Captain who fought off pirate gunmen says he 'felt a bit excited'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2009, 12:00am

Just over a month ago, Peng Weiyuan's sole aim was to avoid capture by Somali pirates. Now his main goal is to escape the public's gaze and spend time with his family.

In the six weeks since he and his 29 crew members dramatically fended off the armed pirates in the Gulf of Aden, Mr Peng has been hailed a national hero - a title he rejects.

'I'm not a hero. I have always been an ordinary person. I just came across an unusual situation and did what a captain is supposed to do,' the 57-year-old told hundreds of people who turned out in sub-zero temperatures and biting winds to welcome the cargo ship Zhenhua 4 home to Shanghai last week.

He praised his crew for the immense courage they had shown.

When nine gunmen stormed the vessel, Mr Peng and his crew held the would-be hostage-takers at bay for four hours.

'I was not that nervous,' Mr Peng said. 'Instead, I even felt a bit excited ... like we could finally put all our training into practice.'

Although this was the sailors' first voyage through the Gulf of Aden, the captain implemented emergency drills and prepared for various contingencies in the days before they reached the area.

'I knew the Gulf of Aden was plagued by pirates, so I was always thinking about how to defend ourselves,' he said.

To ensure his crew were mentally prepared, he regularly reminded them of details such as what pirates and their boats looked like and their method of attack.

When two pirate boats carrying nine men approached the Zhenhua 4 at about 8am on December 17, the captain raised the alarm and called his company, the Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Corp, and the Chinese maritime authorities for help.

After that, everything happened as he and the crew had planned.

They removed the ladders connecting the main deck to their elevated accommodation cabin and some of the crew locked themselves inside. Others readied high-pressure fire hoses and petrol bombs made from empty beer bottles.

Seven pirates boarded the ship with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and machine guns. Three of them, all barefoot, tried to get into the cabin but were surprised - and suffered injuries - when the crew threw some of the petrol bombs.

The pirates gave up trying to reach the cabin, and instead began to demand shoes and fuel. They remained on board even when a Malaysian navy helicopter reached the vessel and opened fire on them.

When the helicopter flew off, the pirates renewed their attempt to enter the cabin, sapping the energy of the sailors, who by now had been defending themselves for two hours.

'This was the most dangerous moment. If they got into the cabin we would become hostages,' the captain said.

The crew was saved by a white lie told by second officer Liu Yongzhi , who was in charge of calling for help and sending emergency signals.

'When I saw that most of us were tired, I shouted that we had already contacted a warship and we just had to fight for a few more minutes.

'Then the crew threw whatever they had to hand at the pirates, who finally gave up,' the 33-year-old from Fujian said with a grin.

The crew did eventually make contact with the Malaysian warship and decided to steer towards it, prompting the pirates to give up their assault.

The pirates' leader gave the sailors a thumbs-up in recognition of their courage, before leaving with some shoes and Chinese cigarettes from the crew.

'Everyone cheered up then. Some of the sailors said it was as if I had directed a movie, because all the scenes played out in accordance with my prediction,' Mr Peng said with a smile. 'But I also think we were a bit lucky.'

Their employer paid the crew US$300,000 in recognition of their bravery and awarded Mr Peng a gold medal.

Mr Peng said all the attention had made him feel awkward, and his biggest hope now was to have a good rest and spend time with his family. He might think of retirement in a few years and turn to farming, which had always been his hobby.