Pirates threatened to burn Montrose man alive

Joe Westland
Joe Westland

A Montrose sea captain was told he would be burnt alive by Nigerian pirates who held him hostage for four days and demanded a £750,000 ransom.

Joe Westland (63) was skippering the Saint Patrick construction barge, which took supplies to oil rigs, while it was stationed 11 miles off the coast of Nigeria, as its crew waited for a new crane to be installed. In the early hours of a May morning, it was attacked by Nigerian pirates and Mr Westland was taken as a hostage.

The captain, who had worked out in Nigeria for 11 years, said the vessel had been anchored for 10 days and at about 1 a.m. on May 14, 2013, he woke up to the sound of glass smashing, as around 20 pirates used a sledgehammer to gain entry and raid the barge.

Mr Westland, from Aberdeen, who moved to Angus 30 years ago, firstly to Brechin and then Montrose, said: “I heard them smashing cabin doors, so I hid in my en suite bathroom and locked the door. Then I heard them smashing my cabin door. Next, I saw sledgehammers coming through my bathroom door. They started to knock down the bathroom wall as well, I didn’t want to get hurt, so I opened the door to see six pirates in my cabin.

“At first, I just thought they wanted to steal everything, they took TVs, mobile phones, laptops, wallets, and asked me for the vessel’s money, which I gave them.

“Then they said ‘you’re coming with us’.”

The pirates, armed with AK-47 guns, travelling in two high-powered speedboats, one with Mr Westland as a hostage, who was forced to lie down flat in the boat, also attacked two other vessels, including a tanker, the Lady Swathin.

They failed to gain entry to the first vessel, but raided the Lady Swathin, where again they stole money, mobile phones and laptops. Shots were fired, but no one was hurt.

Mr Westland: “While we were travelling towards land, one young member, who was about 15 years old, stuck a gun in my face and said ‘I hope your company has lots of money, we want £750,000 and if they don’t pay us, we’ll set you on fire and burn you alive.’”

The skipper was taken to a small mosquito-ridden wooden shack hidden in mangroves, where he was given no food, and only a small water bottle and a pack of cigarettes, while Nigerian pirates stood watch with AK-47 guns and wore his watch, wedding ring and other jewellery belonging to him.

His captors called his manager the next day, demanding £750,000.

The captain said: “I had a wire on while they phoned him and I heard them say to my manager ‘If you want to see your captain alive, you will give us the money’.

“I never thought I was going to get out of there alive.”

Negotiations began between PW Nigeria, the company that owned the barge at the time, and the pirates, but the ransom demands were still more than £500,000.

Mr Westland’s health deteriorated and he contracted malaria from being “bitten allover” by mosquitos.

On May 16, two days after Mr Westland had been taken hostage, he faked a heart attack. The next morning, he faked another one. He said the pretence saved his life and was a last ditch attempt to get out of the kidnapping alive and get home to his wife Helen (68).

He added: “I knew the pirates weren’t going to accept the reduced amount my company was suggesting, and I didn’t want to spend another week there.

“The pirates panicked. They really believed I’d had two heart attacks and were scared that I was going to die and they weren’t going to get their money. They kept pouring water over me to cool me down.”

The pirates accepted reduced ransom of £56,000 and Mr Westland was taken by boat to a handover, where he was handed over to two PW workers in exchange for a holdall of cash.

He said: “Even then, I didn’t think I was going to get out alive. What was there stopping the pirates from shooting the two workers and then shooting me?”

“When I saw some lights from a village as we neared the shore, that’s the first time I thought I might survive this,” he added.

The captain was taken to Port Harcourt where he was given medical attention and treated for malaria. He was then taken west to Lagos where he was met by officials from the British High Commission, before being flown back to Scotland on May 21, a week after he had been captured. His wife Helen and daughter Tracey (44) were waiting for him at Aberdeen Airport.

He said: “When I saw them it was amazing, I never thought I was going to see my family again. We just hugged and all broke into tears.”

“I’ve been working at sea since I was 15, but after what happened I don’t think I’ll be going back to sea again, any ship would remind me of what happened. I’ll never go back to Nigeria. I’ll never forget what happened,” he concluded

Mr Westland, who is still recovering, plans to write a book telling the story of his ordeal in detail to try and stop anyone else working offshore in Nigeria from being captured by pirates.