Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting ready for the fall piracy season

While I'm aware we have three more weeks before the autumnal equinox officially arrives, Labour Day is fast approaching and, with it, the virtual end of summer. It's been a strange summer in these parts (more rain than most would like), and relatively quiet on the seas. We did have the Arctic Sea incident to ponder - which is still playing out - and, of course, piracy off the Horn of Africa has been in a lull as a result of the summer monsoon winds. If experience is anything to go by, we can expect to see Somali pirate activity to resume in the coming weeks, once the winds die down. So there will be much to watch as the piracy season resumes in that region.

Meanwhile, I'm in the midst of taking some time off. Might even squeeze in a few days away from the office. But rest assured I maintain a high tech security system to safeguard my valuables here: ADT has nothing on this. Only my four-legged companion knows how to disable it - and you don't want to mess with him, either. Trust me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canadian researchers working to improve counter-piracy measures

Steven Chase of The Globe & Mail newspaper wrote an interesting piece about some work being done by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) to help mariners detect potential threats in piracy-prone waters (his piece can be seen by clicking here). DRDC is the research branch of the Canadian Department of National Defence, and has been looking into means of identifying small craft such as the fibreglass and wood ones used by pirates in many parts of the world. Picking out these craft with conventional measures such as radar is difficult, as the boats have little profile that can be picked up by the equipment. And the ability to discern between actual threats - such as pirate skiffs - and innocent vessels like fishing boats, is exceedingly difficult.

DRDC hopes they can figure out how to do so, by enhancing the means of identifying potential threats through the wake signature given off by fast craft. Fishing boats move at a slow and steady pace; pirate skiffs do anything but.

As the autumn piracy season fast approaches, any additional abilities to detect attackers will be of great interest to those mariners who deal with the issue of piracy. Testing is currently underway by DRDC which, unfortunately, means any widespread practical applications of this technology is still a ways off.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Arctic Sea Incident and the Media: Getting it Wrong

It's been a few days since the saga of the Maltese freighter MV Arctic Sea came to a conclusion, of sorts, with the freeing of her crew by Russian naval forces, who also apparently apprehended the suspected pirates who'd seized the vessel. But all the unanswered questions that linger, as well as the way things played, out raise some serious questions about the media's role in the incident. Not just in the way things were reported, but also in the way it appears the media was deliberately misinformed. None of this does much to much to better the public's awareness of global piracy and the threats mariners face on a daily basis. If anything, it may have muddied the proverbial waters by stoking more skepticism and the reality of things and fueling those conspiracy theorists who feel there are all sorts of grand geo-political machinations going on.

As piracy expert EagleSpeak has alluded to on his site, sometimes it's better to keep things simple (and you, too, can look up the definition of Occam's razor he mentions). Instead, what we've seen since the Arctic Sea disappeared in the Baltic was ever increasing misreporting, misinformation and mistakes.

In my opinion there are two culpable players whose actions should be looked at: the media itself and several governments and NGOs.

The Media: Filling a Void

I'm a professional journalist, so am implicitly aware that headlines garner attention and sensational stories - like a freighter going missing in European waters - captivate audiences. But I'm also aware that one shouldn't fill a vacuum of information with mere speculation or, worse, self-serving innuendo. Too many journalists and would-be experts (and some real ones, too), threw their hats haphazardly into the ring on this one. And in many cases they should not have.

For the record, I received a number of requests for interviews about this incident over the last few weeks. Most wanted to know if terrorists had taken the ship or if piracy off Europe was about to rival that of the Horn of Africa. I disagreed, saying to all who contacted me that we just didn't have enough information to come to any firm conclusions.

That's not very sexy, but there were enough others willing to postulate on the potentials of something dramatic to fill the airtime. Yet it seemed as though most ignored the obvious while spinning ever more complex ideas. Drug smuggling, nuclear weapons, even a strange idea that the whole thing was some bizarre Russian naval exercise (see CNN's report here). And, more problematic, is that many media outlets simply got things wrong when a little research - a Google search, in fact - would have corrected things.

For instance, the Arctic Sea is not a Russian vessel. Russian-built, yes, and crewed at present by Russian nationals, but she's registered in Malta so flies the Maltese cross off her transom. And managed by a Finnish company, to make things more complex - welcome to the world of modern shipping. Small details, but nevertheless important if you're a journalist looking at current events.

Also, this was not the first time we've seen an act of piracy in European waters in centuries, as some have said. I've myself written about an incident a decade ago that mirrored, in some ways, the Arctic Sea event (see here), and then there's the Achille Lauro hijacking back in 1985. Yes, the liner was seized by Palestinian terrorists, but they still committed an act of piracy in so doing.

By the definitions of piracy used by the United Nations, the International Maritime Bureau and a number of sovereign states, what happened to the Arctic Sea most definitely constituted an act of piracy. So I take exception when experts or pundits played this down (see The Telegraph, for instance, which insisted on putting the word pirates in quotation marks).

This was a pirate incident, pure and simple. What the intentions of those who controlled the Arctic Sea the last few weeks was remains to be seen. If it was terrorists who had hijacked the vessel, they had still committed an act of piracy. If it was criminal gangs who'd sent a team to seize her, those boarders were still pirates. If the crew had gone rogue, they would be considered pirates.

So, the media didn't exactly do a bang-up job in reporting on this one. Some blame may be "summer journalism", something outsiders are not much aware of. It's what happens when the more experienced staffers take their vacations and leave juniors to deal with things. But juniors become senior and need to learn the game and how they're manipulated. Which leads me to the second element in this story...

The Official Story

Without a doubt, one of the most troubling aspects of the Arctic Sea incident is the dearth of information that has been provided by the Russian government and what seems to be a number of other offical bodies. I find it very hard to believe that the Russians - and others - knew what was going on all along, and spun a web of deceit to the media in order to safeguard the lives of the freighter's crew. It sounds too much like a case in which parties were initially unaware of the true danger and, effectively, caught with their pants down. Then, after scrambling to deal with the situation, the mantra became "We were always in control of things."

In the days since the vessel was freed, we have yet to receive a full public accountability that can fill in the gaps. This is odd, to say the least, and makes one wonder if the reality of what transpired isn't more confusing. I, for one, would have expected to Russian official to have by now stood up in a press conference and said something like:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the lack of information that's been provided but rest assured we've been on top of this situation from day one. On July XX at YY hours, we learned of the fate of the vessel and mobilized our assets. In communication with the authorities in ZZ we set out to track the ship, knowing it had been hijacked. At no point was anyone in Western Europe or any other mariner at risk by this incident. Our decision to allow it to transit the busy Kattegat and English Channel at no point was something to be concerned about..."

Was the Arctic Sea ever at risk to other vessels? Why was it allowed to exit the Baltic Sea, where Russia maintains a strong naval presence, to say nothing of the other littoral states there? And why was it deemed necessary to dupe the media - and the public - about what was going on in this particular case?

When a vessel is commandeered by Somali pirates, there is never a news blackout to ensure the safety of the captives, though this is sometimes because the pirates themselves make the news available. I, for one, cannot help but wonder if the Russians succumbed to American envy after the Maersk Alabama incident. The US Navy resolved that situation successfully in order to resuce their own citizens. Was the Arctic Sea incident supposed to be a Russian variation that showed their own resolve?


Hiding details, misinforming the public or filling columns and airspace with innuendos are not the way to deal with the threats that incidents like this one reveal. Piracy, maritime crime and seaborne terrorism are grave problems for the global community. And they should not be hidden away or glossed over.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Freighter Arctic Sea found

The cargo ship Arctic Sea was found late last night by the Russian navy. According to Lloyd's List, the freighter was discovered about 300 miles off the Cape Verde Islands after having been unaccounted for since July 29. Initial reports are that the 15 member crew of the ship were transferred to a Russian navy anti-submarine vessel, the Ladny, for questioning about what went on aboard the Arctic Sea these last few weeks. More details should be released shortly.

And even if this does turn out to have been a labor dispute between the freighter's crew and her owners and managers, the incident is still a reminder of the gaping holes in maritime security that need to be addressed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Captives escape from Somali pirates

This doesn't happen that often, so it's interesting to read the reports (see here and here) that a large group of captives managed to overpower their pirate kidnappers and escape. The Egyptian mariners - numbering about 40 - had been captured in mid-April when Somali pirates seized two fishing boats in the Gulf of Aden. According to the press reports, the Egyptians yesterday managed to overpower their captors in the northern coastal village of Las Qoray (also spelled Las Qorey), killing at least two pirates and wounding one more. The fishermen are said to now be heading home. It was near Las Qoray that the ironically-named Italian tug Buccaneer had been held for several months, until being released last weekend.

By the way, I noticed an odd little line in the BBC report: "Correspondents say police in the region are investigating." Investigating? Would that be the illegal seizure of vessels by Somalis and kidnapping of foreigners, or the injury and death of pirates?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Phantom ships

It's the dog days of summer in my part of the stick ('dog days' being an ancient reference to Sirius - the dog star), and I've been trying to take some time off from my usual reporting. But the strange case of the Arctic Sea has kept intriguing me. EagleSpeak has provided great information on this bizarre incident (see here), which continues to unfold. Was the vessel seized by pirates? Perhaps.

But another possibility - as Eagle1 has alluded to - is that the ship might have fallen prey to rogue elements in the shipping community who might be seeking to profit through less than legal means. It's not inconceivable and there are many cases of ships 'disappearing' off the radar - literally and figuratively speaking. They're known as phantom ships or ghost ships, vessels that have their flag of registry, name and other details altered while at sea. And though there are some who wonder how a vessel sailing in European waters could do so, I was reminded of an incident a decade ago that has certain similarities to the ongoing mystery of the Arctic Sea. It concerned the very dramatic final voyage of a Panamanian-flagged general cargo vessel called the Kobe Queen I. I wrote about it in my first book, Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship, and here's an excerpt of what transpired:

The Kobe Queen I was a rust bucket of a ship built in 1976 and displacing 18500dwt, less than half the size the Emerald Star. In the summer of 1999 she was being operated by a shadowy shipping firm based in Odessa with a crew of twenty-five Ukrainian sailors under the command of Captain Yuri Levkovsky. That July, the Kobe Queen loaded a cargo of 15000 tons of steel in Istanbul (worth over $5 million), bound for the Caribbean with a stop in Senegal along the way. But sometime after leaving Turkish waters, new orders came from Odessa and the vessel began an erratic and elusive journey through the Mediterranean and around West Africa. A few weeks later, she made port in Dakar, Senegal and 2000 tons of the steel were quickly sold before the ship headed out to sea once more. By now, several interested parties – such as the owners of the cargo – were getting concerned about the whereabouts of the ship and attempted to contact Levkovsky and the owners, neither of whom bothered to respond. It appeared that the Kobe Queen had disappeared off the face of the map, hijacked by her own crew.

The maritime equivalent of an “all points bulletin” soon went out worldwide to port authorities, shipping agents, law enforcement agencies and others to find the Kobe Queen. Among those notified was Lloyd’s Register (not to be confused with Lloyd’s of London, which is an insurance company). Lloyd’s has a network of agents in ports around the world and these “ship spotters” were told that the Kobe Queen was now a wanted vessel with a $100,000 reward posted for information leading to her arrest and the recovery of the cargo. Throughout September and October, these spotters caught glimpses of the phantom ship, first in Cape Verde, then off Nigeria. It was noticed that she had a new name painted on her transom – the Gloria Kopp – and was making for the Cape of Good Hope.

For two months, the Kobe Queen/Gloria Kopp wandered the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans while her mysterious owners tried to figure out what to do with the remaining cargo. Rumours of Russian Mafia or drug smugglers being involved in the case began to swirl in some quarters, but all that was known was that the shipowners had also disappeared, leaving only an empty office in Odessa. Finally, on Christmas Eve of 1999, a Lloyd’s agent in the southeastern Indian city of Chennai reported that the ship was anchored six miles offshore and the Indian Coast Guard dispatched the patrol boat Vikram to intercept her. As the Vikram came into sight, Captain Levkovsky ordered his crew to weigh anchor and get underway as quickly as possible, intending to make for the safety of international waters in the Bay of Bengal.

While a storm erupted overhead, the Coast Guard boat battled through heavy winds and high seas to get within hailing range of the Kobe Queen and order her to stop engines. When her captain refused, the Vikram brought her 30mm cannon to bear and fired rounds across the bow of the cargo ship while preparing an armed boarding party to deploy. The Kobe Queen continued steaming at full speed until more cannon fire finally convinced Levkovsky to heave to and the Coast Guardsmen clambered about his ship, whereupon the Ukrainian crew put up a short fight before surrendering. As they prisoners were lined up on the rain-swept deck, noticeably missing was Captain Levkovsky, who had retreated to his cabin. When the Indian sailors finally broke down his door, they found the Master dead: he had hung himself with a nylon rope. The Kobe Queen’s owners were never heard from again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shipboard guards as an effective deterrent to piracy: Let the buyer beware

The issue of whether vessels transiting piracy-prone waters, such as off the Horn of Africa, might rely on private security firms to help ensure the safety of civilian crews hasn't exactly been very successful to date. There was that security team aboard the MT Biscaglia last November that was unable to do much when a group of Somali pirates attacked the tanker and seized the ship and her crew (see here and here, if you've forgotten the incident). Then we watched as Blackwater touted their vessel McArthur as an available platform to help mariners, only to see few takers and some strange goings-on with the firm's hired hands (see here, and a note that Blackwater has re-christened themselves with one of those arcane corporate names - Xe).

Now word comes from the Courthouse News Service that Tyco Telecommunications is suing two firms contracted to protect its cable-laying vessels working off East Africa from pirates. As the CN report lays out, Tyco feels that the firms - based in Georgia and Serbia- failed to do, well, much of anything, though they had been been paid something in the nature of a million dollars as an advance. The report says that after hiring the security firms, Tyco saw something "worse than a comedy of errors, with gross incompetence accompanied by several false and misleading claims", according to court documents (Tyco is suing the two firms for a million-plus in Manhattan Federal Court).

There are an awful lot of people trying to find a way to angle in on the piracy business, as providers of security for mariners affected. And I'm not saying they're all bad. But there's a lot of money to be made doing this, and a lot of people who watched as other firms enriched themselves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So why not shift into the maritime protection business? Yet we have not seen any effective deterrent provided by private enterprises - to date - though the issue of piracy is far from new. Makes one wonder whether opportunity and need have been superceded by ability and greed.

Also, I'd point out a small detail in the CN report that says that Tyco Telecom has already responded to the threat of pirate attacks by, "'hardening' its ships against boarding, installing razor wire and sealing access points. It also hired armed shipboard guards and developed contingency plans to meet the Somali pirate threat."

Note the last sentence. If correct, this American firm has already embarked armed personnel aboard its vessels. (According to the CN report, the hiring of additional security - such as the firms Tyco is now suing in New York City - is an additional layer of protection that came in the wake of the Maersk Alabama incident.)