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“Does the pirate already know who his pursuer is?” Read an exhilarating excerpt from Catching the Thunder

A story of courage and perseverance.

Wanted by Interpol, infamous poaching ship Thunder evaded justice for over 10 years. Illegally making millions a year, its crew hunted endangered species and destroyed ocean habitats. In Dec. 2014, Captain Hammarstedt of the Bob Barker and his crew began a relentless pursuit of the Thunder – a hazardous race across three oceans, the longest chase in maritime history.

The authors follow this incredible expedition, encountering criminal kingpins, rampant corruption, slavery and an international community content to turn a blind eye. Catching the Thunder becomes a symbolic race to save the planet.

Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Sæter were the first to tell the story of the hunt for Thunder in a series of newspaper articles. Both are award-winning investigative journalists in their own rights, between them winning the SKUP journalism award, the International Reporter’s Journalism Award and the Golden Pen, among others.

Read an extract!

The Southern Ocean,
December 2014

Everything is in motion.

The albatrosses, suspended effortlessly on the air current with their three-metre-long wings, now cross upward against the wind. Then they set out in a broad-reaching, leeward arc, plummet towards the surface of the ocean and turn back into the wind to ascend once more.

In the south, out of the Prydz Bay, an eternal, invisibly flowing stream transports ice from inner Antarctica to the coast. The winds rush out from the hinterland. Shaped by dense, cold air from the Antarctic continent, they sweep down the uncompromising polar plateau and inward across the coast.

The wind is blowing from the southwest at four knots; the ocean is flowing silently and calmly around the two ships and the waves swelling to heights of barely more than a metre. The Thunder is headed west. Does the pirate already know who his pursuer is? Is that why the mate on the Thunder is sailing in the opposite direction of the Bob Barker’s home port in Tasmania? Perhaps he wants to test how far Captain Peter Hammarstedt is willing to pursue them?

Suddenly, the Thunder changes course, heading in the direction of a belt of pack ice. The mate reduces the speed to two knots, heads northwest and around a square ice sheet. The two ships sail along the northern edge of the drift ice for a long while. When they enter a wide gulf with ice on all sides, the Thunder stops. It is as if for a moment the ship becomes aware of the danger that lies ahead.

“There’s a lot of pack ice. Let’s see what these guys do. They may turn, they might go in,” first mate Adam Meyerson says. “It is a waste of their time and ours. They may be testing us. We are faster than they are, so they cannot outrun us. Trying to wear down our jaw. I’m sure they are desperate. They have no other options,” he says.

“They are just going to see what we will do, I think. Let’s get in right on their stern,” Hammarstedt says.

During the brief lull, the Bob Barker’s photographer runs up on deck to take photographs of the draft marks, which indicate how high the Thunder is sitting in the water. This can give them an idea of the amount of supplies and fuel on board.

Then the Thunder doggedly directs its bow towards the pack ice, at first carefully and tentatively, as if the shipmaster wants to test how contact with the ice will affect the ship.

Suddenly, it speeds up and the propeller churns open an ice-free channel which allows the Bob Barker to follow without having to do any icebreaking of its own. Hammarstedt cannot follow more than 700–800 metres behind the Thunder, or the channel that has been cleared ahead of them will close up.

“Who knows what the game is?” asks Simon Ager, the Sea Shepherd’s Canadian photographer.

“They may be testing if we will go into the ice. They may try to see if they can go through the ice faster than us,” Meyerson says, holding one hand beneath his chin and observing the manoeuvre taking place in front of him with an incredulous gaze.

For a moment, Captain Hammarstedt considers calling up the captain of the Thunder and asking if he thinks the manoeuvre into the ice is advisable, but he decides against it. He does not want to reveal his own nervousness.

Hammarstedt’s foremost concern is that the ice will oblige him to stop. Then it will close up behind the Bob Barker and can force its way in between the hull and the rudder, putting the most exposed part of the ship out of commission. That is a nightmare when you are located two weeks from the closest port and the only ship in the vicinity is fighting to get rid of you. The most dangerous of all is navigating between the ice and the Antarctic continent if the wind should suddenly change direction, sending the ice masses towards the ship while the wind laboriously packs the ice around the hull, shutting it in. Then the steel will begin to give way, the pressure from the ice threatening to tear it open. In such a case, getting into the life boats serves no purpose.

“Right now the Thunder is acting erratically. Trying to find something that sticks. We have never been up against these guys before. We are going to wear them down. I don’t think they will last that long,” Meyerson says on the bridge.

The sound of the ice scraping along the hull is like stone against a grinding wheel. The noise grates its way into the cabins, from time to time an explosion can be heard from the treacherous floes of drift ice. These are “bergy bits”: on the surface they are no more than 2–3 metres across, but nothing on the ocean surface reveals the actual depths to which they extend. When they break free from a drifting ice berg and reach the ocean, they roll over, washing off the surface snow and remain floating there with a clear surface of glassy ice that makes them difficult to read on the radar. Weighing up to 500 tons, they can easily sink a ship.

Around the Thunder and the Bob Barker the ice grows thicker and thicker. First it closes in around the Thunder, subsequently the Bob Barker. The ships are surrounded by ice and they plough slowly forward. Soon Adam Meyerson can make out a clear blue strip of open sea. The Thunder moves out of the ice first, increases its speed and sets its course north, away from the ice.
From the bridge they watch as the Thunder grows smaller and smaller against the horizon, but they know they will manage to catch up with her as soon as they have broken through the last of the ice floes.

A half hour after midnight, both of the ships are out on open water.

“Come on, guys, let’s go to Fremantle and I’ll buy you a beer. And then I take you to jail,” Adam Meyerson laughs.

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