PROTECTING ships from blood thirsty pirates is a thing normally found in adventure books and films.
But for Wisbech man Paulo De Sa it is an everyday reality in his job as a sea marshal offering protection to merchant ships sailing in the hostile waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
The Portuguese-born businessman and his professional security teams regularly find themselves under attack from Somali pirates infamous for hijacking ships and holding them and their crews to ransom.
The recent case of retired Kent couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, who found themselves held hostage for 388 days by Somali pirates, highlighted the risks faced by vessels around the Horn of Africa and in the Malacca Strait of the Indian Ocean.
Mr De Sa, an ex-paratrooper with more than 20 years experience of working in the security industry, is a director of ISSG - International Ship Support Group, which is based in the Seychelles and Comoros.
But he is opening a UK branch, which will be based in Wisbech, his adopted home town for the past few years.
However, for anyone thinking of applying for the role of ‘pirate fighter’ it is not a job for the faint-hearted or for the gung-ho.
There is a strict employment policy which means recruits for the security teams have to undergo rigorous checks and tests including psychological testing before being taken on.
And only ex-service personnel, preferably with front-line battle experience, need apply.
“We are very strict about the type of people we employ. There are no civilians. We need to know the people we are taking on have military discipline and know how to behave. One step out of line and they are off the ship at the next port,” said Mr De Sa.
He spends a large part of his time on the high seas leading small security teams on board ships including oil tankers and has found himself on the receiving end of rocket propelled grenades and automatic gunfire many times.
“The pirates come in on four of five small craft and they circle the ship for many hours studying it. We can see them on the radar and know they are coming. We always have the advantage.
“We are prepared, we are well disciplined. We know the pirates are ill-disciplined they will race in firing their guns spraying the bullets everywhere.
“We have to operate under a strict international code. We have to warn them there are armed personnel on board. We also have to fire warning shots. Often that is enough and they will leave to look for a softer target.
“Sometimes they will attack and then we find ourselves having to return fire. But we have the advantage we have planned our defensive positions and we aim properly rather than simply opening fire,” said Mr De Sa, who knows if the pirates ever succeed in taking the ship he and his team will be killed.
“They don’t want to kill the crew, they want to take them and the ship hostage so they can ransom it for upwards of $5 million. But it is different for the security team, they will just kill us it is as simple as that,” said Mr De Sa, who said a team of just four or five sea marshals is enough to fight off four or five boat loads of pirates.
He said once an attack is imminent the crew is sent to a safe room on the ship, where they can be protected from the pirates’ gunfire and the security team take over.
Some countries don’t allow armed personnel on its ships but Mr De Sa’s company offers help to shipping companies teaching them useful tactics such as manoeuvres to help beat the pirates.
“It is an exciting business to be in, but it is also dangerous - I know that I could be killed but it is a way of life for me and I know what I am doing, I am always well prepared and my teams are well-trained. But you cannot be sure exactly what is going to happen, you just have to live with the knowledge you could die,” concluded Mr De Sa.