He's been talking for nearly 45 minutes and the audience are on the edge of their seats. He apologises, but the port pilot is due on board in exactly twelve minutes and he must return to the bridge now.