Thursday, December 30, 2010
It has been my pleasure to spend the last few months interviewing veterans from the Second World War, former members of armoured units who fought for the Allies and their opponents; Canadians, Americans and Germans. These are gentlemen in their 80s and 90s who endured situations few today can comprehend, even those who have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to forget the sacrifices that were made by another generation, even those who were fighting for "the enemy". Battle is so often not about politics, but about the guys close to you. The bond between comrades (not in the "Soviet" form) is unique, and the bond between tankers is perhaps even closer than their other combat arms brethren.
To hear the stories of tankers has, as I said, been a pleasure. But to hear the experiences of those involved in the December 1943 battle for the Italian town of Ortona has been eye-opening. as an upcoming episode of the Greatest Tank Battles will recount, this was one of the most intense battles the Canadians would fight in the Second World War, leading to more casualties than were incurred in the D-Day landings.
From December 20 to 28, 1943, Canadians tanks and infantry would take on elite German paratroopers for control of the Adriatic port. You can read more about it here and here. But amidst all the fighting, the Canadians managed to arrange a Christmas dinner, in a church on the outskirts of Ortona. It was one of the most amazing moments to occur at this Yuletide time while conflict was going on, and is pictured below.
Remember those in harm's way at this time of the year, those far from home and family, be they warriors or mariners. Peace unto all.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Xan Rice of The Guardian provides a closer look at what may have gone on behind the scenes to secure the couple's release (see it here). It includes the possibility that some of the ransom money may have come from part of British government assistance provided to the Somali government.
Though denied by a spokesman for British prime minister Gordon Brown, one would have to wonder about things based on what happened to the Chandlers after being let free. Instead of being allowed to go free - as every other captive has - the couple were, instead, flown to Mogadishu. There they were driven by African Union forces in an armoured vehicle to meet with Somali government officials for a photo op. Not the usual way these things work out.
It should also be noted that the same spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon did not call the Chandlers' captors pirates. Instead he called them terrorists.
Regardless, it is good to see the ordeal of these hostages finally ended.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
When the Samho Dream was seized back in the early hours of 4 April, her capture immediately raised the bar in terms of how big the prizes are that pirates are going after. Yet since the ship and her crew were taken, there has been precious little reported about this situation.
Writing the day after this immense vessel was hijacked (see here), I wondered if she would garner the largest ransom ever seen. And, unfortunately, I've been proven right. I wish I'd been wrong.
There appears to be a change happening within pirate cartels in Somalia, another metastasis of their various criminal enterprises. Some are garnering huge payouts - meaning we will see the $10 million barrier broken next year, unless the situation drastically changes. But others are feeling the pinch of reduced returns on their investments, leading them to more frustration, and actions such as the sinking of vessels deemed of insufficient value (see here). As well, there is the pressure coming the main Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Regardless, the situation with piracy off the Horn of Africa is currently morphing, evolving. But is anyone noticing?
Thursday, October 28, 2010
There's a new book out that provides insights into the rise of piracy in places like Somalia and Nigeria that is worth looking at. I recently reviewed it for The Globe & Mail in Canada, and here's what I wrote:
"Paradise - for pirates that is"
When it comes to describing Somalia, one of the few words you would expect a sane person to use would be ‘paradise’. But a few years ago, in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa, that was exactly how one man remembered for me the Somalia of the 1970s: as an economically vibrant, politically stable and culturally inviting country. Today it is better known as one of the most lawlessness places on the planet, fraught with warlords, famine, religious extremists, and, of course, pirates.
How Somalia got to this point and how piracy has come to flourish in the seas off the Horn of Africa are what drives American journalist Peter Eichstaedt’s new book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia’s Terrorism At Sea. A former senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, the author knows East Africa well (his previous book looked at child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army). In this work, he introduces us to pirates, gunmen, security officials and others trying to cope with the situation, going beyond the headlines, and the hyperbole, to investigate the root causes of piracy off Somalia, while also examining the broader implications that the situation poses to the world.
As Eichstaedt shows, the spectacular growth of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa can be traced back to Somalia’s descent into anarchy that began almost two decades ago. In the years that followed, a variety of elements capitalized on the country’s chaos. Local warlords carved out clan-based fiefdoms on land, while foreign vessels appeared offshore to illegally harvest fish and dump toxic waste into the same seas.
The rape of the ocean by foreigners was one reason some Somalis began attacking vessels in the 1990s, and it continues to be used as a justification for piracy today. While Eichstaedt acknowledges this as a motivating factor, he also goes to lengths to dispel its lingering rationalization. The notion that today’s pirates are just simple fishermen forced to pillage ships because of foreign exploiters falls apart as the author reveals how organized the situation has become today. For behind those young men hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean lie criminal gangs tied to Somali warlords and politicians, entities intent on illegally generating tens of millions of dollars from the sea each year. In the words of a Somali negotiator for pirate gangs, “Angry fishermen [are] not the reason and cause of piracy. It is a purely selfish business.”
One of the book’s strongest sections comes when Eichstaedt travels to the sprawling Dadaab Refuge Camp in northeastern Kenya to see how those displaced by the fighting in Somalia feel about the situation in their homeland. These snapshots of refugee life reveal an overwhelming sense of despondency about the state of their nation, a place most fear returning. Many of these exiled Somalis also voice contrasting views about the international community’s responsibilities: some blame it for creating – or even fostering – the current situation, while others feel outsiders are the only solution to end the lawlessness.
The desire to reach a more hopeful, peaceful place – like America – resound within Dadaab. So, too, does a fear of how Somalia is being torn apart even further by extremist groups. The same chaos that allowed pirates to flourish has also given rise to Islamist insurgents, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Eichstaedt traces the growth of the largest such group, al-Shabaab, meeting with a former fighter and raising the potential of Somalia becoming a new Afghanistan.
At times the book seems rushed, condensing some of the author’s experiences into just a few pages or paragraphs. And he omits to speak personally with any of the victims of pirate incidents, relying on media reports instead. But Eichstaedt more than compensates for these moments of brevity by introducing us to those affected by Somalia’s anarchy and those perpetuating it. As he makes abundantly clear in his book, Somalia is today a paradise only for pirates, warlords, criminal gangs and extremists.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
It's harsh, but true, that piracy today operates - for the most part - just as it always has: As a commercial crime in which criminals gain money through illegal activities and reputable entities consider it part of doing business in the seafaring realm.
But what happens if you do not have the money of a shipping firm, ship management firm or other nautical-oriented endeavor behind you in such a situation? Well, consider - again - the case of the British couple who were kidnapped a year ago while sailing their yacht from the Seychelles towards Tanzania.
Rachel and Paul Chandler were kidnapped on October 23, 2009, and have just passed their one year anniversary in the hands of Somali pirates who seized them. As recent reported, their captors are renewing demands that the couple will not be released until a "full ransom" is paid. Those same captors have also reportedly received nearly $500,000 that was collected by family, friends and supporters of the Chandlers.
Why has there not been more action on the part of the British government to secure their release? Certainly no government wants to get into the business of paying criminals for their illegal actions. Yet there is a degree of duplicity going on here, inasmuch as these same governments allow corporations, and perhaps individuals, who operate from their territories to do just that.
A numbered company based out of a mail drop in any country can transfer funds to criminal gangs in Somalia to secure the release of professional mariners. A nation can even send its military to free hostages. Seems easy to find a half million dollars from some government account that could quietly end this couple's trauma.
After a year in captivity, it would seem something's not being dealt with properly here. We're talking pocket change compared, say, to the amount of money that will be spent repairing HMS Astute after it ran aground last week.
For more on the Chandlers, there is a site set up to support them, www.savethechandlers.com
Friday, September 10, 2010
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Friday, July 16, 2010
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In this man's honour, I present a few images from my time spent in Vietnam almost a decade ago. I was in Quang Tri Province at the time, filming a documentary around sites like Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, A Luoi , the A Shau Valley, Dong Ha, Ben Hai and Vinh Moc. Unbeknownst at the time, I was driving past his youthful stomping grounds each day, as I went back and forth to my hotel in Hué. I have never forgotten the beauty of a peaceful Vietnam nor its diverse peoples, or the unique way they dealt with a 10,000 day war. Which is different from other nations, such as Canada, from which about 30,000 left to fight in Vietnam, including a brother-in-law.
But I'd rather remember this man's homeland berefit of conflict. May he rest in peace.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Monday, June 14, 2010
The outgoing commander of the EU's antipiracy mission in the region (Operation ATALANTA), British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, told a briefing in the UK late last week that, "We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," referring to those operating off the HoA and adding, "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."
Assessing the number of pirates working those seas is always problematic, inasmuch as no one is able to keep a tally of each and every individual embarking on a career as a maritime criminal. But while investigating piracy in the region a few years ago, the best guesstimates of total strength of Somali pirates I could discern from speaking with informed sources was that it was in the range of about a thousand individuals actively engaged in operations. Now, using RAdm Hudson's assessment as a marker, this observer would postulate there are now potentially at least 3000 pirates operating in those seas.
One might think that maybe the numbers are lower, and that the pirates are just busier in their activities. But having greatly expanded their scope of operations into the wider parts of the western Indian Ocean, while maintaining abilities to strike in inshore waters and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, implies an increased manpower base for the pirate gangs.
Additionally, there has not been a noticeable decrease in piracy emanating from parts of Somalia under the control of Islamist groups (such as al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam). As the Reuters report points out, the takeover of the Somali port of Haradheere in May did not result in the release of any of the hijacked vessels being held nearby. The report also notes there has been, "[A]n increase in attacks launched from Islamist-controlled areas of the Somali coast." (The report's sources take pains to say that, "[W]ithout any land-based operations they simply could not tell if the Islamists were directly involved with piracy." But deeds speak volumes.
The fact that numbers of pirates are going up should not be a surprise to anyone familair with the region, as it is a criminal businerss endeavor that attracts opportunists, in a place with few other options. With at least 17 vessels currently being held - and some 357 hostages being held - the issue needs some new energy in order to stem the tide.
A decade ago there were maybe a hundred guys running around the seas off the HoA intent on attacking vessels. Now there may be 3000. And ten years ago there were but a handful of mariners being held hostage by criminals; now there are over 350.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
At present, though, it remains a difficult proposition to take because ransoms are being paid and if you've ever sailed with mariners through piracy-prone waters, as I have, this view means you are potentially relegating those you know to being incarcerated by criminals in dire circumstances.
In a worst case scenario situation, they'll hopefully only be held for a few weeks or months. But then there is the ongoing case of Rachel and Paul Chandler. The British yachters have been held by Somali pirates since last October 22, spending over seven months in captivity. The couple have made another plea through the media to have the British government help them, and one has to wonder whether something can't be done to free them.
The case of the Chandlers raises all kinds of questions about how we should deal with pirates. For instance, there is the fact that these two older British sailors have been held for seven months with little chance their family or friends can pony up a hefty ransom to free them. So maybe the British government should intercede and repatriate the couple. Maybe a campaign to raise awareness of their plight would help force the British government to do something. But, then again, wouldn't that just play into the pirates' hands, and embolden them to attack more yachters?
Maybe some of those naval forces in the region could swoop in and rescue the couple, doing what Jack Bauer does on 24 each hour. But some might remember the French response to their citizens captured by Somali pirates a year ago (see here), which ended with the master of the yacht Le Tanit killed.
This is a difficult and unique case, and I have no complete solutions. But it's the first time in a while that I have actually thought that maybe the ransom should be paid to free the Chandlers.
Monday, May 24, 2010
We're winding up the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada, the unofficial start to summer shenanigans named in honour Queen Victoria, which has led to some thoughts about another royal, Thailand's King Bhumibol.
The most recent events that have rocked that southeast Asian maritime nation have been notable for missing one important element: Any commentary or guidance from Thailand's royal leader. To critique the Thai royal family within that nation - or elsewhere - is a delicate proposition, one that might land you in jail there should your comments be construed in certain terms by local officials.
The absence of the king during this recent crisis has finally been commented upon by William Stevenson in The Toronto Star. Stevenson - author of A Man Called Intrepid - is a former advisor to the Thai king, and his thoughts are worth checking out, by clicking here.
PS: Regarding the holiday described above, I should note that Canadians will take any excuse for a day off work, even an archaic celebration of a long-dead, foreign monarch whose is supposed to have uttered, "We are not amused." As a nation noted for its comedians, we can be take great amusement in drinking beer and blowing things up to honour someone. It's kind of like a long-running, annual wake. Cheers!
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Friday, May 7, 2010
In the case of the tanker Moscow University, which was boarded by a band pirates in the Indian Ocean last Wednesday, a rescue operation was mounted the next day by elements of the Russian Navy operating from the warship Marshal Shaposhnikov. This resulted in the release of the tanker's crew and the capture of the boarders - and the death of one suspected pirate. Afterward, though, the Russians opted to release the captured suspects. As quoted in a BBC report, this was because of "imperfections" in international law. As EagleSpeak has noted from another site, the suspected pirates were apparently "put in an inflatable boat" and sent on their way by the Russians, since, in the words of one Russian defence official, they felt that, "Why should we feed some pirates?"
Nevertheless, on the same day the Russians also sentenced the first person to be convicted on piracy charges in that nation in some time. This related to the incident last summer when the freighter Arctic Sea went missing off Europe, an event which concerned a lot of folks. A court in Moscow today sentenced Andrei Lunev, originally said to be from Tallinn, Estonia, on charges of piracy. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Lunev and one other of the eight crew members charged over the incident admitted their guilt over the incident this past week. He is said to have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a lengthier jail term.
It's odd to see that the Russians are willing to prosecute those involved with the Arctic Sea incident, but not the Moscow University attack. With the latter case, it seems clear-cut that the individuals who boarded the tanker were intent on criminal actions. Being presumably armed and aboard a ship without the express permission of its master clearly violates some protocols. So why the double standard?
Many questions still remain unanswered about the Arctic Sea incident. According to the BBC report, some of the accused claim they were "set up" and had rescued the vessel, not hijacked it. And an unnamed Russian journalist who helped break the initial story is said to have fled Russia, "saying he had been warned to leave after suggesting [the ship] may have been carrying a secret consignment of weapons."
An odd set of events that leaves this observer scratching his head.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Tuesday, May 4 is an important milestone for the Canadian Navy, marking its official centennial. It was on this date in 1910 that the Naval Service Act was enacted into law and Canada began to assume an active military role on the waters that are such a defining part of our nation’s character. It’s often forgotten that Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on the planet, and except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, every province and territory here touches upon salt water. In the hundred years since a domestic maritime force was created, the navy has undergone great changes in carrying out its duties, so it’s worth remembering some of its history.
The first attempt at founding a Canadian Navy happened in 1881, when a stream-powered vessel, HMS Charybdis, was purchased from the British. But any hopes this would foster the creation of an effective force were short-lived, and the Charybdis soon fell into disrepair. By 1910, though, enough political momentum had developed and the nascent Naval Service of Canada was founded in May of 1910, though there was no fleet to speak of. The first warship to be commissioned into the Naval Service was the cruiser HMCS Rainbow, entering Canadian service on August 4, 1910 after serving with Britain’s Royal Navy since 1893. The fleet was added to less than a month later, when another former RN cruiser, HMCS Niobe, joined the navy on September 16.
It wasn’t until 1911 that King George V granted permission for the prefix “Royal” to be added to the service’s name, begetting the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) moniker that would remain until 1968, when the three branches of the navy, army and air force were amalgamated into the Canadian Armed Forces. Today’s navy is properly called Maritime Command, to the enduring annoyance of many. However, all Canadian naval vessels still retain the HMCS prefix.
By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Royal Canadian Navy was still under-funded, poorly equipped and struggling. Rainbow was based on the west coast of Canada, operating out of Esquimalt, British Columbia, while Niobe was based on the opposite coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Niobe actually spent the early part of the war on patrol off the eastern seaboard of the United States, part of the British fleet enforcing a blockade of ports like New York from German shipping. In August of 1914, Canada also acquired two American-built CC-class submarines in a strange manner: The subs had been built in Seattle for Chile’s navy, but the deal fell through. So the provincial premier of British Columbia brokered a deal to purchase them, and they were eventually commissioned into the RCN.
CC-1 and CC-2
Throughout the First World War and the post-war period, the RCN remained the junior service in Canada, failing to attract the public support that ground troops had acquired fighting in France and Belgium. (Canada’s aerial forces would not be officially constituted as the Royal Canadian Air Force until 1924.) But with the onset of the Second World War and the need for Canada’s growing economic base to support the allied war efforts abroad, the RCN experienced a phenomenal growth. When war was declared by Canada on September 10, 1939, the RCN consisted of just 13 vessels (6 destroyers, 4 minesweepers and 3 auxiliaries) and about 3500 personnel in both regular and reserve roles. By war’s end, the fleet would grow to becoming the third largest navy on the planet after the U.S. and Great Britain, with the RCN then boasting 434 commissioned vessels and some 100,000 uniformed personnel.
The years after World War Two saw a dramatic reduction in the size of the RCN, but the navy also saw the addition of aircraft carriers into the fleet (five carriers would eventually fly the Canadian naval ensign, perhaps most famously HMCS Bonaventure). And the RCN actively participated in the Korean War as part of United Nations’ efforts.
The Cold War period saw the RCN’s role adapt to fit with international demands through NATO and other alliances, including the loss of aircraft carriers and a greater reliance on anti-submarine operations. Also, the White Ensign which had been flown since 1911 (shown at the top left of this post) was replaced by the current naval jack in 1965 (shown at the top right). And while the fleet aged, plans were made to build a new class of warships – the Canadian Patrol Frigates – that would form the backbone of the navy. The first, HMCS Halifax, was commissioned into service in June of 1992.
Since the Halifax entered service, the Canadian Navy has participated in the war on terror, numerous humanitarian missions and, of course, counter-piracy operations. In honour of the century of service that members of the Navy have provided to Canada, the government has just announced the re-introduction of the executive curl, a part of the rank insignia that had been dropped when the Canadian Forces were unified in 1968.
To all those men and women who have served in the Navy over the years, and to those who continue to do so today, let fair winds, a following sea and a healthy toast be the order of the day, and may the memories of comrades past never be forgotten. Ready Aye Ready to one and all.
For more on the centennial, check out the Canadian Department of National Defence's website, which can be viewed by clicking here.
UPDATE: The navy's centennial anniversary was sadly marred by the news of the first Canadian sailor to die in Afghanistan. Petty Officer 2nd Class Douglas Blake was a member of the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, who had been deployed to Afghanistan last month as an explosive ordnance disposal operator. On Monday afternoon (Kandahar-time), PO2 Blake and his team had been called out to dispose of an IED in the Panjwaii District. After successfully disposing of the device, they were returning on foot to their vehicles when a second bomb exploded, killing Blake. He is the 143rd member of the Canadian Forces to die in Afghanistan and leaves a wife and two young boys.
Monday, May 3, 2010
For instance, yesterday's New York Times had a piece that wondered, "whether rebels with connections to Al Qaeda will now have a pipeline to tens of millions of dollars - and a new ability to threaten global trade." Unfortunately, the article is incorrect in tying Hizbul Islam to al-Qaeda. Though Hizbul Islam has invited Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters to come to Somalia to aid the insurgent group in its efforts to gain control of the country, and though the group's leader is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, this particular Islamist organization is not thought by many experts to be linked with al-Qaeda. It is, in fact, Somalia's other main Islamist insurgent group - al-Shabaab - that has aligned itself with al-Qaeda. (For more on the two groups, see Bill Roggio's post at The Long War Journal from last month, by clicking here.)
Some of the confusion may stem from Shabbab's brief entry into Haradheere a week ago, which first caused the local pirates to pack up and leave. But the two Islamist groups are currently not closely allied and have not been working together for some time, and it would appear that Hizbul Islam's capture of the port was part of their efforts to consolidate territory over their rivals.
As well, the idea that the capture of Haradheere may signal a new piracy campaign on Hizbul Islam's part overlooks the fact that they could have engaged in active operations at any time in the past year had they been so inclined. The reality is that these Somali Islamist groups are more interested in their land-based operations than they are in any maritime criminal activities. It is believe that the insurgents receive some funding from piracy operations and rely on vessels to smuggle arms, supplies and other goods in and out of the parts of Somalia they control. As some reports have pointed out, the battle for Haradheere may have been partially the result of a failure on the pirates' part to send some of their profits to the Islamists. That is, the pirate gangs didn't want to pay protection money to either al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam (though the pirates are known to accept protection money from some vessels operating in the seas off the Horn of Africa). So in a tit-for-tat response for not giving up a cut of the takes, the pirates of Haradheere found themselves being run out of town by better armed and organized adversaries.
The ideological foundations of groups like Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab mean that if they engage in widespread piracy operations, they risk undermining their core supporters and any other Somalis who might be favorable to the Islamists. This is not to say these groups will completely refrain from engaging in piracy, just to point out they have other, more important issues to deal with ashore. For the time being, piracy does not appear to a priority for the Islamist insurgents.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
News reports indicate that Somali pirates were forced to flee from the coastal community of Haradheere after a weekend attack by al-Shabaab militants. The Voice of America says pirates from Haradheere fled in the wake of news that hundreds of fighters belonging to the Islamist group were approaching the area, taking a number of captured vessels and human hostages north towards the next nearest pirate stronghold, the town of Hobyo. (On the map above, Haradheere is not marked, but is located in the southern corner of Mudug province.)
The Guardian report also says that among the hostages who were moved by the pirates was the British couple - Rachel and Paul Chandler - who have been held since their yacht was captured last October. The Chandlers are said to have been bundled out of Haradheere in a vehicle. In The Guardian post, a leader from the gang holding the Chandlers claims that al-Shabaab offered his group £1.2m for the couple, though the pirates are demanding £1.6m in ransom.
The attack by al-Shabaab may be part of the group's efforts to consolidate control over more of central Somalia, and to impose their form of justice on criminals like pirates. But another possible motive being mentioned in the VoA report is that revenge may be a factor. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Association says that pirates recently hijacked a vessel suspected of carrying arms intended for al-Shabaab. Pirates are also reported to have seized several dhows laden with charcoal that had left Somalia bound for the Gulf States. Mwangura says the cargoes were sources of money for al-Shabaab, so the fighters are angry about the loss of revenue (most of the dhows have since been freed, according to the VoA report).
When faced with an armed opposition intent on attacking their shore-based strongholds, Somali pirates would prefer to cut-and-run rather than fight it out. And this recent incident brings to mind the period when the Islamic Courts Union briefly held sway over large parts of southern and central Somalia in 2006, and brought piracy to a near stand-still as a result of their imposition of law and order in the area.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Though none of the defendants entered a plea during the 90-minute hearing yesterday, it is being reported that a detention hearing will be held next Wednesday and the actual case against the men could be scheduled before the summer.
The indictments come a day after news was released that a flotilla of pirate vessels attacked an Iranian supertanker in the Gulf of Aden as the vessel was sailing to Egypt from the Kharg Island terminal in the Persian Gulf. The report says that 15 boats took part in the attack, which was thwarted when Iranian naval elements arrived on the scene. Reuters says the supertanker was carrying 300,000 barrels crude oil valued at $150 million at the time of the pirate attack.
The aborted attempt to seize the Iranian vessel follows on reports that Somalis holding the MT Samho Dream have threatened to blow that supertanker up unless the pirates receive a hefty ransom. Someone named Hashi - described as a 'pirate commander' - spoke to Reuters from the Somali town of Hobyo, saying, "We are demanding $20 million to release the large South Korea ship." (The tanker is technically a Marshall Islands vessel, being registered there. She is owned by a Singaporean firm and operated by a South Korean one.)
Blowing the Samho Dream up would be an environmental disaster, but the damage inflicted would be most terribly felt along the Somali coastline and would obviously most affect the fishery in that region. Given the likely reaction of ordinary Somalis to such an event, it's unclear whether the pirates would seriously carry through on the threat and risk turning even more of their people against them. On the other hand, we already know that pirates have been willing to intercept vessel carrying much-needed international aid to Somalia and affect the ability to feed and care for the people living there, so every threat needs to be taken seriously.
Finally, on a somewhat lighter note was the buried news of a group of suspected pirates who got lost while trying to return to Somalia after an unsuccessful hunting trip. As the Reuters report printed in The Vancouver Sun says, the group was heading back towards Hobyo from somewhere near the Seychelles when they ran out of water and food. One of the would-be pirates, Abdulkhadir Jim'ale, says that in the course of their nighttime passage home, they somehow ended up "in a shiny city with lights." Turns out the gang had missed Hobyo - by a long shot - and were in Mombasa, Kenya. The suspected pirates tossed their weapons overboard, beached their boat and disappeared into the city. Jim'ale and four of his colleagues are now back in Somalia, while three others were still missing at the time of the report. This gives you an idea of how porous the coastline and borders of East Africa are. It is also noted that Jim'ale was one of 23 suspected pirates released by the Seychelles last September.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
While in Mombasa, Kenya, a few years ago, I noticed a decrepit coastal freighter moored at one end of the Kilindini port. Her open cargo deck was empty and there didn't seem to be any crew aboard. The only sign of activity on the freighter was an armed guard with a rifle in his lap who sat on the afterdeck, looking bored as he leafed through a magazine beneath an impromptu awning of bedsheets meant to ward off the midday sun. I was told the vessel had been seized a few weeks earlier by the authorities as a result of a dispute between her owners and a chartering company. After being impounded, the crew were sent home without being paid, the cargo disappeared one night and the ship had not been allowed to move an inch. A couple of locals said the whole situation smelled of greed and corruption. Though rusty, the vessel still had a few years left in her in the East African tramp trade, and was valued at a quarter million dollars to whomever could get the ship back in business. But until the dispute was resolved, the freighter wasn't going anywhere; she would remain under guard in Mombasa and nobody would make a dime from her.
This dark side of the shipping business is at the core of Max Hardberger's new book, "Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures" (Broadway Books, 294 pages, $25.00). The Louisiana native has led a varied life, working as a high school teacher, crop duster, flight instructor, maritime lawyer and writer, as well as working his way up from deckhand to master mariner. But it's the years he has spent working to free vessels that have been seized by corrupt authorities in dodgy places around the world that forms the basis for this book. Sub-titled, "Battling scoundrels and pirates while recovering stolen ships in the world's most troubled waters", the book actually has nothing do with pirates like those who operate from Somalia, but everything with being a maritime repo man.
The start of the book pretty much lays it out when Hardberger writes, "The first time I ever stole a ship out of port was on the sturdy old bulk carrier Naruda, lying at anchor in Cap Haitien Bay, Haiti, at the end of May 1987." From there, he recounts many tales of what it takes to get vessels out from beneath the noses of some clearly dangerous characters. Traveling as far afield as Vladivostok and Port-au-Prince, Hardberger's particular expertise is called into action again and again in a series of daring-dos that read like fictional thrillers, but are true.
One of the strengths of Hardberger's book is his prose, which is lucid, entertaining and dramatic. His descriptions of the waterfronts of various seedy ports and the characters who inhabit them are vivid. "Seized" is replete with insider information that only a professional mariner would know, yet the author explains much in a manner that will keep landlubbers interested. And the stories recounted are varied enough that they never seem to get boring.
At one point Hardberger is hired to get a ship and her crew out of a Honduran port after the vessel was fraudulently seized. To do so, he comes up with a risky plan that entails him climbing aboard one night, taking over from its cowardly captain, rallying her crew to sail into a coming storm and coaxing two armed guards into a lifeboat along the way. And this all happens before its discovered that the freighter's hull has been breached by the storm action and they're sinking. Unable to return to Honduras - where Hardberger and the crew would be arrested - they must push on through force nine winds and heaving Caribbean seas while trying to find a way to seal the crack.
But not everything that Hardberger details involves freeing vessels. He's also been called upon to use his unique maritime knowledge to help move some special cargoes around, such as when a buyer needs 47 Czechoslovak-built crop dusting planes moved from East Germany to Venezuela. This happens just before the two Germanys reunited, when the situation in the communist east was in limbo. Taking advantage of this, a team of pilots that includes Hardberger himself ferries the planes to a North Sea port, packs them in shipping containers and gets them on their way.
It's clear that in many of the cases he describes, Hardberger and his accomplices are breaking local laws to get the job done. But it's doubtful anyone reading will lose any sleep about the locales involved, which normally are some dismal Third World harbor. And the author comes across as being thoughtful about the repercussions of what he's doing, trying to balance being law-abiding while dealing with law-abusers.
It's unfortunate that Hardberger has a bare minimun in the way of a forward and acknowledgments, because he must have worked with many people to get the book published. The role of the editor, for instance, is too often overlooked in helping to craft good books, and it would appear that Hardberger worked with a good one here. Also, the book lacks any maps, which could have helped with the many places Hardberger travels, and it's too bad there are no photos (however, you can see some interesting shots on his website, www.maxhardberger.com).
But the biggest oversight in this book is the lack of more information about the nefarious business of seizing ships. This obviously goes on in ports all over the globe, yet Hardberger never gives us any broader context, such as the costs to the shipping industry or global economies, an idea how many vessels are seized and freed every year, the worst places this goes on, or whether anything is being done to deal with things. Hardberger also rarely mentions anyone else who does the sort of work he does, but since this is his book about his adventures, I think it's safe to forgive him.
Though the book comes to something of an abrupt end - for reasons readers will probably understand - Hardberger's stories and his skills as a storyteller are such that he could have filled a book with twice as many tales of what it's like to be a maritime repo man. "Seized" is a well-written book of true-life adventure tales set in the underbelly of the shipping industry, a place that most people would prefer to avoid, unless you're Max Hardberger.