Friday, October 25, 2013




Simple way to protect ships

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Edmund Burke. (Later, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1 )

(CNN) -- Armed men stormed a boat off Nigeria's coast and took hostage two mariners believed to be U.S. citizens, a U.S. official said Thursday.

Pirates kidnapped the captain and chief engineer from a U.S.-flagged oil platform supply vessel in the Gulf of Guinea on Wednesday, the official said.

Details about the crew members' conditions and the condition of their ship, the C-Retriever, were not immediately available.

Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore, which owns the vessel, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Travel by sea can be perilous in the region where the attack occurred, one analyst said Thursday.

"The danger there is extreme," said Capt. Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.

According to Wikipedia, in Somalia, there were 151 attacks on ships in 2011, compared with 127 in 2010 - but only 25 successful hijacks compared to 47 in 2010. Pirates were holding 10 vessels and 159 hostages in February 2012. In 2011, pirates earned $146m, an average of $4.87m per ship. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 pirates operated; by February 2012 1,000 had been captured and were going through legal processes in 21 countries.

Wikipedia provides a table of ships seized by pirates off Somalia since 2005.

In a CNN article dated Oct. 22, 2009, pirates seized control of a cargo vessel near the Seychelles Thursday, one of two attacks that took place within minutes of each other off the coast of east Africa, according to the European Union Naval Force.

A second attempted hijacking took place at approximately the same time, but the Italian-flagged cargo ship evaded the attack, the EU said. Armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, pirates opened fire on the MV Jolly Rosso about 460 miles (740 km) east of Mombasa, Kenya.

The first nine months of this year has seen more pirate attacks than all of last year, the bureau reported on Wednesday. From January 1 until September 30, pirates worldwide mounted 306 attacks, compared with 293 in all of 2008, it said.

More than half of this year's attacks were carried out by suspected Somali pirates off the east coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, a major shipping route between Yemen and Somalia. Out of those attacks, Somali pirates successfully hijacked 32 vessels and took 533 hostages. Eight others were wounded, four more killed and one is missing, the bureau said.

The attacks can be stopped but it takes cooperation between the navies operating in the area - including the Chinese who have made their presence felt there - and the owners of civilian merchant ships plying the waters near from Oman to Egypt. (Yes, I know the short route is via the Suez Canal; more on the Canal later.)

The idea of convoys of merchant ships escorted by naval vessels is not new; it dates back to the 12th century. According to Wikipedia, "The use of organized naval convoys dates from when ships began to be separated into specialist classes and national navies were established.

Photo from

"By the French Revolutionary Wars of the late 18th century, effective naval convoy tactics had been developed to ward off pirates and privateers. Some convoys contained several hundred merchant ships. The most enduring system of convoys were the Spanish treasure fleets, that sailed from the 1520s until 1790."

Granted, a merchant ship sailing between Oman and Egypt would be time consuming. Traversing the Suez Canal would provide for a much shorter trip, but escorts still would be needed from Sudan to Oman. Currently Egypt is not a pirate haven, although Libya has been know to host pirates, ergo its inclusion as a terminus.

Who would pay for the escort service? The owners of the ships being escorted. The fees would, naturally, be passed along to the customers.

The alternative is to train and arm the crews to a level that they can repel attacks. To the best of my knowledge, only Israel's Zim does this, which may explain why there are no attacks on ships flying Israel's colors. A cargo vessel is a much more stable platform from which to fire weapons than the pirates' smaller attack vessels. The only disadvantage for the merchant ship is head count - a modern container ship has a crew of less than 10.

Since merchant ship crews often are pick-up crews made of several nationalities and loyalties, "weaponizing" ships a la Zim is generally contra-indicated.

Which brings us back to convoys.

A look at the map of Africa and its close Asian neighbors (Yemen, Oman), along with a history or pirate attacks would indicate where convoy protection is most needed. The need for protection along one coastline may change from time to time depending on local political and economic conditions. Shipping companies can check with their foreign offices (in U.S., the State Department) for fairly up-to-date information. Likewise, navies can shift their resources as necessary.

Africa, by the way, is not the only place pirates call home. They also operate out of the Pacific. According to the U.S. State Department's site, "Piracy at sea is a worldwide phenomenon which has affected not only the coasts of Africa, but also Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen, and Venezuela. U.S. citizens considering travel by sea should exercise caution when near and within these coastal areas."

A naval presence does greatly reduce the threat of piracy. According to the State Department, "Pirate activity in the Straits of Malacca has declined significantly since 2005 due to increased military patrols and vessel security."

"Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." A famous expression often linked to the Marines at Tripoli; in truth it is associated with a U.S. disagreement with France. None-the-less, if piracy is to be eliminated, the pirates' victims should bear at least part of the cost - the rest can be billed to the navies as "training expenses."

Today there are two options:

One: Arm the crews with weapons to successfully defend their ships and train the crews to use the weapons safely. (Will they use them when needed?)

Two: Convoys.


If I wrote it, you may quote it

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