Somalia is not exactly what you would consider to be a place of rebirth. Over the past 20 years, the primary reason Somalia has made international headlines has been because of death – either death by starvation, internal conflict, or instability.
And so it may seem odd that Steve Wright is so drawn to the place. Certainly, he talks about Somalia with a sense of awe, as if the place holds some kind of mystic power. The last time he laid eyes on the desolate coastline, he was on S/Y Georgia, 48m (159 ft), working as the chief engineer. The boat was four miles off Mogadishu, at the height of the piracy scares.
“I wanted to go in and go ashore and have a look at things. I wanted to see how it’s changed,” he says. And then he quickly adds, “But I’ll tell you what: it was hairy. All the ships around us were getting attacked.”
When he was in Somalia in 1993, the situation was even worse. A United Nations-backed coalition led by the United States was aimed at stabilizing the warring country, starting with Mogadishu. The American mission was called “Operation Restore Hope,” only it didn’t succeed in restoring anything – certainly not hope. It was a complete failure, resulting in significant casualties, the international community’s eventual disengagement with the country and inspired the movie “Black Hawk Down,” which depicted the harrowing Battle of Mogadishu.
This was how Wright first came to know Somalia: as a reservist with the Royal Australian Navy (R.A.N.), which was working in a support capacity at the port, providing security for food distribution programs. His detail placed him on routine patrols of the port perimeter and into Mogadishu proper. The city was full of armed militias, some of their members barely teenagers. “I remember I picked up a handful of dirt and I must have picked up like 10 crushed ammunition casings,” he says. “Everything was blown up.”
But as Wright stood on board the large sailing yacht, looking off in the direction of the heavily damaged city, he remembered it for the way it changed him – changed the direction his life was headed. He would never have ended up on yachts without that experience. In fact, he’s still a little surprised by that turn of events. He doubted the city had been so blessed by the changes it had seen since they last parted ways.
“It was the first time I felt really alive and like I was doing something worthy of my life,” he says. “And that’s still the way I feel today.”
Still, it would take Wright years to conquer the demons he faced in Somalia and find a new path for himself – a path that eventually led him to yachting.
Wright was born in the Australian capital of Canberra, his childhood split between Victoria and Queensland. It was a time when technical schools were still an integral part of the education system in Australia, and a time when the Sunshine Coast was still largely rural and undeveloped.
He had a troubled family life. His parents felt overwhelmed by the burdens of parenthood and sent Wright and his brother off to live with their grandmother, Rixi, and special needs aunt Sandra, in a caravan park in Queensland.
By age 16, he was out on his own, living with a school friend in Brisbane. He got a job flipping burgers at Hungry Jack’s (Australia’s equivalent of Burger King), where his best promotion was getting to man the fries, he says. The rest of the time, they drank and had girls over – “played the man’s game,” as he describes it.
A flicker of disbelief flashes across Wright’s face as he talks about this. He’s seated at La Malouna on Avenue du 11 Novembre in Antibes. His head is shaved, as if he were still military, but he has the easy-going demeanour of his homeland. He now lives close to a block away – not far from a place called Outback, the Australian Bar – in an apartment overlooking Port Vauban.
“I look back on it now and see some 16-year-olds and I think – no way,” he says, laughing. “But I did. I don’t think I was too much of a troubled kid, but if anything I needed some compassion.”
However, the next place he looked wasn’t exactly loaded with compassion.
Wright figures he was always Navy-bound. “My father was ex-Navy, and my uncles were all Navy,” he says. “So that gives you an idea.” So, he too joined the R.A.N. in 1986. But within a year he was discharged for a safety violation. He’d fired his rifle downrange without authorization during his gunnery training. “So I went back to Brisbane at the age of 17, having been discharged.”
Wright’s father was not happy. And Wright wasn’t going to stick around and listen to it. So he lived with relatives in Canberra before moving to Sydney in 1988, where he found work as a theatre assistant at a hospital. Eventually, in 1989, he decided to reenlist in the R.A.N. as a reservist quartermaster gunner. “The Navy was very hesitant to take me on again,” he says. However, after completing his training and some operational postings, he’d earned his stripes. This is how he ended up in Somalia.
It was in this role that Wright went to Mogadishu in April 1993. Somalia was in the middle of a civil war in the early 1990s, a power vacuum in which several warring clans clashed repeatedly. The war resulted in widespread famine, killing an estimated 300,000 people. The U.N. Security Council voted to authorize a peacekeeping mission in 1992, with a focus on humanitarian food programs.
Wright’s unit was one of several Australian naval defence teams. Their mission was to help secure Mogadishu Port and to provide security support to 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, and to the food distribution programs.
“When we got there, the first thing that we saw was a ship called the Felix, which had been RPG’d and 50-cal strafed. It was toasted,” he says. “The skipper ran it on the rocks. And so you arrive to Mogadishu Port for the first time, you see this ship, and we all looked at each other like, ‘Oh, wow, this is real.’”
Their patrols took them into Mogadishu proper – or Mog-city as it became known among troops. They would walk the streets with 100 rounds, an SLR rifle and H-pack webbing, no body armour. They began mixing with the locals regularly. He could see the tension building up to a breaking point. The Americans and Pakistanis made enemies of the local Somalis, but not the Australians, Wright says.
Wright spent his 23rd birthday on patrol in the dusty streets. At one point, he thought he felt someone shove him in the back. Only there was no one behind him. “And I turned around and saw this huge mushroom cloud go up a couple blocks away,” he says. “And only then did I hear the bang.” An explosion had ripped through a building.
But what really stuck with him were the images of everyday Somalis – people just trying to survive. “We’d go out on patrols and I’d have fruit and little cereals in my H-pack. And the little kids, I’d five a banana or something, and they’d be amazed – like it was magic,” he says. “But I had to stand there and make sure they ate it right there and then, because otherwise the big kids would come and just beat them for it.”
These were the things that stayed with Wright. The images haunted him – the faces of the people he tried to help, who were left to their fate when the mission failed in the wake of the Blackhawk Down indecent in October 1993.
His ship sailed shortly before that happened, but the story is well known. Pakistani and American troops were attacked, casualties were suffered. The U.N. withdrew its mission in March 1994 and Somalia was left in ruin.
What had happened to all those people? he thought. “I still feel I have a debt to pay,” he says. “And it really breaks me up.”
Only recently has Somalia shown signs of a semi-functional government.
From Guns to Engines
“When I got back, I enlisted in full-time service – only not as a marine, but in engineering,” Wright says. His experiences in Somalia pushed him into engineering.
He spent the next six years in training and specializing in diving and demolitions and working on the various ships, like HMAS Swan, a destroyer. “I tell you what, man,” Wright says, “as an engineer on a steam destroyer – you’ll never work that hard in your life. Even in hell you don’t work as hard as that.”
That was followed by some time on the HMAS Adelaide, a frigate. It was a transition from steam turbine to marine gas turbines – “so steam engines to jet engines,” Wright says. “It was like night and day. It was huge. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they had ice cream for lunch!”
Wright was quite happy with the work at the time. He travelled extensively, had plenty of money. At least it kept him busy, allowed him to postpone processing the leftover baggage from Somalia. So, when his service ended somewhat abruptly in late 1999, he found himself with tons of cash to burn and time to kill.
Wright bought a one-way, around-the-world plane ticket and never made it west of London. Which, when you consider that London was also his first stop, you quickly understand that something went wrong. “I spent £10,000 in a month,” he says. “I went mad.”
He found himself stuck, in need of a job, and without a working visa. And he wasn’t in a good place mentally. “I was going mad and I had a big fight with my brother and my head was f***ed up,” he says. “And so I answered an advert for jobs in Greece, a working holiday kind of thing.”
Wright was living in a group house for Aussies and Kiwis and didn’t have anything resembling a suit. But he found one under the stairs. “It was like a silver mafia suit and several sizes too big,” he says, laughing. “So, I look like the Don.”
He took the train down to Portsmouth for the interview and arrived to find everyone else in shorts and t-shirts, “like they just walked out of the pub.” And then the interviewer was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. “And she goes, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the job,’” he says, still obviously in disbelief. “She didn’t even ask me any questions.”
About a week later, he was on a plane headed for Greece. He worked for Sunsail for six months as an engineer for a flotilla. After that ended, he didn’t want to leave Greece. So he stayed and worked freelance for two years. “I tell you, I really found myself again in Greece. It brought me back to zero again,” he says. “It saved my soul. I sort of hit bottom and came back up.”
A New Beginning
Wright returned to England in 2002. He got a job as a construction projects manager in Kent. In his free time, Steve worked as the project director of Monica’s Art Dive (MAD), a disabilities project aimed at raising awareness for the disabled and for art.
In 2003, Steve went scuba diving in a shark tank at the London Aquarium with Monica McGhie, an artist from Western Australia with total amelia syndrome, a birth defect which caused her to be born without any of her limbs. It affects fewer than one in 500 million people.
For his work, he received correspondence from H.R.H. the Queen’s private secretary and received the community service medal.
In 2006, he visited Antibes for a weekend. “And I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “So I went back to London. I packed up everything. I went to work on a Monday. I gave my notice to be effective immediately.”
He packed everything he could into a van and drove down to Antibes. “I didn’t have a job. I had a bit of money behind me, so I could float myself for a while,” he says. “But I didn’t actually think for a minute that I’d be doing anything in yachting.”
He stayed in Le Collier, an expensive hotel, for over a month, enjoying himself and soaking it up along the coast. He soon realized these things don’t last, so he did odd jobs working as a labourer on villas around the area. But after a while, that wasn’t cutting it, either.
“I was working on the black, and I wasn’t making a lot of money,” he says. “So I got to talking with some yachties, got my docs to the MCA, got my NOE and my naval ticket and all that stuff.”
Soon enough, Wright was back in the engine room, the difference being that now he was working on megayachts. He worked mostly temporary jobs for a while on a number of boats. He enjoyed the work and was feeling good about life again.
In January of 2008, Wright met Felicity Vaughan during a day at the Plage de La Gravette in Antibes. Wright was there with friends; Vaughan in the company of her daughter, Rebecca, now 15, and a number of other families.
Vaughan noticed the other English-speaking group – “just generally being Aussies on the beach in the middle of January,” she says. Eventually the groups combined and Wright asked Vaughan how she’d ended up in Antibes.
To his surprise, Vaughan’s story turned out to be nearly as circuitous as his own. She’d been born in Nigeria, grew up in Scotland, lived in Paris and Rome. They’d been living in Antibes for about six months before she met Steve.
Soon enough, they were spending time together whenever he was in town. When Wright had a long break between jobs, the relationship became much more serious. By the end of spring, Wright had picked up a job that took him away for the whole summer. “And then I realized what it meant to be with someone in the yachting industry,” she says.
Ever since he picked up the job four years ago on M/Y Hayken, 44m (144 ft), things have been much more predictable, Vaughan says. “It’s a pattern we just get used to.”
Not long after Wright and Vaughan began their life together, he got a temporary job that took him through the Gulf of Aden and back toward Somalia on S/Y Georgia. Their boat had guards, but they were only armed with potatoes, as Wright puts it. “Around two in the morning, all the ships around us were getting attacked,” he says. “But going through there and listening to the radio and hearing all the distress calls – I tell you, I didn’t sleep. None of us did.”
At one point, a skiff crossed their bow at what seemed like 50 knots. “Our radar didn’t even pick them up,” he says. “I saw that and just thought we didn’t have a chance.” Wright believes that the only reason they weren’t attacked was because they were followed by a U.S. Naval cruiser.
As he stared off toward the coast, Wright marvelled at the changes the years had wrought, the circumstances that brought him back, and the family that waited for him back home.
If there’s one thing Wright has taken from his journey, it’s that he has been happiest when working on behalf of others. That’s what brought him back. “Use your skills and wisdom to better the world,” he says. “It takes all of us, every day. Do something that makes you happy and also benefits someone else – no matter how small.”
Photos courtesy of Steve Wright.