The new Danish movie “A Hijacking” concerns a cargo ship taken over and held for ransom by Somali pirates in the waters off the east coast of Africa. I went to this movie with special interest, because I sailed as a passenger on a similar cargo ship (this one German) in the summer of 2010. This ship traveled through those same waters. Seeing the ship used in the movie brought back many memories: the cabins, the galley, the stairs, the corridors, the deck — all looked familiar. However, I was surprised that the captain of the movie vessel seemed to take none of the precautions that the captain of my ship did.
After sailing south through the Suez Canal and down the length of the Red Sea, we waited near the entrance to the Indian Ocean, hoping to find other ships with which we might make a convoy to get us safely through pirate territory. No such ships were found.
Our captain then decided to go it alone. He ordered that no lights on the ship would be visible at night. This meant turning off all the deck lights. Curtains in cabin windows had to be kept closed to insure that no light leaked out of them. (The captain came to personally inspect my cabin, tactfully not mentioning my sloppily made bed and my stack of empty beer cans.)
A live electrical wire was positioned around the ship’s railing to deter boarders. If any boarders made it on deck, they’d be greeted by locked doors and coils of barbed wire placed in each one of the outside stairwells. There were also rumors of some members of the crew being given firearms, but the captain shrugged away any questions regarding this matter. I never saw a gun during the entire length of the four-and-a-half-month, around-the-world voyage.
I and my fellow passenger — a German who, fortunately for me, spoke better English than some of my friends back home — were warned to limit our exposure on deck, particularly at night. A special alarm signal was then played for us. If we ever heard this signal, day or night, we were immediately to go to an area deep in the bowels of the ship called the “safe room” — a grim, windowless space without seating, without toilet facilities, and without access to water.
My fellow passenger and I were shown the rather-complicated route we were to take in order to reach this room, and we were advised to learn the route well. At a time of crisis, no crewmen would be available to guide us or answer our questions. We were told to lock the door of the safe room behind us, but the rules to follow after this point seemed decidedly vague. When pressed for further information, the captain would simply give one of his not-to-worry shrugs and walk away.
My fellow passenger and I looked over the foreboding interior of the safe room and privately discussed whether facing the pirates might be a better option.
After two days and nights of sailing into the Indian Ocean, the captain decided we were safely out of pirate territory. The electrical wire was taken down, the coils of barbed wire went back to wherever they were stored, and curtains could once more be opened to let in light and occasional wafts of sea breeze.
To celebrate, the captain held what he called a deck party, which consisted of an empty oil drum being converted into a makeshift barbecue on which a variety of German sausages — some large enough to beat to death a grizzly bear — were incinerated to varying degrees of blackness. There was also plenty of beer, but this wasn’t the good German beer but rather a cheap Korean brand that tasted like beer-flavored water.
After the party, the daily fare went back to the usual menu of pork hocks and boiled potatoes, and I began to count the days until we’d dock in Singapore. Lots of good restaurants in Singapore.
Alvin Easter lives in Minneapolis.