Thursday, February 15, 2007

Swashbuckling Pirates, Anyone?

The Somali pirates in their small boat carrying rocket launcher, left, off Somalia, Saturday Nov. 5, 2005. There had been 23 reported attacks off the Somalian coast since March, including attacks on two United Nations ships carrying relief supplies. On Saturday, two boats full of pirates approached the Seabourn Spirit about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the coast of Somalia and fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

The words pirates or piracy either calls to mind the swashbuckling charcoal-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean or evoke the image of cheap CDs and DVDs every DumagueteƱo knows exactly where to get.

But to the hundreds of thousands of Filipino seafarers and their families, pirates hold none of that romantic glamour. Rather, the name itself holds a decidedly menacing significance.

Piracy is orbbery committed at sea, or sometimes on the shore, by an agent without a commission from a sovereign nation. Seaborne piracy against transport vessels is a very significant issue in the world of international commerce (with estimated worldwide losses of US$13 to $16 billion per year), particularly in the waters between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, off the Coast of Somalia, and in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore.

One-third of the world’s trade and half of the world’s oil supply are carried through the Strait of Malacca by some 60,000 vessels every year. The strait connects the Pacific and Indian oceans and is the shortest sea route to Asian countries. This being one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it is of little wonder this narrow strait bordered by Malaysia and Indonesia became the most pirate-infested channel of the world.

But unlike the unforgettable Captain Jack Sparrow who brandished nothing but his sword and single-shot pistol, 21st century pirates now wield rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s and chase gigantic but slow-moving merchant ships onboard speedboats with an audacity we’d normally see only in the movies.

The threat posed by these modern-day pirates is nothing to be laughed at. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) identified Somalia, Malacca Strait, Indonesia, Bangladesh, West Africa, and Nigeria as piracy hotspots. It reported 127 assaults on ships during the first half of 2006. These assaults included 74 instances where ships were actually boarded, 11 were hijacked, 156 seafarers taken hostage, 13 kidnapped and 6 killed. Pirates killed 30 crewmembers in 2004, and 21 a year earlier.

The recent kidnapping of 24 Filipino seafarers off the coast of Nigeria prompted me to write about this topic today. My husband being a seafarer himself, I think of their families and I feel their anguish as they face each day not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again.

If this fear seems overrated, take this incident for instance: in late November 1998, fishermen in Shantou, China dredged up a find that would go down in the annals of modern maritime history. But their find was nothing anybody in a boat would hope to repeat, ever again. In their net, they found a corpse, its mouth taped shut and bound to a metal weight. Over the course of several days, fishermen in the area would bring up several more — all crew members of the Hong Kong-owned, Panama-flagged cargo ship, the Cheung Son, that had been reported missing weeks before.

Police later determined the 17,000-ton freighter was hijacked by pirates en route from Shanghai to Malaysia. The pirates boarded and took over the ship by posing as customs officials. They killed all of the ship's 23 crewmembers, threw the bodies overboard, and sold the cargo and the ship itself.

They might have gotten away with the crime, had Chinese authorities not discovered some photographs while investigating a suspect. The pictures showed pirates partying among the dead on the Cheung Son. If I am not mistaken, there were Filipino crewmembers onboard that ship.

In 1991, pirates boarded the Nagasaki Spirit, removed its captain from command, set the ship on autopilot, and left with the ship's master for a ransom, leaving the ship going at full speed with no one at the wheel. The Nagasaki Spirit collided with the Ocean Blessing in the Strait of Malacca. The collision and resulting fire took the lives of 51 seamen. There were only 3 survivors between the two ships. The fire on the Nagasaki Spirit lasted for six days; the fire aboard the Ocean Blessing burned for six weeks.

Most attacks though, are rarely as brutal or as spectacular. The majority are basically muggings at sea. A bunch of hooligans pull up alongside a ship, point a rocket-propelled grenade at the hull, and demand a payoff. Others are plain robbery where the pirates would scramble up the sides of the ship with grappling hooks, demand for the ship’s cash and then steal everything of value that isn’t bolted down.

Other attacks are intended to kidnap the crew in the hopes of a hefty ransom. Late last year, the crew of a South Korean fishing vessel was held by Somali pirates for 117 days and released only after an US$800,000.00-ransom was paid.

It is only in attacks like the one on the Cheung Son — where the pirates planned to steal all the cargo, as well as the ship itself - that the crew's lives are immediately at stake. In past attacks of this nature, pirates have set the crewmen adrift in small boats.

The international maritime industry, of course, undertook measures to reduce if not totally eliminate this threat. For instance, they stepped up the patrols conducted by coalition navies in the Malacca Strait to deter any more attacks in that region.

There were several other significant moves carried out by the UN’s International Maritime Organization and other bodies overseeing the maritime industry. But this is not our thrust in this column today.

What I have in mind is this question: how about the merchant ships? How do these ships protect themselves against these assaults?

Unlike cruise ships that have at most 20 armed personnel onboard, cargo ships like those under my husband’s command are not allowed to arm themselves. If they come under attack, the most they have are flare guns originally intended for search and rescue situations. Beyond that, they have nothing but axes and knives, water cannons, plain wits, clever use of navigational skills, and their ardent prayers that the cavalry would soon come to their rescue.

The cruise ship Seabourne Spirit was able to fend off that highly publicized attack last year by out-navigating pirates chasing the ship in a speedboat and by using a parabolic audio device, a "boom box" that emits an ear-splitting sound, to ward off the attackers. Cargo ships are not equipped with this device.

My daughter and I spent two months on board my husband’s ship in 2004, the M/V P&O Nedlloyd Malindi. We traveled through the Strait of Malacca and even passed Somalia on several occasions. The ship goes on high alert in these areas.

Somalia, though, did not pose as much concern as the ship simply gave it a wide berth, about 200 miles – a distance generally believed to be beyond the range of the pirates’ boats.

But the Strait of Malacca was a different concern altogether. As mentioned, this narrow strip crawls with pirates and there is no evading them. They could be anybody. Even the most innocuous fishing boat could be suspect if it sails too close to the ship.

Hours before approaching the Strait, we used to clear my husband’s cabin of any hint of our presence onboard. (When pirates board a ship, they would immediately head for the ship bridge and the captain’s cabin – where they know the cash-rich safe could be found.)

During night crossings at the Strait, my husband would take us to the deepest bowels of the ship where we’d attempt to sleep practically next to gigantic engines going full throttle. The noise was horrendous and the phrase “I could not hear myself think” became my reality.

Nonoy would stay up all night maintaining constant radio contact with his officers and crew on duty. “All clear” reports were very comforting. It meant that no other sea vessel has moved suspiciously closed to the Malindi.

If a fishing boat or worst, a high-powered speedboat is spotted on radar or by some lookout becoming dangerously close to Malindi, the off-duty crew would be roused and ordered to man their pirate stations. Their orders are to protect their ship by preventing pirates from boarding it. An alert would also be sent out to the authorities.

The aft deck (rear end) of the ship is the most vulnerable spot. This is the lowest point in any cargo ship, thus the pirates’ preferred spot for gaining entry. For the pirates to attempt to board the ship elsewhere would require the skills of an accomplished climber trying to scale at least 4-storys of smooth metal wall amidst the rolling and pitching of the ship.

The crew relies solely on high-pressure water cannons to combat the pirates. Malindi had stationary pumps on each end of the aft deck to prevent pirates from climbing up, and movable hoses that could be trained towards a pirate vessel in the hope of tossing them out into the sea even before they could get closed enough to board the ship.

Anyone who’s seen videos of demonstrators being dispersed by the police with water cannons will get the idea.

To the reader, this column today may only seem like an informative piece that opened up an unknown world or a world represented by mere news items that held no personal significance to the viewer.

But the pirates with their M-16s, AK-47s and grenade launchers and the multi-million dollar ships with their multi-million dollar cargo under the care of 18 or so souls with only their radios, water cannons and flare guns for protection are realities being lived on a daily basis by thousands of Filipino seamen all over the world.

Indeed, the romantic Captain Jack Sparrow could exist only in our imagination. The nitty-gritty reality is that modern-day pirates are as vicious as their predecessors. Unless some definitive move is made to curb their nefarious activities, Filipino seamen in their slow-moving behemoths all over the world will remain sitting ducks, helpless pawns in a world where human life holds not much value next to booties as trivial as mobile phones and palm oil.


RTS said...

I hate to say this, but it seems like nothing good ever comes from Nigeria.There's always talk about "scammers" but this piracy is too much.

Olga said...

Robert ...

nothing is precious anymore, everything is fair game ...