After the first successful hijackings of commercial ships by Somali pirates in five years, a Sri Lankan oil tanker last month and this week an Indian cargo vessel, John Honeywell explains why cruise ships continue to visit the region – and how they protect themselves.
For most, mention of the word “pirate” conjures visions of Treasure Island’s Long John Silver or Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, pieces of eight and either a wooden leg or a hairstyle modelled on the Stones’s Keith Richards.
Yes, there was all that fuss about Somali pirates a few years ago, and the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips told the story of the hijack of the container ship Maersk Alabama. But that problem has disappeared now, hasn’t it?
Well, not quite.
Passengers on board P&O cruise ship Aurora, travelling on its annual world cruise earlier this year, were summoned to a briefing from the captain to be told what to do in case of a pirate attack.
For five nights, while the ship was passing the Horn of Africa and through the Gulf of Aden, the outdoor Promenade Deck was closed from dusk until dawn. During the hours of darkness, only essential open deck lights remained on; passengers were asked to switch off their balcony lights and to keep cabin curtains closed.
In the event of a suspected attack, guests were advised that “following relevant announcements” they should return quickly but calmly to their rooms. Those occupying ocean view and balcony cabins were told to remain in the corridor, and to avoid sitting “directly behind the cabin door.” Those with inside cabins were to “go inside and remain there.”
The briefing concluded with this message from the captain: “I recognise that some of the measures being implemented may impact on your enjoyment but I must stress that the safety and security of every individual on this ship is my highest priority. While the risk to the cruise industry is considered to be extremely low, we still need to remain vigilant and prepared.”
It reminded me of a journey through the same Pirate Alley in 2009 on Spirit of Adventure, during a fascinating cruise that had taken me to rarely-visited ports in Eritrea and Sudan .
A much smaller vessel – carrying 350 passengers compared with Aurora’s 1,900 – its lower decks were festooned with razor wire and the buffet restaurant was closed for the passage so that the tables and chairs could be stacked up against its sliding glass doors.
I waited in vain for a pirate sighting, but two years later the ship did come under attack when an inflatable speedboat drew alongside while it was sailing towards Zanzibar. A formal night dinner was interrupted and passengers in black tie and ballgowns sat on the dining room floor for almost an hour until the ship had outrun the assailants.
Oceania’s Nautica came under fire from two small boats in 2008, and in 2009 passengers threw tables and deckchairs to deter Somali pirates who attempted to board the MSC Melody.
The fact remains that while yachts have been kidnapped and cargo vessels have been hijacked for ransom, there has never been a successful pirate attack on a cruise ship.
Location of high-risk area for cruise ship piracy
In the open seas, the high-risk area is defined by latitudes 15˚ N in the Red Sea and 22K N in the Gulf of Oman; longitude 65˚ E, and a line drawn due east from the African coast along latitude 5˚ S in the Indian Ocean.
Busy shipping routes are patrolled by a European Union task force drawn from international navies.
The laws regarding armed guards on cruise ships have been relaxed in recent years but remain complex, depending on the ship’s flag state and other international legislation. The International Maritime Organisation now accepts that “the deployment of armed security personnel has become an accepted practice.”
Security consultant Graeme Brooks, a former Principal Warfare Officer with the Royal Navy and now chief executive officer of Portsmouth-based Dryad Maritime, described some of the problems faced by commercial shipping in the region.
“There are millions of square miles of water and you can only see vessels on the horizon up to 10 miles away. It’s like looking for a mouse on a rugby pitch.
“And it’s impossible to know whether a small craft is a threat or just fishermen. You can’t tell the difference between a weapon and a baguette at anything more than 200 yards.
“If there are armed guards on the ship, by the time you can make a case to open fire you’ve already got your head in the lion’s mouth.”
In such asymmetric conflict situations where a big ship is under threat from a small boat, the best method of defence, says Brooks, is to disrupt the targeting process by separating target and attacker in time or space.
Most cruise ships are capable of outrunning the small skiffs used by pirates. Although these craft – often deployed from larger “mother ships” – might theoretically be faster, their speed advantage is lost in choppy seas.
Larger cruise ships have a high freeboard – the distance between the waterline and open decks – that makes boarding difficult for pirates using grappling hooks to climb from a moving boat.
So-called ship-hardening techniques make the pirates’ task more difficult. The protective measures are described in the innocuously-titled document BMP4: “Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia-Based Piracy.”
As well as providing extra look-outs around the clock, operators are advised to deploy razor wire and electrified barriers, and to fit grills over windows and portholes.
Fire hoses and foam, sometimes with added slippery or smelly qualities, can be an effective deterrent. Water cannon serve a dual purpose in drenching the assailants and potentially sinking their small boats.
The ship’s bridge is often the first focus of a pirate attack. Crew are advised to wear bullet-proof vests and helmets, and to protect open bridge wings with steel plates or sandbags.
Other visible measures are less effective. Regular cruise passengers might be familiar with LRADs or Long Range Acoustic Devices. Looking rather like an overgrown satellite TV dish, they are often misguidedly described as sonic cannons, giving the impression that they could transmit such a powerful beam of sound that they would deliver a knock-out blow to a potential pirate, who would be left with bleeding ears.
According to Brooks, the devices are useful only in transmitting a targeted “Keep Away” message to non-threatening boats and would be ignored with impunity by any serious assailant.
The fact that their presence reassures passengers is no doubt encouraged by cruise lines, who are otherwise reluctant to discuss the piracy threat or the protective measures they take.
Although a signatory to BMP4, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) would say only: “For security reasons, we cannot provide specifics regarding the cruise industry’s practices with regard to security. We can say that the security of passengers and crew are always the top priority, and that cruise lines are in contact with national and international security authorities to share and receive important information.”