Somali pirates have seized their largest prey to date, a 318,000 dwt supertanker. The MV Sirius Star was sailing about 420 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, on Sunday when a group of armed men boarded her and seized control of the immense vessel and took hostage its crew of 25. The vessel was reported to be sailing with a full load of 2 million barrels of crude, bound from the Middle East to the United States. The tanker was taking the long route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, avoiding the more dangerous pirate haunts in the Gulf of Aden.
This marks another note-worthy incident by pirates in that part of the world, for a number of reasons: First, the size of the Sirius Star is notable, with the seizure making this one for the record books. At 330-metres (1080 feet), the tanker is among the longest vessels plying the world’s oceans, the same size as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The tanker – a very large crude carrier (VLCC) – is operated by Vela International Marine, the shipping arm of the state-owned firm Saudi Aramco, and has a multinational crew hailing from Great Britain, Croatia, Poland, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. Given the tanker’s size, the pirates who took control would have to rely on the professional mariners aboard the Sirius Star to operate the vessel. And there is no harbour in Somalia that can accommodate a VLCC like this, nor are their any refineries in the country able to process the crude. (It is reported by new agencies like AFP that the Sirius Star is headed towards the pirate stronghold of Eyl.)
The fact that the vessel was hijacked so far south, in an area where there had previously been little activity by Somali pirates, points to a new theatre of operations for maritime criminals. Coming on the heels of several other attacks in the last week, the seizure of the Sirius Star occurred in waters where there is little in the way of an international naval presence; the majority of warships are patrolling the waters around the Horn of Africa. This enlarges the area that will now be considered dangerous due to piracy, and should attacks continue in this region it will require the deployment of additional naval forces to properly address the situation.
Finally, taking control of an oil tanker represents an attempt to increase dramatically the ransom demands. The crude oil is reported to have a value of $100 million; the vessel is newly built – it made it maiden voyage from a South Korean shipyard in March of this year – and has a book value that will be in excess of $100 million. Expect to hear ransom demands that are higher than those being asked for the MV Faina and her cargo of Soviet tanks.