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Gard News 198, May/July 2010

Best Management Practices help to deter pirate attack in the Indian Ocean.

Pirate attacks continue to make headlines around the world. According to figures issued in January 2010 by the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC), 406 reports of piracy and armed robbery were made world-wide in 2009. In 2008, 293 attacks were reported. But it is the number of violent attacks that makes for the most shocking statistics. In 2008, the PRC reported that 46 vessels were fired upon. In 2009 this figure almost trebled to 120.

The piracy hotspot remains off the coast of Somalia, with attacks still occurring in the Gulf of Aden, despite the presence of the EU Naval Force and other countries' warships patrolling those waters. Often Somali pirates use "mother ships", larger vessels that act as fuel and weapons carriers for the fast, small skiffs that are used to attack merchant vessels, no matter how big they are. The use of these mother ships allows pirates to go far out into the Indian Ocean where naval help is not so readily available for vessels under attack. So what can be done to effectively protect a crew, ship and cargo from a hijacking? Several Gard Members have found that following Best Management Practices (BMP)1 to the letter is essential when it comes to deterring pirates.

Anti-piracy measures deployed on one of Gard's vessels have been recently put to the test.  The vessel in question was far out in the Indian Ocean when several suspicious vessels, including a possible mother ship, were sighted. Their position in the water was such that it was obvious that the skiffs were attempting to get the vessel to alter its course, taking it towards Somalia.

Immediately the master pressed the pirate alarm and the crew swung into action, letting the skiffs know they had been sighted. He sent all the crew down to the engine room except for those on the bridge, put full speed on the engine and started evasive manoeuvres. The pirates followed for a while, then gave up their attempt.

The vessel had good speed, visible anti-piracy measures in place and a highly alert crew. There were large coils of razor wire generously fixed around the main and poop decks, as well as large boards warning that this wire was electrified.  There were also several powerful fire hoses in operation. All accommodation doors were locked and safety rails were greased making them virtually impossible to climb.  These factors, combined with the ship's high freeboard, made it a somewhat surprising target for an attempted attack.

Successful deterrence is clearly not just a matter of vessels being fitted with a host of anti-piracy measures; it is the training and support given to a master and his crew that really make the difference.

Putting anti-piracy measures into practice normally involves a host of strategies, both physical and logistical: as in the above example it may involve investing heavily in razor wire to be placed around vessels (a measure particularly important for ships with a low freeboard), night-vision equipment for lookouts, helmets and bullet-proof vests.

Sometimes specialised (unarmed) security teams, often consisting of ex-military personnel, are used to identify weak points in defences, strengthen and use them in case of a pirate attack. Specialist companies place security teams on board and help training personnel. They can also participate as lookouts and, in case of an attack, help keep the pirates off the vessel until help can arrive.  At the end of voyages, masters' reports, together with pictures, describing and showing what has taken place on board, may be examined and the security teams may make amendments where needed to the anti-piracy measures.

Vigilance is the key weapon against piracy. When a suspicious vessel is sighted, a quick and highly visible reaction from the potential target vessel is vital. If the pirates know they have been spotted, that will often help deter them.

Appropriate speed (BMP indicate that pirates have difficulty boarding ships making way at more than 15 knots) combined with evasive manoeuvres can be valuable strategies, as a large ship's wake can cause huge problems for the tiny skiffs favoured by Somali gangs. Combine these factors with a ship that is visibly prepared to repel any unwanted callers, and pirates will know that they will have a tough time getting on board. In many cases, they will simply give up and retreat. Best Management Practices are vital now in the Indian Ocean, where ships can not expect the sort of help available in the Gulf of Aden.  This is particularly true in relation to vessels with a low freeboard, which, in theory, are easy for pirates to board unless protective measures are in place.

Obviously, the widespread use of BMP strategies comes at a cost, particularly if dedicated security teams are used on board. But can firms afford not to take precautions when, apart from the well-being of crews,  ships and cargoes are worth many millions of dollars, let alone the time and money spent in obtaining the release of a hijacked vessel?

It is important to ensure that a BMP list is not just left lying around the wheelhouse. It is vital that the master and crew are fully aware of and follow the measures contained in the guidelines and that they know how to respond when a situation arises. This readiness, together with the knowledge that they are being tracked via satellite, will make confidence grow.

With pirate attacks on the increase, it seems clear that all shipowners will need to display such readiness, planning and preparation.

Footnotes
1 See article "Piracy - Best Management Practices for shipowners and operators are revised" in Gard News issue No. 196.

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