What fantastic news that the Chandlers have been freed after 388 days of captivity by pirates in Somalia. Our thoughts go out to their family and friends. The last year must have been very difficult so now it is time to celebrate their freedom and give them time to recuperate from what must have been a harrowing ordeal. But what now? Where does this leave the rest of us?
For those of you who don’t know, the Chandlers are retired couple Paul and Rachel of sailing vessel ‘Lyn Rival’. Two years ago they undertook the same Vasco Da Gama rally that we did this year, and made a successful landfall in India. However they then did something very strange: they headed east, stopping off at the Seychelles and then on towards Tanzania, effectively sailing straight into the hands of pirates.
Their captors demanded a ransom of £4m. There were many campaigns to free them. Family and friends put together pressure groups and lobbied Westminster for their immediate release. The government at the time, however, stuck by its policy of not bowing to hijackers. The Chandlers frequently made the news and the pirates released video clips, their captors making no effort to cover up the fact that the retired couple’s health was ailing. Learning that they were split up and that they suffered physical abuse was heart-breaking. The months passed and everyone became more concerned as it was clear the pirates were not going to back down.
Funds were raised and a private company was employed to broker the payment of the money but in a scenario like this the government has veto on whether the ransom should be paid. Gordon Brown stood firm, so with the government making its stance quite clear on the situation private efforts to raise money by friends and family of the Chandlers continued unabated. Meanwhile we watched in vain as the couple appeared in the news, looking more and more distraught, broken and ill. [Right: Rachel Chandler at gun-point. Source: Enterprise News And Pictures]
And then nothing. After headline news and fervent online activity there was a complete media blackout that started around about the same time the new government came to power. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but when there is media blackout on international stories like this it sometimes suggests that negotiations are taking place. And with negotiations come precedents, new precedents that pave the way for a new future of piracy activity in the Indian Ocean. Activity that could have a grave impact for other seafarers.
At the time of the attack there was a hive of activity in the India Ocean. Back then the international naval task-forces were not working as a cohesive effort and coverage of the vast ocean was sporadic. Efforts were concentrated in the Gulf of Aden and this was an opportunity the pirates were taking advantage of in other areas of these waters. Look in Wikipedia for a breakdown of the number of combined naval task forces involved in anti-piracy activities. Then divide that into the square mileage of Indian Ocean. Divide again the average daily number of piracy attacks and put that as a ratio of the millions of pounds paid annually in piracy ransoms and you begin to understand the vastness of this problem.
The data of these attacks are published daily. At the time of the ‘Lyn Rival’ incident Liz and I were making our own preparations for our Red Sea sojourn. We armed ourselves with every piece of data on the piracy situation: we subscribed to quasi-governmental websites that posted news of attacks within hours of them happening; we made contact with the British navy and European peace-keeping initiatives; we registered our whereabouts frequently; we spent considerable sums of money on boat electronics that allowed the Navy to track our location. Even after joining 15 other boats in the relative safety of the Vasco Da Gama rally we continued to maintain contact with these forces.
Liz and I were frequently lambasted in chat forums for our plans. Friends and family expressed real concern at our proposed route, whilst armchair sailors shook their fists and made jokes about passing on their regards to the Chandlers should we get caught. In our own minds, however, we had taken every precaution and assessed the entire scenario. There wasn’t a hint of arrogance in our plans, we were very careful and did what all sensible sailors should do: we armed ourselves with every available piece of information. Our tactic was simple: at the slightest hint of piracy we would stay put. We would not move until, excuse the pun, the coast was clear.
Back in October 2009 all of this piracy data we were collating was available to any sailor who looked for it, and one thing was very clear: the most dangerous area to be sailing was anywhere east of the Seychelles.
At the time of writing the Chandlers have been freed and are probably now in Nairobi, but they have not yet made a public statement. We know nothing about their decision to head towards Tanzania from the Seychelles, and for me this remains the biggest question.
Having just watched an ITV special on today’s news I was disappointed to see that the editor firmly put the blame of the couple’s ordeal onto the British navy. They quoted the special task force who was employed to undertake a rescue operation, claiming that the Navy procrastinated in its response to the attack. Quoting friends and members of the Cruising Association the documentary was quick to point out that these unfortunate cruisers had taken all precautions and were ‘experienced’, as if that shifted all responsibility from the cruisers on to someone else.
It would take another essay entirely to explain the logistics of undertaking a specialist forces rescue operation in an ocean that covers 14% of the earth’s surface. Whilst the TV report alluded to the failed attempt by the French navy to rescue the crew of sailing boat ‘Tanit’ it did not explain that the botched attempt by the French forces killed the skipper in front of his 3 year old child. It did not mention that the Navy ship that was a few hundred metres away from the Chandler’s attack was an unarmed auxilary vessel. Neither did the report make any effort to explain the complicated political and economic situation in Somalia, not that this would have justified the actions of the pirates of course. The ITV special, in my hunble opinion, was flawed, misinformed and sensationalist and will no doubt leave many viewers in no mind that the real culprits were the Royal Navy. What nonsense.
My understanding is that a ransom has been paid, somewhere in the region of £500,000 (the foreign office, sticking to its policy of not negotiating with hijackers, has denied direct involvement). It rankled slightly when our man from the CA made the argument that many cruisers don’t have much money. Yes, on the one hand he’s right, most of our cruising friends fall into that category, but to a Somali fisherman turned pirate whose warmongering clan has just secured a solid business deal of up to a million dollars, the facts are obvious: a British sailor is now worth a lot of money.
Maybe, then, we have inadvertently set a precedent. It is possible that by paying this ransom we have massively increased the risk to future cruisers. Perhaps we have become a bigger target now that pirates know they can capture us and broker a half million pound deal for our release.
Alternatively the ordeal and expense of keeping Paul and Rachel Chandler may have proved to be so frustrating that the pirates decide it’s not worth the effort. The cost of logistics, food, transportation and communication, not to mention the bribes to the warlords, all have to be accountable, even in the war-torn mess that is Somalia.
The impact of this unprecedented case will only come to light as new sailors venture through the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean over the next few years.
Still, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that these poor people, who were subjected to the most cruel 13 months of captivity, have been released. Perhaps the questions should come later. For the time being let’s just be grateful that the Chandlers have been released. This is a great day for sailors around the world.
There are hundreds of links pertaining to the Chandlers and to piracy in general. Check out the more informed news websites like The Guardian, in particular the BBC which has a lot of video footage of journalists venturing into Somalia and interviewing pirates, as well as Naval footage of pursuits of suspected pirates. The ‘How to Counter A Pirate Attack‘ video is a bit of a joke though. Also the recent United Nations report on the general state of Somalia within the context of piracy makes for extremely interesting reading, even if you only peruse the summary.
Liz has taken four screen grabs comparing the piracy attacks over the past four years, taken from the http://www.icc-ccs.org/ website. Red: actual attacks; yellow = attempted; purple = suspicious vessel. It makes for worrying viewing.