CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS: Life of a Ship Anti-Piracy Operator – Eight Weeks on the High Seas

Fully kitted Private Anti-Piracy Operator: Romanian PSL and PPE

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.

This was a souvenir from a transit this vessel undertook last September

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.

Pride of the Indian Navy

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.

Ship using fire hoses to fight off Somali pirates

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?

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~John Hawkwood
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

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37 thoughts on “CIVILIAN CONTRACTORS: Life of a Ship Anti-Piracy Operator – Eight Weeks on the High Seas”

  1. “…and with the ship’s binoculars I discovered the Andromeda Galaxy on a ship off Oman back in January.”

    Holy shit! Did you see C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate as well??? That was a well-written piece, thanks!

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  2. You’re a damn fine story teller. This sounds like it’d be fun work, thanks for providing us with a bit of the day-to-day.

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  3. Good stuff!

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  4. nice read!!
    but i feel for you,im a riverboat captain and nothing can be as mentally draining as sitting there staring at a radar for hours on end..so easy for your mind to wonder and just zone out add that to the gentle rocking of the ship and a warm night haha seen many of rookie fall asleep on their feet with that combo.

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  5. Very well written, thanks for sharing!

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  6. Great article sir. I have wondered for a while about the day to day of contractors in maritime security. I would love to hear more about it!

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  7. Great write up! Would like to hear more.
    Slán,

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  8. Great write up on a very interesting topic! Well done.

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  9. “Mark One Eyeball” LMFAO. Its true though.

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  10. Excellent piece! Great stuff and very informative. Many thanks!

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  11. Fascinating story John! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  12. Thanks for the post. It is a glimpse into a world that few of us ever get to see. It seems that the cost of piracy has moved past the annoyance phase and is really starting to cost shippers, hence the increase in precautionary measures. I hope that you continue to write on this subject, as it a fascinating one.

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  13. That’s romanian PSL, not a Dragunov

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  14. *cough *cough were do I sign up for a life on the ocean blue with capt.pugwash.

    sounds idylic compared to the great big sand pit and sand b’tween the crack of ya ass

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  15. Great article. Good insight to the mindset of a pirate. This is something that I thought would be really cool. Godfather was a Merchant Marine in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. You painted a fine picture of the life at sea, but also the tension of the encounters.

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  16. Indeed it is a technical error…what is pictured is a Romanian PSL, not a Dragunov. They are mechanically and cosmetically quite different tools.

    Good writeup though, I enjoyed it.

    —–

    Fixed it – Good Eye, Thanks

    ~James G

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  17. This was fascinating to read. I knew nothing about what contracting is like on ships. It was very interesting to know and to hear some of your insights regarding the way that pirates and protectors are existing with each other.

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  18. Excellent article. Could you contact me about permission to reprint in my publication? Thanks!

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    1. Amy, what’s your publication? We might like to check it out…

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      1. Don’t know that y’all would find it entertaining. It’s a boating pub, only death and destruction going on is to redfish, flounder and cobia. Waterside News – website is under construction but we’re on facebook and print copy is available if anyone’s interested.
        If Hawkwood would consider it, my readers would love his piece. Thanks!

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  19. Good article John, as well as the North Arabian sea they are now as far south as Tanzania and east to the Sechelles, spent a year working on a Sesimic ship in that area, had 3 attempted boardings, (One off Mombassa Kenya and one close to Zanzibar (Mafia Island no kidding) and one pirate actually got onboard one night none of our radar picked up the skiffs, unfortunately for him we drove the skiffs off and he was trapped on the FRC (Fast Rescue Craft) deck, locked out..
    Amazingly we did’t know he was onboard, we ran a couple of RHIB’s around the vessel in the morning for a look see, they radio’d in and asked did we leave a mannequin on the FRC deck, of course we said no, the he stood up and waved to them…LMAO…. We took him into custody and our PC questioned him, he said he was kidnapped and forced to do it…
    That afternoon a chopper landed and two lead swinging, pipe hitting hard bastards from the Tanzanian internal security arrived.. poor bastard was shaking like leaf in a hurricane…
    As John says beats Iraq and Afghanistan, though if your bunked with some twat that snores it can get pretty tense..
    Cheers:
    Doc

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  20. Great write up! Just starting to get into vessel security myself & this was very well written & informative. Much appreciated!

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  21. Great article

    I am a security contractor and have just completed my SSO course so hopefully will be out there soon.

    With regards to your blog “http://onehiredgun.com/” is says that it is a “Protected Blog” and login is required.

    Is there any chance that you could invite me so I could read your other work. I am always keen to learn more.

    Thanks for recording your experiences on DeathValleyMag

    Regards Dave

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    1. That is his private blog – If you don’t know him don’t ask

      ~James G

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  22. seriously, his blog was a good one!
    How can we get an invitation?

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  23. Nobody wants to up the ante? These pirates are threatening people’s lives. Used to be a crime…now its just a bunch of po’folk trying to support their families? Are you nuts? And the navies of the world can’t put an end to these guys in motorized wash-tubs from boarding a ship and taking hostages? Oh well, I guess we can’t cure terrorism, either…yeah, nice article…almost makes me want to become a pirate, or puke, I can’t tell which…

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  24. I just completed a six month contract as team commander with MDF in the Gulf of Aden and Red sea area. I am looking for better contract.
    File: CVwindows.doc

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  25. When abouts did this happen?

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  26. OPSEC dude

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  27. After looking for a maritime gig for years, I had to turn to the dust pits of the world to make a living. I am glad someone is living my dream.

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  28. Hi

    Great story, I completed a six month contract as team commander in the Gulf of Aden and Red sea area at the end of May. Looking for next contract.

    1

    2

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  29. Anyway, OPSEC right. I was out there, I just wanted a confirmation to be sure same events, but every detail matches up. I was on the bridge of the boat we were protecting at the time and heard all of that jazz over radio. We locked and loaded and ran a shitload of ammo out to all stations and we readied to pass through where that MAYDAY came out; but we never saw anything. Bummed and relieved all at the same time, glad the HELO did it’s job. // I just thought it was cool to see a story of events that took place by people other than military. I didn’t realize that contractors were out doing this work at that time.

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  30. Beautiful job. I envy your shoes riding shotgun on merchant ships along these sea routes. Good write-up. Keep it coming.

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  31. The letter i just read was awsem.How,where and when can i join ?

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  32. I currently work for the US Navy on ships, Security and other positions. I have all my Coast Guard documents, current. I am retired navy,Special Boat units. I am also a master helmsman,and ships bosn.I would like to work for a civ. comp. again. I have current drug letter if needed also I have all my clearences. Please send me some info on where to start. Thank You for your time

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