In 2009 oil tankers, container vessels and luxury liners sailing down the east coast of Africa were constantly vulnerable to hijack by drug-addled pirates armed with rocket launchers and AK-47s. In one three-week period no fewer than 17 container ships were attacked – one of them the Maersk Alabama, which was boarded by four Somali pirates in a super-fast skiff who demanded a $1million ransom for its release.
The story of how the ship’s commander was rescued by US Navy Seals was turned into a blockbuster movie called Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks.
But a former Royal Marine from Ormskirk, Lancashire, called Dom Mee has an equally gripping story.
He began offering protection to vessels off the Horn of Africa in the same year the Maersk was boarded.
In time he found himself controlling the biggest private navy since the Dutch East India Company more than a century before.
His five patrol boats were armed to the teeth and he commanded more than 1,000 battle hardened troops, most former Royal Marines, whom he stationed aboard his clients’ ships.
Now he has told the inside story of his exploits protecting thousands of multi-million pound ships from pirates in a page-turning memoir Warlord Of The Seas.
In the early days cruise ships and tankers refused to allow guns aboard, forcing Mee to employ cruder methods of repelling pirates.
While his colleagues sharpened machetes and honed steel rods into lethal lances, Mee favoured his short-handled axe.
“It’s perfect in a confined space where I’ll only get one chance to split a head like a watermelon,” says Mee, 47, who doesn’t mince his words.
He also had a soft spot for fire bombs, which consist of empty beer bottles filled with unleaded petrol.
He adds motor oil to each incendiary cocktail for what might be described as humanitarian reasons.
“Oil helps flames stick to the target,” he says.
“I’m an honourable man so hate to see prolonged suffering – it’s fairer to both parties if they die quickly.”
His private navy grew as hijacking attempts soared off the coast of Africa and in the Gulf of Oman.
After all, £250million oil tankers and passenger-filled luxury cruise liners made tempting targets.
Almost weekly ships fell to pirate attack.
“Fighting pirates was not to be taken lightly,” says Mee.
“We had to revert to real brutality. It could be hand-to-hand combat, showing no mercy. But we tried to avoid violence. Sometimes we could outrun them. One time I was taking a super-yacht to the Seychelles when just after dawn we stumbled upon 21 pirate boats. Fortunately there was an early morning radiation fog and we escaped into the mist.”
Governments and navies offered them little help, he claims.
“The navy ships were vastly outnumbered by pirates and the EU laid down a crazy catch-and release rule, if a pirate was captured their weapons were confiscated, then they were fed, watered and sent home to do it all again.
“It was incredible. Governments were greeting medieval violence with 21st-century morality. I also felt for the poor sailors taken hostage. They were often beaten, malnourished and abused while companies haggled for months over the ransom. I felt that I could make a difference.”
Yet many governments viewed Mee’s privateers as little better than the pirates: “I was aghast that naval officers called us cowboys and mercenaries.
“We were men of honour there to protect lives and property, while they refused to arm vessels and their catch-and-release policy only encouraged more pirates.”
Mee’s nemesis was Somali pirate king Garaad Mohamed, who vowed revenge after losing several of his pirates in the retaking of the Maersk Alabama.
“Garaad, who commanded up to 800 rag-tag pirates and countless skips and dhows, masterminded the first multi-million pound hijack.
Shipping companies would soon routinely pay £3million for the return of a vessel. Some paid up to £6million. I left that to hostage negotiators. I prefer to negotiate with pirates down the barrel of a 7.62 riflle .”
Mee, who earned his green beret at 19 and spent eight years with the Royal Marines 40 Commando unit and in special ops, is an adventurer at heart, happiest when pushing his limits.
After quitting the Marines he trekked solo across the Arctic, where a musk ox broke four of his ribs.
He rowed through three typhoons across the Pacific before getting shipwrecked.
And he survived five hurricanes sailing across the Atlantic in a kite-powered 14ft dinghy before getting shipwrecked once again.
Within days of his last shipwreck, Mee was aboard a Russian oligarch’s super-yacht, hired to protect it from the rising tide of marauding pirates.
“I could see that piracy was about to explode in the Indian Ocean and, with my skill-set from the Royal Marines, launched a maritime security business,” he explains.
Much to the EU’s chagrin, its forgiving catch-and-release rule encouraged an explosion in piracy from Djibouti and Somalia, until shipping lines belatedly recognised that Mee’s security crews had to be armed.
“We had an array of T3 sniper rifles, 7.62 sniper rifles, Heckler & Koch G3s, SIG-Sauer 542s, and a huge batch of British SLR rifles, PMK light machine-guns firing 100 rounds per minute, a couple of FNs and a bunch of AR-15s.
“In any one month I had about 800 guys deployed on up to 200 ships and another 200 guys in reserve. I had four gunboats, a fast-intercept boat, a dive support vessel that served as a floating armoury and two fast rigid inflatables.”
Mee never surrendered a ship yet nearly lost everything when four British security men aboard one of his gunboats in the Red Sea suffered mechanical problems and limped into Eritrea.
“My men were arrested as terrorists plotting a coup,” he says.
Desperate, he planned to sell his company to fund a £3million jailbreak, hiring ruthless South African mercenaries to free the captive crew.
“I knew that some of us would die in the attempt but I couldn’t live with myself without trying.”
Luckily the British government negotiated the men’s release after 172 days’ incarceration before he had a chance to launch his suicide mission.
“My crews fought off hundreds of hijack attempts and I’m proud to say that I never lost a man or had one wounded, though we killed a few pirates along the way.”
One casualty of the piracy wars was his first marriage to wife Angela, which ended in divorce.
“I don’t blame her,” says Mee.
“I was on call 24/7, with no holidays. It was tough.”
Mee now watches the ocean from the string of luxury holiday villas that he rents out in Sri Lanka, with his second wife Anna and their three young sons.
“I do miss my time on the high seas, but most of all I miss the camaraderie,” he confesses.
The increased firepower of shipping security and the end of the catchand -release policy has seen piracy diminish.
“When we started firing back, suddenly it wasn’t such easy money,” says Mee.
“Today every ship is armed. But pirates are still out there. They always will be as long as there’s a fortune floating around on the ocean waiting to be taken.”