Mariners need to be able to defend themselves against pirates

Imagine that your oceangoing tug leaves the Red Sea after transiting the Suez Canal, and is making the passage through the Gulf of Aden around 70 miles off the northeastern coast of Somalia. You see two boats speeding toward your slow-moving tug. Minutes later heavily armed pirates with machine guns and grenade launchers overrun your vessel and swarm aboard — in plain sight of a U.S. Navy patrol ship. Taken hostage, you watch helplessly as your captors loot your staterooms, the engine room, the galley and take whatever valuables you and your crew are wearing.

Then, with a gun pointed at your head, one pirate who speaks English explains that you and your vessel are being held for ransom and that your life depends upon the company’s willingness to pay nearly $1 million. After 47 days being held at gunpoint while you ate, slept and lived life thinking each day might be your last, you receive word that the company has finally made the ransom payment. By the end of the ordeal, even the tug has been stripped bare. Thankfully, you and your crew are alive — though definitely the worse for wear. As a last insult, you are directed to drop off each pirate at his coastal home on your way back out to sea.

That pirate attack isn’t some story from the history books, nor is it a Johnny Depp movie. It actually occurred just weeks ago to Capt. Colin Darch of Britain and his crew on an oceangoing Danish tug, the Maersk-owned Svitzer Korsakov.

This attack was not an isolated incident. In the South China Sea, pirates brutally murdered all 23 crewmembers on the bulk carrier Chang Song. The crew was led out on deck, lined up, beaten to death and then tossed overboard before the pirates stole the ship and cargo. Even recreational boaters are targets.

International law defines piracy as an armed attack against a vessel on the high seas — outside the territorial waters and jurisdiction of any country. Piracy has doubled over the past several years, and as I write this, it is already up 20 percent in 2008. Even worse, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates that the actual number of pirate attacks against merchant ships is twice the official number, because many shipping companies choose not to report the incidents for fear of raising their insurance premiums — something confirmed at a NATO meeting on maritime crimes earlier this year.

One of the major international responses to piracy and violence against merchant ships has been the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code, which specifies a number of ship security requirements for applicable oceangoing vessels. The provisions include a “hot button,” which when activated notifies authorities ashore where and when an attack is occurring; ship security plans specifying actions to avoid and repel an attack; and a vessel security officer to ensure that the security plan is followed. Amazingly, many vessel types are exempt from the code requirements, including oceangoing ships less than 500 gross tons, most oceangoing tugboats, merchant ships working exclusively in inland waters (like ferries) and recreational boats.

From my perspective as an actively sailing deck officer, the security plans I’ve seen on board merchant ships have had serious shortcomings. Each plan called for the use of fire hoses and axes to repel pirates — an unrealistic defense against assailants wielding grenade launchers and automatic weapons. A piracy “hot button” notifying authorities ashore is not going to stop attackers as they storm aboard with AK-47 assault rifles. Trying to avoid or outrun the pirates is not very realistic when most merchant vessels have speeds of 10 to 25 knots, and many pirate boats are capable of 30 to 50 knots.

When it comes to ISPS compliance, some companies realize that more is needed. There are shipping companies that go beyond the standard “fire hose and fire ax” security plan and supply their vessels with non-lethal defensive equipment like night-vision scopes and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs). A night-vision scope can enable a mariner on lookout to see suspicious vessels approaching in the dark — a tactic many pirates use. Also known as a sonic blaster, an LRAD looks somewhat like a satellite dish and is described as a “bullhorn on steroids.” It delivers an ear-splitting sound blast that temporarily disables and disorients an attacker, allowing the vessel the opportunity for escape. In 2005 crewmembers aboard Seabourn Spirit, a cruise ship operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, used this equipment to help repel a pirate attack.  

Two other non-lethal means of defending against a pirate attack in use on merchant ships are electric ship fences and closed-circuit TV cameras. The Secure-Ship electric fence, marketed by a company based in the Netherlands, is recommended by both the International Maritime Bureau and the IMO as an anti-piracy defense. These “fences” are really large cables strung around the perimeter of the ship outside of the gunwale. When touched, they sound an alarm and deliver a 9,000-volt shock to knock the pirates back in the water. Combining this system with closed-circuit TV monitors, the officers on the bridge would instantly know that their ship was under attack — and where the pirates were attempting to board the vessel.

Historically, merchant mariners used swords, pistols and cannons to repel attacks. Today, some merchant mariners use Uzis and M-14 rifles. A friend of mine who works for Zim Container Line told me that on Zim ships every crewmember is issued an Uzi, an automatic weapon, and is trained in its use.

In the United States, just to sail as a civilian merchant mariner on a Military Sealift Command ship you must have weapons training. On board the vessel, M-14 rifles, M-500 shotguns and M-9 pistols are issued to the crew in case of armed attack.

Other companies hire armed guards to protect the ship and crew. I know of a U.S.-flagged integrated tug/barge working in the Persian Gulf that carries four armed guards at all times.     

Piracy against merchant ships has a high cost, both in money and in lives. Sixteen billion dollars is lost each year. In addition, thousands of merchant mariners like Capt. Darch and his crew on Svitzer Korsakov have been kidnapped or killed by pirates. I believe that merchant mariners and shipping companies have a right to expect that the authorities in charge will make the high seas safe. Until that time comes, mariners should be given the means to effectively defend themselves and their vessels.

Till next time I wish you all Smooth Sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle.  You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff