In my profession as a Merchant navy officer, I have very often encountered people who think that piracy at sea has been a thing of the past or it is only the stuff of lore, I would like to convince you all that seafarers face pirates even today. These are not those guys that go "ooh ar" and run around swinging cutlasses, not a guy with a parrot on his shoulder, a wooden leg and a hook for a hand leading a sailing ship flying the Jolly Roger (a flag displaying a skull over crossed bones). Believe it or not, pirates are around and with us here today and they could be a group of desperate ex-fisherman carrying machetes and guns, coming onboard to steal mooring ropes, paint drums, crews belongings or cash from the masters safe. Or they could be a highly organized bunch of professionals well-armed and ready to kill at the drop of a hat. These latter groups are not after the odd can of paint, they maybe after the cargo that the ship carries in its holds or tanks and even after the ship itself.
Pirates can board the vessel in a variety of ways. The poorer pirates do it whilst the ship is in port, sneaking up the gangway, clambering up the sides of the ship from small bumboats or shinning up mooring ropes at the bow or stern or up the anchor chain, looking to be away with something they can sell ashore for a small profit. They will typically be armed with knives and although not looking to fight they will attack if they think that they are under threat and cannot escape. Like what happened to us when we were at anchor off Bonny, Nigeria…. upon being challenged by a sailor, the two thieves who had boarded our vessel via the anchor chain severely injured him with a metal rod they had brought along and realizing that the alarm had been raised, jumped into the water and escaped.
The richer pirate will however be well organized and more often than not has inside information as to what cargo is on the ship and what the ships name is before it appears over the horizon. These richer pirates tend to go for ships that are at anchor or even those underway and these pirates are prepared to kill without a blink of the eye. They may come onboard simply by pulling alongside in bumboats or fast speed boats and clambering aboard by whatever means or they may employ tricks to get under the guard of the crew of the ship. In each situation the Captain has to make a decision as to the urgency of the supposed distress and if he gets it wrong he finds that he has a heavily armed bunch of cut-throats onboard his vessel with all the guns pointing at him.
Thanks to modern methods of promulgating information, ships and companies are becoming hardened to the possibility of Pirate attacks. Unsafe areas are known and clearly marked on charts. Captains no longer carry cash onboard the ship for wages or stores. Pirate precautions are taken whenever the ship passes through known pirate areas and vessels do not anchor in weird and dark places nor do they slow steam when in dangerous pirate country. Typically when passing through such an area massive security precautions are taken by the crew of the vessel. All doors are lashed from the inside thus allowing only one exit to be used by all personnel. This door is usually on the navigating bridge where adequate bodies are available to secure it should unwanted persons get onboard at main deck level.
Search lights are deployed to check the water around the vessel for foreign objects. Fire hoses are rigged and often kept charged to fight off and prevent anyone from clambering up the sides. A double watch is kept on the bridge with extra personnel doing overtime to keep a good lookout in all directions. And of course the vessels speed is pushed up to the maximum to make it as hard as possible to come alongside or to clamber onto from a smaller boat. There are many innovative products available to prevents pirates boarding and many cleverly thought of methods too (like the one I heard about a mooring rope fastened at both quarters and dragged throught the water creating a wall of water behind the ship).
When it is the case of petty theives it is far safer to have had everything locked away and then to lock yourself away. The cost of the stolen items is negligible and little harm is done. But should the serious pirates gain access to the vessel then trouble is on the horizon. The worst trouble can be from confronting these heavily armed and dangerous people and doing this can result in a death or two amongst the crew members. Ships crew are advised that should these pirates gain access and control to the vessel then do not confront them, do what they want submissively and keep your mouth shut. Many a Captain or crew member has been shot or seriously wounded whilst trying to preserve or maintain control. When we were boarded en-route off Singapore at another time, we were really lucky as the Bosun who was held at knife-point managed to escape into the open engine-room hatch and raise the alarm, of course nobody dared go out on deck for a few hours afterwards, but the noise we made by raising the alarms, the ships whistle and switching on all the deck lights made them realize we are all alert and may be too prepared for them to confront, they just disappeared.
If the pirates are after the vessel and its cargo then the crew are often tied up and placed into the small boat that the pirates came in. These are serious people and not to be taken lightheartedly. The pirates are often after valuable cargoes. The vessel itself can be sold onwards to other parties, repainted and renamed and appearing half way across the world with no trace as to how it got there. Or they can simply remove what they want and sink the vessel leaving no trace behind.
So where are the Pirates?
They are quite prolific in Indonesia, Malacca Straits, Malaysia, Gulf of Aden/red Sea, Ecuador, Guyana, Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh. Indonesia is the worst of the lot, but as a whole The Malacca Straits is the place to be wary of as on one side is Indonesia and on the other is Malaysia so if it is going to happen to your ship it may well be as you steam through.
With this large scale of pirate attacks and with the increased security concerns around the world nations have sprung into action, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia conduct patrols of their waters at ever frequent intervals. But the area involved and the hundreds of small Islands and possible hideaways prevents a full scale watch from being conducted. Ships make patrols but the chance of catching a pirate in action is minimal. The other means to catching a pirate in action is to have a fast reaction squad at hand. This requires a central monitoring facility and for any ship under attack to be able to report immediately and silently so that the pirates are unawares as to the call having been made. But again the area is so large and the possibilities so great that the chances of getting help to the stricken vessel in time is minimal and so far this course of response has made no inroads to the problem.
The main Piracy Reporting center is based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and is run by the International Maritime Board and the International Chamber of Commerce. http://www.iccwbo.org/ccs/menu_imb_piracy.asp The center coordinates and controls reporting and statistics on acts of piracy from all over the world and sends out via satellite a daily digest of recent attacks and areas to be wary of. The service is free of charge to all ship-owners regardless of class, flag or ownership. Armed with reported information the IMB in conjunction with the International Transport Federation will investigate and present to the Governments concerned any information or deductions that they have gleaned from individual incidents. These governments can then go after or coordinate action against the criminal elements if evidence is sufficient. But again the areas involved are so large that the possibilities of catching these criminals is very small.
The best means to combat modern day piracy on the high seas is to follow the few basic rules stated previously. To not anchor in unsafe places, to maintain a careful watch when underway and at anchor, to report any occurrences or incidents immediately, to batten and secure the vessel down at all times, to maintain full speed when passing through these area and to have adequate security precautions in place like charged fire hoses at the ready to repel boarders. And if Pirates should get onboard to be calm and to give them whatever they want. There is no point in being a dead hero!
Author: Ralph DSouza- India