By Ronke Phillips and Sohel Uddin, NBC News
PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria ‚Äî It was an eerie sight: an American oil supply ship abandoned in one of the danger-filled creeks that snake through the south of Nigeria, stars and stripes fluttering from its mast, but no sign of life on board.
A crew from NBC News tracked the C-Retriever to the outskirts of the Port of Onne two weeks after pirates boarded it and took hostage the¬†two U.S. citizens¬†on board ¬†‚Äî the captain and the chief engineer.
The incident has been cloaked in mystery, with no information on the¬†fate of the two men¬†or where they are being held and the Nigerian Navy refusing to say what became of the vessel after the Oct. 23 attack in the Gulf of Guinea.
Finding the ship was a complicated and potentially perilous operation through waters that have become increasingly popular with pirates and sea-robbers who take cover in the inlets while they stalk victims.
Piracy is surging in Nigeria, with Capt. Richard Phillips declaring it “worse even than Somalia,” where he was taken hostage in 2009 and then rescued by Navy SEALS, a high-seas drama chronicled in a current Tom Hanks movie.
When we tried to hire two speed boats at a jetty known as Borokri, the locals were reluctant, deeming it too risky to travel with a crew that included a white cameraman and an Asian producer.
One boat owner eventually agreed, but only if we hired armed security.
‚ÄúThere is no way he will not be noticed,” he said, referring to our cameraman. “He is bound to attract attention and could put us all in danger.‚Äù
We finally set off with two armed guards in our boat and a four-man security detail following behind. ¬†Everyone was on edge, with the guards constantly telling the cameraman to duck down out of sight.
The trip took us past hundreds of creeks ‚Äî there is no smooth coastline in the Niger Delta region ‚Äî and it rained heavily as we made our way in the choppy waters.
Every mile or so, an oil tanker would pass, but there was no sign of the C-Retriever, owned by the Lousiana-based¬†Edison Chouest Offshore.
After about a half-hour, we reached the outskirts of Onne, where dozens of ships of varying sizes were lined up along the dock.
We edged closer, but didn’t see the C-Retriever. And then, as we were about to give up, there it was ‚Äî undamaged and apparently unoccupied.
We filmed the 222-foot vessel from a distance without incident, and then as we contemplated pulling alongside to take a closer look, one of our crew spotted a naval ship heading toward us and we ended the mission.
Later, the man who rented us the boats told us piracy was such a problem in the area he did not want be filmed or named for fear of reprisals.
‚ÄúExpatriates we take to the rigs are always escorted by armed guards. We would never allow then to travel in this area unaccompanied. It‚Äôs just too dangerous,” he told us.
“Boats carrying local people to other parts of Port Harcourt are also attacked and the passengers robbed of their jewelery, cash and phones. ¬†Sometimes they even take the boats, dumping their human cargo in the mango swamps.‚Äù
Usually, sailors kidnapped in Nigerian waters are released after a ransom is paid. It remains to be seen if that’s how the C-Retriever crew’s ordeal will end.