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.
The pirates did not mistreat the Johansen’s but their life in captivity was not easy. They had to live mainly on rice, which they were not used to eating without any accompaniment. They had to endure heat, boredom and long confinement. The worst part of the experience, they later said, was the smell: The pirates kept goats and allowed them to wander freely on the bridge; they regularly slaughtered one of the goats and left its entrails lying on the hot metal deck. They were also disturbed by frequent noisy quarrels between the two gangs of pirates on the ship. It seems though that, most of the time, the family managed to be active and optimistic. The parents gave school work to the children every day, using books they had brought from the ING and ones they had found in the MS Dover’s library and they continued the tradition of daily family “meetings” that they had begun when they left Denmark. Once they were able to go ashore under guard. They got some exercise and ate some lobster. But they were rushed quickly back to the ship because the pirates were afraid they were going to be “stolen” by a rival gang. Once a Danish journalist visited the ship. He was not allowed to interview the Johanssens, but he did see them and their crew, and he shook hands with Jan Quist who only said that he could not speak to him because doing so might interfere with the ransom negotiations. The journalist did have an interview with the pirate leader though, who told him that if the Johanssens would let him marry their thirteen-year-old daughter, Naja, he would release the rest of the family without ransom.
While the Johansens were imprisoned on the freighter, ransom negotiations were going on back in Denmark. Finally, the pirates received about $1 million and all seven Danish hostages were released and flown back to Denmark. The source of the ransom money was not made public.