RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – It was a sunny November morning with a calm sea. Saudi sailor Hussein al-Hamza was napping after his night shift on the brand new supertanker Sirius Star, loaded with two million barrels of oil as it crossed the Indian Ocean.
But the sound of the alarm shook al-Hamza awake, and he rushed to join his fellow sailors on the deck.
"I looked down and saw eight Somali pirates in two boats, each about 18-feet-long," al-Hamza told The Associated Press in a brief phone interview late Monday, a couple of hours after his return to Saudi Arabia following the pirates' release of the ship on Jan. 9.
"They looked scary," added al-Hamza.
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That was the beginning of an 8-week ordeal for the crew of the Sirius Star, which was seized by Somali pirates on Nov. 15 in an escalation of the wave of piracy off the turmoil-plagued nation's coast. Until that November morning, the pirates had never seized a ship as huge as the Sirius Star — at 1,080 feet, it is the length of an aircraft carrier — or one so far out to sea.
The seizure of the massive tanker, 500 miles away from the shore, was simple. Al-Hamza said no one attempted to challenge the bandits, who scaled about 30 feet from the water to reach the deck.
"They had rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. The ship was loaded with oil," he said. "Imagine the catastrophe had weapons been fired."
The pirates took the Saudi-owned vessel to a Somali port known as a pirates' den and held it there during ransom negotiations. They released it reportedly after receiving $3 million, dropped by parachute.
Al-Hamza, the only Saudi among the mostly Filipino crew, said eight pirates captured the tanker, but during the long captivity, their numbers grew to more than 30.
"I put my life in God's hands," said al-Hamza, 27. "There were moments of fear, especially when a gun was put to my head." He would not elaborate on that.
But most of the days on board were "boring," he said. His high moments were the couple of brief calls he was permitted to make to his family in the Shiite city of Qatif in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.
After the release, the tanker was taken on Saturday to the port of Fujaira, in the United Arab Emirates, and the crew was given medical checkups. "We had eaten all that Somali food," joked al-Hamza. "They wanted to make sure we were OK."
The crew also met with their bosses, he said. Vela International Marine Ltd., the marine company that operated the Sirius Star for the Saudi oil company Aramco, is based in Dubai, another UAE emirate.
On Tuesday, P.S. Shetty, senior supervisor for Kanoo Shipping Agencies, a Dubai-based company handling the Sirius Star, said the ship is currently anchored 10 nautical miles off Kalba, a UAE port on the Gulf of Oman south of the main port of Fujaira.
The crew held by the pirates has been replaced, Shetty said, and the ship was scheduled to depart on Wednesday. He would not disclose the ship's destination.
While the remaining crew headed home to the Philippines, al-Hamza flew to the Eastern Province city of Dammam on Monday evening. He was met with applause and ululation from relatives at the airport. A fish dinner — his favorite food — awaited him at home, which overflowed with relatives and well-wishers.
Asked if he had had any worries before the voyage, al-Hamza said: "Before leaving, while chatting with my friends, I would tell them, 'There are pirates,' and they would say dismissively, 'Yes, in the 19th century."'
"Looks like I have a sixth sense," he added. "God has granted me a new life."