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.