Sea Transportation: Speed Is Safety And Salvation


October 10, 2010: Insurance companies and their security consultants have come up with more ways to avoid getting taken by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The most important bit of advice is that most of the ships captured had ignored recommended security measures, while passing through the Gulf of Aden, or elsewhere along the Somali coast. Even after a decade of piracy off the Somali coast, about a quarter of the merchant ships moving through this danger zone just take their chances, and ignore all security advice. The odds aren't bad. About one in 500 ships passing through the area are captured by pirates. But closer to one in a hundred are attacked or threatened. The pirates have learned to seek out the unprepared merchant ships, knowing that these will be easier to get aboard and capture. Thus these ships that are just playing the percentages, have a higher risk (closer to one in 200) of being captured.

The latest recommendations were based on an analysis of ships that were captured, and those that were attacked, or approached by pirates, and escaped. One of the more important new rules is that the easiest way to avoid pirates was to travel at high speed (over 33 kilometers/18 knots an hour). The speed boats the pirates currently use cannot match that speed, and are small enough to have problems with the wake formed by a large ship moving at that speed. This can be expensive. Depending on how long you travel at high speed in pirate waters, the extra fuel (for the less efficient high speed steaming) can cost a lot (several thousand dollars extra per hour). It's the extra cost that dissuades most shipping companies from using this approach. But if you want to be safe, it's a simple solution.

Another new idea is the use of small, and inexpensive video cameras, especially the infrared (heat detecting) ones for use at night or bad weather. These can be cheaper than posting extra lookouts, as the cameras can be monitored by the sailors working on the bridge, who have to keep an eye on the radar for larger obstacles anyway. Some security firms are also offering video camera systems with analysis software that sounds an alarm if something unusual (like a speed boat) is spotted. It's also useful if you post less conspicuous vidcams all over the ship, so that if pirates do get aboard, you can track them from your safe room, or from wherever the captain is while he is trying get the entire crew to the safe room.

Any precautions ships can take are costly, time consuming and an extra burden for the crew. It's long been known that high speed will keep you safe. But now years of data have shown that this is by far the most effective safety measure, even if it costs thousands of dollars an hour for additional fuel. A cheaper approach is to zig zag in pirate waters. This will only cost you an extra few hundred dollars an hour, but demands more attention from the crew. A large ship moving like this is a more difficult target for the pirates in their speedboats.

Other preparations include stringing barbed wire around likely boarding points, and practicing the use of fire hoses and other tools (like long poles) to keep the ladders or grappling hooks from enabling the pirates to get aboard. Crews are also advised to prepare a "safe room" (a bulletproof area of the ship the crew can barricade themselves in, if they have to, until help arrives.) There should be emergency communications available in the safe room, so that help can be summoned before the pirates figure out how to get in. The most common safe room solution is barricading the crew in the engine compartment. All these precautions take time and money. For ships that regularly travel past Somalia, the effort and expense are worth it. But for ships that pass by infrequently, there is a tendency to play the percentages.

For most of the past decade, the pirates preyed on foreign fishing boats and the small, sometimes sail powered, cargo boats the move close (within a hundred kilometers) of the shore. During that time, the pirates developed contacts with businessmen in the Persian Gulf who could be used to negotiate (for a percentage) much larger ransoms with insurance companies and shipping firms. The pirates also mastered the skills needed to put a grappling hook on the railing, 10-13 meters (30-40) feet above the water, of a large ship. Doing this at night, and then scrambling aboard, is more dangerous if the ship has lookouts, who can alert sailors trained to deploy high pressure fire hoses against the borders. Thus the increased vulnerability of those ships that just take their chances.



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