It was a clear day when the merchant tanker Royal Grace set off from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for Nigeria with a 22-member multinational crew on February 28, 2012. The journey around the African continent was expected to take them 45 days.

Three days later, Pritam Kumar Sahu was off duty and asleep in his quarters in the afternoon, when a loud banging on the door awoke him. Gunshots cut through the air.

“Have you seen Captain Phillips?” asked Sahu, five years later over the phone from Raipur, where he now works. “The way they spoke, it was exactly like that.”

The Tom Hanks film Sahu referred to was inspired by the 2009 hijacking of the US container ship, the Maersk Alabama, by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. “You know how he [one pirate] says, ‘I am the captain now’?” said Sahu, laughing. “It was exactly like that.” The film was released in 2013, a year after the Royal Grace hijacking.

Perhaps the limited English vocabulary of pirates constrains their ability to express themselves or perhaps Sahu’s recollection of the incident was a case of memory and popular culture fusing into one indecipherable whole. Whatever the case, it was a dramatic moment.

“When they called all of us on the bridge [main controlling room] on the first day we were consumed by the feeling of death,” said Sahu. “Our hearts were pounding because we were afraid they might shoot one person just to scare the rest.”

That is how a year-long ordeal began aboard the Royal Grace. The vessel was steered over six days under the watchful eyes of nine pirates to the coast of Somalia.

Piracy on the high seas

Somali pirates have been among the deadliest of dangers at sea for years, holding more than 3,000 people hostage since 2001. Their targets have included several ships with Indian crew members.

On April 1, Somali pirates took control of a cargo vessel that was on its way to Yemen from Mumbai, according to reports. The ship, Al Kaushar, has 11 crew members on board. Last month, pirates hijacked an oil tanker with Sri Lankan crew off the coast of Somalia – the first such hijacking since 2012.

In January, the International Maritime Bureau released its annual report in which it said that the world had seen 191 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in 2016 – the lowest since 1998. The report said that 151 crew members were taken hostage that year. However, it also flagged an alarming increase in incidents of maritime kidnapping. Last year, pirates kidnapped 62 people for ransom – a threefold increase since 2015.

So what is it actually like to survive captivity? Aside from the obvious terror, there is the never-ending boredom, festering anxiety, and heavy moments leavened by the absurd. There is the odd kind pirate, the ingenious ways captives find to pass time, and the realisation that Somalian hijackers tend to enjoy Bollywood films that they find on many of their hijacked ships. Ransom is a mysterious game, and when it is finally paid, the captors might behave in strange ways.

This is an account from three seafarers who tell us what it means to live through an episode of piracy.

Surviving captivity

The year 2010 was flush with hijackings. On April 11 of that year, two years before Somali pirates took control of the Royal Grace , Pralav Dhyani’s merchant vessel RAK Afrikana was hijacked while sailing from Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar in Tanzania.

Dhyani, then a young trainee preparing to become a deck officer, was taken captive along with his fellow crew members. He turned 21 seven days later.

Speaking about the ordeal almost seven years later, Dhyani too reached for a cinematic comparison. “What I have gone through could be made into a Netflix series,” he said. He paused, and laughed, adding: “At least two seasons.”

A month after the RAK Afrikana was hijacked, Chirag Bahri was on the merchant vessel Marida Marguerite, a chemical tanker headed to Belgium from India. On May 8, as the vessel moved towards the Red Sea, six pirates arrived in a speedboat, and climbed on board. The men, armed with machine guns, searched the vessel, rounded up the terrified crew, and barked orders at them, recalled Bahri.

“Baitho,” said one pirate, using Hindi to ask the crew to sit. They then demanded that the men hand over all their valuables. Laptops, cell phones, cash – everything was turned in at gunpoint.

The Marida Marguerite was steered towards the coast of Somalia, and the 22 men on board followed instructions and hoped for the best.

The logic behind ransom

On board the Royal Grace, Sahu – who had been through training that prepared him for the possibility of a hijack – knew the pirates would begin their ransom demands with an impossibly high figure. In their case it was $ 20 million.

The crew of the MV Royal Grace. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.
The crew of the MV Royal Grace. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.

In the economic calculus of ransom demands every parameter can make a difference such as: Who owns the ship? Which nationalities are on board? How many years has it served? What is the cargo on board?

When the Marida Marguerite first arrived at the coast of Somalia, the pirate leader came on board. “He was happy to find this was a German ship,” said Bahri. “He knew he could get a good price.”

The hijackers finally asked for $ 15 million as ransom for the Marida Marguerite and its crew.

Once a ransom demand is made, the crew is usually unaware of how much the ship owner is willing to pay, what governments involved are doing and how negotiations are proceeding.

It is a long journey from hijacking to ransom to release. As days pass and months merge into each another, the panic and fright of the initial hijacking gives way to the desire to survive. Sometimes there is false hope of help.

Fifteen days after the Marida Marguerite was taken, one Somali pirate approached Bahri and others on the ship. “I want to help you,” he said in English. The man spoke well, and for a brief time the crew thought that the worst was over.

“It was a beautiful speech,” said Bahri. “We thought he would be our saviour.”

They were wrong. Nothing happened. Later that night – and for many nights thereafter – they spotted their friendly captor chewing khat leaves with the others. In the Somali pirate universe, khat leaves – a herbal stimulant – are the ultimate night-time snack.

Dhyani said he and his colleagues were initially confined to a single room aboard the RAK Afrikana. He recalled that the first four months in captivity weren’t too hard. Food was a hurried affair. Lunch was generally a piece of potato, a fistful of rice with gravy. Later supplies ran out, and had to be hauled in from the shore. Lights would be out by 7 pm.

On board the Marida Marguerite, Bahri and others were fed three times a day – half-cooked rice flecked with stones, onions and tomatoes. If they were lucky, there were some pulses. Goats brought from the shore were often slaughtered on board, the dark red blood spilling on the deck. The crew would then have to clean up. The pirates would sometimes fight over the bones.

Cruelty is a fact of life, but often there are kinder captors too. On Bahri’s ship, the harshest of the pirates was a young man who often ordered beatings. But there were other, gentler men too. “Some didn’t bother us,” said Bahri. “So many used to tell the others not to beat the crew.”

In Sahu’s case, the Somali cook was a kind man who appeared to have been forced into the piracy business. He managed to communicate with the crew using a combination of limited English words and gestures.

“He was a good guy,” said Sahu, whose vegetarianism made life even harder for him as a captive. “He’d try to help me by foraging for onions and potatoes.”

Captives aboard the MV Royal Grace. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.
Captives aboard the MV Royal Grace. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.

Keeping sane

Even as the survival instinct remains foregrounded, captivity often descends into tedium. Dhyani fashioned a chessboard out of a wooden plank, using bullet shells as chess pieces.

The Somali pirates seemed to enjoy watching Hindi films on board both the RAK Afrikana and Marida Marguerite. This perhaps accounted for their knowledge of a few Hindi words.

“They wanted something for entertainment,” said Dhyani, adding that the pirates were riveted by Salman Khan.

As the days dragged on, the captives were subjected to harsh outbursts from the pirates followed by periods of quiet. To keep their sanity, the crew on the RAK Afrikana made a pact. “Any day someone is down, we said we would make sure to get his morale up,” said Dhyani.

As fuel started to run low and food stocks started to deplete, the pirates got increasingly paranoid, and the captives restive. “They had taken our phones, our clothes, everything,” said Sahu. “People got frustrated and started fighting amongst themselves.”

Sometimes the experiences of the hostages verged on the tragi-comic. “The toilet was choked with rubbish,” said Bahri. “I don’t think they knew how it was supposed to be used.”

And then on the Royal Grace, the terrifying happened. The second engineer had a heart attack and died. It took everything for his mates to handle the situation discretely and respectfully.

“I hadn’t seen anyone die before,” said Sahu. “Whatever we could do, we tried to do.”

The dead man’s body was wrapped up and placed in the ship’s cold storage alongside stocks of fish, meat and vegetables. But after 35 days, the body started to smell.

“I counted the days,” said Sahu, who maintained a diary through the ordeal. “Finally we put it to sea with proper honours.”

But in some ways, fear recedes, and pragmatic instincts kick in. Sahu didn’t just maintain a diary. He filmed using a Nokia phone that he had fixed in a tool box in which he had carved out a small hole for the camera. “I was scared, but I did it,” he said. “I thought later it might be useful.” Some of that footage was later submitted to the Indian embassy in Oman and to the United Nations.

Sahu also wrote a note in case he died. “I don’t even remember what I wrote,” he said. “I thought I wouldn’t remain alive.”

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Release and recovery

After seven months in captivity, Bahri and other crew members on board the Marida Marguerite heard that negotiations might have started. From that time on it took at least two weeks to arrange for the ransom.

As the crew awaited news that would end their captivity, the pirates’ behaviour offered some clues. “The whole ship was completely stripped [towards the end of their captivity],” said Bahri. “They took out blankets and our jackets and even our undergarments. They had no idea what was worth how much. They would wear jackets in 40 degrees Celsius temperature.”

A small aircraft finally dropped off the ransom near the ship. The pirates retrieved the bags from the water and started counting the money on board using special machines.

“By this point they were snatching money from each other,” said Bahri.

The crew of a US navy ship stationed about 20 miles away later came on board to meet the crew of the Marida Marguerite. Their company then arranged for security guards and fuel to take them to the nearest port, an eight-day journey away.

With Sahu and his colleagues on board the Royal Grace, panic began to set in when it seemed that negotiations had stalled. “A week before our release they came and destroyed everything on the ship,” said Sahu. “We thought either they are sinking it, or letting us go.”

Pirates trashed the MV Royal Grace before they abandoned it. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.
Pirates trashed the MV Royal Grace before they abandoned it. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.

When the pirates finally left the ship after the ransom was paid, Sahu and his colleagues had been in captivity for a little over a year.

Dhyani and his colleagues on the RAK Afrikana were also eventually released after 332 days in captivity following the delivery of the ransom.

Landlubbers now

None of the former captives interviewed for this report have continued at sea. While Bahri now works as the regional director of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, Dhyani was in two minds about whether to return to sea and ended up working for an anti-maritime piracy company first, and later for a ship broking company. Sahu works as an engineer in the power sector, but is still tempted by the pull of the ocean.

But despite the trauma, all three men who shared their experiences here, have embraced life and seem to have moved on.

“I have been shot near my ear, then what can I fear?” said Sahu. “We [seafarers] are very strong. We have seen a lot.”

The MV Royal Grace docked at Sharjah before the hijacking. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.
The MV Royal Grace docked at Sharjah before the hijacking. Photo courtesy: Pritam Kumar Sahu.