Monday, April 21, 2008

Asian inter-governmental piracy information

It's got a cumbersome name and lies well below the public's knowledge, but the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) has developed a site that offers information on recent events in the region that compliments sources such as the IMB and ONI. Well worth a look here.

Somali pirates attack supertanker, hijack fishing vessel

A mere week after the hijacking the French cruise vessel Le Ponant, pirate attacks have resumed off the Somali coast. Early Monday morning, the Japanese tanker Takayama was sailing in the Gulf of Aden when it was approached by several small boats. Shots were fired at the VLCC, including what appears to be at least one rocket-propelled grenade, with the tanker sustaining some damage. The 332-metre long ship, with a crew of 23, was able to avoid being boarded by the pirates. The ship was en route to Saudi Arabia in ballast - it was not carrying any cargo. It's reported that a German frigate responded to the tanker's Mayday call, though the pirates had left the area by the time it was able to arrive. The tanker's owners, NYK Line, have posted a brief note about the incident here.

Takayama (photo: NYK Line)

The day before, a Spanish fishing vessel was hijacked while working the waters off the Horn of Africa. The Playa de Bakio was reported to have been fishing for tuna about 250 miles out when she was boarded by pirates armed with heavy weapons. The ship and its crew of 26 are supposed to be heading for the Somali port of Gaan, and Spain has dispatched a warship to the region in response. According to media reports, the fishing vessel's captain, Amadeo Alvarez, was able to tell Spanish national radio, "I am the captain of the boat...We are all well and there is no problem, for the moment there is no problem." Capt. Alvarez was then interrupted by someone claiming to be a member of a 'Somalia militia' who said the incident could be resolved if their demands were met. Those demands? In the words of the pirate spokesman: "It's a question of money."

Playa de Bakio may have been fishing illegally, though this is a bit difficult to ascertain when you are dealing with a 'failed state' like Somalia. Dozens of European and Asian fishing vessels work the waters of Somalia each year, many of which pay fees to warlords to assure their safety. It's possible that this Spanish boat's owners opted to forgo the payments - de facto bribes - and increase their profit margin. Regardless, the issue of overfishing in the waters off the Horn of Africa may soon become an international issue as more attention is paid to acts of piracy in the region.

There is also a report that a third vessel was attacked over the weekend, a cargo ship that had left Dubai sometime earlier, but information on this incident remains sketchy.

Attacking a ship like the Takayama, a vessel that is a thousand feet long, may seem ludicrous to some, but it's not so much the size of the vessel that's important to the pirates. It's how many crew members they will have to overwhelm. Two dozen mariners can quickly be subdued, as the crew of Playa de Bakio discovered.

See also recent postings about both incidents on Eaglespeak's blog.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Canadian Navy assumes leadership role in Arabian Sea

The navy destroyer HMCS Iroquois departed from Halifax yesterday (Saturday, April 19) on the first leg of a six-month deployment that will see Canada assume command of Combined Task Force 150 (CTF150) in the Arabian Sea. After meeting up with the frigate HMCS Calgary and the supply vessel HMCS Protecteur in the Caribbean, the trio of warships will head for the waters off the Horn of Africa, where piracy has been making headlines of late.

CTF150 will be commanded by Commodore Bob Davidson and comprise the Canadian contingent as well as seven other warships from the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Pakistan, about 2,500 personnel in all. Along with responding to any potential acts of piracy in the area, the task force provides support to coalition forces - on land, at sea and in the air - that are dealing with security and anti-terrorism issues, as well as working with regional allies.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Malaccan Strait piracy eliminated in 2007?

Earlier this week, the deputy chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, Lt-Gen Bashir Abu Bakar, said that the Strait of Malacca was pirate-free last year. According to the general, joint efforts by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to patrol the Strait with maritime elements and aircraft has been effective in a dramatic decline in pirate incidents in those waters.

"From January to late December 2007, we recorded zero percent pirate attacks in the Malacca Straits and also recorded a reduction in pirate attacks in the waterways of Sabah and Sarawak (on Borneo Island)," he told Bernama. "Maritime and air patrols carried out with Indonesia and Singapore through the 'Eyes in the Sky' programme introduced two years ago have worked in reducing acts of violence and robbery in the straits," he added.

However, I would caution that even the IMB's office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur recorded two pirate incidents in the Strait last year, so one can not really say 'zero'. And, it should be noted, not all attacks - actual or attempted - are reported.

As well, my own research last year along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia revealed a striking number of attacks on fishing villages, with the thefts of boats and motors and intimidation of local fishermen being rampant. While these do not garner the attention that comes from attacks on commercial vessels, they still constitute a security issue in the region that has yet to be fully addressed. One can hope that having effectively dealt with pirate assaults on merchant vessels, the authorities will now turn their attention to the remaining criminal elements operating throughout the Strait.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Lakes photo essay

Recently returned from a couple of weeks sailing with the crew of the M/V Paul R. Tregurtha, longest vessel on the Great Lakes, as she set out on the first voyage of the new shipping season. Headed out of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, bound for Duluth/Superior and then St. Clair (near Detroit). Conditions on the lakes were somewhat extreme, with two and three feet of ice stopping the Tregurtha dead in her tracks several times, until icebreakers could arrive to assist. Cold, icy, tough work for the crew, and a reminder that working on the Great Lakes is no pleasure cruise. Some images from the trip:

The ice-strengthened bow of the Tregurtha

Entering Lake Michigan from Sturgeon Bay

Capt. Timothy Dayton and helmsman Mark Salgy

Icebreaking tug Erika Kobasic clearing a lead

Ice track aft of Tregurtha, Lake Michigan

Second Mate Steve Nevin, entering Poe Lock upbound, Sault Ste Marie

First Mate Daniel Culligan

Clearing deck ice, Lake Superior

Inside No. 2 hold

Deckhand Daniel Prevost and Second Mate Steve Nevin, leaving Duluth/Superior

Capt. Timothy Dayton and Chief Engineer Lorne Warczinsky

USCGC Mackinaw and CCGS Samuel Risley clearing tracks in Whitefish Bay

Sunset on Lake Superior

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Stepping over the line

Friday’s resolution of the Le Ponant incident, which saw the French cruise vessel and her crew of 30 freed after spending a week in the captivity of Somali pirates, provides some intriguing glimpses into what happens when maritime criminals step “over the line” and force a powerful nation to react.

Over the last five years, the waters off Somalia have been the scene of hundreds – yes, hundreds – of piracy incidents, ranging from attacks on small fishing boats to the hijacking of container ships, tankers and vessels carrying United Nations food aid. Mariners have been kidnapped, ransomed, assaulted and murdered by Somali pirates and Le Ponant is not even the first cruise vessel to be attacked by them: some may remember the Seabourn Spirit incident back in November 2005 while the liner was sailing some 180 kilometres off the African coast and was fired upon by men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

So why did this incident receive so much attention from government and military officials, leading to its swift end? Well, it’s not just because Le Ponant is a French vessel with a mostly French crew, though these were factors. But other European nations have had their vessels and/or crews attacked and seized by Somali pirates, and did not react in the same manner (consider the cases of the Russian sea tug Svitzer Korsakov or the Danish container ship Danica White, neither of which saw naval forces being put on alert by Moscow or Copenhagen).

A more important reason this hijacking ended so quickly is that the Somali pirates targeted a cruise boat. There were no passengers aboard Le Ponant at the time she was assaulted, but the mere possibility that civilians could have been kidnapped by those pirates altered things. It doesn’t matter that professional mariners – who are also “civilians” – have been enduring far more frequent and vicious attacks by Somali pirates (among others); this is considered another of the risks that comes with making your life on the seas. The international community has put up with pirate attacks on fishing boats, merchant vessels and even pleasure boaters sailing through the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. They were not going to allow the Somali gangs to expand their operations to include Westerners on vacation.

However, it is also likely that the warlords in Somalia who control the pirates who seized Le Ponant also realized things had gone too far with last week’s incident. Piracy is a lucrative business enterprise in the Horn of Africa, netting warlords tens of millions of dollars in annual income. As Agence France-Press reported, the owners of the luxury yacht may have paid as much as $2 million in ransom, though the pirates and their warlord masters likely received considerably less. So, in a bizarre way, it is in the best interests of the pirate gangs to refrain from attacks that will force nations like France to react with force.

One potential scenario that may have developed last week is that French assets communicated this to the Somalis and the warlords in charge of the situation opted to end the hostage-taking quickly. They may have even “allowed” the commandos to capture the six pirates currently in French possession, so that these individuals could be tried in a Western court and assuaged public opinion that something is being done to combat the problem. Certainly the six pirates captured cannot be considered the masterminds behind the operation, and it’s not likely we will see the warlords brought to justice anytime soon.

By offering up a half dozen, token individuals to French authorities and releasing Le Ponant and her crew, the Somali gangs may be hoping that things will quiet down in the region, at least with regard to active anti-piracy operations by naval forces. Expect attacks to decrease in the region for a short period, before resuming again. How naval forces react to the next major pirate action in the region will be a telling indication of whether the Somali gangs really have anything to fear from the West.

As a sidebar note, the crew of Le Ponant was taken aboard the French frigate Jean Bart upon being freed. Whether by coincidence or on purpose, the frigate is named for a famous figure in French naval history: Jean Bart was a naval officer and privateer who operated from the port of Dunkirk in the late seventeenth century. Yes, the Jean Bart is named for someone who engaged in state-sanctioned piracy. has some interesting photos of the crew of Le Ponant after being freed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Le Ponant crew freed; hijackers rescued

Early today, the crew of the French cruise ship Le Ponant were freed by their Somali captors after being held hostage for a week. As well, French military forces manage to capture six of the pirates and are now holding them aboard the helicopter carrier Jeanne d'Arc, in international waters off the Somali coast.

According to comments from French officials reported by Lloyd's List and other media sources, the government did not pay any ransom money to the pirates, though there is speculation that CMA CGM - the French shipping firm that owns Le Ponant through a subsidiary - may have paid something to help effect the release of the 30 hostages.

There is currently no word as to just what role the French naval and military forces played in ending this situation, but the Chief of the French Defence Staff, Général Jean-Louis Georgelin, told a press conference that those forces operated with the authorization of Somali authorities.

An analysis of the situation will come shortly.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Recent pirate attacks in Gulf of Aden

The hijacking of the French luxury sail vessel Le Ponant in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia was but the most successful of recent pirate attacks in those waters. In the past two weeks, there have been three other serious incidents reported (sources: IMB, ONI):

March 29, 2008
1040h local time, pos14º12’N, 50º44’ E (66nm off Somali coast)
Armed pirates in three speedboats attempted to board a general cargo ship underway. Master raised alarm, took evasive manoeuvres and contacted coalition warship for assistance. Master called the UKMTO Dubai and requested assistance from a coalition warship, according to instructions. The boats were unable to board the vessel, but continued to follow for two hours before leaving.

April 1, 2008
1440h (local), pos 13º45’N, 49º18E
A tanker underway was chased by three speedboats chased and attacked with automatic weapons and rocket launchers. Master took evasive manoeuvres and increased speed. Later, boats moved away. Ship’s funnel and lifeboat were damaged by gunfire/RPG.
An hour later, at pos 14º96’N, 49º42’E (41nm off Somali coast), five speedboats chased the ship again from various directions. Ship once more took evasive manoeuvres and prevented the boats from closing in. Finally, the vessel made its getaway and moved towards the shore of Yemen along with a car carrier and VLCC. The aggressive boats moved away. The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre communicated with the coalition Navy, the owners and Master of ship to provide assistance as required. One coalition warship was in the vicinity monitoring the five speedboats.

April 2, 2008
1300h (local), pos 11º14’N, 47º15’E (10nm off coast)
Fishing vessel hijacked. Offshore Supply vessel (C-QUEST) picked up two small boats on radar moving towards research vessel (NALIVKIN). The Somaliland Coast Guard (SLCG) was informed and sent out patrol boat (SNAKE I) to investigate the suspicious activity. It was found that three Somali nationals in a small outboard craft, dressed like locals in shirts and trousers, armed with AK-47s, hijacked a Yemeni fishing vessel that was towing two small 7m boats and captured all 15 Yemeni crewmembers. However, when the hijackers were distracted by the (SNAKE I), a captured crewmember dove overboard, cut the towing line of one of the small crafts and escaped. He claims that he is not aware of where the hijackers were coming from but was told they are heading to Bosaso. He also stated that they were not told what would happen to them and that they just wanted the fishing vessel. The rescued crewmember had a treated wound (bite marks to hand). He made a request that he be put ashore so he could speak to his agent Farah Ali Jama. He will be landed at Berbera.

The International Maritime Bureau currently advises that ship’s masters should “…exercise caution while proceeding to render assistance to dhows/fishing boats while approaching/transiting the Somalia coast. Reports received have indicated vessels as far as 390 nm from the Somali coast are called up by drifting dhows/fishing boats requesting assistance.”

This may make commercial mariners, and pleasure boaters, much less likely to respond to a real emergency in the area, but this is an unfortunate repercussion of the pirate attacks. Note, as well, that the IMB is warning mariners about vessels as far out as 390 nautical miles from Somalia itself. That’s almost 450 miles to the land-bound.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Notes on the hijacking of a French luxury yacht off Somalia

Last Friday, April 4, Somali pirates commandeered a French-flagged luxury cruise vessel in the Gulf of Aden. This was but one of a number of recent incidents in those waters that may cause international naval forces to take a much more active role in safeguarding the lives of mariners in the region. But it also points to a dramatic shift in the overall maritime tensions in the region.

Le Ponant is an 88-metre (290-foot), three-masted sailer built to carry up to 64 passengers on luxury vacations, though when she was seized the vessel had only her crew of 30 aboard, no passengers. Reports vary as to the current location of Le Ponant, which was hijacked in the waters off the northern tip of the Horn of Africa.

Le Ponant (file photo)

To many, the hijacking of the French vessel will bring back memories of the attack by other Somali pirates on the Seabourn Spirit cruise ship in early November 2005. However, there are several marked differences between these two events that reveal a new scope in the operations being carried out by Somali pirates.

While the attack on the Seabourn Spirit was unsuccessful, it was just part of what one may call a "campaign" being waged by the maritime elements of various Somali warlords in the Indian Ocean waters off their strife-racked country during that time. The area north of the border with Kenya was the most dangerous for mariners in 2005-06, waters in which fishing vessels, commercial ships and United Nations aid vessels were harassed and hijacked. These attacks virtually disappeared when the Islamic Courts Union briefly asserted their control over southern Somalia for most of 2006. But once the ICU was deposed by its foes, pirate attacks resumed in the seas off eastern Somalia.

However, a more active presence by naval forces from various nations - including France and the United States - has seen a reduction in attacks in those waters. This, in turn, has caused the pirates to shift their focus to the waters of the Gulf of Aden, moving north to better hunting grounds.

The amount of traffic in the Gulf is immense, owing to the strategic Suez Canal pathway to and from Europe. Somali pirate gangs are far better organized than many would give them credit for and understand that with so many vessels transiting those waters - everything from supertankers and containers ships to fishing boats and dhows - it is much harder to keep track of everyone out there.

As well, there is a weather factor at play here: the Southwest Monsoon arrives in the Gulf near the end of May, bringing fog and mist which can plague the pirates in their smaller boats (even if they are using motherships well out from the coast). Effectively, the pirates are trying to get as many prizes as they can before the weather gets worse. And the international navies show up.

Le Ponant hijacked - note pirate skiffs
(French Ministry of Defence photo)

As I recently told Agence France-Presse, my own research has discovered that there are about four main pirate groups working in Somalia, with the most organized calling themselves "Somali Marines". These so-called Marines are the likely captors of Le Ponant's crew. All of these groups are closely tied to warlords in the country, part of a system that constitutes an ad hoc economy in Somalia. When the sea-going tug Svitzer Korsakov was hijacked in February, not far from where Le Ponant was taken, the ransom was reported to be $700,000. So it's likely the pirates of the French vessel will be seeking at least a million dollars for the release of her crew.

Though I believe the situation with Le Ponant will be resolved peacefully, there are still some who propose the French should react with force to this attack. However, any strike mounted against Le Ponant's attackers would not only be potentially fateful to the hostages, but also hold out false hope that all the other mariners kidnapped by pirates will also be rescued. The need to suppress Somali pirates before they can attack is more important than mounting one-off reliefs after the fact.

It's shades of the Barbary Pirates all over again.

Long lens view of the Somali coast north of Caluula, February 2008 (author photo)