The residents of Berbera, a Somali port in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, call 62-year-old Jurgen Kantner “the mad German sailor.”
On June 23 last year, Kantner and his wife Sabine Merz were steering their modest sailing yacht through Somali waters when armed pirates captured them and brought them ashore to a mountain hideout.
After being subjected to deprivations and mock executions during their 52-day hostage ordeal, the pair are back in what is considered one of the most dangerous countries on the planet to reclaim their ship, the Rockall.
“My boat is my life and I don’t want to lose her, nothing more. I don’t care about pirates and governments,” Kantner said while taking a break from his repair work in Berbera, the main port in Somaliland.
The Rockall’s hijacking was a rare case of a ship being captured by pirates in the waters of Somaliland, a northern breakaway state which has generally been more stable and prosperous than the rest of Somalia.
But the stretch of land facing the location of the hijacking is disputed by Puntland, a neighbouring breakaway region which is home to most of the pirates groups that are preying on the world’s merchant fleets.
European tourists are few and far between in the troubled region and the couple, who live on their boat in the harbour, are perceived as odd birds by the local population.
“They think that I’m insane, they call me the crazy white guy or the mad German sailor but they don’t know how important my boat is to me,” he said.
Sipping sweet white tea with his wife and a German-speaking Somali friend at a cafe near the harbour, Kantner appears in no danger of suffering from the Stockholm syndrome.
“It was my worst experience ever. It was really painful and they were intimidating us the whole time,” said the burly German, sporting a wild head of thick white hair. “One day I said to them I hoped a plane would bomb us all to bits, so that we all die together,” he said.
The couple was released in August 2008. A ransom of $600,000 is believed to have been paid but Kantner declined to elaborate on the circumstances of his release.
Concerned with nothing in this world but his wife and the sea, Kantner admits to being of slightly bearish disposition and has few kind words for the “clumsy local mechanics” or “the German officials who resent my presence here.”
“I have no friends back home because I lost contact in 32 years living on my boat. Why should I go back to Germany where I have nobody to help me?” he asked. “This is my life and it’s wonderful. I have all my things on my boat and I travel to many places in the world. Sailing is how I want to live and die,” he said, removing his reading glasses to gaze at the sea.
When asked if his end might not come sooner than expected if he tries to sail through the Gulf of Aden again, he admitted he needed to devise a strategy to dodge the region’s fast-breeding ransom-hunters.
“I will start sailing soon after I finish mending the boat,” he said, clambering over small fishing nets and oily engine parts littering the deck of the Rockall, anchored between two Somaliland navy ships. “I know it’s dangerous sailing off into Somali waters and I have no private security guarding me but I pray to God that pirates won’t get me again. It’s a little bit like suicide,” Kantner said coldly.
“Of course, buying a gun is an option but I haven’t decided yet.”
The German was critical of the international navies’ approach to dealing with Somali pirates: “If you catch one, chop his hand off. If he tries to escape, shoot to kill. Sharia (Islamic law) is a punishment they understand.
Somalia’s marauding buccaneers have captured some 50 ships since Kantner’s first mishap, most of them merchant vessels.
A French family on a world sailing tour was also snatched earlier this year and the father accidentally shot dead by French commandos meant to rescue them.
For obvious reasons, Kantner refused to reveal anything about how he intends to sail safely out of the ever-widening zone affected by Somali piracy and reach his next destination: Malaysia.
“If I get there safely, me and my wife will take a week-long holiday, just resting. And I really hope the pirates don’t catch me because this time no-one will pay and everybody will tell the pirates: ‘Keep him’.”