Seagoing pirates have pillaged and plundered ships and coastal villages throughout history — from Vikings to 14th and 15th century ships owned by the Kings and Queens of Spain, England, Holland and France to 17th and 18th century raiders who pillaged Spanish galleons. Today, a series of attacks off the Horn of Africa has shown that piracy can still be highly profitable as well as dangerous.
In Somalia, a country of grinding poverty and internal chaos, the pirate economy is an extension of the corrupt free-for-all that has raged on land since the central government imploded in 1991. It has turned the waters off of Africa into the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.
Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, the internationally recognized but relatively impotent authority based in the capital, Mogadishu, has little influence over the pirates. Neither do the traditional, clan-based militias that still operate in these areas but cannot afford the weaponry or manpower now fielded by well-financed pirate gangs.
The United States Navy has asked ship owners to stick to designated shipping lanes when passing through the Arabian Sea, where in the past few years, Somali pirates have hijacked hundreds of ships from a sailboat skippered by a retired British couple and rusty fishing trawlers to a 1,000-foot-long supertanker owned by the Saudi government. The pirates have netted hundreds of millions of dollars from the hijackings, money that they often reinvest in weapons and men. They have attacked ships as far away as Sri Lanka, more than 2,000 miles from home.
On October 23, 2009, a British couple was slowly edging away in their boat from Mahé, the main island in the Seychelles archipelago, for Tanga, Tanzania, the beginning of a two-week passage across the Indian Ocean. The wind was pushing them farther north than they’d planned to be. With no ships or land in sight, the Chandlers’ 38-foot sailboat, the Lynn Rival. Two skiffs materialized out of the murk, and when 57-year-old Rachel Chandler swung the flashlight’s beam onto the water, two gunshots rang out. Within seconds, eight scruffy Somali men hoisted themselves aboard, their assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers clanging against the hull. 61-year-old Paul Chandler activated an emergency beacon, which immediately started emitting an S.O.S., and then went up on deck. The men stank of the sea and nervous musk, and they jabbed their guns at the Chandlers. The Chandlers would be held for the next 388 days. In the past few years, loosely organized gangs of Somali pirates, kitted out with Fiberglas skiffs, rusty Kalashnikovs and flip-flops, have waylaid hundreds of ships — yachts, fishing boats, freighters, gigantic oil tankers, creaky old Indian dhows, essentially anything that floats — and then extracted ransom in exchange for their return.
One has to love the British pluck . . . after the Chandlers were released, they continued their around-the-world sea journey and, of course, wrote their story: Hostage: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Pirates and the New York Times Wesley Allsbrook illustrated Taken by Pirates for the October 2011 issue of the NYT Magazine.
The New York Times of October 2012 reported that the standard operating procedure is to swarm a vessel with a bevy of skiffs, each packed with armed men, gain control of the ship, steer it back to a pirate base and then demand a ransom from the ship’s owner, the families of the crew or both. Often the ransom money literally falls from the sky. The favored way of making payment is to drop a brick of shrink-wrapped cash from a small plane and let it drift down by parachute to the pirates.
Now, a report from Maritime Propulsion,” January 9, 2013:
Somali Pirates Use RPG to Attack Ship: 12 Arrested
EU Naval Force French Frigate ‘Surcouf’ and NATO Warship ‘USS Halyburton’ work together to apprehend twelve pirate suspects.
A merchant vessel sailing 260 miles off the Somali Coast in the Horn of Africa, made a distress call, reporting that she was coming under attack by six men in a fast moving boat, armed with rocket propelled grenades (RPG). Thankfully, having employed avoidance tactics, the merchant vessel was able to escape the attack.
Upon hearing the distress call, NATO warship USS Halyburton, operating as part of NATO’s counter piracy operation – Ocean Shield, on patrol 80 nautical miles away, launched her helicopter and was able to quickly locate a suspect boat – which was by now towing another vessel, with several men on board. (In October 2013, Captain Phillips, the movie starring Tom Hanks depicting this operation was released.)
EU Naval Force (EU Navfor) French Frigate Surcouf, operating as part of the EU’s counter piracy mission – Operation Atalanta, made best speed to the area, as a German EU Navfor Maritime Patrol Aircraft kept watch overhead.
Upon arrival, and in full cooperation with the NATO warship, the boarding team from Surcouf boarded the two suspect vessels and apprehended twelve men in total. All twelve men are currently being held on board for evidence collection in order to fully assess the possibility of legal prosecution.
In a recent press conference held on board Surcouf during her port visit to Port Victoria, Seychelles, the Commanding Officer, Commander Hugues Lainé stressed the importance of not lowering the guard towards piracy, as the threat remains, despite the drop in pirate attacks during the past year.