Richard Snailham | THE TELEGRAPH
The Filipino chef at the breakfast buffet was about to slide a couple of fried eggs on to my plate, and John Brocklehurst, the ship’s captain, was in his private quarters on the bridge deck when the pirates appeared.
Our cruise ship, the Discovery (operated by Discover the World cruise line), was making good progress from Mombasa over the glassy waters of the Indian Ocean towards the Seychelles when suddenly, in the bright sunshine of early morning, a speedboat came roaring in and stationed itself about 100 yards off the port side.
The officer of the watch informed the captain and over the public address system came the “Code Purple, Code Purple” call. My eggs stayed on the hotplate as the Filipino crew members rushed to their emergency stations.
Those passengers who were already up and out on deck – it was before 7am – were told to go to their designated “safe areas”. Ironically, the practice drill had been scheduled for later this very morning, but suddenly it was for real.
The speedboat was now parallel with us, its seven Somali occupants sussing us out as a potential target. They were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, clearly visible to the trained eye of one of my fellow lecturers, Brigadier Hugh Willing. We were about 200 miles off the Somali coast, so the pirates must have been operating from a “mother” ship, perhaps a captured Taiwanese fishing vessel, a few miles over the horizon. Captain Brocklehurst fired two warning shots with a flare gun to show the Somalis that he knew they were there. Slowly the speedboat fell astern of us and veered off westwards. The impressive defences on Discovery – rolls of razor wire all over the stern rail, bundles of logs to be released to fall on any craft attaching itself to our hull – must have deterred them.
Aside from the few people at breakfast, not many of the 750 passengers saw the pirates. When news quickly spread of the threat, their reactions were mixed: some wished to disembark immediately; others took a more stoic view and reasoned that as the pirates hadn’t attacked us it was rather a jolly drama that they could dine out on for some time to come.
For less prepared ships, the danger could have been real. Unofficial figures show that 2009 was the most prolific year for Somali pirates, with more than 200 attacks and more than £30 million received in ransoms.
The naval forces of several nations don’t seem to deter them, however. The US Navy has some 15 warships stationed near Somalia, and Nato Response Force has up to 10 ships in these parts. But they seem to be hamstrung by the maritime rules of engagement – they can only intervene if they come across an act of piracy in progress. Even then, they often don’t, as in the case of Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were seized by pirates from their yacht as they sailed from the Seychelles towards Tanzania on October 23 last year while a Royal Navy warship looked on, and have been held to ransom in Somalia ever since.
Statement from Discover the World
“The incident in question, which occurred in April, saw a small skiff operating as part of a group of three. The skiff left the other two and approached Discoverybut never near enough to present a real threat. It then rejoined the other boats after a very short time. It remains unclear who was on board the boat and what its intentions were.
“The safety of our guests remains our highest priority. Our crew members, security teams and procedures are capable of responding to a wide variety of challenges. All ships operating in an area with a perceived high risk of pirate activity follow standard maritime procedures. This includes being able to reach military vessels, which patrol the area, at a moment’s notice should the need arise.”