In fighting pirates, merchant vessels are mostly on their own

In 2008 over 100 ships were attacked by pirates off Somalia. Forty were hijacked. Hundreds of seamen have been held captive and two have been killed. Huge ransoms have been paid. It is like the coast of Barbaree in 1800. The pirates are assisted by criminal syndicates in Europe, who, for a price, provide shipping schedules and routes. Some companies are rerouting ships around the Cape of Good Hope.

The pirates, armed with automatic shoulder weapons, employ Boston Whaler-type boats, sometimes deployed from mother ships. Proceeding with several boats in company, they will approach commercial ships and yachts and demand surrender, often punctuating their orders with shooting. They will proceed inshore with the hijacked ship and demand ransom, which is usually paid.

Somalia’s 2,000 mile coastline is the longest in Africa. The pirates are not everywhere there, though they have demonstrated the capacity to shift operations. They now concentrate upon the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea approaches.

A number of countries have deployed warships to the region. However, the United Nations Oceans and Law of the Sea allows for effective action by a commissioned ship only if the pirates are caught in the act in international waters. Investigative boardings are permitted, though undertaking that against pirates is something most warship captains would think twice about. Indeed, the 2003 Statement of Interdiction Principles, based upon the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, affords the pirates a considerable amount of protection — and they know that.

Armed guards in merchant ships are an expensive option, and owners have serious liability concerns. Proceeding farther offshore is less an option than one might think. It is now clear that the Somali buccaneers have mother ships from which they will launch rigid hull inflatables. One seizure actually took place 450 nautical miles offshore. Moreover, if a ship is approaching the Red Sea, the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb is only 17 miles across — with Perim Island punctuating the passage. Ships approaching the Red Sea, through which passes 11 percent of the world’s oil, can be well offshore for only so long.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, thus obviating effectual diplomacy and sanctions. Various warlords and certain tribes control their domains. Militant Islamists are working their way northward in the country, hoping to establish a Taliban-like rule.

What can ship masters do?
For the nonce, it seems that ships’ companies are largely on their own to escape the Somali pirates. If a ship’s master has no choice but to pass the Somali coast, he would be wise to proceed as far offshore as he can. He would also do well to go as fast as possible. Both efforts are expensive, but not as expensive as a seizure. Though the pirates are proceeding well offshore with the use of mother ships, they still have their own reach considerations. And the farther offshore their criminal operations take place, the more that can go wrong for them.

Proceeding at best speed simply decreases the amount of time in dangerous waters. Moreover, boarding operations require that the boarded ship be making little headway. Boats are not launched from a ship at high speed either. If one does not wish to be boarded, one maintains speed. Also, the small boats used for piratical boarding have limited fuel capacity and cannot chase for an interminable period.

Almost all forced boardings offshore Somalia have taken place in the daytime. Why? Well, nocturnal operations are more difficult. And, make no mistake, what the pirates undertake is no easy task. Scouting ship and crew characteristics is much more difficult during darkness. There are night vision concerns. And finding one’s way about a strange ship is never easy, even at high noon. Daytime operations are likely to remain the preferred pirate option. So, traversing suspect waters is best accomplished after sunset. Doing so in a seaway is also a good idea, insofar as that can be chosen. As with any seaward operation, pirate tactics are not made easier by high seas and diminished visibility.

If the track line has to be close to pirate lairs, the master can take certain precautions. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) maintains a weekly piracy report which can be accessed. IMB also puts out specific alerts. The recent locations of pirate approaches and attacks should be plotted and given a wide berth. And it is always good for a ship’s master to ask himself, “Do I really need to do this today?"

When making passage in these dangerous seas, it is well to maintain a strict radar watch and extra topside lookouts. Picking out small boats traveling in company can be hard work. But if they are sighted early, evasive maneuvers at best speed can begin early. Too many attacks have taken masters by surprise, with pirates close aboard and threatening before they are reported.

Commercial interests are not much in favor of convoys. They take time to rendezvous and time is money. And speed is dependent upon the slowest ship in company. However, to the extent that ships can travel in company, they can support one another in watch, warning and communications — and perhaps even in evasive maneuver.

To the extent possible, commercial masters should try to know the locations of patrolling warships. They are the ones to call and know where to run. The Somali pirates are in business for profit. Though pirates of many cultures have a long history of cloaking their appetites in piety — and the Somali pirates are no different — their purpose is money, not martyrdom.

It’s not looking good ahead
The Internet has nothing on maritime shipping when it comes to globalization. The ships which have been attacked carry goods from many countries bound for many countries. The ships’ companies are a polyglot, cosmopolitan mixture. And ship registry, flag and ownership are incredibly diverse. Responsibility and authority are quite diffused. Still, the human cost of piracy is a worldwide humanitarian concern. And the commercial losses, ransom prices and insurance costs are felt from Dakar to Dubuque.

There is plenty of diplomatic hand wringing. Warships from over a dozen countries have been dispatched. However, there is no political will to do anything other than have a number of corvettes, frigates and destroyers mill about smartly, look menacingly and respond forcefully only to actual attacks in progress. And even if the international consensus and legal cover were there for warships to go on the offensive, the wide seaward approaches would demand a combined air and sea fleet.

The U.S. Navy has allowed that merchant ships in the region need to protect themselves, probably with armed guards. However, the liability issues are worrisome to most ship owners and the idea is less than popular. Blackwater Worldwide is looking to place an air/sea response ship in the region, should insurance and shipping companies combine to make that a profitable venture.

The globalized commerce under attack is of no small importance to America. Should the concerned voices and wallet pain become obvious enough, the U.S. Navy might be ordered to seize or sink. The U.S. Navy is in search of credible missions right now — and navies do not exist to fight other navies, but to keep sea lines of communication open.

In the meantime, civilian ships in Pirate Alley are largely on their own.

Raymond J. Brown is a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain. He is director of intelligence for Total Security Services International in Silver Spring, Md.

By Professional Mariner Staff