WASHINGTON An ill-paid Filipino deckhand armed with a fire hose and peering into the blackness from the stern of a slow-moving supertanker is little match for dozens of heavily armed pirates swarming aboard from high-powered Zodiac launches.
Fire hoses, sound blasters, barbed wire hung on the hull, long, costly, detours and, mostly, good luck are the only weapons the handful of seamen aboard modern freighters and tankers have against well-organized bands of modern-day pirates who are terrorizing the east coast of Africa.
Over the past couple of years, piracy has surged in the seas off chronically unstable Somalia, a modern-day Barbary Coast that is providing a safe haven for dozens of gangs that are feasting off the spoils of one of the world's richest trade routes. More than 80 ships have been attacked this year - most spectacularly the giant supertanker Sirius Star, which was seized about 800 kilometres southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, on the weekend - making Somalia the new epicentre of high-seas piracy.
And other than bringing stability to war-ravaged Somalia, there's no quick fix to the piracy epidemic. Arming the crews is risky; providing escorts is beyond the means of most shipping companies; and the already stretched resources of the world's navies are little match for the nimble marauders.
A giant supertanker like the Sirius Star, slow-moving and longer than five hockey rinks, is a tempting and easy target. With a crew of 25 working endlessly rotating shifts on a voyage that may last for months, only one or two deckhands might be spared to man the fire hoses even if the captain decided to mount an anti-piracy watch.
Asking the crew to go to war with the pirates is a little like telling your daughter to fight off an armed mugger, a maritime security expert said yesterday. "It's bad advice and anyone with a brain won't do it," he added, asking that his name not be used.
In lawless Somalia, maritime piracy is booming.
Most shipowners quietly pay ransoms, sometimes running into millions of dollars, which can seem a small price for freeing a vessel and its crew. About one in 600 ships in the world's worst pirate zone is attacked - about two a week this year.
There are no simple solutions.
"The coalition does not have the resources to provide 24-hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region," U.S. Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney, who commands the U.S. Fifth Fleet with scores of warships in the region, said last month. "The shipping companies must take measures to defend their vessels and their crews."
Russia, India and other countries have all sent warships to the region, but so far the pirates seem unfazed. A Canadian warship, HMCS Ville de Québec, spent a few weeks on anti-pirate patrol this fall but was withdrawn by Ottawa last month. Ville de Québec put armed sailors on board a handful of UN-chartered ships carrying food to famine-ravaged Somalia, but there aren't enough warships to put armed teams on every one of the ships.
To avoid pirates, some of the world's biggest fleet owners are already diverting their ships, sending them on long, costly detours to keep them far from the Somali coast.
Private security firms are offering "guns for hire," willing to put highly trained teams of former special-forces soldiers on board for a fee. But only the biggest ships with valuable cargos could afford that kind of protection.
Blackwater, the big U.S. security firm, is offering a private gunboat, the converted McArthur, to escort vessels. "Sixty-six firms have contacted us so far," said Anne Tyrell, a spokeswoman for the firm, adding that Blackwater isn't offering to put armed teams aboard vessels.
Arming crews might be even less effective. Shipowners and captains don't want armed sailors on board, said a security expert, noting that seamen are often hired with few background checks.
The pirates aren't short of weapons, skill or bravado. Attackers often operate in small, fast launches from "mother ships" that are sometimes hundreds of kilometres from Somalia's coast, and they carry machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Crews have little incentive to resist - certainly not to risk their lives for faraway owners of the ship and cargo. Most seized crews are released after a ransom is paid, usually unharmed.
Various non-lethal anti-pirate systems have been proposed, but none have proved effective against determined maritime marauders. They range from sound blasters to a beefed-up form of electrical fencing designed to stun pirates rappelling aboard. Mostly captains order extra lookouts, fire distress flares and call for help if they believe they are under attack.
Shipowners are irked by the suggestion they should be protecting themselves. "[What] we are talking about is the fundamental obligation of nations to provide safe passage for world trade," said Peter Hinchliffe, marine director for the London-based International Chamber of Shipping.
Unlike their Barbary Coast forebears, Somalia's pirates aren't even interested in selling ships or their cargo - simply ransoming them for millions. But a graver danger lurks. If a handful of pirates can seize a freighter, a handful of terrorists could hijack a cruise ship or perhaps a liquefied natural-gas tanker.
"What I worry about is the bleed from criminal pirate activity to terrorist activity," said Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence who served in the U.S. Navy.
Seizures on the high seas
Piracy is gaining in notoriety as a maritime shipping problem, particularly off the coast of Somalia where a huge oil tanker was captured on Monday. The problem has become so serious that the European Union is sending a fleet of warships to the Gulf of Aden to tackle the criminal enterprise.
*First nine months
Somalia and Gulf of Aden pirate attacks, successful and attempted, 2008:
MV Ekwatnava 5
MV Great Creation
MV ActionMV CEC Future
MV Yasa Neslihan
MV African Sanderling
MV Stolt Strength
An Indian navy warship, INS Tabar fought off Somali pirates late Tuesday, in the Gulf of Aden
Vessels hijacked in Gulf of Aden follow route south to Bargaal, Eyl, Garacad and Hobyo
Worldwide pirate attacks, successful and attempted, January to November, 2008:
|Somalia and Gulf of Aden||97|