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Meet the tugboat captain who stared down armed pirates

From Becky Anderson and Gisella Deputato, CNN
updated 8:53 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
  • Viktor Nikolsky is the captain of the Neptune tugboat in the port of St. Petersburg
  • He was captured by pirates while sailing aboard the MV Faina off the coast of Somalia in 2008
  • The Faina was held captive for just over four months

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(CNN) -- As captain of the Neptune tugboat, Viktor Nikolsky spends his days gently directing giant cargo vessels in and around the vast port of St. Petersburg, Russia.

It's a job that requires patience, concentration and flawless planning. But life on the water wasn't always so rigidly structured -- far from it.

Behind the sailor's steely visage lie memories of distant shores, daring adventures and a terrifying ordeal at the hands of pirates.

A boat in the distance

Nikolsky hesitates when recalling the moment he realized armed bandits were fast approaching his ship off the coast of Somalia.

As the first mate of the MV Faina, Nikolsky was in charge of 21 crewmen and cargo aboard the Ukrainian operated freight vessel transporting aging Soviet military equipment to the port of Mombasa, Kenya, via the Gulf of Aden.

We knew that the Somalian region was very dangerous for navigation
Viktor Nikolsky, tugboat captain

See also: Where are the world's piracy hotspots?

"We knew that the Somalian region was very dangerous for navigation and we planned our way to stay 250 miles from the shore," Nikolsky explained.

On the September 25, 2008, however, the ship's second officer approached Nikolsky to inform him he had spotted two small dots in the distance moving towards the Faina at speed.

Despite sailing more than five times the recommended distance from the coast as a precaution against hijacking, the fast moving dots were speedboats carrying heavily armed pirates.

The assailants boarded the Faina and searched below the ship's decks, quickly realizing they had chanced upon valuable cargo.

The crew of the MV Faina look out to sea (Credit: Viktor Nikolsky)

"When they saw what kind of cargo they were surprised," Nikolsky said. "They put the prize for liberation to $50 million dollars. The usual prize for liberation was approximately not more than $1 million."

Hostage at sea

The discovery of the military cargo signaled the beginning of a four month standoff between the pirates and a host of parties with an interest in reclaiming the ship, including NATO, the U.S. Navy and the Kenyan government.

See also: Welcome aboard the world's biggest ship

A U.S. Navy ship kept watch of the Faina from a distance while pirates patrolled the decks.

We were afraid that the pirates when they left the vessel left some explosive
Viktor Nikolsky, tugboat captain

Bargaining chips in the middle of all this were Nikolsky and his crew. At the time of the attack, the ship's captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, had taken seriously ill, tragically passing away a week later. This meant Nikolsky was in command when the pirates attacked.

They decided to separate him from his colleagues. Nikolsky remained under guard on the ship's bridge while the remaining crew members were held in a small cabin roughly 14 meters across.

"I spent all my highjacking life on the table like that (pointing to a small dinner table) without anything."

As the days and weeks passed, Nikolsky began to talk to the leader of the pirates, eventually gaining his trust. He negotiated better conditions for the hostages as well as permission to go above deck to get some fresh air.

"The crew was under control all the time. I insisted (they) must have a rest, must have a walk at the open air. Because if a person lies (down) all the time, he will have a problem with his stomach.

During these breaks, the crew would talk to each other and even plot to take on the pirates if the opportunity arose.

See also: What happens to goods lost at sea?

At one stage, when it looked as though a ransom would not be achieved, the pirates intimated they would transfer the crew to Somalia in order to obtain a separate ransom for each individual. Nikolsky said his heart sank at this moment.

Free at last

Finally, on the February 5, 2009, an agreement with the pirates was reached which saw them receive $3.2 million, a fraction of what they originally asked for. They left, and the ship and crew free to go.

For Nikolsky, it signaled the end of four months of unrelenting pressure.

Armed pirates aboard the MV Faina (Credit: Getty Images)

"We couldn't believe it," he said of their moment of liberation. "We were afraid that the pirates when they left the vessel left some explosive."

"I asked the commander of the navy (who boarded the Faina shortly after the pirates disembarked) to check everything. He told us that everything was clear and all the pirates left the vessel."

The Faina sailed into the port of Mombasa, Kenya, a few days later where Nikolsky was reunited with his wife and family.

On their return to Russia, the family resolved that Viktor should seek a job that would be less unpredictable than life at sea.

That decision has led Nikolsky to St. Petersburg where he navigates vessels 10 times the size of his own into and out of the city's harbor.

But while he enjoys being close to his family, that itch for life at sea still remains.

"Sometimes when I dream I see the very clear water and my ship moving over the clear water in open sea," he said. "But I spent at sea all of my life, 45 years ... (and) now I like my village, I like my job here."

Eoghan Macguire contributed to this article

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