My latest adventure, or should I say mis-adventure,
involved rib patrol boats and gunboats mixed
in a heady
concoction of deceit, death, corruption and
desolation. It's a story that's still going
around and around in my head, and
hopefully by setting out my thoughts it will
help me come to terms with what must be my
experience of a lifetime.
It all started out, as I guess many of these
things do, by a phone call with the offer of
some offshore oil support work
operating some 35-40 miles offshore in the
Gulf of Guinea. A planned one month stint during
our winter months, in the
warmth of Africa away from the cold and damp
of blighty, and some good remuneration to boot!
Little was I to know that I was to become
witness to the reality of life in the third
between the haves and the
have nots in what was in truth a division between
life and death. As my story unfolds you will
hear about a culture of
deceit and corruption at the highest levels
in government and military, why each and every
white European carries a
bounty of $2m on his head and the reasons why
a militant organisation claims justification
for piracy and murder.
Black gold, the oil that the west has an
insatiable desire for, is the catalyst
for a dreadfully
greedy and violent part of
DAY - BY - DAY
Day 1. Tuesday 11th March 2008
An exciting and early start to catch my flight
from Manchester to Heathrow, before catching
the daily BA flight to
Lagos. I was met at the airport by a representative
from my new employer, a UK Security Consultancy
employing some 80 personnel. The job was to
be the captain of an ex MOD Spitfire Class
24m, RTTL (Rescue
and Target Towing Launch). It was one of two
vessels recently acquired by the company with
another two on
the way. These
vessels had been previously used by the RAF & Royal
Navy for target towing in support of military
This was a great opportunity for me to gain
valuable experience in a vessel somewhat larger
than the 11m Humber
Rib, which I worked on the wind farms,
and the survey vessels in the Isle of Man and
I arrived early evening in Lagos, to be met
by the company’s shore based project
manager and driven to the Lagos
Motorboat Club. Lagos, a city built for 3 million
inhabitants but which supports 8 million, was
vastly overcrowded with
poverty around every corner. The city is the
economic and financial capital of Nigeria and
the second most populous in
Africa after Cairo. It's a huge metropolis
which originated on islands separated by creeks
that fringe the southwest
mouth of Lagos Lagoon, protected from the Atlantic
Ocean by long sand spits.
From the Motorboat Club I was ferried out to
Apapa Island to rendezvous with the boat, meet
up with the crew, have a
few beers and a BBQ in the + 30c heat, at what
was now 9:30pm.
Day 2. Wednesday 12th March 2008
Day break and familiarisation with the boat
was conducted by the chief engineer, an ex
South African Navy
engineering officer. Then a briefing from the
two company liaison officers on board, again
South African, both from a
security background. My first mate was Nigerian
as was our assistant engineer, also our chief
cook and bottle washer
was a Nigerian. A total company complement
of 7 persons, comprising three Nigerians, three
South Africans and me,
the only Brit!
Offshore and onshore oil installations are
heavily guarded by security organisations,
due to the aggressive militant
operations carried out by MEND (Movement for
the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). These
militants have been
engaging the military in regular battles in
the creeks of the Bonny River since the Nigerian
government decided to
heighten operations in the region to halt rising
cases of kidnapping of foreign oil workers,
who carry a $2m bounty on
their heads, and the murder of fellow Nigerians
seen to be co-operating with the oil companies,
as they have no value.
Nigeria relies on oil and gas exports for more
than 90 per cent of its annual foreign earnings,
but has been collecting
dwindling revenue because of the destruction
of oil production facilities and its infrastructure
by the activities of the
militants in the region which is currently
at an all time high.
Our task was to patrol an offshore oil installation
in the Gulf of Guinea. Prior to this we were
to rendezvous with the
Nigerian Navy. Our sail plan involved leaving
Lagos taking an offshore passage through the
Bights of Benin and Biafra
across the Gulf of Guinea, some one and a half
days motoring (350nm) to arrive at Port Harcourt.
Our rendezvous point was the onshore LNG (Liquefied
Natural Gas) Plant terminal on Bonny Island.
At this location
our vessel was to be fitted out with four 12.7mm
heavy calibre machine guns, two on the fly
bridge with the second
two astern, some light machine guns and a detachment
of eight Nigerian marines with personal weapons,
proceeding to take up station offshore.
The Day’s Events
We had a Lagos pilot booked for 5pm so we took
the opportunity to do final provisions and
a fuel top up during the
day. Our 24m patrol vessel was powered by twin
1,000hp engines. At 4pm, eight Nigerian Navy
marines arrived and
boarded as our guards during the passage. For
security reasons the vessel was flying the
At 5pm with no sign of the pilot we cast off
to wait in the middle channel for the pilot,
which was not uncommon. The
harbour entrance was quite formidable with
watercraft dashing here, there and everywhere.
A hundred ships were also
at anchor just outside the harbour entrance.
I was very pleased to see the pilot cutter
arrive and I welcomed aboard the pilot. After
the formalities and
documentation stamping etc. I asked to set
the throttles forward to commence our passage.
The pilot was immediately
alarmed and requested our vessel to stop so
that he could get off!
It became apparent that his job was only
the paperwork and that we had to take ourselves
out of the harbour and
through the buoyage system to the fairway.
On disembarking the pilot turned to me and
pointedly asked did I have
anything for him! He got short shrift from
me, on this, my first introduction to the pre-requisite
At 6pm we successfully cleared the fairway
Day 3. Thursday 13th March 2008
Steady motoring at 8 knots in a pleasantly
rolling (no big waves) F2 all the way. We experienced
some small delay
due to the prevailing Guinea current across
the Bight of Biafra on our way to Port Harcourt,
the capital city of Rivers
State (the oil capital of Nigeria).
Day 4. Friday 14 March 2008
Arrived at the entrance to the Bonny River
channel just after noon, 12:15pm. The Nigerian
marine’s lieutenant was
quickly on his mobile phone to the local naval
base to confirm our arrival and to take instructions
on our meeting point.
The Lagos marines were due to disembark and
fly back to their home base in Lagos, their
For some unapparent reason the guns could not
be transported to the LNG jetty. We should
continue to the jetty and
wait for two patrol boats (gunboats) from the
Nigerian Marines NNS Pathfinder group who would
escort us to the Naval
Base where the armaments would be fitted and
the replacement detachment of Marines would
board. As a civilian
crew we were reliant on the Marines to handle
all weaponry onboard.
One of the patrol boats, an 8-9m RIB, with
five crew met us in mid channel to lead us
to the jetty where the other
patrol boat was refuelling. It was then decided
that we would continue up the Bonny River led
by the first patrol boat
with the second boat following up once fully
It wasn't long before we were joined by the
second patrol boat as we continued up the Bonny
River, part of the Niger
Delta. We were now well off our charts but
with one patrol boat back and one front we
pressed forward up river
passing creeks at every twist and turn of this
inhospitable river. Ship wrecks strewn the
river bank which added to our
sense of foreboding, but were in the hands
of the Nigerian Navy so we should be alright!
Expecting to come upon a navy base at anytime
it transpired that we had to go some 35 miles
inland, through jungle
waterways as well as open waters. At one stage
I had to pass the helm over to my Nigerian
number two while the
white faced crew had to sit below the parapet
because of the presence of militant hot spots.
Some 6hrs later as
nightfall befell us at 7pm we were rafted inside
the navy base.
The base commander and an intelligence officer
came aboard for 2hrs of questioning. The Lagos
onboard and we all eventually bedded down for
Day 5. Saturday 15th March 2008
It was still expected that the armaments would
be fitted at the navy base and the Lagos marines
dismissed in order to
catch their flight back to their home base.
However a second intelligence officer returned
and asked the same set of
questions that were asked of us from the evening
before. As our previous answers were still
attached to this latest
question list it was just a matter of copying
out our yesterday answers. What was that all
about? Information was very
lacking and in the end nothing happened.
Day 6. Sunday 16th March 2008
Standoff. Still nothing happened.
Day 7. Monday 17th March 2008
St Patrick’s day and not a Guinness in
sight! The Lagos marines
were becoming quite agitated and angry as they
should have been flown home the previous Saturday.
duties became non existent, sleeping most of
the time. From this time on we set-up our own
4hr bridge night watches.
Day 8. Tuesday 18th March 2008
Two company representatives arrived from Lagos,
although not employed by our company they had
with our operation. One an ex Nigerian Army
Officer and the other an ex Nigerian Police
Chief. They met with the base
commander, returned to Lagos, and still nothing
Day 9. Wednesday 19th March 2008
By this time we were under the distinct impression
we were being detained. Even if we could take
our vessel out of the
navy base how would we navigate the river,
miss the militants and go where? At best we
would probably become one
of the many 'hulks' rotting away on the bottom
of the Bonny River.
Our days had passed waiting for something to
happen, some news or some direction. We watched
each evening we saw the patrol boats refuel
in a most basic way. Fifty gallon drums of
gasoline were casually rolled
down and pushed around the quay, a plastic
pipe inserted and 'sucked' by a marine to draw
up the fuel, and then
passed over the deck to the fuel tank fillers.
The air was rank with vapour and the bilges
probably sloshed around with
Today one of the more friendly patrol
boat skippers told us, "whatever you do
don't sail this boat out!" as a
means of being helpful, I guess.
Day 10. Thursday 20th March 2008
At 4:45am, a strange time, the Lagos marines
were finally discharged from their ‘guard’ duties
and allowed to fly back
to their home base. They were replaced by two
Pathfinder marines who stood at arms all the
The day started as they all normally do in
this navy base. The patrol boats, all re-fuelled
the evening before were
made ready for patrol and loaded up with their
12.7 mm machine guns fore and aft, their AK47’s
and the ammunition
for the day’s patrols.
Pathfinder group is responsible for the security
of the Bonny River and its creeks in
their fight against piracy, abduction and sabotage.
It was very frightening each day when machine
gun fire broke the jungle silence as test rounds
zipped overhead and
into the forests around the base, but I learned
to watch for the powder dust cloud of the fired
ammunition and knew the
sound would follow. The patrol (gunboats) then
disappeared up river and creeks and arrived
back at base late
afternoon. Some six ribs formed the squadron,
five serviceable with one under repair.
Day 11. Friday 21st March 2008
Good Friday, although I’ve never known
what was supposed to be good about it! Today
was to be my apocalypse, my
Armageddon however you would like to describe
Roused a little early by the morning watch,
at 06:20, I brewed a cup of coffee and went
on deck to look at the comings
and goings of this morning’s Pathfinders
patrol. Just 20 yards from me I watched the
lead RIB skipper (our friendly
marine who only a couple of days ago let us
know it would be best to remain in the navy
base) who was finalising his
preparations and crew for his next patrol.
It was 6:45am now and I can still recall in
slow motion how he checked over
his shoulder to look at the outboards as he
switched on the engine ignition.
In an instant I was looking at hell on earth!
A wall of flame some 30ft high engulfed all
the personnel on board the RIB.
I could only make out shadows moving horrifically
in the flames and no opportunity to help. One
marine on fire, head
to foot, appeared out of the holocaust, wearing
heavy body armour and jumped into the river
never to surface again.
" I watched in fright and awe as the first
RIB and its personnel disintegrated before
Then the realisation
that ordinance was exploding all around
and our vessel. Our crew, except the chief
engineer who had bolted to the
engine room to make ready to go, buried themselves
behind the sand bags stacked at the stern
of our vessel.
mins my head was full of the noise of exploding
ordinance. I was concentrating on keeping
the Nigerian crew calm, as
they were clearly terrified.
A break in the bangs, booms and zipping of
bullets and a peer over the topsides. Almighty,
not just one gunboat had
gone up in flames, but one after another,
after another. Five burning hulks came floating
past our vessel on the
Now was the time to run ashore and run we
did. We weaved our way passed spent heavy
shell casings praying
that no more were on their deadly way. No
time to look back now as we sought the shelter
the boats on the
hardstanding. Another quarter of an hour
was to pass before an all clear was declared.
I’ve never seen such devastation, but
during the whole event it felt as though
it was a film.
Removal of the bodies was a gruesome task.
Rather than being ‘charred’ as
I expected, I found it very bizarre that
bodies were white, arms and legs rigid in
the final death throes of the fire.
That night myself and the three South Africans
were accommodated ‘for our own safety’ in
what was described as the
officers hostel. The bars on the windows
and doors, and us all sleeping together in
one room with a seven man
guard really gave it away. We were never
permitted to stray more than 100 yards from
Day 12. Saturday 22nd March 2008
This was now the time (I felt) to make contact
with the British High Commissioner. He was
unavailable to make a visit
as he had no driver, but would endeavour
to make representations the following day.
Day 13. Sunday 23rd March 2008
The British High Commissioner turned up today.
He was of very little help as his authority
was not recognised by the
naval base commander. Indeed he had other
pressing matters later in the day, he had
to get back
in time to watch the
Up to now the Marines had always kept their
personal weapons with them. At one point
after the Commissioner had
left, a marine stood his rifle against the
wall next to where I was sitting. He took
some empty coke bottles into the
kitchen. He was a friendly chap who I had
known for a week or so and we got on well.
At this point where despair was almost total,
all that went through my mind was ‘pick
up the rifle, kill him and run’. It
then dawned on me that yes, one would be
dead and we could move to the door, but the
outside would mow us down before we got past
the threshold. This thought stayed with me
until the marine returned
and reclaimed his weapon.
This was the only time in my life when I
have ever thought about and could possibly
killed a man for real.
Day 14. Monday 24th March 2008
Easter Monday, our deliverance day! I’m
not religious but the significance of the
hell of Good Friday and our release
on Easter Monday was not lost on me.
We had been instructed by the company, through
mobile phone calls, to show the marines how
to operate our vessel
the ‘Spitfire’ and all her idiosyncrasies.
It was after this familiarisation with our
vessel that I felt the most vulnerable. In
effect they no longer needed us for anything
to do with the vessel.
It appeared now that we had become a liability.
With the tragic loss of the navy’s
vessels and men on the Friday and a
heightened risk of us ‘whites’ being
kidnapped by the militants we became a genuine
risk to their operations.
Therefore at 4:30pm out of the blue, our
associate the ex Nigerian Police Chief turned
up at the
naval base. After
some discussion and paperwork we were dispatched
in two military vehicles, two armed guards
in each, to Port
Harcourt for a hotel room. The next morning
we caught the first available flight out
What a relief!
The following two weeks were spent in a Lagos
hotel waiting to see if release orders would
have any effect on us
returning for the ship.
This period allowed us to reflect, report
and talk through the events of the previous
I think this helped me
hugely as I found it a relief to be able
to talk about what I’d seen instead
of coming straight back home and maybe
keeping the death and destruction all bottled
The Nigerian Authorities did not release
our patrol boat, so one month after arriving
was back on another British
Airways flight back to blighty and the security
We came to the conclusion that it was always
the intention of the Nigerians to acquire
our patrol vessel. Several
representations had been made to our company
for the purchase of our vessel during pre-planning
discussions, which had been refused.
We felt the explosion incident was simply
the accident waiting to happen. The militants
of their doing when the extent
of death and destruction finally became known.
The militants and the authorities made denials,
claims and counter
claims which resulted in widely inaccurate
reporting of this incident across Africa
and in the European press.
nigerian navy pathfinders’ to view
several media reports of this incident.
This account, albeit with some detail and
names omitted for obvious reasons, is to
times, dates and
casualty reports as accurately as possible
from personnel who were there!
It is not unknown for deceit and corruption
at the highest level to occur in this part
of the world. Google: ‘vanishing oil
tankers’ to get some of the background
The Militants (MEND)
The Movement for the Emancipation of the
Niger Delta believe they are fighting corruption
as the oil taxation revenues
were originally imposed to ensure that education
and health policies and programs were established
for the good of
the nation. They are having a major impact
on the reduction of revenues through piracy,
sabotage of pipelines and oil
production facilities, kidnapping and murder.
The BBC reported June 2008 that the
called a ceasefire. MEND says it
wants to secure more autonomy and control
resources for the Niger
Delta, but the conflict now is a complex
web involving armed gangs, political corruption
and criminal rackets. Recent reports suggest
that MEND are still very active in the