The Vietnamese diesel tanker crew that was taken by masked pirates off the coast of Singapore believe the men were Indonesians.
A Thanh Nien reporter reached Captain Nguyen Quyet Thang of the Sunrise 689 by telephone at around 5pm on Thursday after the pirates released him and his 17 crew members early that morning.
The 6,000-ton tanker left Singapore on October 2, but vanished from radar at 4:27am the following morning.
Vietnamese maritime officials say they lost contact with the vessel when it was around 120 nautical miles (222 kilometers) north-east of Singapore and 360nm (592km) from Ca Mau.
Thang said that soon after 5,200 tons of diesel fuel were loaded onto the ship at Horizon Port in Singapore at around 6am (Hanoi time) on October 2, they left for Vietnam.
Pirates caught up to them on a speedboat and two small fishing vessels early the following morning.
“More than ten pirates jumped onboard our vessel. They were aggressive, brandishing guns and swinging knives, but luckily we all managed to avoid them,” Thang said.
The pirates ransacked the cabin and navigational equipment, except for the rudder and compass. They also took all the crew members’ cell phones, tablets, clothes, watches and jewelry.
Luong Dai Thanh and Tran Van Lich were the only members of the crew to suffer injuries.
Thanh survived the initial assault with some broken toes and kneecap.
Lich suffered a sprained ankle during a fall caused by two pirates who kicked him off a ladder.
Crew member Pham Duc Thanh said the pirates wore masks to disguise their identities.
But their voices, clothes and daily habits suggested that they’re from Indonesia, Thanh said with certainty, citing his many years sailing through South East Asia.
Captain Thang also said they're veterans of the route and have met with people from all over the region.
He seemed confident they were Indonesians.
A risky moment
Days later after boarding the ship, the pirates locked the crew in a tight room and only let them out once a day to cook and eating.
Crew member Pham Quang Thanh said the “most dangerous and risky” moment came when they tried to recapture a cell phone from the mess hall.
“We knew which bag contained the phones, so we took advantage of meal time, when the pirates let their guard down, to take one. There was no signal, so we couldn't use it.”
Thanh said they only took a cheap phone because the absence of an expensive one would have been noticed.
Thang said the pirates sailed northeast into the waters of Malaysia, then Cambodia and, finally, Vietnam.
He said the pirates met up with a tanker, which drew off around 1,500 tons of diesel from the Sunrise 689.
They intended to take all the oil, but the crew members started to warn them that various maritime security forces were already looking for the Sunrise.
“At around 1am, on Thursday, the pirates gave up,” the captain said.
“They withdrew on a fishing boat flying the Malaysian flag at the bow and the Vietnamese flag at the stern.”
With all their GPS equipment destroyed, Thang sailed until they caught a cell phone signal and made several calls at around 5:30am to their families.
They also made contact with their employer, the Hai Phong Sea Product and Shipbuilding Company in the namesake northern port city.
Then, they set course for Vung Tau for repairs.
Guide of a Somali piracy fighter
“We were very panicked," Thang said.
“But after surviving my capture by a Somali pirate crew, I knew to tell my men to stay calm and not resist."
Thang now has ten years of sailing experience under his belt, and two pirate abductions.
His first ordeal began on January 17, 2011 when a crew of well-armed Somali pirates seized the Vietnamese Hoang Son Sun and held its crew hostage for nearly eight months.
Thang, then a ship's mate, recalled the Somali pirates as a band of terrorists.
“They had modern weapons," he said. "They were more aggressive and reckless than those who attacked the Sunrise 689.”
The Somali pirates, he said, were seeking ransom.
They got nothing, but seemed to enjoy torturing their prisoners.
Thang said the experience taught him to protect the lives of his crew before the boat and cargo.
While being held by the Somalis, he said, his crew dismantled the iron bars that propped up the bunk beds and hid whatever knives they could find inside, in case they had to fight the pirates.
“We were very lucky those makeshift arms never had to be used,” Thang said.
Major-General Nguyen Van Tuong, the commissar of Vietnam’s Coast Guard Command, said a coast guard ship reached the Sunrise 689 at more than 2pm on Thursday and is currently escorting it to shore.
The ship also brought a medical team in to tend Thanh and Lich’s injuries. Others are in good health and spirits since they've all had the chance to call home.
They are expected to arrive in Vung Tau after midnight on Saturday.
Dao Van Quang, director of the Hai Phong company, said their Singaporean partner has sent inspectors to Vung Tau to evaluate the damage to the boat.
Major-General Nguyen Quang Dam, the commander of Vietnam’s Coast Guard, said they are hunting for the pirates with help from regional security forces.