Four years ago, Captain Patrick Marchesseau found himself surrounded by a group of Somali pirates pointing assault rifles menacingly at him and the 29 members of his crew aboard the 88m (288 ft) French cruiser M/V Le Ponant. The ship had been en route from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean when two skiffs loaded with pirates pulled up broadside with different plans. It was 4 April 2008, and it would be just over a week before the crew and Marchesseau were released. The owners paid a reported $2.1-million ransom to secure their safe return, along with that of the ship.
The hijacking of Le Ponant became a national obsession for the French. Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy took a hands-on role in resolving the incident, eventually authorizing the French Navy to film the rescue efforts, along with a dramatic military ambush on a small group of suspected pirates. Sarkozy played up the action as a French victory against piracy, though only a fraction of the ransom was recovered and the six Somali men who were arrested in the raid and charged with piracy were certainly not leaders and some of them probably not even pirates.
Throughout the ordeal, Marchesseau played a central role in the negotiations and the successful resolution of the hostage crisis. The crew suffered no casualties. He arrived home a national celebrity and was bombarded by national and foreign media. He was offered a book deal: Prise d’Otages Sur Le Ponant: Le récit du capitaine sold considerably well in the country. And he played himself in a televised reenactment of the hijacking – “Pirates à bord: Au Coeur d’une Prise d’Otages” – for a French news program.
The day after “Pirates à bord” aired, Marchesseau received a job-offer from a Swiss eco-adventurer, Raphaël Domjan, who’d seen the program and thought Marchesseau would be the perfect man to captain his expedition to sail around the world on a boat that used only solar energy. Marchesseau knew nothing of solar energy at the time, but liked the idea of a change.
He ran two more transits through the high-risk area aboard Le Ponant – this time with armed personnel on board – before transferring ships and spending two years aboard M/V Le Diamant, owned by the same company. In September 2010, Marchesseau set out from Monaco with three others on PlanetSolar’s ship, returning in May 2012, having completed their mission.
These days, the soft-spoken Marchesseau spends more time dodging ice than he does pirates, as he runs M/V Le Boreal – again with the same company – on trips near the Polar icecaps. Recently, the captain spoke with OnboardOnline about his experience with Somali pirates, the unexpected fame that came with it, and how his life has changed in the wake of April 2008. He spoke by satellite phone off the coast of Baffin Island in Canada. He had just seen polar bears off the starboard side of the ship.
OnboardOnline: Before the incident in April 2008, what was the most perilous experience you’d had as captain of Le Ponant?
Patrick Marchesseau: “I had the experience of the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 – December 2004. We were on Le Ponant in the Seychelles Islands. It was my first week as captain over there. It was midday. Almost all passengers were on the beach. We were at anchor at this time at 600m (almost 2,000 ft) off the beach and 15m (50 ft) depth, I remember. No – 14m (45 ft) depth. And because we always have a crewmember ashore to advise us; and they called us to advise that there is no more water on the beach for the Zodiac to have access.
“As it was my first week and there is some tide and it was close to the low-tide period, I was not surprised or worried. I said: ‘Okay, okay: It is low tide. We’ll wait half an hour and the sea will come back.’
“In fact, it was already the process of a tsunami going on. The sea goes out quite far. And just two minutes after, we saw the wave coming. On the ship, we didn’t feel anything. It went up and down but we didn’t feel the movement and the wave was not breaking because we were at 14m depth. But as it got to shallow water close to the beach, there was a big wave breaking. And all our passengers had been pushed to the top of the beach – to the bushes, to the trees and etcetera. It took a half an hour – 45 minutes – before we were able to find them all, including the crew. But everybody was safe – of course, there were some scratches, but no major scratches, no broken bones.
“And after, I learned that it was the consequences of the tsunami. But we had no alarms – no one advised us of the tsunami situation. It was five hours after the tsunami in Indonesia.”
OO: Quite the first week on the job.
PM: “Yeah, yeah – yes.”
OO: Looking back now on the attack in April 2008, how do you view the hijacking and its aftermath? What did you learn?
PM: “Of course, it was one of the major experiences of my life. But this is not a bad experience, in the way that I learned a lot about myself and self-control. And how, with good self-control, you can handle such a situation. And I learned a lot of the crewmembers. And it’s a good psychological lesson on the relationship between pirates and hostage. Finally, even without any guns, I learned that I had some power against the pirates.”
OO: When did you realize you had power?
PM: “Within the first 24 hours, because I understood they needed me to move forward the ship and even to engage in some negotiation with the ship-owner. And in a way, also, I needed them to make sure the crew was treated rightly. So there was a kind of deal. And the deal was to try to find where is the limits of each other. I didn’t have any Stockholm Syndrome. But I wanted also for the crew to taken care of, so I tried to be right with them. I tried to maintain a kind of moral deal.”
OO: Were you surprised at how calmly you handled the situation?
PM: “I’m usually a quite calm person. So, the fact is, what was important – what I learned – is to always ask one question at a time and to wait for the best moments to ask the questions I wanted to ask. And to make sure I had a positive answer. And, also, finally, when you are in such kind of a situation, nobody can pretend to say how you will react, or what will be the behavior in such situations. And it was working like this with these pirates, but it might be different with some other pirates.
“Even if you follow training – nothing is by the book. It’s all based on feeling.”
OO: How did the pirates act on board?
PM: “At the beginning, they are very nervous and aggressive in order to put the pressure on the crew – to take control. They scared the crew with their Kalashnikovs. But when the situation is under control, they are calm, not aggressive. But when there is some event which was not planned, they become very aggressive and dangerous and they shoot some green grass, or khat, and so they are not under normal conditions.”
OO: What was the most important decision you made during the hijacking?
PM: “I think it was during the negotiation. Because, of course, they want the ransom and the owner was ready to pay the ransom. But in the meantime, the pirates wanted to get their guarantees that, once they get their ransom, they can reach safely the land. So, I think the most important decision I took is: I dealt with the pirates so that they agreed to release all the crewmembers but me. So, I agreed to stay on board for the guarantee. So, it was a risk. But it was the only way to exit from this kind of situation as soon as possible.”
OO: Given the situation in Somalia, had there been any talk of hiring a security team to accompany the vessel?
PM: “At this time, the pirate activity was a reality but they were not so active in 2008. But afterward, of course after this experience, every time Le Ponant passed by this area, the company – they made sure we could get some special forces supplied by the Navy. Otherwise, they wouldn’t want to take the risk again to sail in this area.”
OO: You met President Sarkozy. What did he say to you? Did you say anything to him?
PM: “It was so quick.” (He laughs.) “Yeah, well, of course, I thanked him, because I learned he was very involved. He was happy to see us, of course. But in this kind of situation, everything was going so fast and I didn’t remember everything.
“I do remember, I went off the plane – as captain first. And after, I introduced all the crew to him, one by one. And I was impatient to see my wife. I didn’t kiss or see her yet. I had to finish my duty with Sarkozy first.”
OO: It was a big deal in France – and around the world. Why do you think it received so much attention?
PM: “Yeah, that’s true. Probably, there was nothing on the news. Nothing else major happened. There was no election, no war. So, it was a headline for a week, this story.”
OO: How did your family react?
PM: “At this time, I had three daughters. The two oldest, at this time, were four and five years old; the youngest was one years old. And my wife didn’t inform them of the situation when I was hostage to make sure they didn’t get scared. It was also Easter vacation and so it didn’t get spoiled at school as well, which was good. And when I came back, my wife came alone to Paris to pick me up. So, we had time to discuss and we agreed I would just say to my daughters that Captain Hook came on the ship with Daddy, and I acted as Peter Pan. So they know a little bit but they didn’t get all the details. The important part was that they don’t get scared when daddy goes back on the ship.”
OO: Do they know the full story now – your daughters?
PM: “The oldest – yeah. They don’t know the whole story, but they know that some pirates came. But it’s okay. And I kept one book for each of them and they will read it when they get older.”
OO: In a way, you returned to France as a celebrity. What was that like for you?
PM: “I was, for sure. This event is well-known by most of our passengers on board. Even now, I still get some questions from the passengers – every cruise, every week. How it was. But I get used to answer those questions. Sometimes I even do some lectures.
“Honestly, I try to stay normal, as I was before. So, of course, at the beginning, there was a lot of demand to participate in some meeting or to do some lecture in a certain place. So, I did those, but now I don’t do them anymore.”
OO: How did you come to write the book?
PM: “In fact, I received a call from a French editor, who offered me the opportunity to write the book. And I had no problem to do that. And then I said: ‘Okay, I have two conditions. If I do this, I want my company to agree. But also my family, because I will speak of them. And if they both agree, I will do it.’ And they both agree, so I did it. It was a good sort of therapy, because I had to force myself to think about all the events and to analyze everything – how we managed in such a situation and all the details. And – yeah. I was surprised. But it was good therapy.”
OO: What conclusions did you come to?
PM: “Of course, I analyzed the situation and the details and what I could do better – yes or no. And I had the opportunity to speak with some commander or admiral of the French Navy that was on-scene, because I was able to give them some information. And I asked if they expected more from myself. And they said they were very happy with what I did – and they didn’t expect so much, in fact. I don’t want to say I am the best. But it seems I managed it quite well.”
OO: A French court recently sentenced four of the six Somalis accused of piracy in connection with the Le Ponant hijacking to serve time in prison. What are your thoughts on the outcome of the trial?
PM: “Honestly, I didn’t expect anything from this trial, except that some pirates have been in court. But I don’t think the final decision of the judgment will influence, at all, the pirate activities in Somalia. Whether they get 10 years or they are released – it is the same.”
OO: How many people were involved in the hijacking?
PM: “We had – when they came on board, they were 12. And when we arrived in Somalia, there was some movement in and out from ship to shore, to do some relief-of-the-guard and bring supplies. And so, on average, there were 20-25 pirates on board – not always the same.”
OO: Do you follow the state of affairs in Somalia more closely now?
PM: “Yeah. I improved my education. I read a lot of books, and every time I see an article, I try to get some information just for my curiosity.”
OO: Do you feel as if life has returned to normal?
PM: “This brings some change, for sure, in our family life. Now, everybody – if I can say so – I am well-known as the captain of the ship which has been hijacked.”
OO: What do you think about that?
PM: “I try to feel normal, honestly. Because, sometimes, it was a bit too pushy. Because people always wanted to speak about that and didn’t care about everything else. It was too much for my wife and so I had to stop. It was a bit too much. To make sure we didn’t speak about only that – to make sure we can have a normal life.”
OO: Did you have to sail back through the high-risk area on the PlanetSolar, solar-powered boat, expedition?
PM: “I did from Abu Dhabi until Djibouti. And so, I sailed through the dangerous area, surrounded by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. And, of course, because of my previous experience, there was no way for me to pass through this area without any escort – armed escort. And we had some private company to protect the ship.”
OO: What do you think of your current position as captain of Le Boreal?
PM: “This one is only going to the south and the north. We go to Antarctica and the Arctic. We don’t go anymore near Somalia. So, I deal with icebergs and ice. I don’t deal anymore with pirates.
“I told you, I also like to change itinerary. And I’m very happy now to be on this ship where we deal with challenging navigation in Antarctica and Arctic. And I see some different wildlife everyday. We just saw a polar bear. And we saw some walrus this morning.”