In the early hours, the Thai tanker appears as a collection of bright lights on the horizon. The two teams wait for it to pass. Then they slip on their balaclavas, fire up their outboards, and circle around behind. As they approach, crashing over the bow wave and skidding on the bubbling sea thrown up by the tanker’s immense screws, two men from the second team stand and lift their poles, as though for a joust. They hook over the stern and, as soon they have a fast grip, begin climbing, the speedboat pilot accelerating in short bursts to keep the poles steady.
In seven seconds, the first boarder is over the side and crouching by the rail. Five men follow and head straight to the bridge. They take the ship’s skipper and pilot hostage and cut the freighter’s communications. Then they assemble the rest of the crew. The sailors’ hands are slipped behind their backs into the twine handcuffs, which are then looped around their necks, rigged to tighten if they struggle. The skipper’s hands are tied in front so he can open the safe. The boarders communicate in rudimentary English to disguise their origins. "Those guys are the experts," the pirate captain tells me later. "We call them the Kopassus [the nickname for Indonesian army commandos]. They signal to us that it’s OK, and we take over." After emptying the safe and taking whatever they find—computers, watches, refrigerators ("shopping," says one of the crew)—they hand the ship over to the pirate captain and leave. The whole hijack is over in ten minutes.
At daybreak, the pirate captain and his men drop their hostages with food and water on a deserted island off the east Sumatran coast near Kualatungkal. They also leave their inside man, so as not to identify him. Then they head northwest, back past Singapore, skirting Malacca and Medan. Over the next seven days, while the captain takes care of navigation, the crew of 14 works the boat, repainting the entire ship and plastering a new English name over the Thai lettering on the bow.
Off the Maldives, they rendezvous with another tanker and the Hong Kong crime boss. The palm oil is pumped into the second boat. Then an auction is held at sea for the stolen ship, a Filipino buyer outbidding a Thai with an offer of $100,000. Their work done, the pirate captain and his crew are paid and catch a ride on the stolen ship to Manila. From there, they fly to Jakarta and split up, lying low for a year before returning to Babi Island. The captain has no idea where the palm oil was sold but says shipowners often organize pirate attacks as part of an insurance fraud. Only the triad bosses know all the details, he says.