Sea Transportation: Don't Give Up The Ship

January 30, 2009: A Chinese cargo ship, the Zhenhua 4, returned to its home port of Shanghai, and the 30 man crew was lauded as heroes. Each member of the crew was given $10,000, as a reward for fighting off a pirate attack. Last December, the ship was boarded by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The resolute crew retreated to their living quarters and called for help. As the pirates came aboard, the crew fought back with fire bombs and fire hoses, and refused to come out of the living quarters. The pirates fired at the crew, and were apparently perplexed at what to do. Meanwhile, a nearby Malaysian warship dispatched a helicopter, which shot at the pirates and caused them to flee in their speedboats. The crew of the Zhenhua 4 patched up the bullet holes and resumed their voyage.

The resistance on the Zhenhua 4 was no accident. The captain had worked out a drill to resist boarders, and had the crew rehearse it ten days before they were attacked. The Chinese were aware that, On October 30th, 2007, a North Korean merchant ship, the Dai Hong Dan, was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The North Koreans managed to get off a distress message. The ship was in international waters, 108 kilometers off the coast, unloading sugar to smaller boats. This offshore unloading arrangement was supposed to protect the North Koreans from pirates. The pirates were actually armed guards hired to protect the crew from real pirates during this unloading operation. 

 An American destroyer, the USS James E. Williams, was nearby, and rushed to the scene. When the U.S. warship got there, they demanded that the pirates surrender. Meanwhile, on the ship, part of the North Korean crew had managed to barricade themselves in the engine room, where they controlled the speed and direction the ship could move in. But the seven pirates had taken control of the bridge, and refused to surrender. Seeing this, most of the 43 man North Korean crew stormed the bridge, killing two of the seven pirates. Three crew members were badly wounded, and the U.S. destroyer captain, using a Korean-American sailor as a translator, offered to treat them. The North Korean captain agreed, and the destroyers helicopter was sent to get the wounded men. American sailors came aboard, applied first aid, and the three wounded North Koreans were transferred to the destroyer for treatment.

Eight Chinese cargo ships have been attacked in 2008. The attack on the Zhenhua 4 convinced the Chinese that sending two warships and a supply ship to Somalia was the right thing to do. A month before the Zhenhua 4 incident, the Chinese South Sea Fleet was seen conducting an anti-terrorism drill in which commandos flew to a merchant ship and then assaulted it by rappelling down from the helicopter and "cleared" the vessel of pirates and "rescued" the crew. The Chinese squadron arrived off Somalia on January 6th, and has been escorting merchant ships ever since.

The Chinese, like the North Koreans, are determined to show the pirates that their ships are not easy marks. It's not known if the pirates have gotten the message, and are avoiding Chinese and North Korean ships.

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