by DAVID AXE
In December, a vessel with four men aboard eased into the port of Massawa in the East African country of Eritrea. It was an unplanned stop. The ship, operated by Protection Vessels International, a British company, had encountered rough weather and run short of fuel while sailing through pirate-infested waters around the island of Romia.
At any other time, under any other circumstances, the vessel’s fuel call would have been routine. But this was no typical ship — and times were not normal. What happened after the vessel entered Massawa is indicative of a dangerous, and sometimes confusing, new era for seafarers in East African waters.
For five years now, pirates have waged an escalating campaign of banditry and kidnapping against the roughly 25,000 commercial vessels that pass through the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean every year. Pirates, armed with guns and rockets and riding in fast fishing boats called “skiffs,” have captured an average of 40 large vessels a year. Ransoms can be a million dollars or more. Last year, eight seafarers died in pirate attacks.
Today around 30 warships from a dozen nations patrol these waters. But with nearly 3 million square miles of ocean within range of pirate enclaves, the warships are spread too thinly to prevent most attacks. Increasingly, the larger shipping lines are turning to armed guards — former military personnel, mostly — to protect vessels during their transits.
Protection Vessels International, founded in 2008, is one of the largest and busiest providers of ship’s guards. Employing several hundred former Royal Marines and British Army soldiers, PVI deploys teams — usually four men armed with guns, armor and night-vision goggles — to sail aboard vulnerable vessels, at a cost of probably around $5,000 a day, per ship.
In more than 1,000 transits in three years, PVI’s guards have defeated at least 30 pirate attacks, all without killing anyone. The guards fire flares and warning shots as a show of force.
PVI takes pride in its flexibility. “We can meet a vessel at our clients’ convenience and off load our teams and their equipment without having to call in at a port,” explained spokesman Paul Gibbins. The company owns three patrol boats that can rendezvous with commercial vessels to deliver the guards. That was apparently the mission of PVI’s vessel that called at Massawa in December.
The Eritrean authorities’ reaction to the presence of armed guards illustrates one downside to the rise of private ship-protectors. The PVI crew had managed to take on-board just a fraction of the fuel it needed when Eritrean officials detained all four men and accused them of plotting “acts of terrorism and sabotage” against the impoverished nation. As evidence, the Eritreans cited the weapons and military equipment in the men’s possession. News reports would also refer to “confusion over fuel payments.”
It took six months for PVI and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to negotiate the men’s release. “The whole episode has been a series of unfortunate events,” Gibbins said.
The risk of misunderstandings over weapons was one reason why, early in the “war on piracy,” many shippers were reluctant to employ private guards. While the awareness and legal regimes governing armed guards have improved lately, the Eritrean drama proves that serious complications are still possible.
In addition, ship’s guards still must contend with the actual pirates. “My last transit involved a full and sustained piracy attack off Socotra,” PVI team leader Nigel Watson Clark said. “We successfully countered in a textbook response from the crew and security team … that was quite something.”
But “quite something” compared to six months in detention in Eritrea? Perhaps not.