London, Abu Dhabi, Karachi, Bin Qasim, Dahej, Suez, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Goa, Redi, Galle, Colombo, Dubai, London, all visited in one recent eight week spell working the high risk area between Egypt and Sri Lanka. The gig is anti-piracy, or if you like – maritime security, but definitely armed and dangerous.
Prior to this I spent the last eight years in the sand pits of Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting off the dust and heat and the occasional insurgent. The heat’s still a bother, but the dust is history, and the moist sea air is a welcome change from the stench of the ‘Global War on Terror’.
You settle in quickly in this job, there’s a routine to all seafaring, even for the inveterate land lubbers in the security teams who ride shotgun on a ship’s bridge. You mostly watch – the flat open ocean, the radar, and the clock – 99.9% of your time is unremarkable, some say boring.
I don’t mind though, I especially like the ocean at night, when the full panoply of stars folds out above you; I even bought the Rough Guide to the Universe, to help me pick out the constellations – and with the ship’s binoculars I discovered the Andromeda Galaxy on a ship off Oman back in January.
Somalis don’t like the dark much, so in the wee small hours it’s OK to raise your line of sight skywards, and ponder the human condition while you slowly carve through pirate waters.
What of the pirates? They don’t think of themselves by that name, they’re just businessmen, protecting Somalia itself from avaricious foreigners who would dump toxic waste off the coast, and modern fishing vessels that grab up all the worthwhile stock in the Gulf of Aden, leaving the Somali fishermen, with their traditional methods, literally floundering.
These are excellent seamen with nothing to go to sea for – apart from piracy, and they are a primary source of recruitment into the ranks of the pirates. The fact that the pirate fleets are now threatening the north Arabian Sea – a thousand miles from Somalia – changes nothing for them, its business as usual, and business is booming. But why go to such lengths, with the world’s most sophisticated navies in hot pursuit?
The facts about Somalia speak for themselves: no effective government for twenty years, three quarters of Somalis live on $2 a day, life expectancy is 42 years, one in four children dies before the age of five. I once heard a saying that went “Africa is the hardest place on Earth to be an optimist”, if that’s true, then there must be a prolonged drought on optimism in Somalia. If I lived there I would probably be a pirate too, they have families to feed just like everyone else. Consequently I have a great deal of sympathy for them.
I was going to name this article Rendezvous with a Pirate, but as of writing that still hasn’t happened. Not that I haven’t been close, very close, to coming face to face with my potential seaborne nemesis. I’ve been lucky in my first six months, nothing more. In March I was guarding a chemical tanker with 21 crew members, Ukrainians and Filipinos, transiting west from India to Egypt.
We were sailing off the coast of Oman, on a course of 210˚ towards ‘Point B’, the easternmost RV point on the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC). This is where the military navies escort vessels east and west along what used to be the main pirate hot spot, the Gulf of Aden (there’s not many pirates left there now because of the naval presence, yet the navy boys still plough on regardless, but that’s for another article, not this one).
I was on watch that evening, on the bridge with me was a monosyllabic third officer at the wheel, and two able seamen watching out on the bridge wings – the ‘mark one eyeball’ still being the best bit of security kit available in any theater, even in these hi-tech times.
Night fell, black as coal, yet the day’s heat and humidity was still hanging over the decks like a shroud; and, although you drum the need for continued vigilance into them, the watch crew relax when night comes. With no moon it’s dark enough to fail to recognize a human body 20 meters away. I was doing my usual watch routine – keeping an eye on both radar screens, their ghostly light giving the now darkened bridge a supernatural feel, and patrolling the three sides of deck surrounding the bridge, binoculars and night vision goggles close at hand.
Suddenly the VHF radio crackled, and on emergency Channel 16 the terrified voice of an Indian watch officer came on: “Coalition warship! Coalition warship! This is Motor Vessel (—–) we are being attacked by pirates, our position is eighteen degrees twenty two minutes north, fifty eight degrees zero four minutes east, please assist. Mayday! Mayday!” The wing watchers immediately came to the bridge doors to listen, and I had to order them back to their stations – they were more valuable than ever now that we had a possible identification of pirates in the vicinity.
The watch officer picked up the vessel on our AIS (Automatic Identification System – gives each ship’s name, course, position and speed), there were only two ships within 30 nautical miles – us and mayday boy, supposedly now under attack; he was 9NM astern of our port quarter, though we couldn’t detect any small, fast-moving craft near him on our radar.
I stood the rest of the security team up, and the other three boys were on the bridge in under two minutes, suited and booted with their grab bags full of the bits and bobs they didn’t want to lose if we had to retreat to the engine room citadel or get our feet wet by leaving the ship in a hurry.
This vessel was well equipped and we had enough weaponry, ammunition, and pyrotechnics to put on a good show if there was a pirate mother ship about, her skiffs searching the area for slow-moving merchant ships like us. A night attack – rare for Somali pirates, I was remaining skeptical until it was confirmed, and indeed it was, very soon.
Within minutes a Turkish warship responded in clear English to the mayday call. After confirming the under fire vessel’s position they scrambled a helo to intercept. The Turks asked for a running description of events. The tanker reported she was under attack from two skiffs, and had already taken hits from RPG and small arms fire, undoubtedly AK47 – standard bad boy weaponry around the globe.
The chopper got there in ten minutes, we listened to the pilot communicate with the attacked ship. The helo warned everyone they were opening fire, and put a few dozen rounds across the path of the chasing skiffs. The pirates pulled away and slipped unseen into the surrounding night, no harm done. The navies are stretched to the limit, it was lucky this warship was around, as we were still a long way away from the safety of the IRTC.
The rest of the night was spent red-eyed and on edge; the bad guys had to abort, they would be looking for other prey, and we were closest – although we changed our course slightly to get away fast from the area of the attempted hijacking. Plus, these guys must have been desperate to make a score – they were targeting at night, unusual for Somalis. We never saw a thing.
People ask me all the time why does the coalition not just blast the pirates out of the water? Also, when ships are hijacked and en route to a six month holiday in Puntland, why do the marine forces not just retake the ship? After all it’s what they’re trained for. I believe there’s a good reason why this doesn’t happen.
Somali pirates, as a rule, don’t kill hostages. If you’re unfortunate enough to get scooped by pirates, the most you’re going to get is an uncomfortable stay in a Puntland port, sharing a room on board with the rest of the crew, with teenaged locals pointing AKs through the window at you. Unlike Nigeria or Indonesia, where pirates are ruthless with crews, Somalis treat the crew as their most valuable asset – you wouldn’t mistreat your prized cow before trying to sell it at the market, likewise a dead crew isn’t good for the subsequent ransom dealings with the ship’s owners.
Start killing pirates regularly and they might start mistreating their hijacked crews, or worse. The pirates don’t want to up the ante, neither do the coalition. If they are threatened with force Somali pirates will kill without hesitation, so to avoid a bloodbath both sides play cat and mouse instead.
If pirates board you and they get to the wheelhouse – or even get hold of one of the crew – before everyone locks down in the citadel, then its game over, you’re off to Somalia. Outside of the IRTC the navies invariably can’t reach a vessel in time before it’s boarded and hijacked. That’s where the private security companies come in. We are already on board and good to go.
Firstly it’s as a deterrent – row upon row of razor wire, water hoses, and other obstacles on deck; then a show of force with weapons on the bridge. After that it’s warning shots, but the rules of engagement are clear – only fire when you are fired upon, or a life is in immediate danger, then aimed shots only.
Pirates aren’t suicide bombers or jihadis, they have no wish to die, this works to your advantage, so do the relative firing positions – us up on the steady deck of a huge ship aiming down on them bobbing up and down in a small wooden speedboat. The key for them is to get on without us noticing – that’s why the mark one eyeball guys on the wings are invaluable: see them, show yourselves, and hope they’re not too desperate to try and board a ship under fire.
Another incident happened on a different vessel during my eight week trip, much more chilling for me as we were completely alone and enjoying a beautifully calm, sunny Indian Ocean morning. This time the team were aboard a dry cargo vessel heading 90˚ for India, just after leaving Point B and a Chinese naval convoy (a work of art compared to some). Nowadays the areas north and east of the IRTC’s eastern extremity are prime hunting grounds, the pirate fleets have moved there, knowing the military is in scarce supply. My team 2 I/C on watch called me up to the bridge around 10:30 local time. A ship that had followed us from the convoy was now acting suspiciously, slowing down, changing course, speeding up, very odd.
I was on watch earlier in the morning, and had idly observed the same vessel through our binos, there was nothing around for miles but us and him. Suddenly, as we watched on the radar, he changed course completely and started back west, the way he came. I immediately thought “hijacked”, and when I passed on my hunch it sent our Indian captain into paroxysms of fear.
It was confirmed later when we saw the odd ship set a course for north Somalia, and then a report came in from the International Maritime Bureau in Malaysia, the ship was fired on and boarded – game over. Why didn’t they send a distress call on the VHF? Who knows, but that particular crew has 6-9 months in captivity to ponder their fate.
So, that’s a little of the life of a ship anti-piracy team. None of the headlines of Iraq or Afghanistan, and in my opinion a lot less of the risk, so fair’s fair. I’ll be back out there again soon, brown arms, red face and white body, but who said it was pleasure cruising?
Anti-Piracy Operations Correspondent
John is a British security consultant who has spent the last eight years plying his trade in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in anti-piracy, facing off Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. You can check out other writings by John about private militaries, jihadis and pirates at his blog OneHiredGun.com