Capt. Michael Tolley has been a self-described gypsy all of his life.

Tolley, who lives in Waldoboro, is a merchant mariner who has worked for Sealift Inc. for the past 10 years. He said he’s had great trips as a captain for Sealift, with the exception of two harrowing days in 2009, when pirates off the coast of Somalia attempted to board his ship, the 567-foot motor vessel Harriette.

“I feel very fortunate,” he said of the experience. “We prevailed over the pirates.”

On Nov. 1, 2009, the Harriette, carrying 21 crew members and four South African security guards, left Mombasa, Kenya, after two weeks of delivering food to Somali refugees in that country. Sealift is one of the largest ocean transportation contractors for U.S. Government Food Aid cargoes.

Captain’s career starts in Maine

A 1993 graduate of Maine Maritime Academy and a former naval officer, Tolley said he has been at sea his whole life, sailing and steaming from San Diego to Germany and from Mexico to Alaska.

“The antidote to the Navy was sailing tall ships,” he said. Tolley was first mate and captain of the schooner Roseway, out of Camden from 1997 to 2000. During that period, he met his wife, Kim, a passenger on the Roseway. The two were married aboard the schooner while sailing in the Caribbean.

Tolley said there is no place like Maine to live in and to sail.

“We’ve got the best seamen in the world,” he said.

He said he got his “first real job” in December 2000, when he walked onto his first assignment for Sealift.

“The keel of that ship had been laid the day I was born,” he said.

“I like the mission,” Tolley said. “We are taking food aid all over the world, primarily to Africa.” Sealift operates 13 ships, four of which are focused on food relief missions.

“We complain about immigration problems in the U.S. when 3,000 Mexicans cross the border,” he said. “There are 300,000 Somali refugees in Kenya.”

Aid ship encounters pirates

Tolley said he was headed due east off the coast on Nov. 2, 2009, before making his course to Bombay, India.

“It was about 10:45 a.m. and I was going through accounts, counting money in the safe and making sure the books were OK,” he said.

“The third mate called, ‘Captain, we have inbound boats.’ I threw the money into the safe and ran to the bridge,” he said. “I was there in two seconds flat.”

Tolley said he looked off his port bow and saw two 20-foot-long white skiffs, similar to Boston whalers in shape and style. The boats were closing in at a rate of 40 knots due to the relative speeds of both the Harriette and the smaller craft. Seconds after he first saw them, the skiffs were alongside the Harriette.

Tolley said he knew the skiffs were carrying pirates because of the location and because they looked like those he’d seen in photographs.

At that time the chief engineer, the chief mate, the boatswain and an able-bodied seaman were on deck repairing a hydraulic leak. Tolley set the seaman to hand steering and had him turn left a minimal amount to put one of the skiffs under the ship’s bow.

“As soon as the skiff was under the bow I ordered her hard left, and I hit him,” Tolley said. “I thought it was my best chance, and it was a long shot because they’re so maneuverable.”

Meanwhile, the second skiff crossed the bow to starboard and then came back to the port side. The first skiff came back around.

“It didn’t take him long to recover,” Tolley said. He said the pirates had ladders about as long as their boats, with wide hooks, and they were putting a ladder up the side of the Harriette.

“Then I was sure they were pirates,” he said. He said that at the time, they were not far from Mogadishu, the capital and largest city of Somalia.

“They generally will fire a rocket-propelled grenade to try to intimidate a ship’s captain,” he said. “And we were totally unarmed. It was definitely scary.”

Tolley said he saw the pirate’s ladder come over the Harriette‘s rail.

“I didn’t know if I had enough time to get to after steering,” he said. After steering is an exit spot on the ship that can be locked down for safety. Crew members can be safe there, but at temperatures well over 100 degrees, it is far from comfortable, he said.

“As soon as I saw that ladder I knew I had no choice,” he said. “I had to get out on the bridge wing and counteract what they were doing.” Tolley said the bridge wing is about 80 feet above the surface of the water, while the deck is only 17 feet above the sea.

“My ship is a prime target, because she’s low and slow,” he said. The Harriette‘s average speed is about 14 knots.

“When they saw me out on the bridge wing, I think they got nervous,” Tolley said. “When they started to get their ladder on the rail, I ordered hard right and the ship heeled over, away from their ladder.”

Defender uses paintball gun to fool boarders

“Now they were nervous,” he said. “Their backs were toward me. I was out on the bridge wing and they didn’t know what I had.” What Tolley had in his arms was a paintball gun. “I’m not all that accurate with it,” he said.

He said the hired security agents on the ship had no guns and were not making their presence known to the pirates.

“My chief engineer was putting maximum revolutions on the engine,” he said. He said that at 145 rpm, the engine was running about 10 percent faster than he’d ever had it before.

“That was risky, but we were in the fight of our lives,” he said.

He said he continued to maneuver the ship across an almost flat sea.

“It was a beautiful day,” he said. “The conditions were perfect for attacking a ship.” He said the skiffs continued to fall back until they were just below him.

“Everything was in slow motion at this point,” Tolley said. The ship and its pirate companions were traveling about 15 knots.

“Adrenaline was pumping,” he said. “I was just screaming, ‘You’re never going to get on this ship! Get out of here.'”

“A guy stood up with an RPG,” Tolley said. “I had my paintball gun. He started up and was climbing right at me. The skiff was loaded with Kalashnikovs.” Tolley said the second skiff had crossed over to the port side and overshot, almost capsizing in the wake created by Tolley’s maneuvering of the larger vessel.

One skiff took up a position on the Harriettes port quarter, just behind the bridge wing with the other just off the stern.

By that time, the rest of the ship’s crew members were inside. The chief mate approached Tolley, asking what he wanted the crew to do.

“I said we wanted to show face,” he said. “We didn’t want to be intimidated. Then I saw his face and said, ‘Forget it. Keep everybody inside.'”

Tolley said he could not endanger his crew just to convince the pirates everyone was not afraid. Tolley and one of the hired South African guards were the only people on the Harriette‘s deck.

“Right after [the mate] went back in to join the crew, they shot,” he said.

One of the pirates fired off about 15 to 20 rounds, hitting one of the Harriette‘s lifeboats, just aft of where Tolley was standing.

“A few of those ricochets came really close,” he said.

“At this point, I knew I had them beat,” he said. “They were falling back. They were in my wake and I wasn’t stopping for anything.”

“I wasn’t going to give up the ship.” Tolley said. “No way. I’m an old Navy man. I would never give up my ship. That ship is my home, my second family.”

Mariner sympathetic to plight of Somalia

“What’s really sad is there’s a whole generation with no education, no social services and no real government,” Tolley said. “If we were in their shoes we’d be doing the same things to survive.”

He said international fishing boats are overfishing in Somali waters.

“These were fishermen, in most cases, who had turned to piracy,” Tolley said. “Now they’re an example to younger kids and there’s more and more activity.” He said coalition warships in the Gulf of Aden are pushing the pirates farther south and east.

“They’re after good old American dollars,” he said.

Tolley said he was heading south at the end of the encounter and then turned due east and up toward Bombay. He still had three days of travel along the coast of Somalia.

“The hard fight, what seemed like an hour and a half, two hours, a lifetime, was only 25 minutes,” he said.

He said he expects to return to sea in the fall, after a cross-country trip with his family.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, but I feel confident that we can handle our own,” he said. Tolley said he would not return to those waters without firearms.

“If I didn’t have weapons on board I would be negligent,” he said. “I told the company I wouldn’t go back without guns.”

“I have a crew to protect, a wife and three kids,” he said. “It’s sad that’s what it’s come to, but it’s getting progressively worse. The world community has to say it’s enough. We’ve got to finish the job in Somalia and improve living conditions.” He said the situation will continue to be dangerous until there is a legitimate government in Somalia.

“We’re civilians,” Tolley said of himself and the crew of the Harriette. “My company, my union, they all expect the government to do something.” He said there should be sea marshals on commercial ships in dangerous waters, similar to the air marshals on some commercial flights.

“But that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Still, Tolley said he enjoys his work.

“It was a great voyage,” he said. “I was shot at. I went around a super typhoon gusting 225 knots, and an earthquake. We delivered the cargo. All in all, it was 230 good days at sea.”

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.