Monday, October 16, 2006

Pirate Tales, the conclusion

When it comes to pirate abductions, what are the most dangerous waters for kidnapping? Those off Somalia, where 241 civilians were grabbed last year by what the International Maritime Bureau’s Pottengal Mukundan describes as four distinct gangs based in that strife-riddled nation. The group believed to have been behind the attack on the Seabourn Spirit also has been linked to the hijacking of several United Nations-chartered vessels last year.

In one notable incident, the freighter MV Semlow was carrying 850 tonnes of food aid for Somali victims of the tsunami disaster when pirates boarded and overpowered the 10-member crew. The attackers diverted the ship to the coastal town of Harardhere and demanded a half million dollars in ransom. At one point, the pirates actually forced the crew to sail their vessel out to sea, so a second freighter could be hijacked. It wasn’t until October, a hundred days after the attack, that the Semlow and her crew were freed. (The food aid was left untouched by the gang and eventually distributed by the UN.)

The Semlow’s location was anything hardly a state secret, so why was there no military rescue operation? Fears for the crew’s safety is an obvious concern, but using armed force to combat piracy raises the issue of national sovereignty, even in a lawless place like Somalia. It may come as a surprise but, statistically, most pirate attacks occur while vessels are anchored in ports or while sailing within someone’s territorial waters — that is, no farther than 12 nautical miles from shore.
Even when sovereignty isn’t an obstacle, might doesn’t always make right. In April, when another gang of Somali pirates hijacked a South Korean trawler in international waters, two naval were in the vicinity and heard the fishermen radio that they were being attacked. The destroyer USS Roosevelt and a Dutch frigate called the Zeven Provincien intercepted the trawler, and fired warning shots in an attempt to stop it from reaching Somali waters. But as soon as the naval vessels saw the pirates threatening the Korean crew with weapons, they were forced to give up the chase.

Luxury liners, humanitarian relief ships, oil tankers, private yachts, fishing boats — no one is immune to the pirate threat. At this very moment, someone somewhere is being attacked on the high seas.

Fighting back is difficult, but the International Maritime Board, along with other groups, such as the UN’s International Maritime Organization, has been working on a long-range plan to cope with the epidemic. They began by establishing a means of tallying incidents, to identify the most dangerous areas for seafarers. As Mr. Mukundan notes, “Piracy takes place in countries where you have economic problems and a weak maritime law-enforcement infrastructure...countries like Somalia, where you have no national government and no law enforcement on a national basis.”

Armed with this information, the IMB is now working to raise awareness of the issue because most insiders feel the best deterrent is not having gunships patrol the oceans but persuading governments to take action within their own borders. And there have been some signs of progress.

Mr. Mukundan points to recent measures taken by Indonesia and China. In the late nineties, he says, both countries were struggling with pirate attacks along their coasts but lacked any effective policy to deal with the problem.0

“The southern coast of China was a well-known haven for people who hijacked ships and sold their cargoes. And then the Chinese acted, after a case where 23 Chinese crew members were murdered brutally on their ship. Overnight, the south coast of China stopped becoming a haven.”

Similarly, the Indonesian navy has taken a much more forceful posture in recent years, especially within the Straits of Malacca. Since the killing of the Cherry 201’s crew, Indonesia has increased it naval resources, bolstering the efforts of neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to control maritime crime and significantly reducing the number of pirate attacks in the Straits.

Interestingly, the Indonesian forces may have been helped by the effects of the tsunami, which is thought to have sunk a number of pirate vessels in Aceh province. Whether these pirate gangs will return to action remains to be seen.

Few observers expect piracy to fade in the foreseeable future. Some liken it to a maritime Cold War, a low-level conflict that will simmer away, decreasing in one area only to reappear somewhere else. As long as there is poverty and lawlessness in any coastal region, the sight of passing vessels on the horizon will remain a source of temptation. And for those who go to sea today, it has become an unfortunate part of their daily lives and the cost of doing business.

“Many seafarers who survive these attacks, the serious attacks, probably will not go back to sea again,” Mr. Mukundan says. “They’ve given up the life at sea because the experience is very traumatic.

“You must remember that a ship is a person’s home; it is more than a place where you go to work. And when people invade at night and take it over, the crew members know that no one is going to come to their assistance while the pirates are on board.

“I don’t think it should be the cost of doing business.”

The International Maritime Bureau maintains a weekly website with weekly piracy reports that may be viewed here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pirate Tales, Part 2

Piracy, of course, has been with us as long as people have gone to sea. Homer wrote about it in The Odyssey, Alexander the Great tried and failed to eradicate it, and Mediterranean pirates once took a young Julius Caesar prisoner. Over the centuries, buccaneers have preyed on shipping from the seas off China to the waters of the South Atlantic, and from the Barbary Coast to the Spanish Main.

But the period from about 1690 to 1720 is known as piracy’s golden age — the time of Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard), who famously pillaged ships in the Caribbean. (Neither Kidd nor Teach lasted very long as true pirates. Blackbeard was gunned down off the coast of North Carolina in 1718, while Kidd was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in 1701, with a proviso that his body hang by the Thames for two years as a warning to those thinking of imitating him.)

Captain Kidd’s body hanging by the River Thames

Many of the original pirates of the Caribbean began as privateers, the quasi-legal buccaneers engaged by England, Spain and other nations to disrupt each other’s trading lanes. The only catch was they had to hand over a portion of their booty to their sponsors; some eventually opted to go independent and keep it all for themselves.

By the mid-18th century, piracy was well in decline because of the combined efforts of international navies, and in 1856 the signing of the Declaration of Paris, effectively banned the practice everywhere. Throughout most of the past century, the biggest risk to shipping stemmed from armed attacks during times of war, such as the U-boat menace during both world wars. Few would have expected the new millennium to usher in a modern era of piracy, one that has the potential to eclipse its predecessor.

And yet, as global trade has increased since the end of the Cold War, so too has piracy. Maritime outlaws know that it’s impossible to police every cove, strait, harbour or sea — and that the rewards outweigh the risks. Now, more than 46,000 merchant ships ply the ocean, carrying more than 90 per cent of world trade, and each one can be a plum target for opportunistic maritime criminals.

The director of the International Maritime Bureau in the U.K., Captain Pottengal Mukundan, divides these modern pirates into two categories: “At the lower end of the scale, you have muggings at sea, where criminals try to get on board a ship and steal whatever they can within a period of about 40 minutes to an hour, and then take off. At the other end of the scale, you have the organized-crime attack, which is really aimed at hijacking a multimillion-dollar ship and its multimillion-dollar cargo. That’s a very well-resourced attack.”

And these better-organized attacks are growing more common, he says, with pirates who brandish automatic weapons and grenade launchers overpowering crews whom they then kill or set adrift. Once in control, they can change a ship’s name and ownership by using fax machines and satellite phones. “Then they take the vessel to a new port under a false name and sell the cargo,” Mr. Mukundan explains. “Once the cargo is discharged, they have control of the empty vessel, which they use as a criminal vessel, a pirate vessel — what we call a phantom ship.”

Thanks to Hollywood, piracy is still largely associated with the Caribbean, when in fact its happiest hunting grounds today are in Asia and Africa, especially the waters off Indonesia, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nigeria and the Red Sea region.

For years, the most dangerous stretch of sea has been the narrow Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The 805-kilometre strait is a vital shipping lane; more than 50,000 vessels pass through it every year. At its narrowest, the channel is less than three kilometres wide, forcing ships to reduce their speed as they sail past the many places where pirates lurk, primarily on the Indonesian side.

In early January, 2004, a small oil tanker called Cherry 201 was making a routine run to Belawan in northern Sumatra. It carried a crew of 13 and a thousand tonnes of palm oil as it motored toward Indonesia’s second-busiest harbour and the gateway to war-torn Aceh province, the site of so much carnage when the tsunami hit almost a year later.

Although the crew was aware of the pirate risk, as well as the fighting between the army and the Aceh rebels, they had made the run before without incident. But on Monday, Jan. 5, their luck ran out when a speedboat darted from the shoreline and took up position alongside the tanker. Grappling hooks were thrown and men with automatic weapons climbed aboard, making for the wheelhouse.

The Cherry was defenceless — merchant vessels rarely carry weapons — and the pirates quickly overwhelmed the crew and ordered the captain to go ashore, contact the vessel’s owners and demand a ransom of 400 million Indonesian rupiah (about $50,000). The tanker itself simply disappeared, perhaps hidden in one of the many inlets that riddle the area.

For weeks, the negotiating went on, possibly as the Cherry’s owners tried to buy time so Indonesian forces could find their vessel and her crew. The owners first talked the pirates down to 100 million rupiah and then finally settled on 70 million (less than $9,000). But after five weeks without being paid, the pirates’ frustrations boiled over: They grabbed four of the crew, executed them and dumped the bodies in the sea before fleeing. They have yet to be caught.

Abduction is especially troubling to people like Mr. Mukundan, who points out that the number of seafarers taken in the first three months of this year was double that in the same period last year.

“The taking of hostages is not opportunistic, it is a very well-planned attack,” he says. “Organized crime syndicates are actively involved, and they’ve always been, because it’s a hugely profitable exercise for them.”

To be concluded...

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...