Skip to main content

Somali pirates hold couple for 388 days

The cruising community is warned that the range for attacks now extends well beyond the Gulf of Aden

Somali pirates freed cruisers Paul and Rachel Chandler after 388 days in captivity for a ransom thought to be as much as $1 million. The release follows an ordeal of beatings and psychological torture - a stark reminder that cruising anywhere near the Horn of Africa carries terrible risks, even for seasoned voyagers.

A Somali skiff is about to be boarded by U.S. forces in the Gulf of Aden.

Pirates released the British couple Nov. 13 after a Somali intermediary - a onetime London cabdriver who helped raise money and negotiate their release - paid a second ransom. The couple's captors had reneged on a deal in June to free them after a $440,000 payment, according to the Daily Mail, Britain's national daily.

Paul, 60, a civil engineer, and Rachel, a government economist, are both retired. They were pursuing their dream of cruising on their 38-foot sailboat Lynn Rival when the pirates seized them. The two gave the Daily Mail and British TV broadcaster ITN exclusive interviews for an estimated $800,000 - money the couple say they needed to repay friends and family who, reportedly with the help of Britain's Somali community, raised the money for their ransom. Britain's government publicly held to its longstanding policy of never paying kidnap ransoms.

The Daily Mail said the pirates told the Chandlers their supporters had raised $640,000; other reports put the total at closer to $1 million, possibly including some money diverted from British government aid to Somalia.

The couple's prolonged captivity reflects the difficult negotiations between their captors, who thought they must be wealthy if they could own a yacht and cruise to exotic places, and the Chandlers and their family, who insisted the pair were ordinary Britons who did not have access to the kind of money their kidnappers first demanded in a call to the BBC - reportedly more than $6.5 million.

"You and I can't fathom what it would be like to have billions of dollars, like Bill Gates," says Patrick Estebe, president of Affairaction, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., security services company that puts armed security escorts on vessels transiting the waters off Somalia. Similarly, "[the pirates] are so poor they can't figure out what a cruiser can or can't afford. They don't grasp it."

The Chandlers told the Daily Mail their treatment at the hands of their captors deteriorated as negotiations bogged down. Once the pirates whipped them with tree roots. They smashed Rachel in the face with a rifle butt, knocking out one of her teeth, when the couple clung to each other and resisted separation.

Held apart at different camps for nearly three months, they were subjected to psychological manipulation. Paul was warned that his wife would be beheaded if he didn't cajole their family into meeting the ransom demands. Both were told numerous times that they would be released soon, only to see those hopes dashed, and they were threatened with rifle shots fired over their heads, the Daily Mail reported.

The pair had no privacy. Rachel hand-bathed under a sheet, and they lived as the Somalis lived - in huts, sleeping on mats and eating goat stew, fried liver and leavened bread, according to press reports. Already thin, the Chandlers each lost about 15 pounds during their confinement. They passed the long hours doing crossword puzzles, playing Scrabble and practicing yoga.

"We are happy to be alive, happy to be here, desperate to see our family and so happy to be amongst decent, everyday people - Somalis, people from anywhere in the world who are not criminals - because we've been a year with criminals," Rachel said at a press conference in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital city, after their release.

The Chandlers' web diary ( reveals a couple who had cruised widely during the last four years. They voyaged through the eastern Mediterranean - Greece and Turkey, south through the Red Sea - with stopovers in a number of North African ports, east off Yemen and Oman and across the Arabian Sea to Mumbai in India, south along the Indian coast, west to the Maldives, then the Seychelles, where they stayed for seven months. Their cruising was interspersed with visits to England to visit Paul's ailing father, who died during their captivity.

The Chandlers had sailed just 60 miles from the Seychelles en route to Tanzania, 1,000 miles away, when in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2009, 10 armed men in two fast skiffs from a nearby mother ship boarded and seized Lynn Rival. The attack came while Paul was below sleeping and Rachel was on watch, according to the Daily Mail.

Lynn Rival was more than 700 miles from Somalia when the pirates attacked. The Chandlers thought they had chosen a route far enough south and east to avoid the pirates they knew were endemic to Somali waters.

In a December update of cruising guidelines for the Horn of Africa, the International Sailing Federation, working with the European Union naval forces' Maritime Security Center, says Somali pirates are now a threat not only in the Gulf of Aden but also in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, from the West African coast east to a line extending south from the tip of India to a line running west to Tanzania's southern border.

"While, to date, attacks have not been reported to the extreme east of this area, they have taken place at almost 70° E" - nearly 1,000 miles east of the Seychelles, according to vessel security guidelines published by the shipping industry.

Using mother ships, Somali pirates have extended their range over thousands of miles offshore. Estebe fears they may have set up bases in the Chagos, an archipelago of more than 1,000 tiny islands east of the Seychelles and south of the Maldives. Otherwise, he asks, how could they have the fuel reserves to operate so far east?

When their sailboat was boarded, the Chandlers activated their EPIRB. The pirates - armed with rifles and grenade launchers - seized Lynn Rival and ordered its skipper to head for Somalia with the skiffs in tow. Four days later, a military helicopter spotted the sailboat. The pirates then transferred the Chandlers to the Kota Wajar, a Singapore-flagged container ship the pirates had hijacked two weeks earlier.

The pirates carried out their operation within sight of the 650-foot British naval tanker Wave Knight, which was ordered not to attack to avoid injuring the Chandlers. Wave Knight carried 75 merchant seamen, 25 Royal Navy sailors, a helicopter and machine guns, and the decision not to let it intervene was a controversial one the couple later questioned.

The container ship delivered the Chandlers to Somalia, where they were trucked 100 miles into the bush to camps that became their home until their release more than a year later.

The advice to cruisers from officials and the maritime security community is virtually unanimous: Steer clear of the danger zone.

"It's not a place to be these days," Estebe says. "This year has been the hottest we've ever had."

In an Oct. 18 report, the London-based International Maritime Bureau claims Somali pirates were responsible for 44 percent of the world's 289 piracy attacks at sea during the first nine months of the year, and for 35 of the 39 ship hijackings worldwide during that period. Attacks in the Gulf of Aden were way down - from 100 in 2009 to 44 in 2010 - because 28 warships are operating there now. But the pirates attacked 84 ships outside the gulf in waters off Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Madagascar in the west- central and east Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Sea off Oman; off India's west coast; and near the Maldives, according to the maritime bureau. "The attacks have spread," the agency says.

The ISAF estimates that 200 cruising boats transited the Gulf of Aden in the 12 months from October 2009 to October 2010, most of them in convoy. During that time, just two yachts - Lynn Rival and the South African boat Choizil - were seized by pirates.

The sailing federation says the pirates' target of choice is a commercial ship, but sometimes in desperation they will seize a yacht. Choizil, seized Oct. 31, 2010, off Tanzania, was carrying its owner, Peter Eldridge, and two crewmembers, Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz. Eldridge refused to leave the boat after it went aground off Somalia while trying to elude French and Dutch warships. The pirates left him on the boat, but took Pelizzari and Calitz ashore. They remain captives.

Estebe advises cruisers headed from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean to give the Horn of Africa a wide berth. Go around the Cape of Good Hope, he says, and hug the west coast of Africa, although that region - Nigeria, Guinea and Cameroon, especially - has its problems with crime and piracy, too.

"The situation is worsening," he says.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.