Lieutenant Chris Elings - Action!

2 July 2012
Our on-board helicopter that tracked the dhow down.
Photo courtesy:  Ministry of Defence
It is Friday, 29 June, 05:30 hrs in the morning, and dawn is cautiously creeping over the horizon. Normally at this time, the bridge of HNLMS Evertsen is a picture of tranquillity, but today it is a hive of activity. And not only the bridge: almost the entire crew is hard at work at this early hour. Our on-board helicopter has just taken off. On deck, the gunners are getting their machine guns ready while, amidships, the Nautical Service is preparing our RHIBs (fast motorboats) for launch. Just a few more minutes and then we get down to what we are here for: for the first time on this deployment, we will apprehend a ship suspected of piracy!

The Evertsen goes hunting
Just like the rest of the crew, I have been looking forward to this moment for the past 2 days. On Wednesday afternoon (27 June), we were on patrol in the Gulf of Aden when we received a message saying that a merchant ship had been approached and fired on by a dhow (a type of boat in this part of the world) that morning. It was thought to probably have been the work of Somali pirates. Although the incident took place some 300 miles (550 kilometres) east of us, HNLMS Evertsen was the nearest navy ship (a good illustration of the vast expanse of the area of operations). We proceeded at speed to the position given to us to track down and detain the suspect dhow.

When I take over the watch on the bridge at 03:30 hrs on Thursday morning, we can hardly fail to recognise that we have almost reached the position given to us. The ship is being tossed about on the towering waves of the Indian Ocean, whipped up by the south-westerly monsoon. It is a big difference compared with the relative calm of the Gulf of Aden. A challenging task awaits us in these deteriorating conditions. Since we cannot know which direction the dhow took after the incident, the area to be searched covers many tens of thousands of square kilometres. Will we succeed in finding the needle in the haystack?

The needle is found
After a number of hours of intensive searching with the ship and the on-board helicopter, it seems a hopeless task, but then new information comes in. It is highly probable that the dhow is moving northwards towards the shelter of the coasts of Oman and Yemen, with the intention of then setting course to the west to cross the Gulf of Aden and sail towards Somalia. On the basis of this information, we set a course to intercept the dhow and, a few hours later, it proves to be a well-chosen one: in the last minutes of its evening patrol, our helicopter finds the suspect dhow, less than 20 miles ahead of our bows!

Our joy over the successful hunt quickly turns to frustration, however. Less than 10 minutes after we have found her, the dhow sails into the territorial waters (TTWs) of Yemen, where we have no authority to apprehend ships! For the time being, there is nothing for it but to track the suspect dhow from an appropriate distance (in other words, from a little way outside the Yemeni TTWs); we will have to rely fully on our advanced radar systems to keep contact.

A successful boarding operation in the early morning sun.
Photo courtesty:  Ministry of Defence
By the book
At 03:15 hrs on Friday morning, when I somewhat sleepily get to the bridge to take over watch duty, I expect the situation to be more or less unchanged. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Earlier during the night, the dhow had left the Yemeni TTWs to cross the Gulf of Aden in the direction of the Somali coast. What its crew don't know is that HNLMS Evertsen, fully blacked-out and invisible to the naked eye, is following a few nautical miles behind, ready for action as soon as daylight arrives.

The freed crew back on their dhow!
Photo courtesy:  Ministry of Defence
A few hours and several cups of coffee later, dawn appears over the horizon. It turns out to be a textbook arrest. After the Evertsen and our helicopter have speedily drawn alongside the dhow, we order her to stop. As several people gather on deck, the dhow at first seems to be obeying our order, but then speeds up again. Events take a surprising turn when the dhow's crew jump overboard. These people, from India and Bangladesh as later became clear, had probably been held hostage on their own ship for quite some time and as soon as a navy ship arrived on the scene, they saw their chance to escape their captors. Their willingness to jump into a rough sea (probably without being able to swim very well) showed how desperate their situation had become. This became abundantly clear when, not much later, we hauled them out of the water and on board the ship. Some of them had tears of joy in their eyes!

The liberated dhow on its way home, escorted by an Omani patrol vessel.
Photo courtesy:  Ministry of Defence
The 7 men who remained on the dhow after the crew had jumped overboard had lost their trump card and were arrested without much trouble. They will be prosecuted in Oman, the country where the hijacked dhow is registered. In addition to arresting a number of suspected pirates, I think that the following is the best thing about the all-round success of this operation: 7 men, who were probably facing death, have their lives and their dhow back!