Pirates Yesterday and Today

Coast Guard Patrols the Gulf of Aden for Pirates Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.

Never has there been a yawning void in piracy on the seas. Gone are the Blackbeards and Captain Kidds and other one-eyed, hooked-hand robbers who plundered ships of yore, carrying gathered goods of gold and fortune. But this role has been replaced today by angry young men, carrying guns, rifles, grenades and missiles. Supposedly, these pirates seek to act as modern-day Robin Hoods, distributing wealth from the hands of the rich to those of the poor by capturing vessels and holding onboard personnel for ransom. Whether or not the poor ever see a dime or a pence is unknown.

Still, pirates today evoke the same fears as they did in ancient times. And they strike often -- far more often than most realize. It wasn't until recently that we've been made aware of their efforts to attack cruise ships. If it was unusual then, it is no longer. The most recent occurrence, in December 2008, involved Oceania Cruises' Nautica, which was repositioning from the Eastern Mediterranean to Asia, via the Gulf of Aden. It attracted worldwide attention. The pirates were not successful in this case, but they did actually nab a ship early in 2008 (the French sailing vessel Le Ponant) and a few years prior (2005) got close enough to Seabourn Spirit to leave missile marks on the exterior.

Though the majority of concerns currently pertain to the Gulf of Aden, pirates can strike almost anywhere at any time. Hot zones also include Asia (particularly in the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Singapore), the Somali Coast and the Amazon River. Piracy warnings are also meted out in parts of the Red Sea and along both the eastern and northeastern coasts of Africa.

But it's important to know this: Cruise lines have prepared for many challenging scenarios, and ships are well-equipped to deal with terrorist incidents or sudden pirate attacks.

What's the difference between an act of terrorism and piracy? According to international law, it is a crime of piracy when an act is committed within international waters and, thereby, outside the territorial jurisdiction of any given nation. So, the recent piracy attack on Oceania's Nautica took place while in transit to the Gulf of Aden and within the prescribed Maritime Safety Protection Area, which is lawfully patrolled by international, anti-pirate task forces.

Waters become international after the 12th nautical mile of territorial jurisdiction.

But there's another distinction between piracy and terrorism. Piracy takes place when the motive is strictly for financial gain. Precisely speaking, when an attack is for religious or political gain, the term terrorism is widely used.

When it comes to piracy, ships are prepared for defense in a number of ways. On any given sailing, whether in known piracy waters or not, the use of LRAD's (long-range acoustic devices) to monitor movement in the area is common. Some cruise lines also contract with maritime information and research/tracking companies like Lloyd's Miu, Orbcomm, Inc. or Global Marine Networks, LLC; these organizations keep ship owners abreast of happenings at sea. They also have the complete ability to track vessels and can show any change in planned itineraries or signs of distress. Other efforts by cruise lines to protect vessels and passengers include vigilant lookouts by officers and crewmembers for suspicious movement in the water, as well as consistent viewing of surveillance cameras. Bright spotlights are used for lookouts on dark nights and to help ship officials spot approaching boats. All of this occurs even when pirates are not sighted, and passengers are rarely, if ever, aware of these tactics.

Actually being approached by pirates requires a whole other range of tactics. The most obvious is a "full speed ahead" strategy. But, captains will also conduct evasive maneuvers with the vessel -- like when Seabourn's captain created a zigzag pattern to thwart its attack -- while crewmembers assist in the use of fire hoses and other onboard defense devices to divert the perpetrators from boarding.

The behind-the-scenes training that officers and crew receive is intense. Piracy attacks and terrorist attacks are treated equally. The lines of communication between ships, office personnel and government authorities are constantly open. Regular crewmembers go through weekly drills for safety purposes, while trained experts are contracted to be onboard, in case of an approach.

These contractors are trained by their respective companies and, thus, bring that training onboard. Each crewmember has role to play in an emergency. Just as there are updated information and training programs for fire safety and weather precautions, there are always updated classes on operating new devices and technologies.

Certainly, most will go through their careers at sea without ever needing to use that training and knowledge. But, of course, most is not all.

Beyond crewmembers, who are trained to act in an emergency, little is publicized about the actual security crew that all ships employ.

Most of them have had serious defense training, and usually some of that comes from military experience. Often, they're sourced from the Philippines, Nepal, Israel and South Africa, and they are already well-trained before they even step onboard.

One Israeli officer, who did not want to be identified in this piece, told me that his military training -- at age 18, in unsafe areas in his country -- enabled him to prepare for any scenario, as he had already seen the worst in people. He shared one anecdote:

"I was walking the deck one night, while sailing the Malacca Straits, and heard a slap and banging sound along the ship's side. Walking toward the sound, I found a skiff that had successfully hooked a rope on the aft railing. When one of the attackers spotted me, he started shooting. Members of our security team immediately started throwing heavy objects at them. They also called for backup. The others arrived within minutes and started shooting back at the unexpected pirates, who had avoided the thrown objects up to that point. Dodging bullets was another story, and security held them at bay. The total event took 20 minutes to end."

While these days the mere possibility of a pirate attack on a cruise ship makes us shiver, it's still far more common that they'll set sights on the more lucrative cargo industry, as they have done in the past.

That said, the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K. and other countries are beefing up security for cruise ships (as well as cargo vessels) around the busier areas. They often work together to keep ships safe; it's more common now to see ships cruising through the Gulf of Aden, for instance, in a convoy of other vessels with protection at both ends. There is safety in numbers.

To find a complete list of areas to avoid, check with the consulate offices or Web sites of countries to which you're interested in traveling, or research the ICC (International Crime Service) Web site at www.icc-css.org. It's filled with weekly piracy reports, Maritime Bureau information and more.

--Photo is courtesy of USCG Public Affairs.

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