Crewman on ship held by pirates tells of ordeal


Though Jamille Sabga has been exposed to high seas and rough weather in his almost 50 years as a mariner, nothing could have prepared him for the terrifying ordeal that he and 20 of his crew mates endured earlier this month when four Somali pirates attacked the MV Maersk Alabama in the treacherous Gulf of Aden.

The pirates seized the container vessel that was en route to Mombasa, Kenya on April 8, holding it for several hours before the USS Bainbridge, which was dispatched to the scene, managed to clear a path for the American-registered ship to continue the journey – with the aid of an armed escort.

The pirates held the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, for five days in the Maersk’s life boat in the Indian Ocean before American Navy snipers shot and killed three of his abductors. Phillips had offered up himself as a hostage in place of his crew.

Trinidad-born Sabga, who has lived in York region with his wife, Darlene, for the past 27 years, recounted the harrowing experience after arriving back in Canada last Sunday. The crew was flown on a chartered jet from Mombasa to Washington D.C. last week where they were re-united with family members who joined them in the U.S. capital.

“On the day before the pirates attempted to take control of our vessel, our lookout noticed a mother boat and a few smaller craft following us,” said Sabga, who began working on the five-day route between Salalah in Oman and Mombasa on November 24. “They disappeared, but they came back the next morning around 7 a.m.

“I had just awakened and was preparing to have breakfast before starting my shift at 8 a.m. when our ship’s emergency general alarm sounded and it was announced that pirates were on board. I and the rest of the crew immediately set out to take up our designated stations on the ship in an emergency situation, but after the pirates fired shots into the air, the captain ordered the crew to lock themselves in a safe hiding place in the engine room.

“A Guyanese able bodied seaman, who was held on the ship’s bridge, acceded to (a demand from) one of the pirates to take him to our hideout. As he got close and, at a signal, we flung the door open and overpowered the pirate.”

The crew tied up the teenager and held him for several hours before releasing him on condition that all four pirates would leave the ship. The youth, who was injured in a scuffle while he was temporarily held captive, appeared in a federal court in New York this week. He is the first person to face piracy charges in the United States in over a century.

“He spoke very little English and he was very small and frail,” Sabga remembers. “I felt that if I blew too hard on him, he would have fallen to the ground…We, however, had more to contend with than just him while we were hiding. Though the area we were in was a bit big, it was dark and extremely hot with temperatures reaching almost 120 degrees F. We were there for nearly nine hours without any food or water and it reached a point where some of us could not take it anymore.”

It was not until they received clearance to come out of hiding did Sabga and his mates find out that the captain had offered himself as a hostage to the pirates in order to save his crew.

Sabga said he was aware that pirate attacks had increased in the Gulf of Aden – commonly referred to as Pirate Alley – in the past few months and of the danger vessels faced going through that stretch of water when he signed on to the route.

“We did safety and emergency drills in the event that something like this happened,” he said. “Yet, we still had to deal with a very tough and frightening situation.”

Sabga suggested that in order to curb piracy, major nations would have to come up with a plan to have their navies police the waters in the Gulf of Aden “so that ships can get through there safely”.

“It has to be a co-ordinated effort and this is not something that should be left to the U.S. because they can’t do it alone. I see this as the only solution to the problem. Putting armed guards on vessels will be much too costly.”

Born in San Fernando and raised in Port-of-Spain, Sabga developed a passion for the sea at a young age. He began his nautical profession in Trinidad in 1962 on a passenger liner that sailed the Caribbean Sea and later on a Norwegian-registered vessel plying the Mediterranean before migrating to Brooklyn in 1973 where he joined the Seafarers International Union (SIU), the largest North American union representing merchant mariners. He was one of 12 crew members on board the Maersk Alabama who are members of the SIU.

The veteran sailor spent almost a decade in the United States before he met his Canadian-born wife who is a nurse’s aide. They got married in 1982 and lived in Richmond Hill for a few years before moving to their current home in Aurora.

Sabga had planned to retire this summer before the nightmare in the Gulf of Aden, having already accumulated the required days at sea to be eligible for a full pension. He, however, says he would like to make at least two more short trips if he’s called back to work.

“My wife, naturally, does not want me to go back, but she has never interfered with my work in all the time that we have been married,” he said. “The most frightening thing for me right now is that I don’t know what I am going to do when I retire because I have spent so much of my life at sea. That’s going to be very difficult for me when that time comes.

“My line of work has been very fulfilling as it has offered me an opportunity to see many countries in the world and meet some very interesting people from different cultures. That’s something I will cherish.

Sabga plans to return to Trinidad later this year for the first time in nearly five years to spend time with relatives.

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