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April 2009

MSC aids Mariners in need
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Catawba assists MV Faina during 4-month pirate captivity

By Gillian Brigham, SEALOGEUR Public Affairs

The crew of MV Faina stands on the deck
Nov. 9, the crew of MV Faina stands on the deck after a U.S. Navy request to check on their health and welfare. The Belize-flagged cargo ship was seized by pirates Sept. 25 and forced to proceed to anchorage off the Somali Coast. Catawba assisted Faina's crew during their time held captive. U.S. Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

Twice a day for four months the crew of USNS Catawba heard the voice of acting Capt. Viktor Nikolsky crackle over the radio waves to the U.S. Navy ships nearby watching his vessel. He talked about food, about medicine and about the pirates that were holding him and his crew hostage. His voice was weak and tired but, despite the circumstances, unflappably positive. Every night he ended his transmission with the same farewell: "Good night, good dreams to you, your crew and your captain."

Catawba Third Mate Robert Tenenholz listened in on these calls each day.

"Even though it was tough for him, he was always very respectful and very thankful," said Tenenholz. "It is a true testament to why his crew was able to make it through more than four months in captivity."

Nikolsky was the first mate aboard the Ukrainian-owned, Belize-flagged cargo ship MV Faina when it was captured by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean on Sept. 25. The ship's captain reportedly died of a heart attack shortly after the ship was captured, leaving Nikolsky and Faina's remaining 19 crew members at the mercy of the Somali pirates.

The ship, which was carrying 33 Soviet-made tanks and other ammunition, was quickly surrounded by U.S. Navy ships in the region because of concerns that the sensitive cargo would fall into the wrong hands.

Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Catawba, led by civil service master Capt. Charles Rodriguez, was one of the ships U.S. 5th Fleet sent to keep watch over Faina during the long months the ship's ransom was being negotiated.

USNS Catawba provides fuel and fresh water to MV Faina
Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tug USNS Catawba provides fuel and fresh water to MV Faina following the cargo ship's release by Somali pirates Feb. 5 after Faina's crew had been captive for more than four months. The U.S. Navy remained within visual range of Faina and maintained a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week presence. The ship was attacked on Sept. 25 and forced to proceed to anchorage off the Somali coast. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael R. McCormick

Of the 134 days Faina's crew spent in captivity, Catawba was present for 110 of them, arriving on-scene in mid-October a couple weeks after the ship was captured.

While the pirates were on board, Faina was kept anchored eight miles off the coast of Hobyo, Somalia. Catawba joined guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf and guided-missile destroyers USS Mason and USS Mahan near Faina's position.

During Catawba's time on station, the crew acted as though they were out at sea on a routine mission. They ran weekly fire and boat drills. They conducted basic training and the daily upkeep of the vessel. But they also prepared for the threats and contingency plans associated with their mission. Catawba frequently drilled with the other U.S. Navy ships in the vicinity and let visit, board, search and seizure teams practice boarding and searching Catawba.

Catawba and the U.S. Navy combatants assigned to keep watch over Faina were also re-supplied multiple times by MSC fleet replenishment oilers USNS Laramie, USNS Patuxent and USNS Tippecanoe.

After four months of eyeing the pirates from a distance, circling Faina and listening to Nikolsky's nightly battle to remain hopeful in the face of mounting despair, there was a breakthrough.

Somali pirates on MV Faina
Some of the Somali pirates who captured the crew of MV Faina stand on the deck of the ship holding weapons. U.S. Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

On Feb. 5, a helicopter flying over the deck of Faina dropped a package containing the $3.2-million ransom needed to free the ship from its captors. The pirates soon made their escape.

Catawba's crew immediately began making preparations to get Faina underway. The tug tied up alongside the cargo ship and sent Chief Mate Richard Satter and Third Assistant Engineer Bryan Villanova aboard after U.S. Navy security teams conducted a safety sweep of the vessel.

While aboard the freed ship, Satter and Villanova supervised as Faina received the necessary fuel from Catawba to get underway.

"From an engineering standpoint, the T-ATF class of tugs is not designed to refuel ships at sea," said Villanova. "But with a bit of ingenuity we were able to rig a two-and-a-half inch hose that we normally use to refuel ourselves from T-AOs. We gave them about 6,500 gallons of fuel, which took about an hour of pumping time."

The two mariners also prepped the ship to be towed by Catawba although, ultimately, Faina was able to sail into port on its own power.

Crew members from MV Faina and USNS Catawba
Crew members from MV Faina join crew members from Catawba after being freed from four months in captivity. U.S. Navy photo

Before getting underway, Catawba's crew filled up their ship's five-gallon jugs with water for Faina's mariners. The tug crew donated shoes, shirts, coveralls, socks, underwear, shampoo, soap, Gatorade and food. In a final act of generosity, the civil service mariners aboard Catawba personally gave more than $2,100 to help Faina's crew get back on their feet.

"It really wasn't about Ukrainians, Russians or Americans anymore," said Tenenholz. "It was about merchant mariners lending a hand to those we share an ocean with. There was nothing more rewarding than being able to help put a smile on the face of our fellow mariners after their five months in captivity."

Villanova even exchanged e-mail addresses with one of Faina's engineers so they could keep in touch.

Thank you letter from MV Faina crew

"I will remember this for the rest of my life," said Villanova. "I'm glad I was here and able to help, honored even to be asked to represent my country in aid to this ship."

At midnight on Feb. 7, Faina finally set sail and was escorted by Catawba and Mason to Mombasa, Kenya, where the ship's crew disembarked and flew home to the Ukraine.

Prior to Faina's arrival in Kenya, Nikolsky and his crew sent a letter to Rodriguez and the other mariners aboard Catawba. In the note, Nikolsky thanked Catawba's crew for saving their lives.

"We had the opportunity to do something that, in the end, was really, really, significant," said Rodriguez of the tug's mission. "Captain Nikolsky's letter brought it home to each of us. He let us know how truly significant our seemingly endless routine of standing by to provide assistance had been."

"The letter sent by the captain of MV Faina was the best letter I have received in my entire life," agreed Catawba's supply officer Efren Apostol. "I feel so proud of being a member of MSC."