Sea Transportation: Learning To Live With Piracy


November 2,2008: Recently, five ships in one day evaded pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. The ships used a combination of more lookouts, high speed, and fire hoses (to keep pirates from boarding) to avoid capture. Although the unions representing crews on major merchant ships have negotiated double pay for the days that ships are transiting the piracy prone areas of the Gulf of Aden, and doubled death and disability benefits when at risk, the sailors are very eager to avoid getting captured. That's even though the crews will receive the double pay for the time they spend captive. The shipping companies also want to avoid capture. The current recession has made the shipping business much more competitive. Get a reputation for not being able to handle pirates, and you will find your ships unable to find a cargo.

About a hundred or so ships in the danger zone at any given time, and the pirates are constantly looking for ships that are vulnerable to attack. The basic tactic is to approach a ship, preferably at night, and then use ladders or grappling hooks to scramble aboard and take control. Few ships carry any weapons, and most have small crews (15-30 sailors). Attacking at night finds most of the crew asleep.

More ships are posting additional lookouts when in the Gulf of Aden, increasing speed (a large ship running at full speed, about 40+ kilometers an hour, can outrun most of the current speed boats the pirates have), and have fire hoses ready to be used to repel boarders. The pirates will fire their AK-47 assault rifles and RPG grenade launchers, but the sailors handling the fire hoses will stand back so the gunmen cannot get a direct shot.

The naval officers leading the anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden have warned shipping companies to take additional precautions, because the growing number (over 20) of warships in the Gulf cannot possibly protect all the merchant ships passing through the area. Not only that, but many of the nations who have sent warships to join the effort, have ordered their crews to treat the pirates carefully. In most cases, the sailors are under orders not to "capture" any pirates. British officers were bluntly told that if pirates were taken back to Britain, under current laws, the pirates could claim asylum. According to international law, warships cannot go after suspected pirates unless they actually catch them attacking a ship.

The key problem is that no one wants to go ashore and take on the Somali warlords responsible for the surge in piracy. No wonder, as the natural state of Somalia, over the last few centuries, has been violent anarchy. Going after the pirate bases would be bloody, mainly for the Somalis, and no nation wants to get accused of war crimes and brutality by the media. 

Some warlords are taking over coastal villages and run piracy operations from them. Local fishermen eagerly join these gangs, seeing the possibility of a huge payday. The availability of speedboats, satellite radio and GPS have made it possible to conduct piracy deep into the Straits of Aden. As more money is made (about $30 million so far this year), the pirates can afford faster speedboats, night vision devices and more effective tools for boarding ships (which have decks that are sometimes 40, or more feet, above the water.)

The shipping companies are getting angry about the lack of decisive action against the pirates. But the pirates are not stupid. They know that, as long as they don't kill their captive crews, and just collect the ransoms, they can continue to get away with piracy. There have also been reports of the local police forming pirate gangs. When asked about this, some Puntland police point out that the government has not been able to pay them for months, and everyone has to make a living. Puntland is a self-declared state in northeastern Somalia. The tribes and clans up there, as in neighboring Somaliland, have negotiated a peace deal that has kept most of the violence out. But piracy has brought back the violence, with million dollar ransoms as an incentive.

The pirates will keep at it, even though  capturing ships  continues to get more difficult. For example, many of the warships have helicopters, and these can quickly reach ships calling for help. Even thirty warships would have problems guarding the 1500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden. Getting ships to travel in convoys may be a solution, with five or so convoys going each way daily. It will cost ships money to halt and wait for a convoy to depart, but if the pirate threat increases sufficiently (it's already costing ships an additional $20,000 in insurance, fuel and danger bonus costs to transit the Gulf), convoys may be the only way to make piracy too difficult, and cause the pirates to disband. 




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