A French sailor aboard the navy frigate Jean de Vienne guards merchant ships against pirates near the coast of Somalia.
When Somali Pirates Attacked, They Kicked Off 56 Days of Drama Over the Fate of a Ship and 28 Crewmen
A few hours after dawn on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a speedboat carrying five men with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades raced toward a massive tanker in the Gulf of Aden. They fired at the ship as they approached, denting the hull.
The skinny, barefoot men wearing T-shirts and shorts hitched an aluminum ladder to the railing and scampered up to the deck. They shot through a window of the bridge, which the crew had locked. The ship’s captain hit the distress button.
At 12:05 a.m. that day, James Christodoulou awoke to the ringing of the bedside phone in his New Jersey apartment. Pirates had captured his company’s tanker, the MV Biscaglia, a company security official told him.
“Say that again?” Mr. Christodoulou replied.
The news thrust the 48-year-old chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp., a tiny Stamford, Conn.-based company, and the crew of 28 men onto the front lines of a rash of piracy targeted at huge ships sailing off the coast of Somalia en route to the Suez Canal.
James Christodoulou, the owner of the Biscagilia which was captured in the Gulf of Aden by Somali pirates two months ago greets Karan Dinesh Sharma
For the next 56 days, the ship’s crew of Indians and Bangladeshis were held by armed Somali pirates. Mr. Christodoulou talked daily by phone with Somali negotiators demanding a hefty ransom. He traveled to India to beg the grandmother of one of his crewmen to end a hunger strike she had begun to protest the hijacking.
During the ordeal, he befriended a competing ship owner whose vessel also had been hijacked. That friendship played a crucial role in Mr. Christodoulou’s efforts to raise a $1 million-plus ransom, which was dropped last week in a watertight container into the ocean to secure the release of his crew and ship.
On Friday, the ship’s crew members were reunited with their families at Mumbai’s international airport, all of them safe. What they and Mr. Christodoulou have lived through since late November offers a rare glimpse into the machinations of modern-day piracy on the high seas, and shows how Somali pirates have turned hijacking international vessels into a well-calibrated and lucrative business.
The coast off Somalia has become a hotbed of piracy as the Somalian state has collapsed, offering safe haven for pirates targeting the nearby Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Some 18,000 ships sail through the gulf every year, delivering Saudi oil and China-made iPods to Europe and Porsches to Dubai and French wine to China. Over the past year, as the attacks succeeded and ransoms were paid, “it turned into a rampage,” says Michael Howlett, division director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, a monitoring group that tracks piracy.
World-wide, there were 293 incidents of piracy in 2008, up 11% from 2007, according to the IMB. There were 889 crew members taken hostage, another 32 were hurt, 11 killed and 21 reported missing, probably dead. In the Gulf of Aden alone, there were 50 attacks in the last three months of 2008, though in many cases the assaults were repelled. In all of 2008, 32 vessels were hijacked in the gulf, compared to one in 2007, according to the IMB.
Officials from various governments have criticized shipping companies for paying ransoms, which are often covered by insurance companies, arguing that they encourage further hostage taking. Shipping-company executives respond that while they don’t approve of the process, they have little choice. So far, experts estimate, tens of millions of dollars in ransoms have been paid in Somali hijackings.
Because the Gulf of Aden is in international waters, it doesn’t fall under any one country’s jurisdiction to police. Moreover, ships often are owned by a company in one country, registered in another, with a crew from somewhere else, so it’s difficult to determine whose responsibility it is to protect them.
Last summer, the United Nations passed a resolution authorizing force against Gulf of Aden pirates. In December, the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization deployed seven ships to patrol the Gulf. Twenty warships from 14 countries are now there, according to the IMB. Every merchant ship is given a recommended route, near a military escort. Nevertheless, there have been 17 attacks and three hijackings in January.
Mr. Christodoulou, a shipping-company veteran, was well aware of the dangers that lay in the gulf. In November, he considered routing his 27,300-ton, double-hull tanker around Africa instead of through the gulf as it sailed from Indonesia to Spain with 25,000 tons of palm oil.
But the global financial crisis has caused cargo rates to plunge. Re-routing the ship around Africa would have added two weeks and cost his firm an extra $250,000, which was unaffordable, Mr. Christodoulou said in an interview Friday. He also figured that, despite the increase in piracy, less than 1% of vessels in the gulf are hijacked.
Instead, he hired three unarmed security guards, at a cost of $25,000, and directed his ship to follow a convoy being guarded by a French navy ship. But as the convoy proceeded through the gulf, the Biscaglia, traveling at 13 knots, fell behind.
By the time the pirates struck, the French ship was two hours away, says a spokesman for the French armed forces, who adds that the French had not been assigned to guard the Biscaglia.
The captain’s distress signal alerted the tanker’s owners and the military in the area. Then the captain capitulated to the armed men. “Everybody, come to the bridge and show yourselves,” he called out to his crew, the crewmen recall.
Crew member Asif Azam Khan, 28 years old, says he emerged from below deck with his arms above his head. The other crewmen also came out of hiding. The Somalis led them into the wheelhouse, where they would eat, sit and sleep for their entire captivity, the crewmen say.
A few minutes later, French and German helicopters appeared overhead. Two Somalis trained their weapons on Hanif Kapade, the ship’s chief engineer, and the ship’s captain, both of whom were in the wheelhouse. Other Somalis pulled two crewmen onto the deck and pointed guns at them, signaling they would shoot if the helicopters attacked, recalls Mr. Kapade.
As the helicopters hovered, distracting the Somalis, the three unarmed security guards, who were British, jumped overboard, several crewmen say. They were later rescued.
Once the helicopters retreated, the Somalis tried to reassure the terrified crew they wouldn’t be hurt.
“No problems. We want only money, money, money,” one of the attackers said, gesturing as if counting money with his hand, recalls Mr. Khan.
The Somalis directed the crew to steer the ship south, the crewmen say. Over the next two days, the assailants changed their destination several times. They finally dropped anchor a few miles off a deserted, sandy stretch of Somali coast.
At home in Hoboken, N.J., Mr. Christodoulou decided to take on the role of intermediary. He pretended to the pirates that he was a midlevel employee assisting his boss. He bought a new Motorola phone and taped the handwritten name “Gus” on top — a reminder that he should answer by that pseudonym.
On Dec. 4, a fax arrived on his computer.
“Mr. Gus First Greetings From US,” began the ransom note, written by hand in capital letters. The note outlined demands.
Mr. Christodoulou declines to disclose the exact ransom they demanded, for fear of jeopardizing negotiations by other vessel owners. He says it was less than $10 million. “Received your fax,” Mr. Christodoulou wrote back. “Please call between 1800 and 1900 GMT.”
That evening, Mr. Christodoulou and three others — a media adviser, a lawyer and a piracy expert from a crisis management company — sat around a table at the Sheraton Suites Hotel in Weehawken, N.J., waiting for the call.
Late that evening, the phone rang. The four men froze. Then Mr. Christodoulou lunged for it. In his haste, he dropped it. A few minutes later, it rang again.
“This is Gus,” he answered.
“We have your ship,” said a distant voice muffled by static, Mr. Christodoulou recalls. It was a negotiator for the pirates. “We want money for the safe release of the ship.”
“First let me ask: How are the crew?” Mr. Christodoulou responded, in a dialogue he had practiced in his head many times in the preceding days. “Are they eating? Are they sleeping? Are they safe?”
“They are all very fine, Mr. Gus,” came the polite reply.
Mr. Christodoulou says he thought about how the doctors and nurses at the hospital where his elderly mother had once stayed seemed to appreciate his questions about their well-being. So he asked the same of the captors in a bid to build a trust.
“How are the Somali gentlemen?” he asked. “Do they need any medical care?”
“No, Mr. Gus. All good. The Somali gentlemen just need money,” said the negotiator in a matter-of-fact tone.
They agree to talk again the next day.
In India and Bangladesh, the families of the crewmen were trying to come to grips with the news.
Rashmi Sharma, mother of Karan Sharma, a 20-year-old crew member on his first voyage, heard the news from an officer from Ishima International Shipmanagement. The Singapore firm provides technical support to cargo ships. The official assured her that Karan was safe and being fed. “I felt like the ground shook,” Mrs. Sharma says, speaking in Hindi.
As days went by, the crewmen on the Biscaglia settled into a routine. They spent their days on the floor in wheelhouse. Breakfast was corn flakes with milk, at about 10 a.m. Dinner was curry made from goats that the Somalis brought by speedboat every few days.
Back in New Jersey, the negotiations were progressing slowly — something Mr. Christodoulou was told to expect, because the average hijacking lasts about 60 days.
Mr. Christodoulou made an initial offer, which he declines to reveal. The Somali negotiators — first a man named Hussein, then another who called himself Abbas — took the offer to the pirates. They called back the next day with a response.
“Hey Mr. Gus, the Somali gentlemen say the money is very less,” Abbas said, according to Mr. Christodoulou. “They need more money.”
Mr. Christodoulou didn’t budge. The Somalis needed to feel they had squeezed every dollar out of the ship’s owners, he had been advised, so he shouldn’t increase his offer early.
“We want you to get the money and move onto another project,” Mr. Christodoulou recalls saying. “But you have to understand, we have our limitations.”
The conversations continued daily through December, with little progress. By the end of the month, the families in India were feeling desperate.
Karan Sharma’s grandmother, 76-year-old Savitri, began a hunger strike. “I couldn’t bear to eat anything knowing my Karan was in grave danger,” she said.
Tom Rozycki, Mr. Christodoulou’s public-relations adviser, says he decided a new approach was needed to keep the families hopeful — and away from the media. Publicity could empower the captors and delay the hostages’ release, he believed. It would also be embarrassing for the company, making it even more difficult to face the families.
On Jan. 6, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near Mumbai’s international airport, Mr. Christodoulou met with the families of the crewmen.
Seeing Mr. Sharma’s hunger-striking grandmother in the front row, he knelt beside her and held her hand. “Granny, your grandson is going to get out. And we want him to get out and come back to the healthy loving family that he left,” he said, according to Mrs. Sharma and Mr. Christodoulou. That night, Mrs. Sharma ate some strawberry ice cream, her son recalls.
By mid-January, the pirates on the Biscaglia were growing frustrated. “They told us they were going to take us off the ship and hide us in the mountains,” Mr. Khan, the crewman, says. The pirates gave him and the others a mobile phone to call home. “We all told our families that unless the company gave more money, we would be killed,” Mr. Khan says.
Mr. Kapade, the chief engineer, says he realized the pirates were trying to pressure the company by terrifying the crew. When he spoke to his wife on Jan. 14, he lowered his voice and spoke in Hindi. “Pass on to others that we’re fine,” he whispered.
By then, Mr. Christodoulou says, he thought it was time to raise his offer. He declines to say what he offered, but says it was close to what he thought the Somalis would accept based on the range provided to him by experts: $700,000 to $3 million.
He set about trying to raise the money. He approached his own company’s biggest investor, Regent Private Capital LLC, a private-equity firm based in Tulsa, Okla. Lawrence Field, Regent Private Capital’s managing director, declined to discuss the conversation with Mr. Christodoulou. “Regent does not negotiate with terrorists or pirates or any kind of criminal,” he said on Friday.
That evening, Mr. Christodoulou called Per Gullestrup, the Danish chief executive officer of Clipper A/S, a larger competitor in the chemical-transport industry. The two men hadn’t known one another until both had vessels hijacked by Somalis. They had often commiserated.
Mr. Christodoulou told Mr. Gullestrup he was struggling to raise the funds. A few days later, Mr. Gullestrup called back. “We’d be happy to advance the money if that’s what it takes,” he said. That promise allowed Mr. Christodoulou to secure a loan for the purpose.
Buoyed by that success, Mr. Christodoulou decided to apply some pressure. He raised his offer slightly, he says, and told the negotiator: “You have 24 hours to accept this offer, or we have to retract it.”
Over the next 24 hours, the two sides exchanged at least 20 phone calls. “Mr. Gus, this isn’t enough money for the Somali gentlemen,” the negotiator said several times, according to Mr. Christodoulou.
The next day, Mr. Christodoulou went a little higher, he says. At 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, Abbas called back: “The Somalis accept your offer. Thank you very much. It’s really been a pleasure to work with you on this project.”
On Thursday, Jan. 22, Clipper sent a plane to London to pick up an 80-pound airtight container stuffed with new, $100 bills totaling more than $1 million. The container was transferred to another plane that specializes in airdrops in the Gulf of Aden.
The Biscaglia crewmen, having washed their faces and put on fresh clothes, followed the pirates’ directions to wait together in the ship’s smoke room.
Overhead, the pilot dropped the container, via parachute, into the ocean. The Somalis retrieved it in the speed boat, brought it aboard to count and divide, then returned to the room where the crew was waiting.
“You guys are free,” the head pirate said, speaking in Arabic, according to Mr. Khan. “You won’t be harmed. We’re leaving.”
Then the pirates escaped.
Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123335651246634995.html