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John saw a ladder latching onto the railing of the ship. At that moment, he knew what it meant – possible death at the hands of pirates.
John had been on his night rounds onboard his ship, which was anchored in the coastal waters of Cameroon. Even if they were on high alert, he never thought it possible that pirates would actually board the ship. When he noticed the ladder on the railing, he initially thought it was a stowaway or a thief. Heart pounding, he went to have a closer look. Then he saw them. Pirates. He tried to contact the bridge, but the pirates had signal jammers, blocking off any communication.
He remembers that it was dark and humid that night. And he remembers running. He was so close to refuge when he heard a gunshot and a shout.
There was blood. He saw the red spurting from his palm. Time slowed as his breath quickened. Before he could absorb the fact that he had been shot, everything went black. John dropped down on the deck.
The night before New Year’s Eve, 2019, eight crew members of the Greek-flagged tanker Happy Lady were kidnapped by armed men. John was one of them.
He remembers feeling the deck against his skin while he was dragged down from the ship. He felt a drilling pain in his head and everything around him was a dark void. He was drenched in his blood. Then nothing.
John’s next memory was of opening his eyes to see armed men and his crew mates around him and a roof over his head. His crew mates, with expressions of hope and relief, filled him in on what had happened in the nine days that he had been unconscious.
He had been knocked out by the butt of a gun to his head, and then as he was being transferred off the ship, he fell into the sea. If it were not for the pleading of his fellow Filipino crew mate, he would been left to die. All eight of them from the Happy Lady—the Greek captain, four other Greeks, and a Ukrainian—were eventually held hostage in the jungle.
John tried to make sense of their stories, and of his circumstances. His hand was infected, and excruciatingly painful. A pungent odor wafted from the sweat-soaked mattress they slept on. The swamp that surrounded them was the only source of water that they could use to wash with. They subsisted on a daily diet of boiled eggs, noodles, and bread.
But it wasn’t their poor diet or unsanitary living conditions that made them feel on the edge of death. It was their captors that they feared. Guns slung over their shoulders, constantly high on drugs—their captors loomed large with the threat of death every day. John, in particular, was singled out because it was he who had attempted to unlatch the ladder from the ship. Luckily, John’s captain remained calm. He would always manage to diffuse the situation.
Days went by. John and his crew mates would listen attentively to the stories of their kidnappers, who would rant about their government. How it deprived the village they were from of compensation for the oil being taken from them. That they were rebels who resorted to piracy as a form of revolt. That they decided to take what is not duly given to them by their government.
During the nights, John would dream of his rescue, and of traveling around the Philippines. He consoled himself with thoughts of scenic plateaus and beautiful sunsets. He would often think of his parents, and how hard it must have been for them to accept his situation. The thought of his mother crying at night knowing that her eldest son was being held captive never left his mind. He thought about his father all the time, and he hoped that his father would have the strength to stand by his mom. He thought about his only brother; how he would go to school every day knowing that his kuya may no longer see him become a man. He kept wishing that his family would go to every church they could and pray for him.
Yet whatever happened, if he did not make it back home, John had accepted his fate and would leave it to the Lord. He wasn’t blind to the small blessings, from the miracle of waking up from nine days of unconsciousness to being able to enjoy the mosquito net that reminded him of home. On evenings when the sound of the jungle was more deafening than haunting, John was at peace with God.
Then, on the 22nd day, a miracle happened.
“Prepare. Your rescuers are here.”
John didn’t know how he felt – he wasn’t even sure if it was real. But from afar, he saw a rescue boat coming closer. It was more nerve-wracking than the night they were captured.
He readied himself, not for the rescue but from whatever may come from it. As they transferred to the rescue boat, as they started moving away from the camp, John expected a gunshot, an ambush, or whatever other misfortune. Anxiety reigned as they moved farther and farther away until they finally reached the coast. Their rescuers brought all of them to the hospital for medical treatment, and then to their hotels. That was when it sunk in.
He was free. They were all free.
He opened his hotel room and found all his belongings inside. His heart filled with joy and he cried tears of happiness knowing that the long days and nights were finally over. He grabbed his Herschel bag and GoPro Camera, ecstatic that he would finally get to live his dream. He chatted with his parents, who were so happy and excited about their son’s successful rescue. In that moment of hope and triumph, he knew his faith in God did not waver.
“That was the longest 22 days of my life, and the closest I have been to death, but I kept my hopes high that we will be rescued. Throughout the ordeal, the eight of us continued to be resilient, encouraging everyone and ourselves that we would make it – alive.”
John still intends to return to the sea, and the to the perils that are part of the job. In most cases, we will truly never know when death would come for us. So as we sail, let us not let our guards down. Let us not forget to love and enjoy what we do, especially who we do it for. Because in cases just like John’s, it is knowing why you want to go home and whom you want to go home to that makes you want to survive.
Sail with faith.