My private hell on the high sea
THE moment marine engineer Fred Parle discovered his ship was under attack from pirates he feared he was "dead meat".
In a scene which could have been straight out of 'Pirates of the Caribbean', heavily armed pirates used steel ladders and lines with hooks to board the 115-foot Svitzer Korsakov off the Somalian coast.
But this was no Hollywood fiction. As the 67-year-old lay face down on the deck with his hands over his head, he did not think he was going to survive.
"I lay there thinking we were all dead meat. I said a few prayers and left it to the man above," he said.
Back home in Sligo yesterday, Fred recalled being on watch at 4pm on February 1 when the hellish ordeal began.
"We were 85 miles off the coast of Somalia, 15 miles beyond the recommended distance and I was heading up to the bridge when I heard someone shouting 'We're being attacked'.
"Then I heard someone say 'There's one of them on board'."
Despite the valiant efforts of the crew to ward off their unwanted visitors, a second pirate boat arrived and nine pirates boarded the Danish-owned tug which was on its maiden voyage.
They were armed with Kalashnikovs and one had a shoulder-fired rocket launcher.
All six crew, including the English captain, four Russian sailors and Fred, were ordered to lie on the deck.
"They were speaking in heavily accented English and shouting stuff like 'Move and you're dead' or 'We'll shoot you'," Fred recalled.
The crew were ordered to take the ship down the African coast until they reached what the pirates deemed to be a safe spot in waters too shallow for a US warship which was keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.
Thus began a 47-day ordeal which ended finally on St Patrick's Day when an undisclosed ransom was paid over.
Dublin-born Fred, who is already planning a book about his pirate adventure, is convinced his cool nature helped him through.
"Most people who know me would describe me as a cool dude. I was brought up as an engineer and I see everything in a calculated and measured way," he explained.
Like the Steve McQueen character in the 'Great Escape', he played mind games with his captors, unnerving them with his staring and ultimately being punished.
"I was fair game. I wasn't allowed use my sleeping cabin and it was trashed. My property was stolen. I slept on the steel deck on the bridge but you can get used to anything," he said.
Food was scarce and they were never left alone. Daily messages via satellite kept them in touch with life back home.
"We depended on each other for survival. We knew we had to have patience.
"We got to know each others faults and strengths with danger and destruction as our common bond," he said.
Fred and the ship's captain helped in the final stages of the negotiations to transfer the ransom to the pirates.
"As soon as that happened, it all became a blur. We drove that ship so hard to get the hell out of the place in case we got captured again," he said.
Back in safe waters, Fred phoned home and spoke to his family directly for the first time since the terrifying ordeal began.
Fred, who will turn 68 next month, was reunited with wife Deirdre and three sons, Derek, Alan and David, in Dubai before finally returning to Sligo.
His fourth son Brian, is based in Australia.
Early yesterday morning he had a tearful reunion with friends in Sligo Cathedral who had prayed for his welfare.
"This has made me realise in the few years I have left, that there are certain things I can do that I only ever thought about before now.
"I would like to help some Filipino people I know who are trying to build houses back home and I would like to support Somali people in Ireland, so long as they are not ex-pirates," he said.