Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

'I thought pirates would kill me'

Captain Peter Newton: 'The pirate captain put a sword to my neck'

Pirates in the Indian Ocean have hijacked a massive Saudi oil tanker with a cargo worth $100 million.

Lucy Rodgers spoke to a British captain, Peter Newton, about how he survived a similar raid by pirates.

After leaving port and seeing his cargo ship through the Straits of Singapore ready for the journey to New Zealand, Captain Newton thought it was safe to leave the bridge and head for his cabin.

But no sooner had he entered to unpack his belongings when a band of five machete-wielding pirates clad in balaclavas stormed through his door.

"My first thought was that it was the crew committing mutiny, then it became quite obvious their intention was to rob me," says Mr Newton, who had only been captain for six months when the attack happened in 1992.

"The guy in charge said, 'Captain, behave yourself and you will live to tell the tale', or something to that effect."

The only thing I could think of was that their intention was to throw me over the side
Captain Peter Newton

While another four pirates kept a look-out elsewhere on the 35,000-tonne container ship, which was carrying arms and cars among other things, the five armed men in the captain's cabin hunted for the vessel's safe, containing $24,000 (16,000) in crew salaries.

But after the gang's chief realised the safe was fitted with an anti-tamper device, things turned nasty.

"He knew removing it would cause an alarm to sound, so he made me kneel in front of it and held a sword to the back of my neck," says the 59-year-old, from Derby.

"He told me if it went off I would die."

'Over the side'

Luckily, the device had been disabled by the Australian Star's previous captain and Mr Newton had not yet activated it.

The pirates were able to remove the cash from the safe, and took their hostage with hands bound behind his back to the deck at sword-point.

"The only thing I could think of was that their intention was to throw me over the side," Mr Newton says. "I thought they were going to kill me."

Somali pirates
Somali pirates are active off the African coast

Instead, the band of armed men left the vessel and returned to their boat via a rope ladder and the last pirate pushed their captive forward to indicate he should go back to the accommodation block.

"I was extremely relieved," says Mr Newton, recalling the moment he knew he had survived the attack.

The captain went on to raise the alarm and warned other vessels in the area of the threat of attack.

Although the incident was unnerving, Mr Newton says it never put him off working on the oceans.

What did upset him was hearing of the death of another British captain, John Bashforth, who was killed in a similar attack three weeks later.

Mr Newton went to visit his grieving family and was particularly struck by how hard it was for them to come to terms with the fact he had been murdered by pirates at the end of the 20th Century.

Unarmed crews

But piracy is common and is not always taken as seriously as it should be by authorities and shipping companies, says Mr Newton.

It is very easy for such armed groups to hijack large ships, he explains, because there is little to stop them doing so.

Most cargo ships have crews of 22 to 25 unarmed men of varying nationalities who do the job for money and are not willing to risk their lives in defence of a ship, he argues.

The only defence is trying to stop them getting on board
Captain Peter Newton

During an attack they are, understandably, likely to hide in their cabins, he says.

"Pirates know there is absolutely no risk. Once on board, there is no risk whatsoever. They know the civilian crew is not armed," he explains.

"The only defence is trying to stop them getting on board."

In dangerous waters, ships' captains do take anti-piracy measures, such as using deck patrols, short-range radar to identify small craft and lights over the side of the ship.

But in Mr Newton's particular case, these things were not activated because at the time his vessel was near the Indonesian island of Bintan and not thought to be in a risk area.

He argues that piracy is not taken seriously partly because of its romanticisation in fiction, but he also blames shipping companies for not facing up to such attacks.

This is because ships' safes are insured and firms can easily recoup the money, he says, and compared to the $2m in fuel needed to take a cargo ship from Singapore to New Zealand, such amounts of money are regarded as "peanuts".

"But it is not peanuts if one of the crew or the captain gets killed."

Despite this, Mr Newton still enjoys his job, partly because he gets to see the world and because he doesn't have to commute to work every morning.

But he admits part of the allure remains the sense of adventure.

"Even being attacked by pirates, there are not many people who can say they have done that," he adds.

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