Seabourn & Pirates -- Could It Happen On Your Cruise?

November 7, 2005

UPDATE: Seabourn Spirit & Pirate Attack

Seabourn Spirit Outruns Pirates!

Q&A: HAL's Charlie Mandigo Talks Ship Security
As we reported Saturday, the attack by pirates on Seabourn Spirit, sailing about 100 miles off the coast of Somalia, was "an incident more common to fiction than reality."

Actually, we should have specified that while an occurrence involving a cruise ship is quite rare (in fact in the past decade it is unprecedented), piracy on the high seas, especially as it relates to cargo vessels, is alive and well. Though cruise lines are loath in the best of circumstances to divulge any tidbits relating to their onboard and on-shore security teams and procedures, staff are trained in the case of just such an eventuality -- as Seabourn Spirit's captain and team proved.

This is not the first time a cruise ship's security has been breached. In 1985, one man (an American) was killed when he was thrown overboard during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean. In that case, however, the terrorists actually came onboard legitimately -- as paying passengers, scarily enough. Ever since, cruise lines have upgraded their security procedures and plans in order to avoid a repeat, and have done so quite successfully.

This weekend's attack on Seabourn Spirit was chilling in a different manner that bypassed the ship's normally controlled environment. These pirates used AK-47 machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in their attempt to hijack the vessel from a perilous proximity at sea. As we now know, they failed -- and in no small part because Seabourn's officers and crew, for whom exotic itineraries are a main staple of destinations, were trained for the possibility, no matter how rare.

What should you know before your next exotic cruise?

The best known area of risk is the Straits of Malacca, the body of water between Indonesia and Malaysia (ships calling at Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Penang and Singapore will sail here). Others include the archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines (cruise ships don't travel in these waters, however). A report by the International Maritime Bureau also identifies piracy as a problem in Nigeria and Iraq -- not such an issue for cruise travelers. More relevant is the fact that in the summer 2005 report, the waters off Somalia were singled out as increasingly dangerous for ships of all types.

Heightened security onboard cruise ships also helps to keep weapons away from vessels. In many cases, all luggage is screened -- not just carry-on bags. Nowadays, it may seem common to most of us that our photograph is taken upon embarkation and coded into our key card but Queen Mary 2 takes that a step further: The photos of passengers are actually featured on the face of the card as well.

Cruise ship security goes beyond -- way beyond -- employing off-duty policemen to ensure safety onboard. Some lines, in fact, hire teams of Gurkhas; these Nepalese professionals have special military backgrounds.

Perhaps no cruise line today is more conscious of the dangers of piracy than Malaysia-based Star Cruises, the Asian operator that also owns Norwegian Cruise Line. Star Cruises, which sails ships year-round through the Straits of Malacca, has sailed unharmed. Among their strategies? SuperStar Virgo, the line's newest ship, is equipped with hundreds of surveillance cameras. It's among the fastest in the world -- capable of sailing at a maximum of 25 knots -- thus making it difficult for hijackers to get onboard. Star Cruises is the only line to have its own ship simulator center; located in Port Klang, Malaysia, this facility, like those operated by airlines, offers hands-on experience in areas ranging from collision to fire and from an accident to hijacking. Finally, Star Cruises' vessels are also fitted with water cannons. Located along the exterior of the ships, they have the same power as those used by police forces against rioters.