by DAVID AXE
In April, the American crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama fought off an attempted hijacking by Somali pirates 250 miles from the Somali coast. As the pirates boarded the vessel, most of the crew locked themselves in the ship’s superstructure, denying pirates the access they needed to seize control. Eventually, the crew counter-attacked, holding one of the pirates and forcing the others off the vessel and into a lifeboat. Maersk Alabama‘s captain Richard Phillips had been kidnapped in the brief struggle; the crew’s attempt to trade their captive for Phillips failed, but three days later U.S. Navy snipers killed three of the pirates and freed Phillips.
Maersk Alabama‘s struggle was not an isolated incident. As Somali piracy has evolved over the years from opportunistic coastal banditry to sophisticated high-seas crime, so too have seafarers’ defenses. In December 2008, the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler Zhenua 4 barricaded themselves atop the elevated bridge of their vessel as pirates clambered aboard. The crew emptied beer bottles, filled them with fuel, lit them and tossed them like hand grenades at the attacking pirates. The makeshift defenses stalled the pirates long enough for international warships to approach, scaring off the pirates.
Across the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, merchant crews are adopting increasingly effective defenses measures. Commodore Steve Chick, senior officer of a five-ship NATO counter-piracy task force patrolling the Gulf of Aden, recalls flying across the Gulf of Aden in his Lynx helicopter to survey ships’ defenses. He saw ships with barbed wire on their railings, with access ladders cut or raised, and with fire hoses primed to shoot down any boarders. These tricks, combined with improved security on land and the presence of some 40 warships in East Africa waters, have turned the tide in the “global war on piracy.” Between July and September last year, there were 17 hijackings. This year in the same period, there was just one.
While the heavily-armed warships from a dozen nations that ply African waters are the most visible facet of the war on piracy, merchant crews themselves represent the true “front line.” After all, most warships rely on visual detection to cue their boarding teams onto potential pirate boats — and visual means have no more than a five-mile range.
With such limited vision, ships rely on merchant crews to radio in when they are under attack, using an open channel that all warships monitor. While the nearest warships dispatches a helicopter and races to the rescue, the merchant crew must keep the pirates at bay long enough for military forces to arrive. In December, five merchant ships attacked by a swarm of around a dozen pirate boats fired their water hoses to slow down the pirates until the Italian destroyer Luigi Durand de la Penne and her helicopter, flying a NATO flag, could respond and turn back the attackers.
To ensure that shipping companies trained their crews in the latest tactics, the U.S. Coast Guard regularly updates and publishes a list of recommended pirate defenses. The spring 2009 update advised:
• transiting the threat area at maximum safe speed — vessels traveling at less than 16 knots with low free-board are known to be at heightened risk of attack;
• for vessels that are unable to outrun pirate vessels, changing course repeatedly, consistent with safe navigation, and conducting night-time transits through threat areas to reduce risks;
• incorporating vessel designs and modifications that prevent or delay pirates from gaining control of a vessel in the event that pirates are able to successfully board, such as safe-areas where crews can muster and effective physical barriers to vessel control areas;
• using non-lethal defensive measures such as netting, wire, electric fencing, long-range acoustical devices, and fire-hoses for deterrence when safe and feasible; and
• employing properly certified security consultants on vessels transiting the region to provide guidance on security measures, on-board training in non-lethal response techniques for vessel personnel, specialized equipment such as night vision equipment to better detect potential threats before an attack is imminent, and other response and prevention measures.
To be sure, not every crew is following these guidelines. So the warships patrolling East African waters have also taken on a tactics-enforcement role, according to Commander Derek Granger, captain of the USS Donald Cook, assigned to NATO. Granger says most crews act prudently in pirate waters — sailing fast and sticking close to warships in the internationally recognized “security zone” — but sometimes Donald Cook‘s lookouts spot a crew making themselves vulnerable, even coming to a dead stop within sight of the coast. When that happens, Granger says, his sailors call over and urge the crew to get back up to speed, and stay that way.