March 13, 2009: The Somali pirates are having a harder time taking merchant ships for ransom. It¬ís not for lack of traffic. The Gulf of Aden, where most of the pirates operate, is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world (with nearly ten percent of world traffic). Each month, 1500-1600 ships pass the northern coast of Somalia. Last year, about one out of 200 ships was attacked. Because of that, the chances of getting attacked were so low that most crews did not pay much attention to it.
But the millions paid out in ransoms for the 42 ships that were taken, had to be paid for. Soon it was costing all ships an additional $20,000 in insurance, fuel and danger bonus costs to transit the 1,500 kilometer length of the Gulf of Aden. Owners incurred additional costs if one of their ships was seized, although insurance companies are willing to offer policies for that as well. So, in the past year, most owners have ordered their captains to prepare their crews for the possibility of pirate attacks while transiting the Gulf.
As a result, most merchant ships are more prepared for pirate attacks. They put on extra lookouts, especially at night, and often transit the 1,500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden at high speed (even though this costs them thousands of dollars in additional fuel). The pirates seek the slower moving, apparently unwary, ships, and go after them before they can speed up enough to get away. The international anti-piracy patrol offers convoy protection, but many ships don't want to halt and wait for a convoy to form. Ships that decide to proceed on their own, take additional precautions.
An example of these precautions can be seen in the experience of a Chinese cargo ship, the Zhenhua 4, last December. Back then, 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. Moreover, 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. The North Koreans fought back, killed some of the pirates (and lost some crew members) and regained control of their ship.
The Internet have proved an invaluable tool for ships planning for the Aden run. Everyone knows of the measures used by the Zhenhua 4 and the North Koreans, but there are many more ideas that have not gotten much coverage in the mass media. For example, crews now make more use of the fire hoses, and collect large objects (sheets of metal, junked furniture and empty boxes) to be heaved overboard onto the pirate boats. Poles are fabricated for pushing away ladders pirates often use to get aboard. The captains and crew members on the Internet exchange techniques for training crews, and preparing "repel boarders" drills. Sailors that have been aboard captured ships, and spent months in captivity, relate what that experience was like, and let other sailors know what to expect. This encourages the merchant ship sailors to pay closer attention to the drills and techniques to be used to avoid capture in the first place. Captains pay particular attention to the use of speed and maneuvering successfully used to avoid the approaching pirate speedboats. This may not always enable the ships to escape, but it does provide time for the troops to get ready to repel the pirates attempting to board.
These efforts by the crews have led to nearly 250 pirates being captured, in the past six months, by warships that often show up. While half these pirates were simply disarmed and released, the other half were held for possible (although unlikely) prosecution. This pressure is causing the pirates to try different tactics, like more operations at night, and far off the east coast (where ships too large for the Suez canal head south to go around Africa for the Atlantic.) Captains travelling off the east coast have been on the alert since late last year, when a Saudi supertanker was seized as it headed south. That ship was only recently released, after a $3 million ransom was paid. No matter how hard the pirates try, things will never as easy as they were in 2008.