On a recent cruise, March 2019, pirates in several speed boats hurtled at full speed towards the cruise ship as we sailed off the coast of Somalia. Their goal: to hijack the vessel, crew and passengers for a handsome ransom.
It was mid-afternoon on a clear day, when between 8-13 speed boats could be seen clearly zig-zagging in front of the 102,000 ton, 273m long vessel carrying 2,720 passengers in a bid to slow it down and attempt boarding. Another attempt was reported to have happened at around 11 pm the next night.
As passengers we were aware that we were in dangerous waters and had been sent a letter advising us what to do to prepare. The letter instructed that in the event of pirates boarding the ship, we should follow the loud speaker instructions to go to a lock down area. I don’t want to name the cruise liner, but it is European and every announcement, from bingo to shipping info was made in four languages, so I can only imagine the confusion that could cause in a high stakes pirate situation.
Meanwhile other precautions were taken. Blackout conditions were imposed on those with outside cabins, outside decks were readied with water cannons and out of bounds to all passengers. While the upstairs decks, usually the hub of night time frivolities, was quieter than a church on Tuesday.
Who are modern pirates?
Initially the thought of pirates conjures images of Hook, Sparrow or even those fellows from Penzance, but just like the real pirates of old these modern pirates mean business and they play hard. These are desperate, angry young men with AK-47’s and attitudes to match. They get into their little speed boats head out onto the high seas and take on ships of more than 150, 000 tons. But to view them as just a small band of mercenary opportunists looking to hornswaggle piles of booty is simplistic.
Modern piracy is a multimillion dollar, highly organised enterprise that relies on investors to pull off the high-risk operations. Somali piracy started in the early 1990s in response to the devastation left after the civil war. When the fighting stopped the Somalis realised that while had been distracted fighting each other, their fishing waters were being pilfered. Some Somalis took umbrage with these fishermen from other nations helping themselves and fought them off. Eventually they discovered they could get money out of these trespassers, even more if they towed the said trespassers back to the coast and hold them for ransom. Since then the operations have developed into sophisticated enterprises.
There are an estimated 72 pirate groups, or “maritime companies” (according to Oliver Taylor of Listverse, Jan 2019). Investors pay in money, or equipment like guns, in the same way public companies do in the hope of a big dividend. If a hijacking is successful the bulk of the money goes to these investors, not the foot soldiers in the speed boats who stare down the barrel of a cargo ship. The foot soldiers stand to get a measly $30 -$75 thousand. An extra $10 thousand allowance is paid to those who bring their own ladder and gun. This kind of money goes a long way in a place like Somalia but is dwarfed next to the millions paid in ransoms.
How does modern piracy work?
There are six possible outcomes when a ship is attacked:
- failure to capture,
- attack repelled,
- release after ransom is paid,
- release without ransom,
- rescue, or
- ‘unknown’ – a bit sketchy, but we’re talking pirates, international high finance and corporate reputation here.
But let’s say a “maritime company” has secured investors and sent out it’s foot soldier pirates who have spotted a likely target. The pirates, often working in packs of speedboats take a two-pronged approach. Some of them will work to slow the target ship down by running zig-zag in front of the vessel, while the rest approach from the side to board.
If the pirates capture the vessel they will take it back, close to the Somali coast where they will start ransom negotiations. These guys can play a long game and have been known to hold captives for up to six months. The hostages are fed by way of ‘donations’ from investors. Ultimately though, the pirates know the cargo is worth more than the crew, so they are quite happy to bump people off if necessary, or if they become ungrateful guests. Having said that though, they are just as likely to release their hostage crew and vessel.
Is piracy profitable?
If a couple of these “maritime company” representatives turned up on Shark Tank looking for a new investor, apart from being strangely appropriate, their proposition would be seriously considered. Although the risk is high for the frontline personnel, from an investor POV, the outlay for a hijack attempt is only the cost of the fuel, and with the prospective payoff in the millions there is the promise of enough booty to keep investors in hot cars and fast women for some time, which apparently how most ill-gotten gains are spent.
However, the chances of hitting the ransom jackpot are quite slim.
The results of the 230 recorded attacks since 2005 are:
- 42 attempts failed to capture the vessel, the pirates just gave up and left,
- 16 attacks were repelled by crew and/ or passengers,
- 84 were released after capture with no ransom paid,
- 27 come under the ‘unknown’ heading, and
- 40 have resulted in a pirate pay day, 17.4% success rate.
This means there’s an 82.6% chance of no return on your investment on any given pirate raid, but when it pays it pays big.
According to a Board of Innovation article $148 million was paid in ransoms to pirates in 2010. But the real winners are the insurance companies who get 10 times more than the pirates, with $1.85 billion paid in piracy cover in the same year.
Interestingly, the International Marine Bureau reported that 1181 people were taken hostage in Somali waters in 2010, but according to this article only one ransom was paid to Somali pirates in that year. So, someone hit pay dirt.
What is the risk of a cruise ship being attacked or hijacked by pirates?
Cruise ships have a low risk of pirate hijack. Cargo ships are the primary target for pirates given their valuable load and minimal crew. Cruise ships pose a far more complex scenario; however, pirates have attacked a broad range of vessels with varying results.
But where you sail also impacts the risk of hijack, or attempted hijack. All the statistics quoted in the article relate to incidents in Gulf of Aden, (AKA Pirate Alley) as it is the most treacherous stretch of water in terms of piracy. The map below highlights the danger zone of the area.
Only six of the 230 recorded attacks were against cruise ships. None have resulted in capture. A well-known incident occurred in 2005 when the Seabourn Spirit was fired at in a hijack attempt. The attempt was unsuccessful but is famous largely because of the footage of the event. You can see it here, or read the CBS report about it here. It was by no means the most dramatic attempted hijacking.
Other cruise ships, you can read about here, also experienced gun fire, one was even dealt a hand grenade, but pirates have never breached a cruise ship with passengers aboard. There was one case in 2009 when pirates captured a cruise ship, but quickly released it when they realised there were no passengers aboard.
Private yachts are more vulnerable than cruise ships. Eight yachts have been attacked, some resulting in fatalities, but often they are rescued or released after a period of captivity, usually without a ransom. There was one amusing incident when the crew of a Taiwanese yacht fought back against an attack in 2011, throwing all marauding pirates overboard and making good their escape.
Even military vessels have been subjects of attack. A few pirates have even gone so far as to board and attempt capture, but that didn’t end so well for them. In a 2006 case a US Military ship was breached, 12 pirates were captured, and one killed. Generally, once pirates realise they’ve boarded a military vessel they quickly make their excuses and slip out the back door.
Another reason the chances of being attacked on your next cruise are slim is that piracy levels have dropped significantly in recent years. Between 2008 to 2011 there were 200 recorded pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. It peaked in 2009/10, the same time Captain Phillips upset his crew by sailing too close to the Somali coast. In that year 75 other vessels also had a brush with pirates. The waters of Pirate Alley are now policed by task forces staffed from international navies, which seems to have put the pirates off a bit, with only two reported incidents in 2017 and just one in 2018.
How are cruise ships protected from pirate attack?
The International Maritime Organization suggests that: “Planning and training must be on the basis that an attack will take place and not in the belief that, with some luck, it will not happen.”
Cruise ships protect themselves using a range of tactics that broadly fit into defensive or offensive strategies.
Defensive strategies generally entail minimising the opportunities for the pirates to successfully capture the ship. These include camouflage through blackout conditions, deck closures, and low noise emissions. In the event of capture, passengers are corralled into lock down in the theatre and restaurants to keep them away from direct pirate contact.
A sliding scale of offensive strategies that escalate depending on the severity of the situation are available. At the less severe end of the spectrum the captain will engage a zig-zag manoeuvre and/or speed up the ship to outrun the pirates. Next is the high-pressure hoses used to dislodge would-be attackers from their ladders. These are set up ready for action before entering the Gulf of Aden. If that doesn’t work a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is used. This device, utilised by naval troops, sends out sonic waves so powerful that it can cause permanent hearing damage from a distance of 300 meters.
More dramatically cruise ships also carry two snipers on board. The night of our reported hijack attempt, a sniper was seen on the top deck in full black ninja gear carrying a large gun. He scurried out of sight when he realised passengers could see him.
There are also a number of the everyday crew with specialised combat training, although you’ll never know who they are until they need to kick into Jackie Chan action.
What happens if pirates attack?
The first response to being approached by pirates is full speed ahead, as well as adopting a zig-zag manoeuvres. These tactics are usually enough to send the pirates packing, this was the case for the Seabourn Spirit.
In the closest pirate vs. cruise ship shave in 2009, passengers on the MSC Melody emerged from a gala night concert to spot a skiff heading towards the ship. The crew were alerted and the passengers, dressed in their finest fripperies, flung tables and chairs at the attackers to prevent them boarding the ship. The pirates fired at passengers, but eventually gave up and left. No passengers were injured. This vigilantism is not recommended or expected of passengers.
How did the attack end?
So, what happened in the case of my recent cruise? Needless to say the Aussie contingent of the ship, true to the ANZAC spirit, had already identified the bread rolls as the most lethal objects to hurl at any offending pirates and were ready to roll into action, but our services weren’t needed in the end.
The captain sped up the boat, forcing the pirates to get out of the way and they buggered off. The attempt however was never formally admitted by the cruise liner, or crew, except one. When questioned directly about the incident most crew members replied that it was just gossip and asked if there was any photographic evidence. Well, we weren’t completely honest either.