Some U.S.-flag ships to carry security teams under new rules designed to deter piracy


The lifeboat from Maersk Alabama is hoisted aboard USS Boxer following a pirate attack in April off Somalia. Pirates used the lifeboat to hold the captain of Maersk Alabama captive. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

Citing the recent pirate attacks on Maersk Alabama and Liberty Sun off the coast of Somalia, the U.S. Coast Guard has updated security requirements for U.S.-flagged commercial vessels in waters where piracy is a serious threat.

The changes, which took effect May 11, required owners to submit new security plans for approval by May 25. In addition, some vessels will be required to supplement their crews with either armed or unarmed trained security teams.

The Coast Guard would not discuss details of the security teams, citing the need to maintain secrecy and because some of the details have not been worked out.

With only several dozen of about 300 U.S.-flagged ships transiting pirate-plagued waters, it is likely that relatively few vessels will be affected by the new rules for now.

Kevin Doherty, CEO of Nexus Consulting Group, a private security contractor, said he believed that it is likely that most owners of U.S.-flagged vessels would eventually welcome security teams.

“The pirates literally called out the United States after the Maersk,� he said. “Before, they were not targeting them, specifically.�

Doherty said it is possible that some of a vessel’s crewmembers could be trained to provide security, but it is more likely that specially trained teams would become the standard.

Doherty believes that costs associated with security teams eventually could be offset by lower insurance premiums if it is shown that they do, in fact, deter attacks.

Insurance premiums have risen sharply for vessels passing within range of pirate groups.

While the Coast Guard has been constantly working to improve security off the coast of Somalia, the attacks on Maersk Alabama and Liberty Sun “brought the problem to the forefront of everybody’s consciousness,� said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Maersk Alabama was attacked on April 8 and its captain held hostage for five days before being freed by U.S. naval forces. A day later, Liberty Sun was attacked but managed to elude its pursuers. Until those incidents, relatively few U.S.-flagged vessels had been targeted.

The Coast Guard last updated its rules in April 2008 as the shipping industry became increasingly concerned about escalating piracy. But with the Somalia-based pirates refining their tactics to include more sophisticated stalking strategies, use of “mother ships� and seeking out targets farther offshore, it was time for an update, O’Neil said. The attacks on Maersk Alabama and Liberty Sun provided more insight into the pirates’ thinking.

The result was Maritime Security Directive 104-6, issued May 11.

U.S.-flagged vessels have been required to devise security plans since 2001 and have had guidelines to follow in dangerous waters.

But O’Neil noted that many of the measures would now be mandatory, including submitting an updated plan to the Coast Guard and posting lookouts whenever vessels pass through dangerous waters.

If a company’s amended plan is inadequate, “we can go back and address the issues,� O’Neil said. Companies that fail to comply can face civil penalties, “but that is a measure of last resort,� he said.

The directive’s updated requirements also urge captains to continue using tactics they have used in the past, including sailing in established transit lanes, increasing speed and coordinating with the military forces patrolling the area.

While ships that follow the new guidelines certainly will be safer, Ray Brown, a maritime security consultant and retired Coast Guard captain, said piracy is so lucrative that it is unlikely to be solved soon.

“There is no silver bullet,� Brown said.

Eventually, he said, piracy will be eradicated when the shipping industry gets more organized and world governments come up with a coordinated approach to Somalia.

O’Neil said both the Coast Guard and the shipping industry are cognizant that deterring piracy represents a long-term commitment. Representatives from both sides are continuing to meet to address issues such as rules of engagement and liability and to assess how well the updated requirements are working.

But, ultimately there are no guarantees.

“You can take all the right measures and still have a bad day,� O’Neil said. “You can’t guarantee 100 percent.�

Gary Randall

By Professional Mariner Staff