Pirates and How to Avoid Them

Post by: Dee White
11 September 2011

Pirate flag

Films and books, with characters such as Long John Silver and more recently, Jack Sparrow, have romanticised the idea of pirates. But in reality modern day pirates are anything but romantic. No parrots, patches and peg-legs, more like AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.

Modern Day Pirates

In the Golden Age of piracy the pirates were usually after a ship’s cargo, but modern pirates have other priorities due to the difficulties of finding markets to sell these goods. Nowadays pirates take the crew’s personal valuables, electronic items and money. But more disturbing still is hostage taking for ransoms and the fear and danger which this results in. Today a vast 1.4 million square miles of the Indian Ocean is considered a “no-go” area.

The Figures

There were 36% more international pirate attacks in the first half of 2011 compared to the same in 2010, according to the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre. 266 attacks in the first six months of 2011 compared to 196 in the same period the previous year.

Somali pirates were responsible for more than 60% of the attacks, the majority of which were in the Arabian Sea area. As of June 2011, Somali pirates were holding 20 vessels and 420 crew and demanding ransoms of millions of dollars.

In the first half of 2011 Somali pirates took 361 sailors hostage and kidnapped 13. Worldwide, 495 seafarers were taken hostage. 7 people have been killed and 39 injured. 99 vessels were boarded, 76 fired on and 62 thwarted attacks were reported. Whereas five years ago pirates were just as likely to brandish knives as well as guns, ships are now increasingly being attacked with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade launchers. Although Somali pirates have been more active this year, taking higher risks by firing on ships in rough seas in the monsoon season, they have actually managed to hijack fewer ships, due to tougher defences and actions of international naval forces to disrupt pirate groups off the east coast of Africa.

It is thought that piracy is now costing world trade £10 billion a year. Insurance premiums have trebled and many insurers refuse to cover ships that go anywhere near the piracy areas. This means that many ships have to be rerouted, a costly and time-consuming solution.

Where Have the Attacks Happened?

  • South East Asia and Indian Sub Continent
  • Bangladesh – listed as a high risk area. Most attacks reported at Chittagong.
  • India – Cochin. Most attacks occurred when vessels were at anchor.
  • Indonesia – pirates normally attack vessels at night but usually abort boarding when spotted.
  • Malacca Straits – attacks have dropped due to aggressive patrols by the authorities.
  • Malaysia – pirates armed with guns and knives often attack in darkness.Singapore Straits – attacks have reduced but vessels are advised to keep vigilant.
  • South China Sea
  • Vietnam
  • Africa and Red Sea
  • Nigeria – All waters in Nigeria are risky with many reports of thefts and kidnappings.
  • Benin – violent attacks are increasing, particularly on tankers.
  • Conakry (Guinea) – aggressive attacks with automatic weapons and pirates sometimes dressed in military uniforms.
  • Douala Outer Anchorage (Cameroon) – 2 attacks with kidnapping.
  • Gulf of Aden/Red Sea – the pirates fire automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. When the vessel is hijacked it is sailed towards the Somali coast and ransom demands are made for the release of the vessel and crew.
  • Somalia – as well as the whole coast of Somalia being a dangerous area, attacks have spread to Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mozambique, Oman and Maldives. Somali pirates are notoriously dangerous with their automatic weapons and RPGs.

The majority of these attacks take place relatively near the shore, the pirates using small speed boats. But some attacks have occurred as many as 400 nautical miles from the shore. In these cases it is probable that smaller ships work in conjunction with a large mother ship, carrying fuel, ammunition and supplies. These “mother ships” are sometimes themselves hijacked vessels. The most common targets for modern pirates are cargo ships, tankers and container ships. These are most vulnerable when they are berthed or at anchor, as are private sailing boats “anchoring out” to avoid marina berthing fees.

How to Avoid Pirate Attack

At the planning stage

  • Avoid “no-go” areas. Before sailing, research trends and hotspots where piracy and other criminal activity is rife and avoid them, even if it means going a long way round.
  • When in port, get as much local knowledge as you can from local captains and port offices about potential piracy problems.
  • Avoid discussing your route or cargo while in port.

On your journey

  • Search the ship before leaving port to make sure no one is on board without authorisation.
  • If you have to travel through a dangerous area, go with other boats if possible, keep a low profile and get through quickly.
  • Stay in contact with warships if there are any in the vicinity.
  • Cruise in groups so that you can take it in turns to have a person on watch at all times.
  • Avoid bottlenecks in shipping areas.

Make yourself safe and a difficult target

  • Be armed – not necessarily with guns, but with awareness. While some governments allow their ships to carry armed guards, this is not the norm and certainly private yachtsmen would be unlikely to carry guns. Treat unusual occurrences as a threat and put out a radio call, secure valuables or increase your speed as soon as you see a small boat coming towards at speed.
  • Make your boat a difficult target by running razor wire around the stern, caging in access to lower-deck crew’s quarters, using high pressure water hoses or trailing lengths of heavy-gauge steel cables or wire mesh from your stern, which rips the propellers off the pirate boat as it approaches.
  • Use your lights once you have noticed a potential threat, to focus on the pirate boat. He may abort the attack if he knows he has been seen.
  • A new type of laser defence system is being developed. The laser beam incapacitates pirates by dazzling them as they approach a ship and is effective against moving targets more than a mile away. It hides the vessel carrying it in a bright green glare, forcing the pirates off course and leaving them unable to use their weapons accurately.
  • A satellite system called ShipLoc allows shipping companies to monitor the location of their ships. Companies can also install non-lethal electric fences around the ship’s perimeter, as long as it does not carry flammable cargo.
  • To avoid being boarded – call for help and warn other boats in the area, take evasive action to out-manoeuvre the attackers, sound the alarm and use the ship’s lights to illuminate the vessel. When the attackers attempt to board, try to throw off any grappling hooks or poles.
  • If at anchor, lift your dinghy alongside the toerail or on board at night to discourage pirates from stealing it and then boarding.
  • Lift up the transom boarding ladder to make boarding more difficult.
  • Fit bunk fans and keep companionway hatch and other cabin hatches shut in problem areas.
  • Fit an inexpensive infrared alarm in the cockpit which will emit a loud shriek.
  • Stow knives and any other items that could be used as weapons.
  • Fit a concealed safe for valuable possessions.
  • Keep a hand-held VHF beside your bunk if you are in a suspect area.
  • After anchoring, do a pre-start-check and have a safe course to steer written out by the wheel, so you can make way at a moment’s notice.
  • Keep a red parachute flare handy so that it can be fired to raise the alarm.

Happy Outcomes

Fortunately, not all pirate attacks end in thefts, kidnappings or murders. The bulldog spirit of Great Britain still thrives, both on land and at sea and is no better shown than when the appropriately named cruise ship the Spirit of Adventure, was approached by Somali pirates while crossing the Indian Ocean, with 320 elderly passengers on board. Their “black-tie” dinner was interrupted by the captain’s instruction to the crew to proceed to emergency stations. The urgency in his voice told them this was no practice drill. The passengers were moved to safety in the lower lounge in the middle of the ship where they calmly sat on the floor in full evening dress while the ship sped away to get away from the pirates. After about an hour the pirates were left behind and the passengers resumed their dinner.

Author - Dee White

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