Kidnapped yachtie returns to Somaliland to claim his yacht

Kidnapped yachtie returns to Somaliland to claim his yacht
Mon 4 May 2009
'Jurgen and Sabine' .
What would you be prepared to do to go sailing? Many people give up their jobs, their families, their homes. But the most extraordinary story of all must be that of one German sailor who has braved a return to Somalia, where he had been kept a prisoner for 52 days by pirates, to mend and retrieve his boat.
On June 23 2008, Jurgen and his partner Sabine Merz were kidnapped by Somali pirates and held captive with a 2 million dollar ransom on their heads. The German government negotiated with a tribal elder for their release, but the pair were held in a rugged hideout in the mountains pending the outcome.
We caught up with Jurgen Kantner just before he made the decision to return into the very jaws of the pirate gangs who had cost him his freedom before the German government stepped in and paid his ransom.
'We slept in the bush, we had little water and sometimes we had no food for three days,' said Mr Kantner. 'I´ve lived 33 years on a boat, and it was the worst experience of my life.'
The couple were subjected to mock executions. The pirates tied a rope around Mr. Kantner´s neck and threatened to hang him. Once they fired a gun, barely missing his head. At one point, he was separated from his wife when he heard a gunshot. The pirates told him that she had just been killed.
The couple was finally released after a $600,000 ransom was paid. Mr. Kantner said it was not clear if the German government or a private party paid the ransom.
Apart from the gruesome experience, the loss of his boat was a disaster for the couple, and we found Mr Kantner and his partner ready to talk.
“The 'Rockall' is not just a yacht.” he said. “Everything we owned was in it. Everything. We wanted to start a new life in Thailand. We had sold the house and the car, our bank account was gone and all the money invested in the yacht or in cash, which we carried with us.”
“You were leaving Germany for good?”
“Yes. At 28 years of age I bought my first boat, and I have lived now for 33 years mostly on the water. With my first wife I sailed the world's oceans, and my son and daughter virtually grew up on our sailing boats.
“And you, Ms. Merz, you were looking for a great adventure too?”
“No, not at all. I was ready to try sailing such a long distance, but not sure. Then when, after 23 years, I lost my job as an electronic assistant, I decided to see if I liked the life style. If not, I was intending to return to Germany.”
“ It was her first trip.”
“You had never been at sea?”
“No. It was bad. I was often seasick. . J├╝rgen had to do everything alone.”
“Actually,” confessed Jurgen, “this journey seemed to be under a bad star from the beginning. Our steering gear was damaged in a very heavy storm near Crete, there were earthquakes off the coast of Greece, and we had mechanical problems during our Suez Canal transit.”
“ Is there money from the insurance company?”
“The boat was not insured. So I have no idea what to do next.”
“Can you perhaps find a job?”
“At 61? No, there is only one solution: I think I must get my boat working again. I have nothing else. It is my home - everything is there, not only money and equipment, bu also log books, photographs, all our private property.
“How will you achieve that?”
“As I now hear, the yacht is in Berbera in Somalia's north coast. The mast is intact, and the sails are there. If I go there, I can repair it. I feel I may still be bait for the pirates, but I think if I electrify the rails with 220 volts, I could probably be safe enough to repair the boat and sail away.”
What has allowed the gutsy sailor to return is the emergence of an informal breakaway country of Somaliland, which is a functioning government and is attempting to be part of the solution in ridding the area of piracy.
They even have a small coastguard consisting of just three small patroll boats. It is a big task, an impossible task, for them to patrol the 860kilometre coastline, but they are trying.
'The local community is very aware and they alert us when they suspect pirates are operating in the area,' said Admiral Osman Jibril Hagar, the head of the Somaliland coastguard. 'In Somaliland, the people don´t like piracy. They say it is an evil business.'
In the past two years, the coastguard has arrested about 50 pirates in Somaliland, according to Mr Hagar.
Now Kantner has returned successfully to Somaliland, travelled to Berbera, and spends his days rebuilding his yacht, on the other side of the pier from the Somaliland coastguard base, seemingly safe from pirate attack. He has, however, little belief in the effectiveness of the coastguards. 'They put on a Mickey Mouse show,' he said, dismissing them with a wave of the hand. 'They will never catch a thing.'
The admiral of the coastguard, Osman Jibril Hagar, admits his men stand little chance against the pirates. 'We are struggling,' he said. 'The pirates have bigger boats.'
Once his boat is seaworthy again, Mr. Kantner plans to continue his voyage to Asia, even though it means braving the pirate-infested waters a second time.
'Next time I will buy a gun,' he says. 'It is the only way. I will be ready. If they attack, I will fight back.'
by Nancy Knudsen

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