In an overall sense, piracy continues to be a problem for world police authorities. And it should surprise no one that voyagers are sometimes the target of crime. The thousands of dollars in electronic and other high-value gear aboard their boats, plus expected cash-on-hand is enough to tempt the larcenous, whether on land or sea.
But are voyaging boats the only vessels at risk? Not by a long shot. Any vessel, from a dinghy to an oil tanker, can be the target of pirates.
Piracy is the act of robbing a ship or committing illegal violence at sea or on the shores of the sea. It can include simple robbery, hijacking of a vessel, sinking of a vessel, taking hostages, smuggling, and privateering.
A privateer is a privately owned vessel commissioned by one country to attack and rob or otherwise harass the vessels of another country, usually, but not always, in time of conflict. While the one side considers these vessels as legitimate “men-of-war,” the other side knows them as pirates. The last we heard of privateers was in the 18th century when they were commonplace in all oceans of the world. It was a time when national navies were hard-pressed to protect their far-flung interests.
Interestingly, privateers have reappeared on the scene in Southeast Asia where emerging countries are unable to police their territorial waters. Although these modern-day privateers do not operate under a formal letter of marque as in earlier days, they appear to have the permission and even the cooperation of local government officials. A recent shipowners’ report from the Far East has suggested that elements of the Chinese security forces and Indonesian Navy may be involved in piracy.
There appear to be two broad categories of pirates operating on the high seas: one is the professional pirate and the other is the amateur or casual pirate. Their objectives are entirely different. One is after big money and the other is after cash and easily-resold items. While neither is particularly interested in violence, per se, they will not shy away from using it to attain their ends. Resistance to pirate attacks is often quickly subdued with gunfire and hostages are generally not in their plans. Both groups want to make a quick heist and then a clean getaway with a minimum of fuss. In that respect, the thief at sea is no different from the thief on land.
My records go back some 20 years, and, in them, I can see the changing pattern of world piracy, but no easing off of the illegal act. Twenty years ago, the driving force of piracy was drug smuggling. They would use a well-equipped and commodious yacht to make a surreptitious passage from South America to Caribbean ports, or even the U.S., carrying illicit cargo. As such yachts started to come under suspicion, the modus operandi changed. Fast muscle boats came into demand which could make a pickup at sea from a large yacht or small ship and then make a speedy dash into a U.S. backwater port for a quick, profitable sale of the merchandise. These boats could be purchased off-the-shelf and, it has been suspected, although not proven, that some muscle boats were designed specifically for such illicit enterprises.
As profits from the drug trade became so great that the drug runners no longer needed to hijack yachts or steal muscle boats, the danger to the private boat owner also lessened. The threat did not completely disappear, however, because small-time operators remained. They are the amateurs of the drug trade, and, as long they do not step on the toes of the drug cartels, they continue to do a small business. However, drug smuggling is rarely the main reason behind most acts of casual piracy these days. Piracy is much more likely to involve simple theft.Professional pirates
While professional pirates are not the ones apt to harass a voyaging boat, it is good to know how and where pirates operate to separate fact from fiction in cruise planning. Professional pirates are big-time predators and are most apparent in two parts of the world: 1) the Caribbean where drug running by ship is still prevalent; and 2) the South China Sea where ships are not only robbed of money, but sometimes hijacked for their cargo. In order of decreasing activity, there are also professional pirates operating off of western Africa, eastern South America, eastern Africa, India, Bangladesh, the Gulf of Aden, and a few other places.
Pirate attacks on ships in southeast Asian waters are of great concern to world shipping agencies. The modus operandi is for pirates to operate near international borders and in territorial waters, with quick access to a safe haven should armed patrols of other nations take up a chase. They occasionally operate farther from shore, but rarely out in the open sea. Piracy is commonplace in the South China Sea where many small nations, or nations comprised of many small islands, make it easy for the pirates to operate with impunity. These pirates do not appear to be organized and are loyal to no one but themselves. (In truth, pirates and privateers didn’t operate as fleets but worked independently.)
Today’s professional pirates typically operate small, fast boats armed with machine guns. Their personal weapons are AK-47seasily obtained on the world arms market, especially in the Far East. They approach a merchant ship from astern at night, cast grappling hooks over the rail and climb aboard. This technique is in contrast to the 17th- and 18th-century methods when the pirates’ fast vessel would sail up alongside its victim and the pirates would board the victim with cutlasses and daggers swinging.
The bridge is taken over first since it is the command and control center of a modern ship. Other pirates disperse throughout the ship intimidating officers and crew. As in bank holdups, merchant crew members have found it best not to resist the pirates. The pirates rifle through all cabins where there may be valuables, taking what money and other loot they can find. The purser’s office and captain’s quarters are prime targets.
The scary part of the professional pirates’ operation is that they will often tie up the crew and leave the ship running on autopilot. In a busy waterway like the Malacca Strait, this creates the potential for a collision and major ecological damage.
Although not a common objective, the cargo of a ship can also be part of the modern pirate’s goal, as in the days of yore. For this to happen, though, there has to be connivance on the part of local shipping or customs officials. In this case, the ship is hijacked and taken to a “friendly” port and the goods are sold there, often with local officials getting a percentage of the take. The cover-up story commonly claims that the ship was engaged in smuggling and taken into custody by the authorities. The cargo, however, simply vanishes and the ship is later released. Attacks against cruisers
From a number of places around the world have come reports of attempted acts of piracy of the amateur or casual variety. In 1993, the experimental boat Sunrider, a specially built Zodiac inflatable using soy oil as fuel for its diesel engine, was harried off of Columbia during its circumnavi-gational voyage. The suspected pirates approached in a 40-foot powerboat and wanted to come alongside. Sunrider’s skipper warned them off first by radio and then by his crewman pointing a simulated gun at the attackers. They were apparently a weak-hearted lot. The fake firearm was sufficient to discourage them and they sheared off.
A very recent incident of cruising boat piracy was reported in the December 1994 issue of the Seven Seas Cruising Association’s Commodores’ Bulletin. The 47-foot ketch Valhalla, lying at anchor off Isla de San Jose in the Las Perlas Archipelago, was approached by a small outboard boat carrying three young men. Initially, a conversation took place between the boats regarding local fishing. When the yacht’s owner turned his back, one man leaped aboard Valhalla with gun in hand. Down below, the owner’s wife heard the commotion. She went for the yacht’s gun, but was overpowered when a second attacker hastened down below. The attackers attempted to tie up the two crew, but were unsuccessful as the crew vigorously fought back. The owner was shot in the thigh during the scuffle. When the boarders found out they were up against a determined crew, they abandoned their attack and left.
The aftermath of that attack bears careful scrutiny. One of the attackers was caught (he had done the shooting) and the other two were reported to be his brothers and would likely be apprehended. So far, so good, but what would the Panamanian officials do with them? The American Embassy in Panama proved of little help in pursuing charges against the culprits or helping out the victimized boat. Although Valhalla had a defensive firearm on board, it was not readily available at the time. These pirates were obviously amateurs, primarily bent on thieverya lonely yacht in an isolated cove became an inviting target. Amateurs or not, they were no less dangerous.
Another unusual incident took place in 1994 in the South China Sea. The 36-foot sloop Tara, while on a passage from Fremantle to Hong Kong, departed Singapore on its last leg and was sailing the South China Sea in the vicinity of Vietnam when a couple of fishing boats took up pursuit. The boats were described as “squat 50-footers with two decks of rust and rot atop a powerful engine.” These were, obviously, local fishermen attempting a little petty larceny.
For two hours the ponderous fishing boats tried to catch the swift sailboat which drove downwind at speeds of nine knots. Eventually, a freighter appeared over the horizon and the would-be pirates sheared off not wanting to be identified in such a venture. This is one of the few instances where a sailboat was able to successfully evade a powered pirate attacker. Usually, sailboats are too slow and cumbersome to avoid a confrontation. In this instance good seamanship, a swift sailboat, and a slow attack boat foiled the pirates.
A new fad in piracy has developed around Hong Kong that bears watching by owners of mega-yachts. The newly rich entrepreneurs of China have taken a liking to luxury yachts and a number of them have been spirited away from Hong Kong. Whether the hijackers would risk theft of a visiting yacht has not yet been tested. Minimizing risks from pirates
It is highly unlikely that professional pirates would bother with small voyaging boats, but the casual amateur pirate may be encountered any place in the world, just as street crime prevails any place in the world. The most likely spots for piracy are where poverty of shoreline villages contrasts with the affluence of passing yachts. The poorer the area and the thinner the maritime police protection is, the more likely there are to be casual pirates who wish to supplement their meager incomes.
Defensive measures for voyaging boats must be considered in planning a trip. They can range from deliberately avoiding areas of danger to methods of outwitting intruders who may try to board the boat. Generally speaking, firearms are not a good idea. They can be a liability if one is not thoroughly acquainted with them and willing to use them in combat. They definitely are a nuisance when crossing international borders. While they have been used on very few occasions to discourage boarders, they have been equally futile in others. It should be abundantly clear in armed confrontations ranging from simple burglaries to international conflicts, that the offense usually has the advantage over the defense. How much armament can one carry?
Killing people in foreign ports away from American justice can not only ruin your whole day, but your whole life. The experiences of others have shown that American embassies and consular staffs are impotent when the criminal laws of a foreign land have been violated. The best advice I have heard is, don’t carry a gun unless prepared to use it and suffer the consequences. Simply having a gun aboard means nothing.
Except in areas where drug-running is prevalent, most piracy is small-time. Boat boys and other friendly locals case the boat while it is at anchor or by listening to shoreside conversations. This allows them to target good pickings for a nighttime foray. To the alert cruiser, it need not happen. Here are some things a voyager can do to avoid piracy problems:
· Avoid suspected trouble areas. Talk with other boats about their experiences, but don’t let sea-stories run rampant.
· Travel with another vessel.
· Make only daylight passages through suspected pirate waters and make those passages as far from shore as reasonable.
· Be wary of approaching fishing boats that seem to have an aggressive intent.
· Anchor well away from shore in isolated areas or moor close-in when in harbors that have enough intrinsic activity to keep potential pirates away.
·Keep a low profile in port. ·Install a remote-controlled, powerful searchlight to illuminate the decks and nearby waters. A loud horn can also be a deterrent.
· Have a dog aboard.
The most effective means of protection is to be alert at all times for potential trouble.
Earl R. Hinz has authored numerous books on Pacific voyaging and on voyaging techniques.