Not long after I left school, I got myself a job on the live export ships. My older brother Ben had been working on the ships for a year or so when I was in year 12. He would come back from taking a load of cattle to The Middle East, cashed up, unshaven and well traveled. I saw this and thought to myself, fuck yes, super keen for this adventure…
So not long after leaving school, after pestering the dude that was soon to be my boss for the next two years, I finally got the call to say that I had a ship called the ‘Bardar lll’ waiting for me in Fremantle, WA port in two weeks time…..
After a couple of years of working the ships, I found myself heading to Russia on a ship called the Nada, at the time it was the largest live export ship at the time. This bloody huge ass ship could hold up to 22,000 head of cattle. To put that in perspective, I worked on a cattle station that was 1.3 MILLION ACRES (that’s a shit load of acres), and it could hold a total of (roughly) 8000 cattle on it at a time, so 22,000 head of cattle on one boat was huge. Luckily, the company I was working for at the time only loaded 18,000 head onto the ship, so there was more than enough room which made our job relatively easy for the 30-something day trip to Mother Russia.
On board the ship there was a total of 9 Australian stockmen that were in charge of the welfare of the animals on board. Along with 80-odd Pakistani and Indonesian crew. Our voyage would see us travel across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal, straight through the Mediterranean Sea, up the Bosphorus Strait, into the Black Sea and arrive at our destination in Novorossiysk, Russia.
Now, one thing that I have to mention about the shipping industry, well, the live export industry, and by live export industry, I mean, ONLY the ships I seemed to travel on. There was no contact with the outside world, no wifi, no reception, no nothin…. There was a Sat phone in the bridge of the ship which could be used, but it was super expensive, and when you did use it you had a bridge full of officers that could hear every word. Sometimes (all the time), it felt like a big floating prison. I’d like to say that I got used to it over time, but that would be a lie. It was tough, the movies that were on your hard drive were all watched about halfway through the trip. I’ll hopefully post a video of my vlog I did on one of the trips (if I can find it). Nonetheless, most the times, when you weren’t working, it was boring as batshit. Until of course you crossed the Equator that is, that big red line that travels around the circumference of the earth. As soon as you cross that bad boy, you’re in pirate territory.
From the Equator, the closer you got to the shores of Somalia, Kenya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the more risk we would be in of being attacked by pirates. You see to get to the red sea, you have to go in between the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. The Gulf of Aden is a particular hotspot for pirate attacks. I had been through this area many times before, although never had I seen pirates.
On one of the ships I traveled on frequently called the MV Maysora (coincidently the captain of that ship was called Captain Phillips, just like the movie), on one of its trips back from the middle east, it had an RPG fired at it and an orange life raft got blown to smithereens. It also had bullet holes up one side of the ship where a pirate unloaded a mag from an AK-47. I wasn’t on the ship when it happened, but I would always look at the holes in the side of the ship as a reminder.
All ships have an old-school live feed being printed off on the bridge of all known pirate attacks that were currently happening around the world. And this thing was a constant report, it was actually amazing standing there watching this thing print out report after report of pirate attacks. So I had my fair share of first-hand stories and seen the battle scars to be convinced that these pirates were out there.
Some captains of the ships would black out every window and door on the ship, so at night time we weren’t a big floating beacon. Other captains picked up 3 or 4 security guards in the Maldives on the way past, who brought on their own guns and body armor. Or, some captains, decided to take action into their own hands (See picture below).
But mostly all ships put barbed wire up around the sides of the ship as well as setting up super high-pressure fire hoses, the idea being, when pirates started attacking with their AK-47s and RPGs, we would get out our water guns and try to hose them off the ship…. lol.
Luckily for this trip though, we stopped in at the Maldives and picked up three Sri Lankan armed guards. Who, for the next 10 days would be on full time, 24/7 pirate watch. With the help of a few Pakistani crew, eyes and ears would constantly be looking out to the ocean.
Naturally, I had a million questions for these security guards. They all had old school SLR rifles, chest rigs/plate carriers, tac helmets, and all this gear was stored on the bridge 24/7 locked away in case of an attack.
Nearly every smoko and lunch, I would be on the bridge on voluntary watch, checking the sonar radar and the oceans for skiffs. You see pirates operated with a mothership that would get them from A to B, that’s where they would sleep, eat and drink. But they would attack other ships on these smaller boats called Skiffs. Essentially, a small motorized speedboat that looked very similar to the fishing boats used by local fisherman.
One day during a lunch break, I was up on the bridge keeping watch with the other crew, when one of the deckhands pointed out to the ocean, he spotted a skiff that was so far away it looked like a spot in amongst the white caps. It was on our starboard (right) side of the ship and traveling in a direction that could have been interpreted as if they were trying to cut us off. The security guard got called over, he grabbed a set of binoculars and had a look casually, it was common to see fisherman out on their boats. I moved over to the radar and could see the faint blotch on the sonar. After a while of speculation, the security guard called via radio the head of the security team who was currently off duty. Not long later the two off-duty security guards were on the bridge with binoculars in hand.
By this stage, I was getting a little excited, we were facing a potential pirate attack and I was going to be there to witness it all. For a better word, I was super pumped, just the thought of a pirate attack excited the shit out of me. After a short time, that one skiff off to our right that we saw in the far off distance, soon turned into 4 skiffs traveling together. Still in a direction that looked as if they were trying to cut us off.
When the head of security realized that there was then 4 skiffs, the captain was called upon the bridge. Noooooow I was on edge, I could clearly see the 4 boats on the sonar, slowly but surely bleeping their way closer towards the direction we were traveling. When the captain reached the bridge the 1st mate informed him what was happening. The Captain ordered the ship to be adjusted 5 degrees to the port side. The first mate turned the ridiculously small helm (steering wheel) to redirect the course. On the radar I watched our line of direction change slightly to the left, then as if orchestrated, the four small blimps on the radar corrected their course and I watch their skiffs double in speed.
My heart started thumping, the bridge exploded into action, it went from all the ship officers curiously watching, to full blown all hands on deck. Officers jumped on phones and two ways, lights and sirens erupted from the walls. All that was needed, was a small change of speed and direction from these skiffs, to go from a ‘could be fisherman’, to holy fuck, ‘we are being attacked by mother fucking pirates’.
The security guards cracked open the box and started throwing each other guns, mags, tac vests, and gear, getting suited up, the captain was bellowing orders to the officers as they jumped on radios and PA systems. Those skiffs were now fully visible, I could see the troop of men in each skiff as they motored towards us. My heart was in my throat, I was fully ready, mentally and physically, to grab one of those rifles and go to town on these pirates to protect myself and the ship. When they got close, the security guards were on the side of the bridge holding their rifles up in the air to show the pirates they were fighting an armed and ready ship. I was being told to go down to my room by one of the officers, I wasn’t going anywhere…
Once the skiffs got close they realized what exactly they were coming up against, an armed and ready ship full of pissed of Pakistanis, and I realized they were literally sitting ducks on the water. Their little skiffs were jumping around on the top of the water, the MV Nada was like a rock in the water slowly rolling from right to left. Nearly a perfectly stable platform to take aim from one of those SLR rifles. Not only that, but I wouldn’t want to be boarding a ship with a shit load of pissed off Pakistanis with fire hoses in hand.
After not long at all the skiffs turned around and motored off in a different direction. Not a single shot was fired.
Slightly disappointed but severely satisfied, it was back down to the decks to finish up for the rest of the day with my moo cows…