Paul and Rachel Chandler's gripping account of captivity in Somalia is food for thought
At first glance, a new book by British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler has a happy ending. The couple, who were attacked by Somali pirates off the coast of the Seychelles in 2009 and held in captivity for over a year, were eventually released safe and sound.
After reading their book and talking to them last week, however, my lasting impression of their experience is its sheer senselessness and inhumanity. ‘Hostage’ tells plainly of the pain and shock of being treated as no more chips in a drawn out game of negotiation. This is a sailing tale with only hard lessons.
The Chandlers call themselves ‘Mr and Mrs Ordinary from Tunbridge Wells’ and that was how they were: a couple who had taken early retirement in their late 50s and were on a long-planned cruise. Rachel had been a government economist, Paul a civil engineer. They had bought Lynn Rival outright in 1995 but owned a share in her and had holidayed on board in Greece since the 1980s. The boat was their home.
That all changed at about 0230 on 22 October 2009 when Rachel, alone on watch, heard the sound of an engine. Moments later, a 16ft skiff with eight Somali pirates on board rammed Lynn Rival and the gang scrambled on board.
From that moment until their release just over a year later in November 2010 the Chandlers’ life changed. They suffered imprisonment, solitary confinement, a beating and the false dawn of possible release and eventually were freed to find that they had been thrust into an unasked for and unwelcome notoriety.
The pirate gang took them to the coast of Somalia. There the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Knight, which had a detachment of Marines on board, watched impotently as the Chandlers were forced to abandon Lynn Rival. The Navy’s rules of engagement prevented them acting by force once hostages had been taken. All they were able to do was to pick the yacht up and take her home.
The Chandlers were imprisoned in and moved between a series of huts and separated on several occasions. Rachel is shown, below, in one of these small settlements.
Each time they were parted their despair increased. At home Rachel’s brother Stephen was put in the position of chief negotiator and tried to find a way to raise enough money to get them released.
“Our family had no experience in kidnaps or ransoms. Stephen is a retired farmer. He was looking to the government for advice and help, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said its policy was not to pay ransom or facilitate ransom,” Rachel tells me.
Everywhere their families turned, doors shut. Banks would not release Paul and Rachel’s savings or allow money to be borrowed against their portfolio because they were deemed to be under duress.
Eventually the ransom demand was reduced and negotiated to $440,000. The family in the UK arranged for the money to be delivered in a light aircraft from Kenya but the arrangements were complicated and nerve-wracking. The pirates insisted they needed four hours to count the money so the plane had to return to Kenya to refuel.
They money was paid, but the Chandlers were not released. They faced the next months wondering if their lives were worth preserving any longer, and they had no idea if they would ever see freedom. “Our families had done everything they could. We had to get back to grips with our emotions and that was really incredibly hard,” Rachel says.
Their salvation came in the form of an intervention by Dahir Kadiye, a Somali who emigrated to the UK as a refugee in 1997 and who was working as a taxi driver in east London. He had no connection with the Chandlers or their family and it was an extraordinary intervention.
Ashamed of what was happening to them in his native country, he returned to Somalia. Under the pretence of setting up a new trading business he began making contacts and establishing informers from within his clan, the same clan to which the ringleader of the captors belonged. Seemingly the fact that he was independent was decisive in the Chandlers’s eventual release.
This aspect of the story is one of the most intriguing, and I’d like to have read more about it than a short postscript. The means of their release still has a mystery about it.
The Chandlers say everyone always asks about the money. Surprisingly, perhaps, they say they don’t know, and perhaps that is just as well. Their families have confirmed payment of a $440,000 ransom but have refused to say who contributed, writes Paul, instead ‘choosing to encourage us to return to normal life and insisting firmly that there is no expectation of repayment’.
There may or may not have been an additional sum. “A comment made by the boss [that $200,000 had come from ‘the family’, perhaps the clan or pirate elders] suggested it had, but one can only speculate,” says Paul.
The Chandlers were reunited with Lynn Rival after their release. The boat had been taken back to the UK by the Royal Navy and was lying secretly under cover at Agamemnon boatyard on the River Beaulieu. The couple have since taken her to Devon, where they are refitting the boat and planning to set sail again across the Atlantic next year.
“We are hoping to go to sea in June next year,” Rachel tells me. “We’ve sailed on her for 20 years and had an attachment for longer and we have so many happy memories. It didn’t occur to us to give up.”
The book has much food for thought. The northern Indian Ocean is still highly dangerous, a no-go zone for cruisers, and the situation in Somalia is getting worse.
Equally depressingly, in the UK the Chandlers’s kidnap appears to have been viewed with flint-hearted apathy. The Chandlers are explicit that, as far as they know, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did nothing to help. A few people I’ve talked to say that surely the government must have acted, but need to distance themselves from their efforts.
Having read this book, I’m not so sure, and clearly the Chandlers are unconvinced. Paul, a very quiet spoken and measured-sounding man, betrays a hint of anger as he tells me: “They [the FCO] were just a lot of jobsworths.”
The book paints a grim picture of a country undermined by greed, run by gun-happy, juvenile gangs controlled in turn by unseen, shady ‘mentors’. “Somalia itself will have to be sorted; it can’t wait another generation,” says Paul. “It has all escalated and until western governments are prepared to take a much harder line the whole region is blighted.”
Sobering though it is, ‘Hostage’ is an excellent read and a very moving account of how this couple fought to survive as one.
Read more about my interview with the Chandlers in the November issue of Yachting World.
Hostage: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Gangsters by Paul and Rachel Chandler with Sarah Edworthy, Mainstream, £9.99. More info from