‘The ship is sinking!’ Missile strikes, panic and a race to save the Rubymar

The Rubymar was among the few ships still sailing within missile range of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. (Getty Images)
The Rubymar was among the few ships still sailing within missile range of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. (Getty Images)

Summary

The cargo ship was attacked on the Red Sea. The crew had three hours to try to save it—and themselves.

Chief mate Mahmoud Gwealy awoke to a loud bang that sent the laptop on his chest crashing into his nose. The 29-year-old Egyptian sailor had dozed off for the evening while watching Lebanese soap operas in the upstairs quarters of the Rubymar. The British-owned bulk carrier had been rocking in such high swells that he wondered if it had been slammed by a huge wave.

The cabin lights were out as he stepped into a hallway where sailors of the Egyptian, Syrian and Filipino crew had been gathering in flip-flops and nightclothes, struggling to compose their balance. The shudder that echoed through the hull had felt like an earthquake, one said. Shouting over the wail of alarms, crewmates asked each other: Had something struck the Rubymar?

“A big rocket," one said over the crowd. “In the engine room."

Gwealy climbed up to the bridge where the captain took stock of an emergency playing out on one of the few vessels still crossing the Red Sea. One missile had struck the ship in the engine room, and another blasted open the starboard side, the captain said, his ears still ringing from the back-to-back explosions. 

Water was streaming in, pouring onto the shaft that churned the propeller. Pipes had burst open. Fire alerts were blaring on a ship packed with 21,000 tons of fertilizer.

Months earlier, on another ship in the Ukrainian port of Reni, Gwealy had run to the engine room for cover after Russian airstrikes nearby sent thick smoke across the deck. His wife, Khloud, had scolded him for rushing to board the Rubymar. Now standing on its bridge, he cursed in Arabic in frustration: “Ya nahaar eswid!"—“Black day!"

It was a few minutes before 11 p.m. on Feb. 18, and the Rubymar’s crew would have barely three hours to decide whether and how to save their 563-foot-long ship. Their decisions would determine whether they would live or die and if the Rubymar, slowly sinking on what was once one of the world’s busiest sea lanes—and now its most dangerous—could be saved. 

If it went under, it would become the first civilian ship sunk in conflict since the “tanker war" of the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq traded missiles at approaching merchant vessels.

Flying the Belizean flag, Rubymar had been en route from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria. It numbered among the few daredevils still sailing within missile range of Houthi rebels who, from their bases on the shore of Yemen, had vowed to disrupt sea traffic unless Israel halted its military campaign in Gaza. 

In the months before, they had fired dozens of ballistic missiles designed by their chief ally and benefactor, Iran. But they had only critically damaged one ship: the Marlin Luanda, which had quickly been towed to safety.

The Rubymar was their best shot yet.

Crowding into the bridge, the cook asked his crewmates if they were going to die. An engineer, trying to understand how many compartments were flooding, offered the most reassuring assessment he could think of: “The ship is 50% safe."

In the historical blink of an eye, the world’s oceans, calm for decades, have become remarkably tense. On the Black Sea, ordinary boats thread between Russian warships and hundreds of sea mines, while Ukraine launches self-detonating underwater drones. China’s Coast Guard has rammed and fired water cannons at Filipino fishing boats hundreds of miles into the South China Sea.

But it is the waters off Yemen where war has most imperiled the cargo ship crews whose labor consumers on every continent take for granted.

Some 80% of the world’s goods travel on the high seas, the U.N. says. The freedom for ships of all nations to carry those wares across the open oceans allowed the global economy of the 20th century to emerge, with America at its helm. In peacetime, a third of all containerships pass through the Suez Canal, connecting Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

Along the way, they must clear the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb—“the Gate of Grief," just 17 miles wide at its narrowest point—between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. 

It is that chokepoint entering the Red Sea that is the target of the Houthi movement, using hobby radars from the backs of Toyota pickups to guide cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and bombs strapped onto cheap, swarming sea drones that analysts estimate cost as low as a few thousand dollars apiece.

In return, the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian has a modern-day flotilla of warships that aim to secure the Red Sea. The U.S. has launched scores of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, each valued at several million dollars, from Ohio-class submarines or from the guided missile cruiser and destroyers alongside the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its F/A-18-led fighter jet squadrons. 

The British Royal Air Force has dropped laser-guided bombs from Typhoon jets at what it said were command sites outside Yemen’s principal international airport. The U.S. has also dispatched Navy helicopters into the skies above Yemen, alongside MQ-9 reaper drones, one of which the Houthis shot down with a surface-to-air missile.

That display of American firepower has run down the Navy’s missile supply. In a single day this year, it shot more Tomahawks at what it believed to be Houthi munitions depots and launch sites than it procured in all of 2023.

Insurers still worry the rebels need to hit only one ship to incur potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Rates for war insurance have grown sharply enough to cause ships sailing between Asia and Europe to take a 10,000-mile detour around the continent of Africa. The extra time and fuel costs have snarled carefully tuned supply chains.

A diminishing number of shipping companies have simply tried their luck—hazarding the ship, crew and cargo to save fuel and time, at times offering their low-paid sailors a modest premium to stomach the risk.

The Rubymar was one such ship. If it could make it through the Red Sea unscathed, it would chart a path for shippers at the delicate bottom of the economic pyramid—those carrying goods too cheap or perishable to merit a costly diversion around Africa. The ship had rolled the dice before, one of the few to transport wheat from Ukraine during the first year of Russia’s invasion.

This time, the unlucky bulk carrier became a test case for how far America’s naval power can secure the seas. To track its journey across Houthi-threatened waters, the Journal spoke to five members of the ship’s crew and management, reviewed a handwritten log, recordings of marine radio distress calls and pictures and videos of the attack, interviewed officials from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Houthi-led administration in San’a, and consulted maritime specialists and historians.

“It was a terrible day," Captain Samer Hejazi said. “I’m surprised I’m still alive."

Security Level 1

Gwealy was off the coast of Sri Lanka when he learned he had two problems.

The first, divulged to him by the captain, was that the ship was setting course to Bulgaria—via the Red Sea. The second came from his wife, Khloud, over a tense phone call. Nobody had come to fix the lock on the front door of their home, which he’d busted open after forgetting his keys the day he had scrambled to retrieve his backpack in time to board the Rubymar.

“You don’t concentrate, you just leave!" she shouted into the phone. He could have waited for another job, on another ship. He shot back: Why didn’t she remind him to take his keys? She told him he’d better remember to be somewhere with cell service to phone home on Feb. 22 for his eldest son Omar’s second birthday.

“You are careless!" she said. “You put the ship first before us and your children."

The chief mate—whose roles included keeping track of the keys for each cabin and distributing them to the crew—was four years into a career in which he’d risen fast by never saying no. The nephew of a ship captain who’d inspired him to trade a life in the Cairo suburbs for the sea, he’d worked on all manner of ships, from rolled cargo vessels ferrying cars to standing watch in the holds of fetid livestock carriers packed with bleating farm animals.

Now, as second-in-command on the Rubymar, he sat in the office with the captain while his subordinates pulled six-hour stints keeping watch in the fertilizer-packed holds. His last vessel, the Princess Hana, had been a Security Level 3 job—a perilous trip into Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, narrowly avoiding a Russian airstrike.

That was a one-off, he assured his wife, distracted on the other end by Omar and their younger son, Karim. The Rubymar, he was told, ranked Security Level 1.

But en route to the port of Ras Al Khair in Saudi Arabia, Gwealy watched over the captain’s shoulder as he typed out their new course, through the Red Sea waters threatened by the Houthis. Into the destination field of the onboard navigation system, information anybody searching the ship on Google could find, the captain added a warning, referring to four Filipino security contractors who had joined the crew: “Armed Guard Ob [on board]."

“These Yemeni people are crazy," Capt. Hejazi told his chief mate.

A decade of war had transformed the Houthis from a little-known militia in one of the poorest peripheries of the Middle East to an insurgency capable of choking the global economy from their headquarters in San’a, an ornate medieval desert city ringed by mountains.

After years of skirmishes, the militants were the most battle-tested faction to join a protest that toppled Yemen’s autocratic government during the Arab Spring. After they seized San’a and its international airport in 2014, Saudi Arabia replied with a war to oust them, worried that Iran would arm and equip the Shiite militia. 

The U.S. assisted the Saudis with billions of dollars in weaponry. A Saudi coalition blockaded imports, intensifying a famine. Over five years, nearly 250,000 people died in the conflict or from hunger, from medicine shortages and the spread of war-related diseases including cholera, the U.N. said.

None of it managed to dislodge the Houthis, whose new recruits learned to dodge Western airstrikes and surface-launched missiles, hiding weapons in drainage ditches and car parts shops. The campaign also pushed them further into the embrace of Iran.

Soon, members of a secretive department of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard called Unit 340 were arriving in San’a to provide training and sophisticated new weapons to the embattled insurgency. They built ballistic missiles such as the Fateh, or "Conqueror" and Sayyad, or “Hunter," said Saeid Golkar, an authority on Tehran’s security services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

In six-month rotations, 340 members operated out of basements, teaching the Yemenis to fashion cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that they launched in early 2022 at military sites and Saudi oil facilities. Secretly, they ventured beyond San’a on short stints to a nearby dam, to test new mobile missiles with the speed and honing capabilities to strike ships at sea, a Houthi official said.

In September, the Houthis paraded their new weapon in their capital: the 30-foot-long Asef ballistic missile, with a 280-mile range and a 660-pound warhead, according to a January report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, enough to blast through the hull of a bulk carrier.

The next month, Israel’s military surged into Gaza after the Hamas-led attacks. The Houthis claimed the mantle of solidarity with Palestinians and vowed to stop ships connected to Israel, the U.K. or America from passing through. If their campaign caused a global breakdown in the shipping industry, the militants warned, all the better.

“This will certainly affect navigation," Abdul Malik Al-Ajri, a member of the Houthi political bureau, said in a recent interview. “Even if it is limited to ships related to Israel, it will pose a danger to other ships."

On Nov. 19, images of their opening attack were beamed across the world. Armed commandos clad in balaclavas and tactical vests helicoptered onto the deck of the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamas-flagged, Israeli-owned cargo ship, hijacking it and capturing the crew. 

The militants filmed themselves performing infantry formations on the deck and circling their prize in a speedboat, “in the name of Gaza." In TikTok videos that went viral, a chisel-jawed 19-year-old self-declared hijacker, Rashid Al-Haddad, was nicknamed Tim-Houthi Chalamet after the young Hollywood star.

The White House condemned the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader and began considering whether to designate them as a terrorist group. Washington corralled allies to join what it called Operation Prosperity Guardian, “the Highway Patrol to help safeguard maritime vessels going through the strait." Ships rerouted en masse around Africa, delays piled up and the cost of shipping a container jumped nearly threefold.

Aboard the Rubymar, chief mate Gwealy and his captain believed they had protection. Before it turned toward the Red Sea on Feb. 8, the four armed guards gathered the crew around a laptop for an instructional video: what to do if pirates board your vessel.

The guards would ring barbed wire around the hull and install metal grates blocking the stairways to the lower decks. The crew practiced scampering downstairs into a safe room, locking it shut.

Gwealy and the captain would be the last pair in, signaling their presence with a secret knock. Four times they would bang the thick metal door, and after a three-second pause, a fifth. From inside, three knocks would answer, then the door would open.

Not once during the drill did anybody ask what to do if a missile struck.

‘Steady on this course’

The Rubymar was nearing the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, the crew dining on biryani platters and discussing what gifts to buy their families when they reached Bulgaria.

Gwealy traveled light—clothes, laptop, and a small bag, with little room for presents beyond the tea he’d bought for Khloud in Sri Lanka, though maybe he would get something for Omar and Karim in Europe. The last stretch of the Indian Ocean shimmered with the light of a quarter moon. Before he dozed off in front of his laptop, he ticked off the cargo hold inspections he would run through tomorrow.

Khloud had sent him a video of her with their two sons, trying to fix the lock. “You said this is a small thing," she said. “Does this look like a small thing?"

Three hours later, he was on the bridge of a ship pierced by missiles.

Over blaring alarms, the captain was struggling to interpret the riddle of the ship’s smoke detectors, which were warning of a fire without indicating the location. Sailors who’d been sleeping minutes earlier crowded into the bridge in confusion, some of them praying aloud. “We’ll be fine, inshallah," Gwealy reassured them. “Someone will save us."

“Find the source!" the captain ordered. The bridge, he warned, was the most exposed and dangerous place to be.

Sailors began descending the narrow stairs, fanning out to throw open different doors and check the unlit corners of a towering ship the length of nearly two football fields.

The cook raced to search the bedrooms, ran through the kitchen and peeked into a storage closet. The thought crossed his mind to call his mother and tell her he was dying, but there was no cell service on the sea. Even if he could eke out some signal, his prepaid phone lacked credit.

The chief mate and his captain assumed they were being hijacked. Gwealy radioed distress calls to any ship close enough to lend protection—the U.S. had an aircraft carrier strike group in the region—repeating “mayday, mayday…piracy attack," then waiting for answers.

“Too many alarms!" he shouted, before a call from Djibouti came in.

Could the Rubymar turn southwest to reach the small East African country’s waters? If so, Djibouti’s coast guard, trained and equipped by the U.S. Navy, would protect it. Gwealy couldn’t understand them over the crackling radio.

That was too far. “Go west," the captain ordered, towards Eritrea, whose coast guard wasn’t answering his calls. The propeller was churning at 10 nautical miles an hour, pushing 11 straight on, without zigzagging—as if the ship was trying to outrun pirates on swift inflatable boats, not bob and weave from missile fire. “Steady on this course," the captain repeated.

Twenty minutes later, at 11:15 p.m., Gwealy heard another muffled boom and saw water leaping up from the sea behind them. One of the Filipino security guards, clutching a rifle and watching for pirates off the starboard side, was shouting, “Captain, captain!" Something else had cut through the water, this time barely undershooting the Rubymar by about 30 yards. It was a missile, he guessed.

“They tried to sink us," Gwealy thought.

That day, the U.S. Central Command station in Tampa, Fla., registered a new weapon in the Houthis’ arsenal: underwater drones, much harder for the Navy to detect and intercept than missiles.

“This is war," the captain said. “It’s not a piracy attack."

Slowing the ship, the captain and the chief mate rerouted, now understanding that the task before them wasn’t to outrun pirates but to dodge missiles. The Rubymar veered north, cutting right through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. “Otherwise we’d be dead," Gwealy said. On the radio, the captain asked a British warship to guide him to safe area. There is no safe area, the warship answered back.

A small tabletop device was broadcasting the ship’s name, location, speed and course to anybody in radio range: its Automatic Identification System. “Remove the cable!" the captain ordered.

Gwealy reached behind it, but struggled to twist his hand between the device and the window. His thoughts were stuck on the horror of dying at sea after a fight with Khloud. The image of Omar celebrating his second birthday without him kept flashing through his mind. For the next four hours, it would be the only thing he could think of.

Across the other end of the Red Sea, in the Cairo suburbs, Khloud was lying awake. Omar was unsettled and crying constantly. The boy was especially close to his dad and ran onto the street to see him whenever he returned from a job.

“We knew something was wrong," she said. “I picked Omar up and told him, ‘Your father will come home.’"

Hold No. 5

The sailors who’d been scouring the ship for a fire they never found were reporting up to the bridge with details on the fracture on the starboard side.

The anti-ship missiles, designed to hit the engine room, had struck close by—and ripped a major leak into the room where power from the engine spun a shaft churning the propeller. The sea was cascading down onto the catwalk, over metal barricades and stairs, a torrential hiss the pumps were struggling to clear.

If that was all, Rubymar might make it. The ship was designed to survive two compartments flooding, and the deepening inundation sloshing down into the engine room and its shaft accounted for two, Gwealy reasoned. So long as a third didn’t come under, it would stay afloat.

In the meantime, a spray of water behind the propeller shaft had turned a murky color, a signal the sea was mixing with fuel for the engine. A half-hour past midnight, the chief engineer called up to say the engine would shut down imminently.

Capt. Hejazi pulled back the throttle to make a crash stop–a nightmare maneuver that sent the ship shuddering. It was 1:30 a.m. and Rubymar was barely 20 miles from where it had first been struck, listing slightly and surviving on backup generators. The captain shouted: “drop the anchor," and in eight minutes the crew scrambled to perform a job that usually took half an hour.

For more than two hours, Gwealy had been radioing increasingly urgent pleas every 10 minutes on Channel 16, the international distress frequency for ships in danger. Two vessels passed without helping. The best he’d been able to drum up so far was a U.S. naval helicopter that radioed back to confirm awareness. 

The U.S. Navy had an aircraft carrier, alongside guided-missile destroyers, a cruise missile destroyer and a submarine strapped with Tomahawk missiles. But that carrier group was more than 100 miles away.

Nor did the Navy have at hand what Rubymar needed, a salvage tug, capable of pumping out compartments and pulling a cargo ship blacked-out in a war zone to safety. Over decades of peace on the oceans, the Navy had slashed its supply of such ships, outsourcing the rare assignment to a tiny number of private contractors, few of them anywhere near the Houthi-threatened waters of the Red Sea.

As he kept radioing, Gwealy caught sight of a troubling indicator from the pressure gauge from one of the cargo holds, No. 5. It was far too high. “I’m thinking: What is happening?" he said. “I’m sure I have a problem in this hold."

Gwealy grabbed the boatswain and scrambled downstairs, using a hydraulic tool to pry open a manhole where they knew they could peer down into Hold No. 5. With a flashlight, Gwealy bent himself toward the opening and peeked through.

What he saw made him slap the wall in anguish. “God help us!" he screamed. Hold No. 5 was almost completely full of water—a third compartment flooded on a ship that couldn’t lose more than two.

“I knew then for sure 100% we must abandon ship," he said. “We needed to save ourselves."

By the time he raced back to the bridge, another sailor was on Channel 16, pleading with the U.S. Navy for help from the helicopter coming into view: “The ship is sinking! We need immediately help!"

“Rubymar, Coalition Aircraft copies all," the helicopter replied at 1:40 a.m.

“We have only a couple minutes," the sailor begged. “The ship will sink!"

The captain was done waiting. Around 2 a.m., he ordered his crew to abandon the Rubymar.

Gwealy only registered the turbulence on the seas below—rough waves, at least 10 feet tall—as his lifeboat started rolling in a sickening undulation from the moment it hit the water. Over the crash and hiss of sea smacking into the doors, the third officer piloting the lifeboat could barely hear the captain in the back shouting for their vessel to weave through the water.

“Port," the captain yelled, his voice drowned out.

“Port," repeated Gwealy to the third officer who jerked the lifeboat to the left.

“Starboard!" the captain shouted.

As the boat veered right, Gwealy vomited between his legs.

An hour and 15 minutes washed by before the radio crackled with the Ukrainian accent of a cargo ship captain, on his way: “We are going to pick them up." Gwealy struggled to climb the massive vessel’s rope ladder, collapsing on deck next to a sailor who’d fainted, his face splashed with water to check if he’d died. A sailor brought Gwealy a seasickness tablet, a blanket and coffee, then helped walk him to a cabin where the chief mate could sleep.

‘Mahmoud is calling’

Khloud sat upright at 5:15 a.m. to the sound of her cellphone: Mahmoud is calling.

Her husband had said he wouldn’t have a cell connection until he reached the Suez Canal on the 22nd.

“Khloud, Khloud, the ship has been attacked…. We sunk."

His voice was shaking. Khloud screamed: “Are you OK? Swear to god that you are OK? And everyone is OK?"

“Yes, we are all OK and we are on another ship," Gwealy said.

After two minutes, the call cut out and Khloud was panicking. She went to pray then checked the internet. Dozens of news items were already reporting a missile strike on the Rubymar.

She dialed the company that had hired Mahmoud, but the woman who picked up the phone hadn’t heard the news, and began to cry when Khloud told her. She kept thinking about her husband on the sea: What if they’re attacked again?

Gwealy had told her to download an app that allowed her to track him at sea. When she opened it, she saw the icon moving rapidly toward Djibouti. Twelve hours later, her phone rang again.

“Khloud, we are safe," he said. “You will never guess what happened to us!"

“I know everything," she said. “It’s all over the news."

Before the call ended, she realized that Gwealy would be home for Omar’s birthday—and to fix the front door.

The chief mate still hasn’t been paid. For days after his return, his phone pinged with photos of the Rubymar, still afloat about 16 miles west of Yemen. Oil and fertilizer trailed behind the ship like an ink stain. The tip of its stern sagged just slightly into the sea. 

The ship’s manager said he struggled to find a salvage tug willing to rescue the vessel, or to identify a nearby port open to what had become a floating environmental liability.

Meanwhile, there is evidence the Houthis’ military capability has expanded to include underwater drones. Those drones are harder than missiles for the Navy to detect and destroy. 

One Houthi missile came within a nautical mile of the Navy’s USS Gravely recently, forcing the destroyer to resort to its last line of defense—a 20-mm Gatling gun—the closest any militant group has come to crippling a U.S. warship since al Qaeda sunk the USS Cole in the run-up to 9/11.

The U.S. Navy has replied by conducting another round of air and missile strikes at what it said were the Houthis’ underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter.

But the conflict has forced the world’s most powerful fleet to reconsider whether it has the tools—or could possibly procure them—to intercept every incoming cruise or ballistic missile or drone that it would require to secure the vital shipping lane. A future in which the seas are only open to some seems on the horizon. 

Chinese ships, hoping to survive on the basis of their relative neutrality in Middle Eastern politics, have begun adding a disclaimer in the destination field of their onboard navigation systems: “ALL CHINA CREW."

“It’s settling in that this is an international problem requiring an international solution," a U.S. Department of Defense official said. “There’s a lot of lines of efforts, more than just military firepower."

In the meantime, an update came in last Saturday to the U.S. Central Command station in Tampa. The Rubymar, it said, had sunk.

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