flesl.net short story :: Pirates

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In August 2009, Quist Jan Johansen, his wife Birgit-Marie, their three teenage children, and two crew members set out from Denmark on a round-the-world sailing voyage. Their boat, the ING, was a thirteen-meter yacht. It was equipped with gasoline engines but these were only for emergencies and seldom used.

The Johansens sailed west from Denmark and across the Atlantic and then the Pacific. By early 2011, they were about half-way across the Indian Ocean and expecting to be home in two months, but the most dangerous part of their long journey still lay ahead. The Arabian Sea, the westernmost part of the Indian Ocean, is infested with pirates most of whom are based in Somalia, a country on the tip of the horn of Africa. In 2010, there had been more pirate attacks in the area than ever before: 1,181 people had been taken hostage from 455 ships and eight had been killed.

Round-the-world sailors keep up-to-date with the latest news on yacthing websites, so the Johansens were aware of the situation, and they were concerned. They may not have been as concerned as they should have been, however. They could easily have joined a convoy — a group of yachts travelling together for protection, but they decided not to do so. Later, Marie-Birgit said she felt that, in a convoy, the ING would have been an easy target for pirates. She did not explain why she thought so. She must have been aware — it is a well-known fact in the yachting world — that no boat travelling in a convoy had ever been captured.

At 9:00 am on February 24, when the ING was about 430 kilometers from the Somali coast, Jan Johansen spotted a fishing boat far away on the horizon. He realized it could be a pirate ship and he considered starting the engines and changing course in order to get away from the other boat but he decided to take a chance. Later, he said that he didn’t want to start the engines because he wanted to preserve fuel.

The ING continued along its planned route, under sail and the fishing boat gradually got closer and closer. Eventually the two boats were very close and then the Johansens saw a speedboat being lowered over the side of the fishing boat and coming quickly toward them. When the speedboat reached the ING, five pirates jumped out and boarded the yacht. They pointed machine guns at the family and fiercely shouted, “No communication! No communication!” in English. They ordered the Johanssens to give them their computers, their cameras, and their money and forced them to sail back to the fishing boat. There, three more pirates joined the others and forced Jan Johansen to sail toward Somalia. There were then fifteen people on board the ING, and Marie-Birgit was forced to do all the cooking for everyone.

Two days later, the ING landed at the village of Hul Anod in a part of Somalia called “Puntland.” The Johansens and their crew were taken ashore and held in a makeshift prison. The Somali government is not in complete control of Puntland, but it does have armed forces there, and Somali soldiers tried to rescue the Johansens shortly after they were brought to Hul Anod. The attempt failed but it made the pirates nervous and they moved the Johansens and their crew to another village called Gumbah where other pirates were holding a Greek freighter, the MS Dover, and its crew — three Romanians, nineteen Filipinos, and a Russian. The pirates were also using the ship as a temporary headquarters. The Johansens were given a cabin on the bridge — of the MS Dover and their crew members were put in a cabin across the corridor. All seven were held prisoner there for 195 days.