Captain Colin Darch spent 47 days held captive off the coast of Somalia after pirates boarded his shi
From his balcony in Appledore, 83 year-old retired sea captain Colin Darch can see for miles across the North Devon coastline.
For him, three national lockdowns spent painting and gardening has been a breeze compared to the 47 days he spent at the mercy of Somalian pirates over a decade ago.
13 years ago, Captain Colin Darch set out on a journey to deliver the Svitzer Korsakov tugboat from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Singapore with just five fellow crew members – Irish engineer Fred, and four Russian sailors.
The trip was expected to take a little over two months, but it wasn’t quite as smooth and uneventful as hoped.
On the 1st February 2008, after roughly six weeks on board, Colin and his crew were sailing through the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia when they saw a white skiff approaching. The occupants of the little boat were armed with Kalashnikov guns and were shooting at the Korsakov.
Despite their best efforts to shake it off, another skiff of armed men appeared and there was nothing more Colin could do but press the MAYDAY signal and wait as pirates boarded the ship.
The nine pirates had a captain of their own, Omar, and an English interpreter who called himself Andrew, although the other pirates called him Sancha. After sailing down the Somalian coast, Colin was instructed to drop anchor off the coast of Gabbac.
A ‘pirate village’ was situated at the bottom of the white cliffs, and from there, another 11 men boarded the ship, with a constant rotation of pirates coming and going from the Svitzer Korsakov.
The pirates demanded a $2.5 million ransom to release Colin and his crew, a figure that Colin spent 30 days negotiating in daily talks with a Danish firm leading the hostage situation.
Colin said: “everyday I spoke to Copenhagen about the ransom, they would of course ask me all sorts of questions and Omar, the boss, didn’t like this because he didn’t like what I might be saying.”
Andrew could not keep up with Colin’s English, so the pirates brought in an alternative: “they commandeered this school master. He said ‘how do you do’ and gave me a handshake, ‘I am Mohammed Abdul Ali, a respectable school master, not one of these bandits, they have forced me to act as a solicitor and interpreter for you to get this wretched business over with quickly.'”
Although he insisted he was not a pirate, Colin recalls that he and Fred weren’t convinced: “I said okay, so what are they paying you? And he said $5,000.” So I said to Fred, if they’re paying him $5,000, that makes him a pirate like all the rest doesn’t it?”
He was fluent in English, which made dealing with the negotiators tricky, as Colin could give very limited information to them. He said: “I had to be careful. If they asked me what kind of weapons they had, he would just grab the phone and prevent me from telling them too much.”
A Somalian education minister, Ali Mohammed Ali, was arrested by the United States government in 2011 and charged with piracy for acting as a translator and negotiator in another pirate attack in November 2008.
He was later acquitted on all charges, but as no mug shots or photos were ever released of him, Colin cannot be sure it was the same man.
At the time, Colin had no idea that he would be held hostage for nearly seven weeks, only able to communicate with his wife back in Appledore through the negotiators when given a chance: “we didn’t know how long it was going to be. In the beginning, we hoped it would be over in a few days or a week, but time went on.”
Ten days in, Colin and Fred decided they’d had enough of captivity and hatched a plan to escape with the help of a nearby US Navy vessel. The ship had been keeping an eye on them for several days, but Colin thought they may have tried to rescue them in case there were non-pirate casualties.
He said: “Fred kept coming up with these garbled messages to do with baseball and actors and all sorts that he said would get the message through Copenhagen, and I said I can’t even understand these stupid messages myself, let alone the Danish negotiators.
“So in the end I rushed it out and said ‘if things got bad like a blackout, I could guarantee the crew was all safe,’ or something like that, and Fred said it was brilliant and they’ll pick the bones out of that with the words blackout and safe and pass it on.
“At midnight we all made our way down to the engine room and Fred pulled the lever which stopped the generator and put all the lights out, he’d already disabled all the engine room emergency lights, but he forgot one which stayed on and gave the pirates access.
“We’d retreated into the steering compartment and were well battened down in there. We were there for around 19 hours or something like that, and we could hear them smashing and banging on the outside. But we didn’t hear any of the Americans and eventually we had to give ourselves up.
“they threw us on the deck and stood guard over and threatened us. After that, life returned to normal, well not really normal because we were confined to the wheel house, all six of us and to go the toilet you had to ask permission and be escorted by a gunman. Life was a bit worse during that period.”
Even after their escape attempt, the pirates did not physically hurt Colin or his crew, later pirate attacks in 2008 saw several fatalities. He knew that he was living with a price over his head and as long as he remained friendly, they likely wouldn’t kill him.
However, the fear of death was a constant reality and Colin made peace with the idea of dying, he only hoped he wouldn’t go out in pain or begging for his life.
While being kept off the coast of Somalia, Colin kept a daily diary of what was happening aboard the ship. From simple notes about the lack of toilet access, to a detailed accounts of his failed escape attempt that worsened relations between he and the pirates.
After the $678,000 random price was agreed, life aboard the ship improved, they spent 17 days playing dominoes, sharing food and talking about their respective lives. As pirates don’t have bank accounts, the money had to be brought up from a Mombassa.
An ex-SAS Marines Captain sailed up to them with a briefcase of money, chocolate biscuits and beer, and once the pirates were satisfied they had the correct amount and had divided it between them, they left the ship.
Only a couple of pirates, including Mohammed and Omar, remained and asked to be dropped further up the coast so they were not robbed when they reached the shore.
At an international piracy conference in London several years later, Colin was introduced to Conrad Martin Thorpe, the ex-SAS Marine who had delivered the money to his ship.
Colin found brief international fame five years after his ordeal when a local Women’s Institute Federation arrived to a talk he was giving dressed as pirates.
Luckily he saw the funny side of the mix-up, and as their interpretation of pirates looked nothing like those that had held him captive, it didn’t dredge up painful memories and he agreed to judge an impromptu fancy dress competition.
Shortly after retiring in 2010, Colin turned his log into a book and self-published his story. The book details the moments he and his crew first spotted the ‘skiffs’ approaching, how they failed to out run, and the unlikely friendships they made with some of the pirates.
The book, Capture by Somali Pirates & other events at sea sold over 2,000 copies and was picked up by a London based publisher, but has now been taken out of print.
Now, with 13 years separating him from his time as a pirate hostage, Colin finds it difficult to fully recount the fear he felt, choosing mostly to focus on the amusing moments and the new found appreciation he has for the struggles of the Somalian people.
He said: “I have a fair amount of sympathy for them because they did explain to me that they hadn’t had any education for their children for 17 years since their dictator was overthrown.
“They had no hospitals, no police, no coastguard, no fire brigade, nothing at all. They just had to eek out their existence and people were dropping old ammunition and toxic waste into their coast and big factory ships were coming and taking all their fish, so they were just about fed up with it.
“Then they discovered they could get ransoms just for catching merchant seamen who were passing by unarmed, so that became the in thing to do and they were quite successful at it.”
Colin now lives a quiet life back home in North Devon. Upstairs, he has a room that looks out to sea where he spends his time painting.
From memory he painted the cliffs of Gabbac, and it hangs on the wall next to his collection of empty bullet casings he found on the desk of the Svitzer Korsakov and maps he kept of where they were taken.
Reflecting on the experience, Colin said: “I was glad that I was the captain in charge of the ship, because I felt more in charge of our fate than anyone else.
“I would’ve hated it even more if I was just a puppet waiting on the decision of someone else.”
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