Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

British captain's Somali pirate nightmare

By Fergal Keane
BBC Radio 4

Captain Peter Stapleton
Captain Peter Stapleton was awarded for his bravery in tackling the pirates

It began with a green blip travelling in the wrong direction.

Captain Peter Stapleton was chatting with his chief officer on the bridge of the 18,000 tonne cargo ship Boularibank when the green light on the radar caught their attention.

"It appeared to be putting itself in a good position across our stern about two miles [3km] away from which it would quite likely launch an attack," he remembered.

The Boularibank was returning to the British port of Hull from a journey to Malaysia on 28 April 2009 with a Russian crew and 11 passengers, one of whom was the captain's wife.

There was still a day to go before the ship entered the pirate-haunted waters of the Gulf of Aden but Captain Stapleton, 56, had already ordered anti-piracy drills.

Bad feeling

When he realised that he was about to enter a real-life drama, the captain found himself "surprisingly calm". As he began giving orders to his crew, he began to mentally tick boxes.

"You ask yourself: 'Have I done this? Have I got that ready? Have I told everyone what we're going to do?'"

Taking a Stand, BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 19 January at 0900 and again at 2130 GMT
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer

One of the first things he did was to tell his wife he had a bad feeling about the approaching green blip. He found her even calmer than himself.

"I think she was quite sceptical that they would actually try it and she still can't really believe it. It's like people getting run over by buses, it will never happen to me," he recalled.

Back on the bridge, he watched as two attack boats were launched from the trawler that was acting as the pirates' mother ship.

Repel boarders

Capt Stapleton knew that trying to turn the ship or outrun his assailants would be futile. The Boularibank was too big and slow for an escape based on speed.

"So what we tend to do is just to try and make them weave which slows the speed down unfortunately, that's just a feature of manoeuvring ships.

Warship next to pirate boats
Warships from around the world have gone to tackle Somali pirates

"But it does create a bit of a lumpy wash that these small boats have got to cross over all the time so it means they've got to do some work to catch up with you, it's not just straight alongside and bang on board."

Capt Stapleton summoned his passengers to the bridge. Some were "rubbernecking" out the windows to try and catch a glimpse of the pirates, almost as if they were a tourist attraction.

Capt Stapleton told me he decided very early in the crisis that he did not intend to languish in some grim Somali port waiting for ransom negotiations to take place. His hardy Russian crew agreed.

"Russians are a tough bunch of guys anyway, they've had a hard life in their history and they are pretty tough… They were prepared to defend the ship as best they could. They knew that I wanted to defend the ship. I wanted to get back home and they want to go home."

Operating on that unequivocal principle they set about repelling the boarders.

Shiver me timbers

By the time the pirates came close, and realised Capt Stapleton was not going to surrender, the bullets started to fly, ricocheting off the ship's superstructure.

A rocket propelled grenade was fired and the blast was heard by the engineers in the bowels of the ship. Another followed soon after.

Luckily neither caused any injuries. The captain's response was to "release the port-side battery" as he put it. This meant the crew tumbling 10-foot (3m) long pieces of heavy timber onto the attacking boat. It was a simple tactic but it drove the attackers back.

"My bottom line was I don't want to kill anybody but I want to put them off boarding my ship so if you drop them in the water in front of a speed boat he has got to pull away from you, he cannot go over it. So that was the thinking all the time. Passive defence."


Capt Stapleton's seamanship and the crew's bravery saved the Boularibank and its passengers from capture.

He remains remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole affair, as if it were simply a minor occurrence in the life of the high seas.

Last November he was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for bravery and he continues to sail the route.

"Well because you've got to get home," he says bluntly, "that's the bottom line. It's the gateway back to Europe so you've got to go through there."


You can hear Fergal Keane talking to Captain Peter Stapleton on Taking a Stand, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 19 January at 0900 and again at 2130 GMT. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer.

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