Once again we were at sea. A time to settle and to look forward to the next part of the journey, the islands of Tristan da Cunha. We were to stop at three of the islands in the archipelago. Most of us knew nothing about Tristan, but Ponant, ever foreword thinking in its effort to make the trip enjoyable and educational, had a member of the Tristan community aboard the ship! He had been the community police officer for about 30 years and was able to answer any question you could put to him. This town of less than 300 people had begun after a shipwreck in the 1600’s. Some of the crew members decided to stay and make a life on Tristan. Others left to return home, and gradually over the years other ships had left passengers who wanted to remain, some married and on it went. In 1816 the British claimed Tristan as a strategic territory in an effort to ensure Napoleon, incarcerated on St. Helena, would not be rescued by the French. St. Helena was over a thousand miles away and once they were assured this wouldn’t happen, the British left Tristan and went home. There are only 7 surnames among the inhabitants, all reflecting the mixed heritage of Asian, European and African. It is a largely agrarian lifestyle more akin to what our great-grandparents lived. They fish and grow their own vegetables, raise sheep and spin their own wool. These days they are able to get occasional shipments of more modern goods, and they even have the internet. But it remains arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world. It would take us four days to reach Tristan.
During those days we had a choice of a number of talks and films, as well as various entertainment opportunities–classical piano, contemporary singing, games, quizzes, the usual suspects. We were also fortunate to sight a Right Whale swimming along with the ship one day, and many different birds. It was shocking to think how far from land those birds were!
It was then we learned COVID-19 had finally caught up with us.
Once again the Captain summoned us to the theatre to give us the news. Our anticipated stop at Tristan da Cunha was in doubt. Serious doubt. After much deliberation between our guide leader and Captain and the town leaders of Tristan, it was decided the town did not want to take the risk of letting us come ashore. They did not want to risk their elderly to the virus, even though no one on the ship showed any symptoms at all. There was not even a runny nose that I saw the entire three weeks. But the Tristan inhabitants stood firm.
Once again our Captain and crew made decisions to reorganise our excursions while in the archipelago. We would do all of our visits from the safety of the zodiacs. By the time we got to CapeTown, we had not touched land for 12 days. If that didn’t make us virus free, I don’t know what would!
Later that afternoon, the skies cleared and the sea shone like silver, studded with the most spectacular pod of between 200-300 Dusky Dolphins.
It was also during this time at sea before reaching the archipelago that the rumours around the ship began to circulate. Captain Marchesseau was somewhat of a hero in France. Really? I am not a good enough writer to sufficiently describe the character of the Captain. We knew him as very funny, capable of astounding mimicry of a king penguin over the intercom, as well as attentive to every detail of the ship’s operation. It was clear he was a man of great capability, but a hero? Do tell.
As luck would have it, and we seemed to ‘have it’ on a regular basis, the former Admiral of the French Navy was also a passenger on board our cruise. And as we were soon to find out, in 2008, Admiral Gillier became well acquainted with one Captain Marchesseau during a terrible incident aboard a Ponant ship. The two of them generously presented their tale one day in the theatre to an enthralled audience. I won’t tell you in the detail presented, mostly because I can’t remember it all, but you can Google the Captain, Patrick Marchesseau and read it yourself. It was headline making news. The Captain and 30 crew were overtaken by Somali pirates!
Captain Marchesseau and a skeleton crew were heading back to France at the end of a cruise season. As they were moving through a dangerous patch of sea off of Africa, two speed boats approached them and though the captain ordered the ship to do a zig-zag manoeuvre in an effort to shake them, the pirates were experienced enough to know the vulnerable part of the ship was the middle, which moved very little, even in this situation. They threw over their lines and began to board the ship. The crew attempted to fight them off with fire hoses, but the pirates had high powered guns. When a window was shattered from one of the guns, the Captain called the crew to back off and the pirates boarded the ship.
There ensued six days of negotiations and subterfuge on the part of the Captain to keep his crew safe. He had ordered the female crew to the lower bowels of the ship where they stayed for a couple of days, until they no longer could. The captain was worried what the pirates might do to the young women. However, the captain said, the pirates were never abusive toward the crew or himself, discounting the continual week long threat at the point of guns. The Captain began his own subtle power game so that whenever the pirates wanted him to do something, he would negotiate with them to also do something for him. This gave him some respect from the pirates, but also gave him back a little control. He was able to send an SOS signal without them knowing, and he and his crew were able to fake some engine trouble that meant they had to travel more slowly, giving the Admiral and navy time to respond to the situation. For example, when the pirates wanted to bring aboard goats and sheep and slaughter them live for their own food, he made them agree to clean up after themselves, which, surprisingly, they did.
Eventually the ship was moored in waters off the Somalia coast. The Admiral from his end, and the Captain from his end, negotiated a trade of the crew for a few hundred thousand Euros. On the final and seventh day of the siege, the crew, except Captain Marchesseau, were released into French hands, while four of the pirates took the money and headed inland. The remaining pirates on board, perhaps thinking their operation had succeeded and they could relax, had taken their attentions away from the Captain. He had walked far forward to the bow of the ship with a radio, to communicate with the French navy as the crew was released. He found himself standing on the bow of the ship. Alone… wondering what would happen next, when came an order: “JUMP!” Being an obedient servant of his country, he thought for a very brief second after hearing the order, ‘Yes, why not?!’ And so he did. Jump. From the bow of the ship into the water. Waiting for him was a boat, hidden just out of sight in the shadow of the bow.
If you have ever stared up at the deck of a ship from the water’s height, you will know it is a very long drop. But the captain’s courage won the day. The Admiral put a plan into action to capture the pirates and the ransom. They captured seven of the pirates, five of whom were convicted and sent to jail, but only part of the ransom, which had been quickly dispersed.
If you Google the Captain you will find mention of the book he wrote about the entire ordeal, and many photos of his welcome home, receiving an award for bravery and so on. So all the while we had been in the most capable hands, which he continued to prove, even as, six days later we would disembark into the world of COVID-19.