French Captain on Pirate Attack: 'When You See Them It's Too Late'

A French captain who knows his pirates has some advice for other sailors: "When you see them coming, it's too late."

A year ago, Patrick Marchesseau watched helplessly as a band of Somali pirates hijacked his ship and took him and his crew hostage in the turbulent Gulf of Aden. The pirates held him captive aboard Le Ponant, the 288-foot luxury sailing yacht he was captaining, before French commandos freed him and others in a raid.

"It's not worth shooting at them," Marchesseau said of the pirates, speaking by telephone Wednesday from the Egyptian coast, where he is once again on Le Ponant. He even sailed the ship through the dangerous Gulf of Aden last week, this time escorted by military forces.

"(Pirates) are more armed than you, and life has, I think, a bit less importance in Somalia, based on what I've seen," he said.

Piracy has exploded off the East African coast, and ship captains, shipping companies and international military forces are struggling to find an effective way to stop the attacks. Marauders armed with rocket-launchers and machine guns have already attacked 79 ships this year and are still holding 280 crew members and 15 ships hostage, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

"It's an experience where you learn a lot about yourself," Marchesseau said. "It's not 'by the book,' it's lots of sang-froid and common sense."

Nonetheless, his week as a hostage did not change his life.

"I headed back to sea three weeks after I was freed," he said.

France has been particularly aggressive against pirates, spearheading European anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. French special forces freed Le Ponant and another boat last year from pirates, and last week rescued a third.

During Ponant rescue, six pirates escaped and six others were brought to France where they are awaiting trial. Another six pirates are also awaiting trial from the other 2008 raid. In Friday's hostage rescue, two pirates and one French hostage were killed and three pirates were captured. Those three are now in custody in the French city of Rennes.

Friday's raid illustrated the risks of such operations: The ship's captain was killed in a shootout. Marchesseau called the skipper's decision to pilot a small pleasure boat through the Gulf of Aden "a thoughtless risk."

"It's obviously an area that's boiling hot at the moment," said Marchesseau. "There are enough heavenly places to go to in the world which are safe and peaceful and wait for that area to calm down."

He doesn't expect the violence to subside, however, until anti-piracy tactics are revised in the Gulf. He says the military-secured convoys currently being tried, for example, are too fast to guard small tourist boats.

"The pirates have no fear, they don't hesitate to defy the military presence," Marchesseau said. "You need to systematically inspect the ships in the area that claim to be harmless fishing boats."

Pirates are easy enough to spot, he noted.

"Fishermen with Kalashnikovs, those are pirates," he said.