(photo: Joao Quaresma, vesseltracker.com)
In the most audacious attack of the year, Somali pirates have captured the supertanker Marana Centaurus yesterday as it was sailing in the Indian Ocean about 600 nautical miles (800 miles) northeast of the Seychelles. According to the initial EU NAVFOR note posted this afternoon, the Greek-flagged tanker was headed for New Orleans from the Saudi-port of Jiddah, on the Red Sea, at the time of the hijacking. According to the Times Online, the vessel was boarded by nine pirates who overpowered the crew of 28 (15 Filipinos, 9 Greeks, 2 Ukrainians and one Romanian). The tanker's crew were unarmed and there were no security personnel aboard. EU NAVFOR says the supertanker is currently making course towards Somalia, possibly to Haradheere or Hobyo, and is being followed by a Greek warship that happened to be in the region with the European Union counter-piracy operation.
The seizure of the Maran Centaurus and her crew comes one year after another supertanker - the Saudi-owned Sirius Star - was captured by Somali pirates. That earlier incident began on November 15, 2008, as the Sirius Star was in the same general area en route to the U.S. with two million barrels of crude, and wasn't resolved until January 9 of this year, following the payment of a $3 million ransom.
According to Bloomberg.com and the BBC, the Maran Centaurus was fully laden when boarded yesterday, and also has the capacity to carry two million barrels of crude. Tankers of this size cannot transit the Suez Canal while fully laden, so they must still take the long way around southern Africa to reach markets. The attack yesterday may be the furthest from shore carried out by pirates, who have been increasing their range by using motherships and better intelligence to augment their weaponry and nautical skills.
The captive crew of the supertanker now join more than 250 other individuals currently being held by Somali pirates (and around a dozen vessels). There is currently no word of what the ransom demands are on the part of the pirates. However, it can be expected to be high, likely the highest so far requested.
As I wrote two weeks ago, the financial stakes have already been raised by the paying of a hefty ransom to free the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana, which was released after the pirates received about $3.5 million, a higher sum than was paid to release the supertanker Sirius Star in January. Supply and demand, pirate inflation, whatever you call it, the amounts being paid to Somali pirates keep going up. In that earlier post, I also offered the idea that we would see a $10 million ransom demanded - and paid - before next Spring. Perhaps I should have said before the end of the year?
UPDATE: According to the Louisiana-based Nola.com site, the tanker was not headed for New Orleans, as earlier reported. Instead, the Maran Centaurus was supposed to deliver its cargo of crude to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), a fuel delivery platform located about 18 miles south of Grand Isle, in the Gulf of Mexico. On a good day, LOOP takes in about ten percent all the petroleum imported into the United States, or a million barrels (US daily imports of petroleum total just shy of 10 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration). That means the crude oil aboard the captured supertanker represents a fifth of daily American imports. The oil has been valued at just over $20 million.
Addendum: The BBC implies that one reason the Maran Centaurus was able to be boarded was she could not steam very fast due to her full load of crude, being only able to make "between 11-15 knots". This is not completely corrrect. The ship's particulars on the website of a broker affiliated with her owners show the top speed of the Maran Centaurus is only 15 knots, so she may have been going as fast as she was able when attacked.