Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tales from the sea’s dark side

After an extended absence hereabouts, caused by some cumbersome travels across various parts of Canada, your intrepid author returns. I’ve been busy the last couple of months working on several projects, including the preparations for the upcoming release of my book Ocean Titans in the U.S. in early 2007.

I also have been heavily into research on what will be my next book, a look at modern-day piracy on the high seas. In August I wrote a feature piece for Canada’s Globe And Mail newspaper on the topic and have since been finalizing details about a more in-depth look at it, about which I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s part one of that article, which the newspaper headlined “Real Pirates Are Nothing Like Johnny Depp”.

If you ask Gord Chaplin about the last time he saw a pirate, he’s apt to start going on about Captain Jack Sparrow, the laughable buccaneer played by Johnny Depp, and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel that’s such a box-office hit at the moment. But if you ask the easygoing retiree from Cambridge, Ont., about the last time he saw a real pirate, you’ll hear a much more chilling tale.

It was almost 6 a.m. last Nov. 5 and Mr. Chaplin was with his wife, Celia, in a stateroom aboard a luxury liner off the coast of East Africa when they heard something rarely associated with a vacation cruise: gunfire.

“We looked out the cabin window and could see a boat about a hundred yards off the starboard side, and they were shooting an AK-47 at the ship,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, Celia noticed that somebody had something bigger than an AK-47, which turned out to be a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“And just as she looked, it went off — and hit about two staterooms down from ours. Fortunately, it didn’t go right in; it exploded off the side, but sent shrapnel into the room, destroying it. The woman in there was sitting down at the time, or else she’d have been killed.”

The Chaplins, along with more than 300 fellow passengers and crew, including 18 Canadians, were aboard the Seabourn Spirit, a 440-foot cruise ship that’s part of the Carnival line. It was about 160 kilometres off the coast of Somalia en route from Egypt to the Kenyan port of Mombasa when pirates arrived in two small speedboats, intent, it seems, on boarding the liner and robbing its passengers.

MV Seabourn Spirit

When the attack began, Vancouver businessman Mike Rogers and his wife were in their port-side cabin. “We could hear this metallic pinging sound, and I wondered what it could be. Then it dawns on me that it’s machine-gun bullets striking the steel hull. Then a bit later, I heard the rocket fire.

“I felt the liner lurch sharply to one side and thought it was from the rocket hitting, until I realized the captain was swerving the ship. He then came on the intercom and told us all to head for the dining room, which was downstairs, where we’d be safer.”

According to Mr. Chaplin, “The captain turned the ship very hard — and tried to run over one of the boats and wash the other. I could hear the rounds pinging, so people were pretty scared. There was a bit of praying, some weeping, but they kept on shooting at us.

“We were down there for a couple of hours, I guess, and the real question became how did they get a hundred miles off the coast of Somalia? I mean these were probably 20-foot fishing boats with outboard motors on them.

“Well, the answer lay in the fact that there was a mother ship — an old beat-up trawler or freighter, sitting on the horizon.”

As the passengers huddled below, the pirates kept up their attempts to force the liner to stop, eventually coming alongside and preparing to board. It was then that the Seabourn Spirit’s captain deployed the only real weapon he had to defend his ship: a long-range acoustic device.

This parabolic sonic blaster emits an ear-splitting sound meant to repel boarders, and it seemed to work. The pirates finally gave up the chase and returned to the mother ship empty-handed, while the Seabourn Spirit made haste for the Seychelles Islands, leaving passengers and crew shaken but unhurt.

“We were very lucky,” Mr. Rogers says. “If they’d stopped us, the pirates could have done anything they wanted to us. And you know, more than worrying about getting injured or even killed, my greatest fear was being taken hostage.”

Adds Mr. Chaplin, “The worst thing, for me, was that the bastards were smiling. You could look out the window and see like three of the five guys who thought it was quite funny. We certainly didn’t.”

Somali pirates off the Seabourn Spirit

The idea that armed criminals would attack a massive cruise ship may seem as audacious as the notion that swashbucklers like Captain Jack Sparrow still haunt the high seas. But ask any professional mariner, and you will quickly discover that modern pirates not only exist — they ply their trade almost daily. In fact, after more than a century of decline, piracy has been on the rise for more than a decade, making the waters of our planet once again a very dangerous place to be.

The attack on the Seabourn Spirit was one of 276 acts of piracy reported last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a British-based organization that monitors maritime crime. IMB’s statistics show that in each of the past 10 years there have been no fewer than 200 attacks reported, with 2003’s tally especially notable: 445.

As a result, commercial losses are estimated at $16-billion a year, and there has been a marked increase in vessel hijackings and hostage-takings — 23 and 440, respectively, last year.

“Pirates in the old days were...criminals of the lowest kind who preyed on the weak and showed no mercy at all,” says Pottengal Mukundan, the IMB’s London-based director, adding that “pirates today are exactly the same.” The only difference is that “the types of attacks have become more dangerous.”

Every week, the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur posts the latest news of incidents around the world that demonstrate why Mr. Mukundan is worried:

In late May, six heavily armed pirates boarded the Russian tanker Shkotovo in the Atlantic Ocean off Guinea, West Africa, forcing her captain to empty the ship’s safe of money.

In early May, 10 men armed with long knives climbed aboard a bulk carrier anchored near Chittagong, Bangladesh, robbing three crew of their belongings.

In April, pirates commandeered the cargo ship MV Al-Taj as it sailed off East Africa, killing one crewman, seriously wounding two others, and holding the vessel hostage for a week until they received $25,000 in ransom.

Also that month, in the year’s deadliest attack thus far, pirates in the South China Sea swarmed aboard a fishing vessel, opened fire with automatic weapons, killing four Chinese crewmen and injuring three others.

But it’s not just professional mariners who are at risk. The waters of the Lesser Antilles — where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed — have seen several brutal attacks on recreational sailors.

One unfortunate couple from Canada endured not one, but two run-ins with Venezuelan thieves last year, while British Columbia doctor Steve McVicar saw a November cruise turn into a nightmare when five pirates boarded his yacht off the South American coast. Mr. McVicar and two friends were assaulted and stripped of more than $30,000 in cash and equipment.

But they were lucky. Last June, pirates attacked a European couple anchored in St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay; the man was beaten unconscious and his wife raped. Local police later arrested three suspects, but the incident has so shaken the yachting community that many now avoid the region.

To be continued...


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