The oil tanker Nave Andromeda which was the site of a disputed stowaway hijacking in 2020.

The Nave Andromeda oil tanker docked in Southampton. Seven Nigerian stowaways were detained after British armed forces stormed the ship following a suspected hijacking in 2020. The stowaways, refugees from Nigeria, were put into the asylum system.

By Chip Scanlan

It was the stuff of great narrative, a dramatic saga with conflicting storylines and no clear resolution:

In October 2020, British authorities and the media reported that seven stowaways from Nigeria were aboard a mammoth oil tanker as it approached the British coast. The seven Nigerians had braved the elements for days, huddled on an uncovered platform above the tanker’s rudder before they were discovered and brought on board. Days later, the ship’s captain broadcast a distress signal: The stowaways had hijacked the ship.

British commandos stormed the Nave Andromeda and took the stowaways in custody. Prosecutors, however, declined to press charges, arguing there was no evidence of a violent altercation. The men were kept in immigration custody and then relocated across England as they started the lengthy process of seeking asylum.

British freelance journalist and author Samira Shackle

Samira Shackle

Little about it made sense, and British freelance journalist Samira Shackle wanted to know more. But to get past the official and obscure accounts, she and David Wolf, editor at the Guardian Long Reads, knew they would need to get to the people closest to the action.

“So we decided that I’d have a go at finding people who were on board the ship, both crew and stowaways,” Shackle told me.

But how? Three months had passed since the primary events, and the story had gone cold. Only two of the stowaways had been identified by name in the media. The Nave Andromeda was back at sea and the identities of its crew were not included in public reports. British authorities were tight-lipped.

Those challenges just added to Shackle’s determination to get to the bottom of the story: “I have a long-running interest in revisiting stories that have been hyped up in Britain’s particular media and political culture and then promptly forgotten about.”

She also has learned from previous stories that the passage of time can be an advantage, giving sources “more time and space to reflect on events.” That proved true in this case. The stowaways and three crew members she tracked down provided vivid details about what actually took place on the tanker — a narrative at odds with the histrionic coverage when the story first broke.

Her 5,700-word story, “Seven stowaways and a hijacked tanker: The strange case of the Nave Andromeda,” ran in the Guardian in June 2022. It brims with authority, based on numerous interviews with eyewitnesses, academics and authors familiar with hijackings on the high seas and the byzantine world of maritime finance and regulation.

Shackle’s reporting was interrupted for several months by pregnancy. Rather than let the story drop, she created a solution useful for writers at any time:

“When I realized I wouldn’t be able to finish it before having the baby, I wrote a detailed bullet-point plan highlighting where there were reporting gaps, so that I would have something coherent to return to rather than a mass of disorganized notes and transcripts.”

Back at work after maternity leave, she turned to organization, a crucial part of the writing process. She plotted out the story in five sections, following the structure of classic narrative: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Narrative specialists often rely on these elements, especially when intensive reporting captures a wealth of dramatic scenes, characters and dialogue that leads, as Shackle’s story does, to revelatations in the public interest.

“I find this very useful when thinking about how to turn reporting into a story,” she said.

Shackle is a regular contributor to the Guardian. She is the author of “Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Divided City,” an account of the lives of five ordinary people in Pakistan’s largest city.

Shackle answered questions by email about the reporting challenges she confronted, the value of “draft zero” and how she folds exposition into places where it illuminates the story. The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the main narrative.

How does the story fit into your reporting portfolio?
Over the years I’ve taken this approach on a wide range of subjects, returning to a story that hit the headlines in an inflammatory or hysterical way, then speaking to as many people on the ground as possible to build up a sense of what really happened. These include a 2017 report on the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham schools (which has since been the subject of a “Serial” podcast), which took 18 months to report; a 2018 look at the UK government’s attempt to investigate British soldiers over alleged war crimes in Iraq; and a 2020 investigation into the Gatwick drone. The way that this alleged hijacking had been portrayed as a terrifying threat to British shores fit in with the increasingly hysterical way that migration and particularly asylum seekers are portrayed in the media and by politicians, so I was interested in going back and reporting it in a more considered way.

Could you describe your writing process?
When I write for the Guardian Long Read, I typically gather a lot of material, and then when I think I’m mostly done with the reporting, I put together a detailed bullet-point plan. This is usually set out in five sections, and I bullet point in detail what will be included in each. I always start this process thinking I don’t have enough material and then end up writing a plan of 3000 words for a story that’s only meant to be 5000 words. Then I send this to my editor to look over and give feedback on, and I use this as the basis for writing the piece. In some ways, this is the stage of writing that I find most difficult, when you have a vast mass of material and you’re faced with a series of decisions about how best to order it and make it hang together.

A story like this has a clear timeline, so that made it slightly easier to structure. I don’t always end up sticking exactly to my plan when I sit down to write, but in this case I mostly did, except for the fact that when I wrote the plan I had yet to speak to Michael, and he ended up featuring very heavily.

Once I actually start writing, I work more instinctively. It’s been quite interesting for me to reflect on these questions about why I made particular structural or word choices, because I often don’t think too much while I’m doing it. I tend to write, fairly quickly, a very rough draft — which I call “draft zero” — with the aim of simply getting all the words down on a page in roughly the right order, without worrying about making it good. This draft zero is usually way too long and very messy. Then I spend some time going through that, tightening it up, moving things around and cutting words out, until it’s formed into an acceptable first draft.

How long did it take you to report, write and fact-check this piece story?
Inn all it was about 16 months, but with a gap of several months in the middle while I was on maternity leave. In terms of the reporting itself, the first stage was to see if I’d be able to find anyone at all who had been on board the ship. My editor said we needed to speak to an absolute minimum of three people to make the story viable, so I had something concrete to aim for. This was not an easy task as, other than the captain, the names of the crew were not in the public domain. At that stage, I didn’t even know their nationalities. And only two of the seven stowaways had been named in the press. So the first stage of identifying who I was looking for and then trying to track them down took quite a bit of time. I’d almost, but not quite, completed the reporting as my due date approached. The crucial thing that was missing was an interview with a second stowaway; at that stage I had only spoken to John. I took some time off work, but early in the new year I returned to the story, and managed to find Michael on Facebook. I met him in the spring. I also traveled to Manchester to interview John in person, as previously we’d spoken only on the phone. I completed a few other missing interviews, and wrote the piece up soon afterwards.

Are there writers you look to for inspiration as you work on your narrative nonfiction?
I love Patrick Radden Keefe’s work in The New Yorker; he’s so good at telling a really compelling story that completely immerses you. I’m lucky to have a number of brilliant friends and colleagues who also write for the Guardian’s Long Reads section, and I always enjoy and learn from their work, especially Sophie Elmhirst, Samanth Subramanian and Daniel Trilling. 

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Shackle’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS link in the right menu of your monitor screen or at the top of your mobile device.

Seven stowaways and a hijacked oil tanker: the strange case of the Nave Andromeda

In October 2020 an emergency call was received from a ship in British waters. After a full-scale commando raid, seven Nigerians were taken off in handcuffs – but no one was ever charged. What really happened on board?

by Samira Shackle

Shortly after 9 a.m. on 25 October 2020, the captain of the Nave Andromeda sent out a distress call. The crude oil tanker was situated six miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, close enough to be visible from the pebble beaches that edge the island. In Greek-accented English, the captain, Antonis Perros, said that seven stowaways who had boarded the ship in Nigeria had escaped from the cabin where they were locked: “I try to keep them calm but I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.” For their safety, he said, most of the 22 members of the crew were now locked into a secure area of the ship known as the citadel. You begin the story in the middle of the action, after the stowaways have sneaked onto to tanker’s rudder. Why did you open your narrative here? I decided to open with the story that readers, at least in the UK, might be familiar with. It was only in the news for a few days, but it totally dominated headlines and evening news broadcasts for those days. This was almost two years before my story came out, so I wanted to remind readers of that with a dramatic tick-tock account of how it played out in the media. I also wanted to set out the overblown political response so it was in the readers’ mind before going back t0 offer a different version of events.

The local police force on the mainland, Hampshire constabulary, began coordinating a response. Policing the seas is complex, and they were in communication with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the UK Border Force. A three-mile exclusion zone was established around the ship. How did you verify that the reconstruction is accurate?   A recording of the captain’s distress call was in the public domain. Other than that, I based this section on a combination of news reports from the time and what I’d found in my reporting. (Eg. I knew the size of the crew because I had a copy of the crew list). I also spoke with Hampshire constabulary’s press office who explained some background about policing the seas. I was keen to get an interview with one of the police officers involved, which they declined, but they did offer some useful information about how responses are coordinated.

At about lunchtime the story broke in the media. Isle of Wight Radio reported “an attempted hijacking”, and soon afterwards Hampshire police confirmed that there was an “ongoing incident”. By 3.45 p.m,, coastguard helicopters were circling the Nave Andromeda. The vessel was moving aimlessly, raising fears on shore that the captain had lost control. What were the sources for this paragraph that enabled you to use direct quotes and describe the state of the tanker? The direct quotes are from contemporaneous media reporting and from the police statement which is still online. The movements of any commercial vessel are tracked on specialist websites. This story had played out in real-time in the media in October 2020, and journalists on live broadcast and national newspaper blogs had been tracking the ship’s movements using these online tools. All stated that the ship appeared to be drifting and moving in zig-zags.

Hampshire police told journalists that the stowaways had made “verbal threats” to the crew. Apart from that, not much was known. Within government, there was anxiety. “There’s all sorts of directions this could have gone in: the ship’s crew assassinated, the ship damaged in some way and hitting the coastline, or itself being used as some form of weapon to drive in and hit a port,” Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP and chair of the Commons defence select committee, told me 18 months after the incident. This seems like s a critical interview. How did you land it? I’d originally tried to get interviews with the defence secretary Ben Wallace, or anyone at the Home Office, but they said a firm no. So I was relieved that I was able to get the official perspective through this interview with Ellwood, who is not a minister but still had some firsthand knowledge of events. It took several months of back and forth.   “We’re talking about minute-by-minute decision-making.”

The police requested military assistance, and later that afternoon, home secretary Priti Patel and defence minister Ben Wallace gave the go-ahead for an operation by the navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS). At around 7.30 pm, the operation began: 16 elite troops from the SBS stormed the tanker by sea and air, backed by airborne snipers. Commandos fast-roped on to the deck from Wildcat helicopters and scaled the ship’s hull from high-powered inflatable boats. “Fast-roped” is a great action verb, but not a typical one. How did you come to use it? I’d read it used in descriptions of military operations and thought it conveyed it well. The operation – which took more than 10 hours to coordinate – was over within nine minutes. Before 8pm, the ship was secured, the stowaways handcuffed and awaiting arrest. Soon afterwards, the Nave Andromeda was brought into dock at Southampton. The seven stowaways were arrested on suspicion of “seizing or exercising control of a ship by use of threats or force”. They were led off the Nave Andromeda in handcuffs, past a sign announcing: “Welcome to the port of Southampton, gateway to the world.” What were the sources you used to reconstruct this military operation? I relied on the extensive news reports from those days, and where possible I corroborated details with interviewees. I visited Southampton Port and was shown the spot where the Nave Andromeda docked, which is how I knew about the sign.

The government ministers involved in the operation were keen to highlight its speed and success. “In dark skies, and worsening weather, we should all be grateful for our brave personnel. People are safe tonight thanks to their efforts,” said Wallace in a statement released 40 minutes after the ship was secured. Patel thanked police and armed forces for their “quick and decisive action”.

Although it was still not clear exactly what had happened on the ship – that evening, lawyers for the company that owned the Nave Andromeda said it was “not a hijacking” – Wallace told journalists the next day that there was “a clear threat to life on the ship”. The Daily Mail reported that “stowaways smashed glass on board and made threats to kill”. Former Royal Navy Rear Admiral Chris Parry told Good Morning Britain: “Next time they could be terrorists.” This paragraph appears to bring to a close your tick-tock reconstruction of the events of Oct. 25, 2020. Why did you wrap it up here? I wanted to demonstrate the tenor of some of the coverage of the story before stepping back to explain the context of the media and political environment that it took place in. And this was also more or less where the story ended in the eyes of most people; the January 2021 report about all charges being dropped got much less coverage than the original ‘hijacking’.

The story of a heroic mission to defeat a hijacking in the Channel seemed to arrive at just the right time. In the summer of 2020, the number of migrants crossing the Channel had rapidly increased; in July and August more than 2,000 migrants had attempted the crossing, compared with 500 in the same period in 2019. Politicians and the media had seized on these crossings as evidence of Britain’s failure to protect its borders. On one occasion, the BBC deployed a journalist to stand at the cliffs and literally count the approaching boats. Just weeks before the Nave Andromeda incident, Patel had pledged to crack down on small boat crossings. According to documents later leaked to the press, proposed solutions had included building floating walls across the Channel – one of the world’s busiest shipping routes – and using water cannon to create waves that would push boats away from British shores. You step back here to put the incident on board the Nave Andromeda into a larger context of migrants attempting to cross the channel to England. Why? To me the two things seemed inextricably linked: a political culture which has a serious interest in emphasising and sometimes exaggerating the threats to Britain’s shores, and the way in which this incident was blown out of proportion. One of the advantages of returning to a story some time after it took place is that you can see these connections more clearly. And an advantage of writing at this length is being able to take a step back and look at the context.

By January, all charges against the stowaways on the Nave Andromeda had been dropped, after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that new evidence “cast doubt on whether the ship or the crew were in fact put in danger”. The story faded from public view, and the seven stowaways were left to make their way through Britain’s asylum system. But what really happened on board? While the tale of marauding Nigerian pirates took hold, accounts from the ship’s crew and the stowaways themselves suggest a very different chain of events. Why did you use a qualifying verb? Legally we needed to qualify throughout since some parties maintain a different version of events. It appears the story will go on to debunk official and media accounts of the incident. How did you arrive at the conclusion stated in the final sentence of this paragraph? Through months of reporting! The key point for me was that the stories told to me by the two stowaways and three Filipino crew members I spoke with all corroborated almost exactly, even though these people were not all in touch with each other. And those corroborated accounts undermined the official narrative and that maintained by the Greek officers on the ship.

* * *

MICHAEL DID NOT INTEND to stow away. Before 6 October 2020, the day he found himself climbing off a fishing boat 10 miles from the Nigerian coast and into the rudder of the Nave Andromeda, he had never even been on water. This is a brief but dramatic character sketch. Did you ever consider making it your opening? Briefly, but I was fairly certain that the best approach would be to start with the most dramatic version of the military raid as it had played out at the time.

A softly spoken man, now aged 26, Michael has a serious face with high cheekbones. On one cheek he has a prominent scar, inflicted during a violent initiation into the gang he joined as a teenager in his home city of Lagos. You do another brief but vivid description of Michael’s appearance, one of only two characters for which you do do. Why? I didn’t manage to interview everyone in person – they were scattered in Greece, the Philippines, and at sea – so that’s why they don’t all have physical descriptions. Michael and John are in the UK so I was able to meet with them in person. Soon after, in 2015, Michael was ordered to commit a robbery. When he refused, senior gang members threatened to kill him. Realising he couldn’t leave the gang without deadly reprisal, he ran away from home. He spent the next five years living on the streets, picking up odd jobs where he could. In the summer of 2020, Michael heard that gang members had shot and killed his mother. At that point, he felt he had no option but to flee the country. Who’s the source for this paragraph and how did you verify it? Michael is the source, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to verify it as much as I’d have liked to, in terms of ground reporting; I simply didn’t have the resources or time to fact-check his background in Nigeria, which would be very challenging. But he connected me with his case worker and lawyer in the UK so that I could confirm that this was what he’d told them.

An elderly man who had recently offered Michael work hauling fish said he could help him sneak on to a tanker at Lagos’s main port, a bustling complex in the south of the city. Michael did not know which ship he would get on or where it might be heading, only that it would take him away.

A few days later, Michael sat with the elderly man on the small fishing boat that would take him to the Nave Andromeda, which was anchored near the port, ready to set off to Russia. “The sea was so rough,” Michael recalled. He leaned over the side and vomited. As they approached the oil tanker, Michael was puzzled by the sight of it. The Nave Andromeda is 228 metres long, and he had never seen such a big ship. “I was thinking, what kind of boat is this? Is it a house?”

When they reached the ship, Michael’s friend helped him climb on to the rudder. The rudder is a massive steel plate attached to the outside of the vessel. A large pole links it to a steering room inside the ship, and around the pole is a recess called the rudder stock, a space less than two metres wide. Such a concise description! Did it take much revision? I’m gratified that you asked about this. I think this was the most stringently and repeatedly revised section of the entire piece! It was so difficult to get the description right, to make it clear without being bogged down in detail. I was tying myself in knots with it, so my editors should really take the credit for how concise it is. Michael clambered into this space. Right above the massive propeller fan and exposed to the wind and waves, the rudder stock is not designed for human occupation, and it is sealed off from the rest of the vessel. This was where Michael was stuck. And he was not alone. What was the intention of this last line? This section was closely told from Michael’s perspective and I wanted to signify that here we’d broaden it out to the others.

That day, six other men arrived separately on small boats. They all crammed into the rudder stock, clinging on to the central pole. Some of them secured themselves with ropes as best they could. One of them, a tall man with a narrow face and his hair in neat twists, was called John. Like Michael, John was escaping from a gang. An acquaintance had offered to help John on to a ship, saying that once he made it overseas, John could send back money to pay for his transit. John agreed, and three days later found himself climbing on to the rudder of the Nave Andromeda. “It was either I survive, or I die,” he told me when we spoke on the phone 10 months later. How did you locate John? I found him through Detention Action, a charity that had supported him while he was in immigration detention. John had spoken to reporters before, using a pseudonym, and the charity had been mentioned in that report, so I reached out to them. They were no longer supporting him as he was out of immigration detention, but they were extremely helpful in tracking him down and putting us in touch. I spoke to him first on the phone, and later traveled to the north of England to meet him in person.

The discovery of a stowaway is highly stressful for a ship’s crew. International waters are poorly governed, and it is usually unclear which country’s jurisdiction the stowaways are under. The ship’s voyage is often seriously disrupted as the crew and the shipping company must negotiate with port authorities, governments and police forces to try to find a port that will accept them.

Stowaways are also a financial problem. Most port authorities will detain stowaways and deport them, at the expense of the ship’s owner. Shipping companies usually have insurance to cover this cost, but, as Edward Carlson, a US-based maritime lawyer who has worked on numerous stowaway cases, told me: “It’s a big expense, and it’s a headache.” How did you find Carlson? He was quoted in Ian Urbina’s excellent book “Outlaw Ocean.”  Once on shore, if they claim asylum, stowaways become the legal and financial responsibility of the state; but if their claim is later refused, the shipping company may be asked to pay for repatriation at that stage.

Any commercial voyage involves multiple parties – typically, private companies charter vessels from ship owners. Delays or diversions to the voyage cost money, as do security arrangements, flights and fines that governments impose for breaches of immigration law. “The vessel is constantly accumulating costs, and who is responsible for those costs is a source of endless debate and hours of legal work,” said Carlson. In recent years, stowaway searches have become routine. The ports in Lagos are chaotic, a fact exploited by established networks of people smugglers who push stowaways into ever-more dangerous hiding places: below the engine room, in the cargo hold, or the perilous area that hides the anchor chains. You break away from the dramatic action here for 266 words of exposition. How do you decide when to make this kind of shift? I usually try to fold the exposition into places where it illuminates the story in some way. What kind of reporting did it take for you to deliver this explanation? I had to really go deep into maritime conventions, immigration laws and shipping insurance. I interviewed scores of people who were not quoted in the final story, including people working at major marine organisations, port chaplains, shipping insurance executives, and academics researching stowaways. As always, I was incredibly grateful for their time and knowledge.

It was noisy in the rudder stock, between the roaring of the waves and the metallic thrum of the propeller fan. Salt water lashed at the stowaways’ skin, and as the Nave Andromeda pulled out of the port, the men lurched from side to side. They agreed to share their scant supplies of food – biscuits, powdered cassava – and bottled water. Who provided this information? Michael and John. They speculated that they might be there for one or two days. Night fell. Morning came. Michael tried not to think about falling in. How do you know this? Michael gave me a really vivid and moving account of the journey and the way he had felt throughout it, which is part of the reason I decided to focus on him. But with nothing visible apart from the deep blue of open water, it was difficult to think of anything else. Proper sleep was impossible. “If you fell asleep you would fall into the water and that would be the end of your life,” John told me. “It’s just open sea, so no matter how you swim you can’t survive it.” That’s such a stellar quote. How do you decide which ones to use from an interview? Some quotes, like this one, just really jump out at you. But there are always more than you’re able to use. Process-wise, I record all my interviews but I might also note down by hand anything that really hits me as someone is talking. Once I have a transcript of an interview, I read through it and highlight anything that seems like important information or that is a particularly powerful quote. That way, when I come to writing, the best quotes are already marked.

Night fell again. The ropes caused cuts and welts on the men’s skin, and their muscles ached from clinging on. Their surging adrenaline meant they didn’t feel much hunger, but thirst began to set in as sea water drenched them from all sides.

Nine days passed. On 15 October, Michael saw land. Gradually, buildings came into view. The Nave Andromeda had reached Las Palmas port, on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, where it was scheduled to stop to restock on food and fuel. The stowaways saw a small tugboat sailing out from the port. This was their chance. They clambered out of the small recess where they were hiding and on to the top edge of the rudder. They shouted and waved, summoning the last of their strength to bang on the sides of the ship, desperate to be noticed and taken to land. Someone on the tugboat spotted them, and radioed the captain of the Nave Andromeda, who spoke to the port authority. The vessel came to a stop.

Soon afterwards, two rescue boats sped from the port to the rudder of the Nave Andromeda. The stowaways climbed off the rudder and on to the two small boats. “I did not know what was going to happen,” said Michael. “I was so scared.” But the rescue boats did not sail into port, as the men had hoped. Instead, they pulled up beside a ladder that led up to the deck of the Nave Andromeda. The stowaways were ordered to climb up the ladder and the rescue boats went back to port. The seven men were now the responsibility of the ship’s captain.

* * *

IN THEORY, THE MEN should have been allowed to get off the ship in Gran Canaria: maritime convention states that, if possible, stowaways should be disembarked at the vessel’s next port of call. But this was not what happened. Instead, as soon as they heard that there were stowaways on board, the port authorities denied permission for the Nave Andromeda to dock, and it remained anchored offshore. If a vessel doesn’t dock, it does not formally enter the country. Had the Nave Andromeda docked at Las Palmas, the authorities would have been obligated to allow the stowaways off, leaving them free to apply for asylum in Spain. This and other expository paragraphs ring with authority. How do you achieve that? As I mentioned earlier, I did a lot of reporting to be able to give these explanations – that involved numerous interviews with experts (and sometimes it took several interviews to even get to the right person to give the information), as well as wide reading around about the particular points mentioned, from academic papers to minutes of official meetings of the International Maritime Organisation. Shipping is not a world I really knew anything about going into this, so I wanted to make absolutely sure I got it right.

The decision by the port authorities in Gran Canaria should have come as no surprise: less than a fortnight earlier, on 6 October, an almost identical incident had taken place at the same port. The Champion Pula, another oil tanker, had left Lagos 10 days earlier. On reaching Las Palmas, four stowaways were discovered in the compartment above the rudder. The Spanish authorities would not keep them. That incident ended relatively quickly: the Champion Pula’s next scheduled port was Herøya in Norway where the men were allowed to disembark and claim asylum. But if multiple ports refuse to allow a ship carrying stowaways to dock, the vessel can effectively become trapped at sea.

“There are very few jurisdictions that accept stowaways with open arms,” one shipping insurance executive told me, adding that this is a particular problem in Europe and the US, owing to increased hostility towards migration. Why didn’t you identify the executive? The executive didn’t have authorisation from the company publicity department to speak with the press, and I didn’t think that their name was important to the story so I didn’t push it. This is despite the fact that the numbers involved are relatively small: in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 90 recorded stowaway events on ships worldwide involving around 230 people. (The real number is likely to be higher, since this only includes cases in which an insurance claim was made. Nevertheless, stowaways on ships still represent a tiny proportion of migrants.) Why did you decide on this exposition here? I try to fold in the exposition in places where it illuminates the events being described. In this instance, I thought that the responses of European ports to stowaways, and the relatively small number of them, was relevant to understanding what was happening to Michael, John and the others.

Once it was clear that Spain would not allow the stowaways to disembark, Michael, John and the other five sat on the deck of the Nave Andromeda as the crew tried to work out where the men could sleep. Albert, a Filipino man in his late 40s, was a low-ranking member of the crew. He is a man of strong opinions who has learned to keep his views to himself during two decades of working in the strictly hierarchical world of shipping. The first thing he noticed was the smell – the stowaways reeked of sweat and seawater after their ordeal in the rudder stock – and the cuts on their skin. “It broke my heart, to be honest,” he told me. The seven stowaways were all devout Christians, and some murmured thanks to God and prayed as they sat on the deck. This struck a chord with Albert, who was also Christian. He saw other common ground, too: “If you’re poor, if you don’t have food, you might try to go to another place. That’s why I go to the ship to work, because I’d be poor if I stayed in the Philippines. It’s the same with them.” How did you find Albert? I tracked him down with the help of a journalist based in the Philippines, who found him on Facebook by searching for posts about the Nave Andromeda in their native tongue. We spoke on Zoom and unfortunately it was a terrible line, but we got what we needed. We stayed in touch via email afterwards but unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak with him on Zoom or the phone again, as he was away at sea for around 8 months after our call with limited phone data that — understandably — he didn’t want to use to speak with a journalist.

The crew brought the stowaways food, water and clean clothes, and dressed their wounds. Afterwards, the men were taken to a cabin containing six bunks, with a seventh foam mattress on the floor, and an adjoining bathroom. The door closed behind them and the lock clicked shut.

Later in the day, Perros, the captain, came to the cabin. The stowaways told him that they wanted to get on to land, and didn’t care which country they went to. Perros (who declined to be interviewed for this story but referred us to his employers, Navios) explained this wouldn’t be possible in Gran Canaria, but that he would try to make an unscheduled stop in France and let them out there. The next day, 16 October, the Nave Andromeda set sail.

Over the next five days, the stowaways settled into a strange sort of routine, mostly confined to their cabin. Someone from the crew brought food and water three times a day, and once a day they were escorted to the deck for fresh air. Most days Perros, or the superintendent Giannis Zafeirakis, came to their cabin to update them and check in. (Zafeirakis also declined to comment.) “They were so nice,” Michael remembered. “The captain was telling us stories. He gave us a TV so we could watch movies. He gave us everything we wanted.” Michael cried a lot, thinking of his mother’s death, and remembers the captain taking special care to ask if he was OK, even bringing him cigarettes. You alternate regularly between exposition, and dramatic action using cliffhangers to keep the reader captivated. Why? In a story of this length, I always try to fold in background information and context around the main narrative. This way you keep a sense of narrative momentum, and the information is used in service of illuminating the story, so the reader stays with you.

The Nave Andromeda is owned by the Greek company Navios Tankers Management. (Navios did not respond to a request for comment.) The ship’s captain and six other senior officers were Greek, while the rest of the 22-strong crew was almost entirely Filipino. There wasn’t much communication between the two groups, although they spoke English to each other. The crew was not allowed to spend time with the stowaways, and for the most part, only Perros and Zafeirakis talked to them. The handful of other crew members, including Albert, who briefly interacted with the stowaways, found them to be pleasant and polite. “They were very nice guys, with very big hearts,” said Albert.

On their long days inside the cabin, the Nigerian men talked in a way they hadn’t been able to as they hung on for their lives inside the deafening rudder chamber. They shared details of how they had ended up leaving Nigeria. But more often, they talked anxiously about getting off the ship. “Most of us felt sick and we were getting depressed being locked up,” John said. Michael was grieving – and his fear of the water had been exacerbated by the traumatic journey. “When I was in the big sea, I couldn’t see the land,” he said. “Let me see the land, I was thinking, where I can stretch my legs and know I am free.”

On 20 October, the Nave Andromeda reached Saint Nazaire in France. You also organize your story using the calendar. Do you rely on timelines? I always use timelines for long-form stories. I usually build this on a simple Excel spreadsheet while I’m still reporting, with fields for the date, what the event is, my source for the information (eg. from an interview,  or from documents, or news reports) and any extra notes. I usually have a colour coding system too, to indicate whether an event is part of the main dramatic action (in this case, the hijacking itself and the following legal processes) or if it relates to a personal story of someone I’m writing about (so that would be Michael and John’s own movement through the asylum system, for instance) or if it’s wider context (such as other comparable cases of stowaways, or the broader policy statements about immigration). I find this an invaluable tool when it comes to writing, since I’m usually reporting these stories over a long period of time and alongside other projects.  When the captain informed the port that there were stowaways on board, permission to dock was denied.(Although Albert wasn’t party to the negotiations, he said he was told that the port authorities cited Covid restrictions and the fact that the stowaways didn’t have identifying documents.) When Perros and Zafeirakis came to inform the men, Michael said they looked visibly stressed. “The captain and the superintendent were telling us to stay calm and that they were looking for somewhere safe to drop us,” said John. “They also said that they needed us to be off the ship because they were running out of food.”

Crew on vessels that have been refused permission to dock have occasionally taken extreme action. In his book The Outlaw Ocean, the journalist Ian Urbina describes the practice of rafting, “whereby a crew, discovering such uninvited guests, sets them adrift in the middle of the ocean and leaves them to die.” How important was this book to your reporting? The book has a chapter on stowaways which provided incredibly useful context. I spoke to Ian Urbina early in the reporting process and he was very generous with his time and advice. This was before I’d tracked down Albert or anyone in the crew, and Ian suggested a number of ways in which I might try to do this. He also connected me with a Greek journalist with expertise in shipping who was able to help with the reporting in Greece. Through his Outlaw Oceans Project he even provided some contacts to different marine organisations. I also got some incredibly helpful advice from the British writer Rose George, who wrote a fantastic book on shipping. She was the one who suggested I contact the Southampton port chaplains, as she said they always know what’s going on at any port. I wouldn’t have thought of this myself and they provided a really useful gateway into the story early in the reporting process. I’m always so grateful to other journalists who are generous with their time, expertise and contacts.  There have also been instances of stowaways, desperate to disembark, turning violent. In 2018, a group of Nigerian stowaways threatened the crew as the ship approached Tilbury docks in the Thames Estuary. They were later convicted of affray and making threats to kill.

On the Nave Andromeda, everyone was tense. The senior officers were in an awkward position. Their commercial voyage had been disrupted and the ship’s supplies were diminishing. Meanwhile, the stowaways were growing increasingly frustrated.

Even so, relations stayed cordial. “There was no aggression,” said Albert. I spoke to another crew member who corroborated Albert’s version of events, but did not want to be quoted. Perros took John and another man up to the bridge, the navigational centre of the vessel, and showed them a map. He pointed to where they were anchored, and said that he would try to get them off in Holland or the UK. The stowaways returned to the cabin and waited.

* * *

AFTER THE REFUSAL in France, the Nave Andromeda drifted for a few days while the senior officers and Navios, the shipping company, tried to work out what to do. Concerns about the financial implications filtered down to Albert and the rest of the crew. The stowaways’ meals were reduced from three a day to two.

On 24 October, Albert saw the six Greek officers gather on the ship’s bridge for a meeting, with Navios’ head office in Athens dialled in. (Another crew member confirmed that this meeting took place.) How many crew members did you interview? How did you locate them? On board the ship were seven Greek ‘officers’ as well as the rest of the crew, who were predominantly Filipino. The only name in the public domain was the captain, so one of the first things I did was to find him on social media and message. He replied straight away, initially agreeing to an interview when he got back to land, but he later withdrew this as he had accepted another job with Navios. I didn’t have any other names, but with the help of the Filipino journalist I’ve already mentioned I spoke to Albert, who shared a crew list. I looked up all the Filipino crew on Facebook and messaged all of them, but most didn’t reply or declined to speak – either because they were away at sea, or because they were concerned about their future employment prospects if they criticised a former employer. In the end, I directly interviewed Albert and one other crew member who didn’t want to be quoted directly, and my colleague spoke to one more. I wasn’t able to connect with this third person myself so I decided not to include this account, though he also corroborated Albert’s story. An excellent Greek journalist called Eleni Stamatoukou helped me to track down all the Greek officers, and we contacted them all, though they all declined to speak on the record, mostly citing the terms of their employment.  Later that evening, according to Michael and John, Perros came to the cabin and said that at 10am the next day they would be dropped in Southampton, England. The ship’s chef was told to prepare breakfast early because the crew would be doing a drill.

The next morning, the crew ate breakfast together at around 7am. Straight afterwards, they were told to go to the citadel – the secure area where, in the event of an attack, the crew can shelter and wait for backup. Albert and another crew member told me that they were in the citadel by 8am. Shortly after this, at around 9am, the distress call went out to the British coastguard: “I need immediately, immediately agency assistance.”

Inside their cabin, the stowaways were watching the clock on the wall. They had no idea that anyone had called for help, but they knew something was amiss. Usually someone brought breakfast before 7am, but today no one had come with food or water. Even inside their locked cabin, they could usually hear clanking machinery and the footfall and shouting of crew going about their daily work. That day, everything was silent.

The men could tell that the ship was drifting, and they started to get scared. John wondered if they’d been abandoned at sea, and panicked about how they would ever steer the vessel. Michael worried that the ship was turning back to Nigeria. At lunchtime, they waited for a knock but no one came. Hungry, thirsty and confused, the men banged on the door. There was no response. Soon after, at around 2pm, they decided they needed to find out what was going on. They broke the door of the cabin. The corridor outside was abandoned. “We didn’t see nobody. We didn’t hear anything, even a rat,” said Michael.

Increasingly panicked, the seven men moved through the ship, shouting out to attract attention from the crew. There was no one to be seen. “Why would these people decide to lock themselves in their rooms for no reason? That’s how I knew something was wrong,” said John. They came to the deck. From here, they could see the bridge, where Perros was standing. Some of the men approached the bridge, hoping to talk to Perros. He held up a handwritten note against the glass, telling them to stay calm and that the authorities were coming. Since the tenor of some of the events appears to be in question, how did you verify what the men told you? This was all based on interview material; the accounts given to me by the stowaways and members of the crew corroborated each other in terms of the timing of the day (crucially, that the crew was in the citadel long before the stowaways broke out of the cabin). I didn’t include anything that wasn’t corroborated by others.

Not sure what to think, the men sat on the deck and waited. “We can see the captain in the glass. He is radioing, I don’t know who he is talking to,” said Michael. “That’s when we see helicopters coming.”

At 3.45pm, the coastguard’s helicopters circled above the Nave Andromeda. Some of the men had the idea of waving white handkerchiefs to show that they were peaceful. The helicopters continued to circle, but nothing else happened. As afternoon turned to evening, it got cold out on deck. Some of the stowaways went back into their cabin to wait there.

At around 7.30pm, the wait ended. The Special Boat Service operation began: armed commandos scaled the sides of the ship. Michael was on deck when they arrived. His heart beat fast as he saw a gun trained on him. “It was like a movie,” he remembered. “I was so scared. I have not seen that kind of gun in my life before.” He wasn’t even sure what country he was in.

John was in the cabin when the commandos arrived. “I knew that we were in big trouble because there were so many forces for just seven of us,” he said. As he saw their weapons, he was convinced he was going to die. “I had nothing to defend myself, and even if I did, what could I do against so many guys who looked like they should be going to a war front?”

The stowaways did not resist: in the space of the nine-minute military operation, they were all handcuffed and made to lie flat on the deck. How do you know how long it lasted? This came from news reports and official statements at the time. Michael had never left Africa before, and the British sea air chilled him to his bones. After several hours, the ship docked in Southampton. Almost three weeks after they had climbed on to the rudder in Lagos, the seven men were led off the Nave Andromeda in handcuffs and taken to Southampton Central police station, a red-brick building across the road from the port. On board the ship, they had felt like they were in prison. But their confinement was just beginning. Another cliffhanger. What’s the value of the device? Just what you’d expect — to keep the reader interested and eager to read to the next section.

* * *

DAVIOS LATER SAID in a statement that Perros sent out the distress call because he “was concerned for the safety of the crew due to the increasingly hostile behaviour of the stowaways”. This is certainly possible. But according to the accounts of some crew members and stowaways, it seems that the distress call was made several hours before the stowaways broke out of their cabin – the event cited as the trigger for the call – and that the crew were locked in the citadel long before this happened. Why did you qualify this with “seems?” To reflect the fact that the events are in question. Given that, how did you draw this conclusion? Through corroborating testimony from the crew and stowaways.

Whatever the reasoning behind the distress call, as soon as it was made, the incident took on a life of its own. The British press, and British politicians, quickly described it as a hijacking. But hijacking is a specific crime: the term refers to the seizure of a commercial vehicle by force or the threat of force. It is not a term that Perros used in his distress call. Nor is there any evidence that he or anyone else from Navios suggested that there was a risk of the crew losing control of the ship, or indeed any attempt by the stowaways to seize it. In fact, that very evening, Navios’s lawyers reportedly told the BBC that the incident was “100% not a hijacking”.

British ministers could have used more neutral language – they might, for instance, have referred to events as a “security incident” – but they chose not to. The next day, Wallace told journalists that the stowaways were “threatening to do something with the ship” that would have caused a “threat to the environment and, more importantly, to the lives of people on the ship … something the state can’t tolerate”. It is not clear what these statements were based on, but it added to the impression that something extremely violent had taken place. “We had government ministers practically saying that the allegations are true before any investigation or trial,” said James Wilson, deputy director of Detention Action, a charity that supported John and one other stowaway while they were in immigration detention. How did you find the charity that supported the men? It had been mentioned in an earlier news report in which John spoke to journalists. They were critical in locating John, but they had only supported him and one other stowaway, and they were not able to get in touch with the second.  “It just looks like a massive overreaction.”

John, Michael and the other men spent three nights at Southampton police station, before being released on bail and transferred to Colnbrook immigration removal centre, a drab building close to Heathrow airport. Did you visit the center? No, but I looked at pictures online.  They were confused about what had happened on board, and all denied the allegations of violence. John panicked that he would be sent back to Lagos and murdered by the man who had put him on the boat; he still owed money for his passage. Michael relied on his religious faith, telling himself that God would not allow him to be punished for a crime he did not commit. “I know I am not a hijacker,” he said to himself. How did you know what Michael told himself? He told me. This is almost verbatim from an interview transcript.

The vessel sat at Southampton port for a few days. No one was allowed on or off the ship because police were treating it as a crime scene. Police questioned the captain and crew. Were you able to obtain any police records? Unfortunately not, despite my best efforts. I am always very jealous of U.S. journalists who can relatively easily access court and police records. We don’t have the same kind of transparency in the justice system in the UK. I was particularly keen to get hold of the Crown Prosecution Service records because in their decision to drop the case they alluded to new evidence such as mobile phone footage and witness testimony contradicting the notion that there was a violent struggle. But there is no mechanism for a journalist to request these kinds of records from the CPS or police, so you can usually only get them from a lawyer. I tried contacting the legal aid solicitors who represented John and Michael in the criminal case (I’m called once a week for several months, sent a letter and went to their office to ask in person) and eventually had to admit defeat. The only other way to get police records is for a person involved in the case to make what is called a “subject access request” — but given the chaotic nature of Michael’s and John’s lives, being shunted around temporary accommodation, to the point it was difficult for me to keep in regular contact with them, this just wasn’t feasible. Albert said their questions focused narrowly on whether he had been injured or had his property stolen. “They didn’t ask what really happened,” he told me. He wanted to tell someone what he told me eight months later: “It’s not a hijack, it was just a drama. It’s a story only. A big fucking lie.” Some publications don’t print profanity. What’s the Guardian’s style? The Guardian’s style is to never use asterisks, which the style guide describes as a “cop out”, but only to use swear words where they’re essential to the facts of the piece or demonstrating someone’s character. I think it adds something here.  (He no longer works for Navios.)

After a few days in Southampton, the Nave Andromeda sailed on to Antwerp and then continued on its planned voyage to Russia. The senior officers never discussed the events with the Filipino crew. In Albert’s view, the decision to withhold food and water from the stowaways – which led directly to them breaking down the door of their cabin – was a deliberate provocation. Of course, there is a reasonable explanation: the rations may have been reduced due to food shortages, and it is not unusual to lock stowaways into a cabin when approaching a port so that they don’t try to escape and swim to shore. But this does not explain the distress call. For all the puzzling inconsistencies, one of the Greek officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the incident as “piracy” and told me that “everything written about it was true”.

* * *

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, two of the stowaways were charged with conduct endangering ships under the Merchant Shipping Act. They were taken to prison. The other five men remained in detention, waiting to hear if they would be charged, too. A few weeks later, the CPS dropped charges against all the men on the grounds that there was no realistic chance of conviction. Explaining this decision, the CPS said that “while initial reports had indicated there was a risk of destruction or serious damage to the ship”, video footage and further analysis had “cast doubt” on whether ship and crew had been in danger.

The Home Office publicly criticised the CPS decision, saying: “It is frustrating that there will be no prosecution in relation to this very serious incident and the British people will struggle to understand how this can be the case.” This was a highly unusual step. “It’s genuinely extraordinary for the Home Office as an institution to criticise the independent Crown Prosecution Service,” said Colin Yeo, an immigration lawyer. Why did you need a source to make this point? In our current political context, politicians make wild statements and overreach their roles all the time, to the point that we get desensitised to it. I wanted to speak to experts to check whether this statement was actually as extraordinary as I thought it was, and then I decided it was important to have someone in the field making the point that this was extremely unusual, rather than me making this claim.  “I think it’s unprecedented.”

I spoke with John and Michael separately after the charges against them had been dropped. John was still in Colnbrook detention centre when he heard the news. “I was so happy,” he remembered. “They did good research and justice prevailed.”

But the stowaways’ ordeal was not over. Seeking asylum in the UK is a complicated and slow process: the Refugee Council estimates that it takes most people between one and three years. Over the next few months, the stowaways were released from immigration detention one by one, and given temporary accommodation around England.

John was sent first to a small town in the north-west, then to Manchester, where he is currently staying. He read news reports about the incident on the Nave Andromeda online. “I didn’t know why the Home Office was pressuring [the CPS] to send us to prison,” he said. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work or go to college, and so he spends a lot of time alone in his room. He misses his six fellow stowaways; they formed a close friendship on the ship, which developed while they were locked up in the same detention centre. They keep in touch, chatting on Facebook or on the phone, but they’re scattered around the country now, and it isn’t the same.

I met John in a park in Manchester on a cold, bright day in March. He wore a black bomber jacket and a camouflage headband that pulled the hair back from his face, highlighting a small scar on his forehead. “When someone lays a [false] allegation on you, of course you’re going to get angry, but you have to control yourself,” he said. “The most important thing is for people to find out that it’s true you’re innocent.” He spoke in a flat voice about his experience on the Nave Andromeda, lightening up only when conversation turned to a recent Champions League match; football provides a welcome escape from the daily monotony of sitting in a hostel room, with barely enough money to buy food.

Michael was released from detention a couple of months before John, and spent some time in hotels in London before being moved to Coventry. The conditions in one hotel were so poor – a filthy room with a strong smell of faeces – that he went to the local police station and asked to be arrested so that he could sleep in a cell. He finds it difficult to manage his mental health and often sleeps all day.

While John anxiously read the media coverage of the Nave Andromeda incident, Michael did not, and had not fully understood the status of the criminal case. We met over a year after the CPS had dropped all charges, but he handed me a crumpled bail notice from the police and asked me to explain it. When I said that the case had been dropped, pulling up a BBC report from the previous January on my phone, he began to cry. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

Michael goes to his local church every Sunday, and occasionally plays football with members of the congregation, but otherwise he keeps to himself: he is afraid that the gang who killed his mother will track him down in the UK, which leaves him reluctant to make new friends.

It has been weeks since either of them had any update on their asylum claims; they have no timeline for when a decision might be reached. Although such delays are not uncommon, it is difficult not to worry that the allegations are playing a part. “They say: ‘You are sea pirates, hijackers’,” said Michael. “But we are not sea pirates. We came only for survival.”

After the high drama of a triumphant military operation to keep Britain’s shores safe, this is what remains: seven men, alone in bedsits, waiting. Your story ends on a note that sounds ironic but also is poignant. It highlights the unfairness of what happened to the stowaways. Why did you close this way? Did you consider alternate endings? I wanted a sense of pathos, to contrast the bombast of the way this story was originally portrayed with the reality I found. For me, this was always the core of the piece — the totally disproportionate reaction to a very small, very vulnerable group of men. Although there were many unusual things about this case in particular, that disproportionality is emblematic of many of our asylum policies. So I wanted to end on this note, although I think in my original draft, this paragraph and the one before it were the other way around so it ended with “we came only for survival”. My editor switched them around, which actually works much better.

* * *

Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute for 15  years. He publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons and has two books, ”Writers on Writing” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.”

Further Reading