When Britons Paul and Rachel Chandler finally gained their freedom from captivity after having been held for months in Africa, they began to plan their next adventure – another journey across the ocean.
By Tazeen Ahmad, NBC News
DARTMOUTH, England — Almost three years after Paul and Rachel Chandler were snatched at gunpoint and taken hostage by Somali pirates, they are returning to the high seas – in the same yacht.
The British pair were taken prisoner for 388 days while sailing in the Indian Ocean in October 2009 with the pirates demanding a $7-million ransom, a sum the Chandlers knew was far beyond what their family and friends could raise. Hidden in Somalia, they faced the risk of disease and feared getting caught in the cross-fire between multiple gangs or being sold to al-Qaida.
Their torment now just a memory, the Chandlers are due to set off later this week on a six-month cruise to Brazil aboard the Lynn Rival.
“It’s our life,” Paul told NBC News. “Our yacht … enabled us to get our sanity back. We won’t be beaten by these guys.”
The most striking thing about the couple is not that they emerged unscathed from captivity but just how intensely close they are. The strength of their marriage was key to helping them survive the 13-month long nightmare at the hands of Somali pirates.
Married for more than 30 years, Rachel often finishes Paul’s sentences for him, while he hangs on her every word; they grin at each other constantly as if sharing a private joke.
Throughout our interview at a quiet marina in Devon, on the southwest coast of England, they inched closer together, often leaning in to whisper reassurances or give a squeeze of the hand.
Rachel, 58, is the chattier of the two with twinkling blue eyes and an easy smile. Paul, 61, is softly-spoken and amiable, but more reserved than his gregarious wife. Underneath the friendly banter there is a steely determination that must have served them well when they faced their biggest challenge at sea.
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As we sit aboard the Lynn Rival, the Chandlers recounted how they had just enjoyed a break in the Seychelles in October 2009 before setting sail for Tanzania. It was then that their trip turned into a living hell.
The pirates launched their attack in the middle of the night while Rachel was on watch. She recalls hearing the engine of their vessel approach, a light was shone and then 10 men armed with guns and knives jumped on board yelling. A terrified Rachel froze. She shows me what she calls a “morbid souvenir,” a sharp knife in its leather sheath belonging to one of the pirates. She giggles as she admits to having also kept one of the pirate’s torn flip-flops; we joke about her putting it up for auction on eBay.
In their months as prisoners, the couple sometimes wondered if they should have jumped into the midnight ocean at that moment. However, they know that it would only have meant certain death. Instead they spent six days in confined space with Somali pirates while they and their boat were brought to a container ship. From there they realized bigger plans were afoot.
“We knew we were going to be taken on shore, and when we landed on Somalia, then it really hit home and that was a real low point,” Paul said.
The couple were taken in-land where they were held for 382 more days. Somali pirates assume that all Westerners are extremely wealthy, especially those able to take a yacht to sea.
Paul, a Cambridge University-educated civil engineer, and Rachel, a former government economist, embarked on a part-time sailing lifestyle in 2005 but knew that raising the $7-million ransom would be almost impossible.
“They knew that had to keep us alive and so they did feed us most of the time,” says Rachel. “At times they tried to threaten us, obviously encourage us to beg for money when they allowed us to speak to our family. All they wanted was money.”
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The weeks and months that followed were difficult. The couple had their hopes of being released dashed so many times, they soon learned to ignore the pirates attempts to upset them. Largely, the couple say, they came to no harm, although Paul does add they were beaten once. This was after they resisted the captors’ attempts to separate them. The separation hit Rachel, in particular, very hard.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t think,” she says. “I was worrying all the time about how Paul was and what pressure they are putting him under and whether he was well and still alive.”
During this time Paul tried to befriend his captors while Rachel says she coped by daydreaming of rescue, recalling happier times and focusing on getting through from one day to the next.
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In total they were held for 388 days, during which time Paul’s elderly father passed away.
Their families finally managed to raise a fraction of the ransom demanded – about $440,000. The pirates took this but refused to return the couple. The couple’s relatives were devastated — and allege that they had very little help or guidance from the British government.
“Some governments have a reputation of being hard – the French and the Americans particularly,” Paul said. “They want to send a message: Don’t mess with our citizens. The British government hasn’t had the will to do that. “
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In the end, help came from an unexpected quarter. A British-Somali businessman reportedly raised some more cash and with some negotiation, secured their release.
The news flashed across the world. Unbeknownst to them, during their time in captivity the couple had become household names in Britain. The now-famous footage showing their moment of freedom has them looking thin and frail but chatting happily.
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A stronger, healthier Rachel now tells me through smiles she was stunned by the coverage.
“It was the same time as [Myanmar’s opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi [was freed] and to be next to her in the headlines was just unbelievable for us.”
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In the time since, the couple have not had any counseling but they say writing their book, “Hostage: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Gangsters” has provided closure. But the most cathartic times may yet lie ahead, when they take Lynn Rival back to sea.
“I never stopped wanting to go out to sea,” Rachel says. “What happened to us was an extremely unlucky experience. It hasn’t changed my love of sailing, cruising or traveling.”
They laugh at suggestions that they are either “bonkers or brave”; their biggest concern is neither flashbacks nor pirates striking again but more their physical fitness. But when pushed, Paul does hint at a new cautiousness.
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“It’s a shame because every time we are approached by a little boat at sea, it’s probably a fisherman wanting to give you fish in exchange for a cigarette or a bit of water, but we will be more weary.”
After what they’ve been through, no one, least of all a friendly fisherman, would blame them.