Nearly two years after being released by Somali pirates who stormed their sailboat and held them hostage for 13 months, Paul and Rachel Chandler are finally ready to get back on their boat, the Lynn Rival. This time they won’t be going anywhere near Somalia, but they refuse to rule out a return visit if the situation there improves.
The Chandlers have spent much of the last two years writing a book, “Hostage, A Year At Gunpoint with Somali Pirates,” and getting their boat, which was salvaged by the British Navy, ready to sail again. In a wide-ranging interview, we spoke to the Chandlers about their ordeal, how they feel about their captors, what they learned from the experience and why they want to continue living on their boat.
Where do you live now?
PAUL: We live on the Lynn Rival, our boat; we’re home at last. We don’t have a home on land in Britain at the moment. We have a flat in Kent, but we have tenants, and maybe when we finish voyaging, we’ll settle down there.
And what were you doing before you were taken hostage?
PAUL: I’m a consulting engineer; I’m now 62. Rachel is an economist; she’s 57. I had an engineering practice that I sold and Rachel was working for the government as an economist and that enabled us in 2005 to sail for half the year and work half the year.
How did you pull that off?
PAUL: If you’re good enough, they don’t want to lose you. Rachel’s superiors gave her six months off, so we traveled half the year in ’05 and ’06, and then we decided we wanted to sail year round and live on the boat.
In 2007, we set off around the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea to India, cruised the coast of India and we enjoyed it enough to make it worth doing permanently, so we rented our flat out and planned on sailing full time. We wanted to see the western part of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Madagascar. Somalia wasn’t on our list.
We planned to sail from the Seychelles to Tanzania, and if it hadn’t been for that fateful evening we would have gone down to Madagascar, but that’s where it all went a bit awry.
It sounds like you found a way to escape the rat race before it all went south?
PAUL: Absolutely we did. When I turned 45, we decided that we’d go sailing when I turned 55 because we knew a lot of people who left it until they got too old and I didn’t want that to happen to us. So we worked very hard for those ten years to make this happen.
If you say, ‘I’ll just work another year and save another $5,000,’ you’ll never get around to doing it. You’ve got to go. We figured out that if we could do without all mod cons, we could sail and live for less than we’d spend on land. We’ve had friends who have died young of cancer, so we thought we had to take the chance while we could.
Take us back to the night you were taken hostage. Where were you?
PAUL: We were halfway between this ring of islands on the outer edge of the Seychelles and the main islands, perhaps 60 miles from the main islands of the Seychelles, not far from where Prince William and Kate went for their honeymoon. We were almost 900 miles from Somalia when we were taken hostage.
Were you aware of the danger of being even that close to Somalia?
PAUL: Of course we were. We’d sailed through the Gulf of Aden two years before. We did our research pretty well. We knew we were right on the fringes. There have been attacks as far as 1,500 miles away from Somalia. Official warning distance was about 200-300 miles off the coast of Somalia.
We thought it was an acceptable risk. There are worse risks you take at sea every day. It’s absolute nonsense when people say we were warned and we shouldn’t have been there. That’s with the benefit of hindsight. We went to four authorities in our checkout procedure and they all said, ‘Have a good voyage.’
And the pirates stormed the boat in the middle of the night?
PAUL: It was 2:30 in the morning, so I was asleep until I heard the gunshots. Rachel was standing watch.
RACHEL: I heard an engine in the distance and then I saw a boat with no lights approaching us very fast. I knew that it didn’t look good, so I shined a light on them and they responded with two gunshots.
I was in disbelief – my mind was racing. I knew we couldn’t outrun them. Our little auxiliary engine can only get to about six knots and they were coming at us at about 20 knots. They slammed into the side of the boat and I could see four men with guns, they were grabbing our handrails and shouting as they climbed onto the boat. Then another boat approached from the port side and another four men clambered on board. I was in a state of absolute shock.
They were sort of struggling to get on the boat and pointing a gun at me all the while. Paul had to struggle to put in his contact lenses and come up to find out what was going on. Eventually a bigger, open boat came with two more men on it. One of them was called Buggaf; he was their leader. He was a very nasty piece of work – very threatening.
Did you know immediately that you were being taken hostage?
RACHEL: We knew we’d be robbed, but we thought they’d go away in search of a bigger ship. We never envisioned that we’d be taken hostage, especially so far from Somalia. They could see that we had a small boat and probably weren’t likely to be able to pay a big ransom but they didn’t see it like that. Buggaf told us to set a course and steer towards Somalia.
And your boat was abandoned off the coast of Somalia?
RACHEL: Yes, we were towing their boats and our engine couldn’t cope. At that point they realized that the value was in us two and not our boat, so it was abandoned.
How long did it take to reach Somalia?
RACHEL: It was six full days at sea on our boat, then another 36 hours on their boat.
Were you more or less fearful when you reached land?
RACHEL: I was more fearful because they were taking us into a lawless country and I felt there was no hope of getting out of there. Some of the gang was saying we’d fetch $4 million, no problem. I wanted them to realize they’d got a pair of lemons who were a waste of their time. That kind of kept me going.
How were your living conditions in Somalia?
RACHEL: They bought us a thin mattress and a blanket and fed us. We were taken to a one-room mud village hut with a tin roof. They were always threatening us that other Islamist militias or al-Shabab would take us from them. They gave us water from a reservoir to wash with and bought us bottled water and fed us bread and rice and we started to get used to eating goat stew for breakfast.
When you live on board a sailboat, you’re used to living very basic, so I think that helped us deal with life in the bush. They knew they had to keep us alive if they were to make any money out of us.
And I understand they separated you. After that, how did you pass the time?
PAUL: During all my time in Somalia, I only slept badly a few times. So that was half the day. You wash up, and then read. We had five books and we divided them between us when we were split up. I took to reading them aloud because it takes more time. You get more out of books if you read them several times. We listened to the BBC and the VOA.
Rachel had cards; I spent time compiling crosswords. We were split up the first time and were kept apart for ten days, that’s when they put pressure on me to come up with money, so I was commanded to start making begging phone calls to my friends and relatives.
Later they separated us again and Rachel was beaten and whipped and we were kept apart for three months. They dragged us apart kicking and screaming. I had a choice, I said, ‘I can either sink into a well of despair or I can survive.’
The gang leader was a criminal and the rest of them were all along looking for a free lunch. None of them had seen white people or been out of Somalia. The eight gangsters guarding me eventually became relaxed and to some extent there was a bit of, sort of, friendship. They couldn’t understand why I was so depressed to be separated from Rachel – they had no idea how close we were. We’ve been married 31 years now.
And finally, after being in captivity for more than a year, a Somali man living in London secured your release?
PAUL: That’s Dahir. A wonderful man and a honorary member of our family. One morning, we had a long drive across the country and we hoped we were going to be released. Our hopes had been dashed before though, so we didn’t want to get our hopes up too high. We had to sleep overnight in the car out in the bush and we woke up the next morning and a man walked towards us holding what looked like a British passport.
He said, “I’m Dahir, I come from East London. I’ve come to take you home.” It was quite amazing – brings tears to my eyes even now. We found out that eight months before, his 12-year-old son came home and told his father ‘I’m ashamed to be Somali, can’t you do something to help?’ (to help the people who were taken hostage.)
He’s from the area we were being held in. He had the contacts to help us and he moved to Mogadishu and got to work using his contacts to help us. It took him eight months to arrange our release and our families knew nothing about it until a few days before he arrived to get us.
How much was paid for your release?
PAUL: Our family raised $440,000, which they dropped to the gang by plane in June 2010. And then we weren’t released.
They just kept the money?
PAUL: They decided to keep us and the money and we heard nothing for months, meanwhile, this chap Dahir was working for our release in the background and we had no clue.
How did your family raise the money?
PAUL: They wouldn’t tell us the source of the money. They were so supportive; they just wanted us to get our lives back. They said, ‘Don’t worry about the money.’ But we have paid back all the expenses they incurred. Their expenses in paying the $440,000 ransom were about $150,000 as well.
And did Dahir or someone else pay additional money to secure your release?
PAUL: We don’t know. He told us he didn’t raise any money. Whether that’s true, we don’t know. We’ve met him several times since and I don’t see why he’d lie to us, but he must have had considerable expenses in securing our release. There have been suggestions that the Somali government paid some money, but we don’t know. I think it would be very unlikely if no more money changed hands.
What have you been doing since you were released?
PAUL: Settling back in, coping with my father’s death – he died at 99 while we were in Somalia. The Royal Navy salvaged our boat and we had it taken to Dartmouth, so we could work on her. Now she’s in ship shape again. Our families said ‘You ought to be write a book,’ so we did. We’ve been working hard on the boat and last week we finally moved back on board.
What are your plans now?
PAUL: We’re going to head south and resume traveling to exciting places, meeting different people. We’re going down the coast of Western Europe, taking in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the North African coast, Cape Verde, and then head down to Brazil. We’ll keep going as long as we’re fit. Who knows where we’ll end up?
Will you ever go anywhere near Somalia again?
PAUL: I wouldn’t go north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. I’d want to be at least 2,000 miles away. But who knows, maybe by the time we get around to that part of the world again, the situation in Somalia will have changed. Maybe it will be safe to go there again.
Has it taken a long time to build up the courage to get back on your boat?
PAUL: No, not at all. I lost upper body strength and you need that in sailing. But mentally we have no problems at all.
What lessons did you learn from this ordeal?
PAUL: It strengthened our relationship, which was already strong. It reinforced the values we both hold. It made us far more appreciative to have been born in the small faction of the world that is safe and secure.
Do you feel hatred, forgiveness or some other emotion toward your captors?
RACHEL: I never felt hatred toward them. I felt sad that they are in the position they’re in, that they’ve stooped so low. A lot of people are very poor but don’t stoop to kidnapping. But I can see how they were drawn into it. People like Buggaf who make a living from piracy and direct others to do it, I despise them. They haven’t asked for forgiveness, so I don’t think I need to forgive them. I just hope that the law might catch up with them someday.
Do you think that the same pirates who took you hostage are still out attacking boats right now?
RACEHL: I’m sure they’re trying to do the same thing right now. But it’s become more difficult because ships are really increasing their security. Seven of the gang members who attacked us left after five days at sea to attack a French fishing trawler. They were apprehended and have been in jail in Mombasa for the last three years. They were just found guilty and were sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Did you have a hard time adapting to life at home after being released?
RACHEL: It was very strange. There was a lot of media attention. Our muscles had degenerated. Mentally, it was a process of getting used to normality. When you live with so little for so long, it’s a shock coming back to our complex world. Some people were wary of us because they assumed we must have been really scarred.
Did you get tired of people asking you why you strayed too close to Somalia?
RACHEL: People in the sailing community knew the situation. Lots of people stood up for us. Those who criticize don’t know anything about sailing or the situation at the time. On the Internet, people hide behind their computers and say nasty things.
Does the British Foreign Office now recommend against sailing in the area you were in?
RACHEL: Now they recommend boats don’t stray more than six miles off the main islands in the Seychelles but they still don’t tell people not to go there or charter yachts. If we’d left an hour earlier or an hour later, they would have missed us – it was very bad luck. You’re taking a chance sailing anywhere in the Seychelles.
Has your experience diminished your love of sailing?
RACHEL: Not at all. Cruisers tend to be very resilient people. If you’re adventurous, that doesn’t change. We don’t want to wrap ourselves up and stay home. We want to get back to the life we imagined, so it’s important for us to get back on our boat.