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Gard News 198, May/July 2010

Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), run by the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), helps protect merchant shipping in the region by providing information that assists in preventing pirate attacks and disrupting the activities of pirate groups. Yet not all vessels choose to register with the centre, despite the support that MSCHOA can provide.   In an interview to Gard News, Commander John Harbour, spokesman for EUNAVFOR, points out the benefits of registering with MSCHOA and employing best management practices to protect from piracy.


A French naval vessel, part of the EUNAVFOR, arrests 19 pirates after coming
to the rescue of a Panamanian ship.

Best management practices
For all ship owners, operators and crews, the battle against piracy should actually start before their vessels enter the danger zones of the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin/Indian Ocean. Incredible as it may seem, some vessels are still not taking the most basic measures to help protect themselves from hijackers. Despite a number of attacks from pirates, even in the EU-warship-patrolled Gulf of Aden, certain fundamental best management practices (BMPs) are still being ignored by some operators.

As reported in the article "Piracy - Best Management Practices for shipowners and operators are revised", published in Gard News issue No. 196, BMPs to deter piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia were adopted in March 2009 by various international industry representatives and approved by IMO. These BMPs draw attention to one of the most crucial things that can help in case a pirate attack should occur: the registration of a vessel with MSCHOA.  

Registering with MSCHOA
MSCHOA aims to provide a service to mariners in the Gulf of Aden, the Somali Basin and off the Horn of Africa. This service involves providing protection to shipping from the threat of pirate attacks. However, in order to do this effectively, MSCHOA needs to know what vessels are operating in the piracy hot spots. This can be done simply by registering vessels with MSCHOA at its website, www.mschoa.org. The site also allows for the updating of a ship's position and enables MSCHOA and UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) Dubai to send up-to-date information to a vessel to help avoid or reduce the risk of pirate attacks.

Commander John Harbour, spokesman for EUNAVFOR, points out that if you do register and employ BMPs, "clearly you are going to be better off", citing as one advantage the extra advice that can be provided by MSCHOA, particularly on the subject of BMPs. But as to why some vessels are not registering with MSCHOA, he says there is "no one clear answer".

According to Commander Harbour, off-the-record information indicates some operators are clearly uncomfortable with registering their vessels: "It is unclear who actually makes the decision as to whether or not to register. I believe that some are unsure about giving information out that could be prejudicial to company policy and may affect their profitability. But the fact is that over 75 per cent do register and therefore we do our utmost to encourage the rest to do so as well".

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of vessels that have been hijacked by Somali pirates were not registered with MSCHOA.   The conclusion to be drawn would seem to be obvious.In order for vessels to make the most of the protection and advice that MSCHOA can give, details such as cargo, speed, crew numbers, freeboard size and a number of other factors are required so that a comprehensive assessment of a particular ship's vulnerability can be made. This is done by feeding all the information into a matrix.

Commander Harbour explains: "Once they get into the area it is useful to know what cargo they have and what type of vessel. We do a vulnerability assessment on them and, if they are particularly vulnerable, we may give them a personal escort. If they are reasonably vulnerable, then we recommend that they go with the group transit. But the thing about registering of course is that it does give them excellent information on Best Management Practices.

We often find that the ships and companies that register clearly have a very firm security policy. More often than not they are taking the threat seriously and have put into place hardened measures. If they have not put hardened measures in place prior to registering, then normally they are very interested in putting them in place after registering and getting all the advice they receive from MSCHOA".

Anti-piracy chart and anti-piracy briefing package
The excellent information regarding BMPs has been significantly enhanced by two resources recently introduced by MSCHOA/EUNAVFOR: an anti-piracy chart and an anti-piracy briefing package for masters. The piracy chart is a map of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. It shows the Gulf of Aden's internationally recommended transit corridor (IRTC), with advice for vessels on how they should safely join it, as well as an overview of BMPs and what to do in case pirates are spotted.  The advice on the chart is listed under headings, including "Identified suspect vessels in vicinity", "Attack in progress", "Pirates on board" and "Vessel hijacked".  According to Commander Harbour, "[the chart] is basically the one document on the bridge that has all the security advice that a ship really needs to take".

The masters' briefing package, given to vessels with a speed of less than 15 knots and a freeboard of less than seven metres, which are perceived to be more vulnerable, consists of a checklist booklet, a DVD on BMPs and a folder entitled "How to survive a piracy attack". It is handed out by the staff of the Suez Canal authority as ships pass through the canal.

Indian Ocean
However, reassuring as these initiatives undoubtedly are to a master and his crew, the presence of EUNAVFOR, NATO, CMF and independent warships in the Gulf of Aden has led to other tactics being deployed by pirates, particularly the use of mother ships which allow them to operate far out in the Indian Ocean. Although vessels using the Gulf of Aden's IRTC can expect help from a EUNAVFOR warship within around 15 minutes, the sheer size of the Indian Ocean means that such help is not so readily available for a vessel operating there that finds itself under attack.

Commander Harbour says: "What we have done is dramatically reduce the number of hijackings in the Gulf of Aden. That is the reason the pirates are becoming more desperate and are moving into the Indian Ocean and developing new tactics with a view to attacking ships out there. What do we do to combat that? Well, the primary remit of EUNAVFOR is to protect World Food Programme shipping. The second mandate is to protect vulnerable ships and the third is to deter and disrupt piracy. Deterrence of course works very well in the Gulf of Aden because they see us around and they tend not to attack. When they do attack we are close enough to do something about it.

"The disruption element really comes into its own in the Indian Ocean. We have got 'eyes in the sky' in the form of intelligence gatherers. In particular, the one thing EUNAVFOR does have is access to maritime patrol aircraft. These give us good intelligence on pirate action groups that are operating way out in the Indian Ocean. Effectively, we have got time to send appropriate vessels down there before attacks take place, with a view to disrupting their activities. When we find them, if they have got pirate paraphernalia on board, we will seize their craft, their weapons, destroy any other craft they have and leave them enough food and water to get back to Somalia. This can disrupt a pirate group for up to four weeks. People might say, "Well, they will get back out there", but it is still four weeks that they are not operating.

"Vessels operating in the Indian Ocean should still be registered with MSCHOA. The thing to remember is that MSCHOA goes hand-in-hand with UKMTO. Once they are registered with the UKMTO we have got a system in the operations room which indicates exactly where the ship is. If we know that there is pirate activity where that ship is operating and we have not disrupted them because we have only got maritime surveillance aircraft on them, we can actually guide masters and talk to them directly through MSCHOA and tell them to divert, change course or go around a particular area".

He adds: "Although we would like everyone to register for transiting the Gulf of Aden, our actual operating area is huge and goes well beyond the area of the Gulf of Aden. Registering really goes hand-in-hand with the UKMTO advice as well. In addition, you join MSCHOA and get all the guidance, the charts and everything else that you need to help protect yourself against piracy".

Pirates on the deck
To highlight the effectiveness of registering with MSCHOA, Commander Harbour points to the recent plight of the 25-strong crew of the M/V ARIELLA. In the early morning of 5th February, Somali pirates managed to get on board. The vessel was part of a group transit in the IRTC when it was attacked.   The crew immediately sent out an alert.  This was picked up by the Indian warship TABAR. It sent out a warning and a EUNAVFOR aircraft was soon on the scene, confirming the presence of pirates on the deck of the ARIELLA. The crew of the French EUNAVFOR aircraft made contact with the Danish NATO warship ABSALON. As the special forces from this vessel boarded the ARIELLA, crew from the Russian navy ship NEUSTRASHIMYY observed a skiff trying to leave the area and detained the individuals they found.

Commander Harbour explains that although the crew had followed BMPs and had done everything they could, the pirates were very swift in getting on board. "Because they registered and were in a group transit, they were within 15 minutes of a helicopter flight path and there was a maritime patrol aircraft above them".

All owners and operators should properly and carefully prepare and plan for a transit of the Gulf of Aden or the Indian Ocean.    The risk of being attacked and, worse, hijacked, may be statistically low, but nobody, either ashore or on board, is likely to forget the experience of being hijacked.   The financial and commercial repercussions are also significant.

Two key points stand out. Firstly, following BMPs will give an owner and his vessel the benefit from the hard-won experience of other owners who have been through the danger areas and will provide that owner with a basis on which to plan and train for his vessel's transit. Secondly, registering with MSCHOA will ensure the vessel has access to information and assistance which could mean the difference between an uneventful passage and an attack or hijack.

For a practical account of a ship master's interaction with MSCHOA and UKMTO during transit of the Gulf of Aden see the article "From a master's desk - Transiting the Gulf of Aden" in Gard News issue No. 196.

Any comments to this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editor.