This pirate movie is not from Hollywood

A porampo group encountered by the author and his crew on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which forms the southern shore of the Strait of Malacca. The pirates allowed the film crew to accompany them on a night raid.

It’s the P-word, code for the topic that nobody knows anything about.

There’s no doubt that any sailor or fisherman in Indonesia does know about it, and possibly firsthand. But few people, it seems, are willing to acknowledge its existence. And if they do, often they avoid uttering the actual word, as though saying it will bring back to life the ghost of a bad memory. So rather than saying porampo — the Indonesian word for pirate — you just say “the P-word,” and they will understand.

Medan, population 2.5 million, is the largest city on the island of Sumatra and the third most populous in Indonesia. With its freewheeling nature and evident corruption, it’s a logical place to make street-level contacts for information about the Ps a few hours to the north. For logistical coordinator Bob Duke, cinematographer David Crabtree, and myself, a merchant marine officer, it’s a good starting point on the road to Aceh Province. The road to pirates.

It was nighttime in Belawan, the seedy port town for Medan. Asri, our guide/interpreter, first went alone up the gangway of a chemical tank ship to ask permission to interview a senior officer about port activities. The P-word had not yet been mentioned: say it too early and it might be a deal breaker. After a few minutes Asri gave the signal to come up to the main deck of the ship. Once there, David and I were directed inside the forecastle to a spot under a ladder well just off the athwartships passageway. The chief officer was asked about his knowledge of the Ps in the Malacca Strait.

“No, I don’t know about it,” he replied in broken but understandable English.

“Have you ever had intruders board any of your ships?”

“No, never.”

“Do you know stories of others attacked in the sea?”

The film crew comes ashore during their trip down the Krueng Tho River in hopes of arranging a meeting with porampo.

He shook his head and looked away. Like many others who know of its existence, he would not speak of it, certainly not in front of a camera filming a documentary on the subject. This feigned ignorance is customary for Asian mariners. They fear that their words, if filtered back to the company, could get them fired.

Meanwhile, 200 miles across the strait in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Noel Choong directs operations of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre. Financed by a consortium of approximately 20 shipping companies, the operation is the world’s best-known piracy tracking station. Whenever a ship reports an assault, the information is sent there. The problem is, less than 50 percent of piracy incidents are ever reported; some say it is only 10 percent. “We cannot track what is not relayed to us,” said Choong. “The Centre is strictly a tracking agency, with no law enforcement teeth to enforce the seas.” So why would seamen and their managing companies be loath to share accounts of sailors being beaten and killed by pirates?

“You see, these companies are often more concerned with the bottom line than they are with the lives of their crewmen,” said Ramesh Chandran, a maritime attorney in Kuala Lumpur. “The companies realize that if reports of piracy become known, their insurance carriers are likely to hike up their rates. Also, it costs money to employ security on a ship.”

Back in Sumatra, we made contact with an ex-GAM rebel named Usman in a village near the liquefied natural gas port of Lhokseumawe. (GAM stands for Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or Free Aceh Movement, a separatist group seeking independence from Indonesia.)

A well-built man around 30, he had a quiet demeanor but looked capable of snapping the neck of an enemy soldier in the middle of the night. He was ex-porampo and willing to talk — for a price. He did not want money, just a promise to help bring him over to the U.S. one day. Not even a guarantee.

Over a five-year period, Usman said, he took part in nearly three-dozen piracy attempts in the strait, yet only five of the attacks were successful. Most of the attempts came up empty.

“Many things can go wrong,” said Usman through a translator. “There are engine problems. A big storm can sink your boat. Maybe the ship is too big or too fast. Maybe sailors are on deck with fire hoses. You must have the element of surprise, because if they see you first, you will not succeed. Too many things can go wrong.”

Why did he leave that life behind? “It leads nowhere good,” he said without elaboration.

A tug in the port of Sibu in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo has metal grates over the pilothouse windows. The bars were installed at the request of the boat’s crew to protect them from pirates operating in the surrounding waters.

Pirate Island

One hour and 20 minutes from Lhokseumawe, we boarded our motorboat and headed down the Krueng Tho River with a load of nine: our three-man film crew, Usman, two of his associates, Sadli the translator, the boat operator and a barefoot river guide.

After two hours we reached Jambaire Island and pulled over on the west bank, some 300 yards from the ocean surf. Thirty yards ahead, Usman held up his right hand, motioning for us to stay behind. He was going just off the beach to meet with representatives of the GAM rebel group, to see if they would grant us access to their camp, as well as provide anonymous interviews.

Meanwhile, an interview had been approved with Akmal who, like Usman, is an ex-porampo. With a naturally wiry build, he was also thin because of an abdominal infection that made it difficult for him to digest food. The infection resulted from being stabbed with a piece of glass during a piracy attempt four years earlier. The right side of his face was noticeably scarred from a grenade tossed by a sailor on deck. This is surprising, because the use of grenades by crewmembers of ships during pirate assaults is never reported. Officially, ship’s crews use nothing more than fire hoses and clubs.

Akmal was also ex-GAM. “I live in the forest, sleep in the trees and on ground for five years,” Sadli translated. He left behind this nomadic rebel/pirate existence because “I do not like what the bosses do with the money. They are to help the people with it, but it is not used like they say.

“Sometimes we use one boat, sometimes two. Maybe there are four of us, maybe 12. There are many types of weapons … shotguns, long knives, pistols. We never want to kill, only rob. I never want to hurt people, but I will to protect me.” Did he see friends killed? “Yes, I see some die,” he said sadly. Did he kill? “Murder is not on my conscience.” How much money did he witness being pilfered in each attempt? “I never know that. It is not my place to count; I only take things to the boss. You do not question how much you take.”

After seven years living as a porampo, Akmal had enough. “I want to live a better life.” Like Usman, he did not elaborate.

In Singapore, the crew of a cargo ship practices techniques for fending off pirate attacks.

The P-mission

A few days passed, and the sun was shining through broken clouds. We had been taken by boat to an undisclosed location well outside of Lhokseumawe. It was very remote, with only an occasional shack to be seen. The boat pulled up some 300 feet shy of a slough that appeared to be a tidal pool near the ocean. We were led down a path that took us on top of a mud dike. In the distance, some dark figures appeared. When they got closer, the view sharpened to reveal four men wearing black, their heads covered with masks, seated inside a small boat wrapped in a dark tarp and parked under a tree. Two outboard motors were covered in plastic so their horsepower markings were not visible.

The men sat quietly and calmly. They were draped with grenades and held shotguns. A grappling hook sat on the after thwart. There was a case of bottled water. They were dressed for action, prepared to defend themselves and kill, if necessary. They were porampo ready for a mission to come that night.

This meeting had been arranged by one of Usman’s contacts with a porampo group that had agreed to be filmed anonymously. They also had agreed to allow us to film a night run. The credit goes to Usman, who is known and respected by this group. He trusted us and these porampo trusted him. They enjoyed the attention, so long as their identities were not exposed.

They sat still, weapons in hand, while Crabtree climbed aboard and filmed. After just five minutes, the driver yelled, “You go.” This was barely enough time to shoot but Crabtree gave a thumbs up, indicating that what he had captured was more than sufficient for our purposes.

At 1930, Sadli and the driver picked up Crabtree and me for the ride to the promised porampo run. Duke had to stay behind for two reasons. First, the porampo would only allow two of us to ride with them, perhaps because of lack of space in the boat. Second, and most importantly, Duke volunteered to remain ashore, because, he said, “one of us has to be available to notify the authorities and our families in case, God forbid, something should happen out there in the boat.” It was a selfless gesture from a man who did so much for the project and who desperately wanted to experience the ride of our lives.

It was now dark. The ride took 30 minutes to a different location than the one earlier in the day. The vehicle headed down an unlit street and pulled over. Sadli exited and walked to a nearby house. The roar of the ocean was heard in the distance. After five minutes, he returned and signaled the driver to continue down the road. Two blocks later, he pulled over on the right and killed the engine. The driver twice flashed his headlights, a signal to someone hidden.

Crabtree and I grabbed the film gear and followed Sadli into the dark. There was neither a moon nor stars above. Barely able to see, we walked along the side of the road, climbed over a 4-foot-high pile of riprap and onto the beach. The surf could now be heard clearly and the foam of the crashing waves appeared dimly about 75 feet away. We paralleled the beach and then turned left toward what seemed to be a river channel that runs into the sea. Then, about 50 feet ahead, a shaft of light from a flashlight pointed toward them. As we approached the light, the porampo and their boat from earlier in the day came into vague focus. This was the starting point of the pirate run.

Sadli did not know how far we would go out into the strait or at what time we would return. There are three shipping lanes and one is 22 miles out. If at anytime the point man on the bow felt uncomfortable with the situation, i.e., bad weather, engine trouble, law enforcement or his gut feeling, they would abort.

Our group of seven was aboard. The driver pull-started both engines, set the throttles slowly ahead, and the boat glided down the river channel and into the open ocean. Silence was important this close to the shore. After a few minutes the driver gunned the engines and took off into the strait for the nighttime raid.

Michael Rawlins is a merchant marine officer and author of maritime works. He is a producer of Pirate Hunters, a cable TV series scheduled for broadcast in 2008. Porampo: Pirates of the Malacca Straits, is to be aired on various international broadcasting outlets. For more information, go to the Web site

By Professional Mariner Staff