Yachtie tells of hostage ordeal

2010-11-16 00:00

THE Zululand yachtsman who spent almost two weeks held captive by Somali pirates before escaping related the harrowing tale of his ordeal at a press conference yesterday.

He was hijacked just 100 nautical miles off the border of Mozambique and Tanzania.

Speaking at the Zululand Yacht Club, Richards Bay resident Peter Eldridge (61), who had been living in Dar es Salaam, said he was on his way to South Africa to undertake repairs on his 11-metre yacht, SY Choizil, when he and fellow crew members Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz were taken hostage on October 26. Pelizzari and Calitz are still being held hostage in Somalia.

Said Eldridge, “We were aware of the piracy-related issues being faced by yachties and had already decided that we would, if caught, co-operate fully. We left on October 7 from Dar es Salaam. When we saw the two pirate skiffs coming towards us at noon, I managed to get one mayday call out.

“Shortly after they boarded, they checked if we had any satellite communication, disconnected the radio, and turned off all our navigation devices. We were held in the cockpit while they ransacked the yacht. They were armed with mainly AK47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and they had a lot of rockets,” said Eldridge.

Once the pirates had commandeered the boat they sailed north. He said a “mothership”, not bigger than his yacht but a “work boat”, arrived and with it there were several gallons of fuel, more weapons and more men.

“At first it was understood they would leave the next day, although communication was poor. Only once the mothership arrived a man got on who could speak Swahili and we began to communicate. They returned Debbie and Bruno’s SIM cards and the VHF radio, although it was still unplugged. We were then told to sail towards Mombasa,” he said.

Eldridge said that by this stage the days were lost as he was not allowed to keep a log.

“After several days we were 80 nautical miles east of the Kenya-Somalia border. We neared the shore and what must have been a local boss came on to the yacht with an interpreter who told us we would not be protected by any human rights.

“The boss man said we are white and therefore British. They took our South African passports and then returned them. We were also told the yacht would be used in future raids and become a mothership. I had already made a conscious decision to scuttle SY Choizil if it was used as a mothership,” said Eldridge.

He said that by this stage the yacht was under surveillance by European Union naval forces, although at that point he was unaware of it.

“At some point we left the shoreline. We were told it was because Al-Qaeda was nearby. It obviously worried them as they put the yacht on full-throttle to get away, eventually burning the motor out.

“We sailed for a bit and got close to shore again where we dropped anchor. I knew we would eventually be grounded. Then an EU supply ship and warship were spotted. Bruno and Debbie were in one section of the boat and I at another. A helicopter flew above and there was gunfire and rockets were fired. I was told to connect the radio and tell the navy to leave.

“While on the radio I took the opportunity to give them information on what was on-board the yacht before it was turned off again.

“We were pulled on deck to act as human shields. It was night and the pirates started to get off the boat taking Debbie and Bruno, but I said I would stay with the boat. I got back on the radio when a pirate came into the cabin, broke the microphone on the radio, beat me, discharged a bullet and then left. I then found a hand-held radio, got it working and made contact again.

“The Navy Seals eventually got to the yacht and two helicopters were searching for the pirates,” said Eldridge.

He said the pirates had “respected” Debbie’s dignity, the only woman on board, by giving her privacy when she bathed. “These pirates are common criminals from fishermen backgrounds. It would seem, however, that they are getting more brazen by the day and are operating in Kenyan and Tanzanian waters,” he said.

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