The Greek captain of an oil tanker, which came under attack by suspected hijackers, locked himself in the bridge and maintained control of the vessel off the coast of the Isle of Wight for ten hours during the tense standoff.
As seven stowaways ran amok on the 228-metre Nave Andromeda, allegedly threatening to kill the crew and overthrow the ship, the captain called authorities on an open radio channel pleading for immediate assistance, and kept the ship steady, allowing elite commandos could rappel down from helicopters and capture the suspects.
The audio of his mayday call (see video below) has now been released, where he said he was trying to “keep them calm” but some of the intruders had climbed up five flights of stairs and were outside the ship's bridge.
In heavily accented English, he said "... the stowaways go outside, I see four person port side, midship, near to the manifold, and I have two of them starboard side on the bridge, but cannot coming inside.
"I try to keep them calm but I need immediately, immediately agency assistance."
Into the 'citadel'
The captain ordered the rest of his crew – made up of Greek officers and Filipino support workers – to a safe ‘citadel’ on board. The chief engineer, who is also from Greece, maintained his station in the engine room during the dramatic mission.
When darkness fell, the captain switched off the lights and turned the tanker onto a westerly course, into the wind, to make it easier for the Wildcat and Merlin Mk 4 helicopters to hover.
It is understood that the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Service team split in two and enacted a ‘pincer’ movement on the boat to trap the stowaways.
They used dazzling lights to disorientate the men, who gave up their fight almost immediately. Reports claim they had sharpened objects or even knives. The operation lasted just nine minutes (see video below).
The captain was lauded for his “exemplary response and calmness” in a “difficult” situation by the ship’s owners, Navios Tanker Management.
The stowaways have been arrested on suspicion of "seizing or exercising control of a ship by use of threats or force” and could face life sentences if charged and found guilty.
Seeking political asylum
However, there are fears that the suspected hijackers could seek political asylum in the UK now that they have made it to shore.
Tony Smith, former director general of the Border Force, said he would be “very surprised” if the group did not claim asylum, but said law enforcement authorities needed to take a tough stance to deter others from taking similar action.
“We have got to get the message out that stowing away is not going to work and you will find yourself in prison,” he said.
The men are currently being held at police stations across Hampshire.
The mission came just two weeks after more suspected Nigerian stowaways were found on an oil tanker coming out of Lagos.
A remarkable picture (see below) shows three men sat on the rudder of the Norwegian tanker “Champion Pula” having spent ten days hiding just metres above the ship’s propellers.
The ship was reportedly denied entry to the Canaries by Spanish authorities and after a two day stand off, it set course for Herøya, Norway, Bergens Tidende reported.
“A Spanish boat put the headlights on the rudder, then we saw the men sitting there,” said Karl L. Kvalheim, CEO of Champion Tankers.
They were brought on board and eventually arrested on October 17 by Norwegian authorities.
“We will probably check our ships more thoroughly before they leave Nigeria from now on,” Mr Kvalheim added.
Human Rights Act
The men suspected of sparking trouble on the Nave Andromeda could face a long legal battle to stay in the UK, but their deportation is not guaranteed.
David Wood, director general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office until 2015, warned that even if the men were jailed for more than three years, they could still fight deportation under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act.
“If you get a substantial term in prison, the human rights act allows for asylum status to be removed but it doesn’t overcome Article 3,” said Mr Wood.
The other problem would be securing the consent of Nigeria to take the stowaways back once they had served any prison sentence, notwithstanding any Article 3 claim, added Mr Wood.
“At the end of the day, they don’t say we are not taking these people back. They prevaricate,” he said. “They say, 'We are not satisfied that this person is Nigerian’ and don’t engage in any debate about it.”
It comes as ministers attempt to counter a surge of migrants crossing the channel (see video below of migrants arriving on Kent beach in September) which have hit 7,500 already this year, almost four times the 1,900 in the whole of 2019.
A number of deportation flights have been grounded by last minute appeals on human rights grounds.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is understood to be looking to curtail the use of Article 3, which has been exploited by murderers, rapists and other serious criminals.
Strict limits will be placed on the types of asylum appeals which can rely on Article 3 as part of Ms Patel’s plans to fix what she claims is a “broken” asylum system.
Two years ago, four migrants from Nigeria and Libya sparked trouble on a container ship during a 14-hour stand-off in the Thames Estuary in December 2018, waving metal poles and lobbing faeces, before claiming asylum in the UK.
The group’s immigration status is due to be “reviewed” by the Border Force upon completion of their jail sentences.