ABOARD USS DONALD COOK -- The blue-painted fishing dhow with the suspicious hooks on its railings appeared as a low, curved shape on the destroyer U.S.S. Donald Cook's high-powered security cameras.
It was a day in mid-September, three months into the Virginia-based warship's deployment to the Gulf of Aden as part of a five-ship NATO counterpiracy task force. With hijackings declining across East African waters, Donald Cook's 250 crew had had little to do on most days. The appearance of the dhow and, on it, what looked like grappling hooks useful for boarding large vessels, raised the prospect of a much-anticipated encounter with pirates.
A voice on Donald Cook's ship-wide address system alerted the scattered members of the warship's Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team to grab their gear and weapons, and race to the deck. There, the sailors muscled a small, rigid-hull inflatable boat into the water. The VBSS team, led by Lt. j.g. Christopher Bowie, climbed in and sped towards the dhow, rifles trained on its occupants.