Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Piracy - the scourge of the high seas

There has lately been a lot of coverage about piracy in modern days and I'd like to comment on it. Piracy to most laymen brings in mind Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirate's of the Caribbean movies or to the older generations James Cagney from his famous pirate movies decades ago.

Well, piracy has never been extinct and hundreds of incidents happens annually around the globe, the worst areas being the Straits of Malacca and the West African coast. I myself have been spending years in the waters of Straits of Malacca and reading piracy reports days on end from the Piracy center in Kuala Lumpur.

My opinion is that pirates are a bunch of cowards. They look for the moment of surprise in dark, they prey on small vessel with small crews that can fetch them a good ransom or where the cargo can be sold or ship as well. Here in Asia it has been speculated that the operation is controlled by a mafia that spans the South China Sea, a good example is the case of Petro Ranger that was hijacked by Indonesian pirates in 1998 with $2.3mil fuel cargo onboard. See Petro Ranger or google up some more. I myself read the book that was written by the Captain after the incident was over.

I also noticed the many reports involved small slow moving tugboats, coasters but never any yachts. In fact I can't recall any piracy incidents on passenger ships or yachts except the one last summer in the Med where m/y Tiara was raided for cash and valuables and this one as well must have been pre-meditated as you don't just head out, choose the closest yacht and go raid it (inside job?).

Another factor for increased piracy is the economy, in Malacca Straits the piracy hit an all time high when the financial crisis was wreaking havoc in SE Asia in the late nineties and now we see the same occurrence at the Somalian coast.

What do you do if pirates come onboard? First of all the Owner does not pay you to be a hero, so you don't have to man the guns with swashbuckling antics like in the movies. Most plans and manuals advise to give passive resistance, i.e. not willingly give everything that is not asked for, just do the necessary to keep the pirates happy. In passenger ships it is advised that all passengers and crew proceed to their respective cabins and lock the doors (more difficult to control when people are dispersed). The Officers in charge should attempt to send a security breach alarm so the office will know that something is amiss (before the pirates smash the communication equipment).

Somebody might ask, how about fire arms? Well, ask yourself are you willing to kill another fellow man for the salary you are getting? Furthermore, weapons onboard involves a lot of red tape in various countries.

Then many people are asking, how do we prevent piracy attacks? The best prevention is not to go through the affected areas at all but then shipping would stop quite effectively and that is not a solution. As said before one should strive to take out the favored elements that the pirates prefer:
- Moment of surprise;
- Darkness.

Me and me matey, Jack Sparrow, arrrrr....

This means maintain a vigilant lookout, visible patrols on deck at all times with walkie talkies and plan your passage of high risk areas in day time. In addition you can rig your fire hoses to spray a continuous "shield" at the aft. If the Owner's are happy for the extra expense the ship can employ security personnel with sonic guns to disable pirates.

Also plan your passage well off the coast or piracy prone waters if possible. Do note that underwriters today might have issued a clause that that passing closer than 200' (or more) of the Somalian waters might render the policy void or may require additional fees.

As an additional security measure there are Companies that provide armed escort in pirate prone areas as well as armed guards onboard. Some Companies have also installed sonic "weapons" to deter pirates but have no info on how effective they are.

One might also ask about robberies in port which are also rated as piracy attacks but it is like in every port there are thieves and if one is not vigilant they will come onboard and take what they want, sailors has throughout time been too trusting and gullible in foreign ports.

As a closing I might say that the piracy threat is there but can be avoided with the right measures of vigilance and slight paranoia, but otherwise it is overrated for yachts and passenger ships and should not be mentioned as a reason for not sailing.

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