Sunday, December 30, 2007

A year-end analysis of high seas piracy

As 2007 draws to a close, it’s inevitable that I should look back on the passing year and ponder what I’ve seen, heard and deduced about modern-day piracy on the high seas. Keep in mind that I am not a security analyst, academic scholar or naval statistician; I am a journalist who has been immersed in this issue for several years, seeking firsthand accounts of piracy from various places where it is problematic and talking with those who have dealt with it in other areas I have yet to visit. Though by no means an expert on the situation, I am perhaps somewhat better informed than others about things. Traveling through four continents in the last year and speaking with hundreds of people has given me a perspective, but it can only be called my own.

In looking at 2007, my perspective is that it was not the worst year in recent memory for worldwide pirate attacks. But it was bad. After a fairly quiet first six months, an overall trend is that piracy has returned to the waters of “traditional” hotspots – the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, Sri Lanka and the Strait of Malacca. There are other places where maritime crime festers, but not on the same scale as seen in these areas.

Without a doubt, the waters off Somalia remain the worst place for piracy this year. Since September, the number of vessels attacked off its coast have made it a very scary place for any mariner to sail. The hijackings and ransomings of ships have, again, forced the United Nations to address the issue. France has made a firm commitment to safeguard vessels carrying UN aid to Somalia, while the United States and coalition forces – including Canada – are promising their naval ships will be more active in combating the threat of piracy. One can only hope that these actions continue in 2008.

The most violent attacks on individuals continue to occur in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, especially off Nigeria. While the Somali gangs concern themselves with hijacking vessels and crews for ransom, without harming crews too much, the pirates in the Gulf seem much more inclined to violence. Though sometimes cloaked in purported political aims – such as the plight of poor Nigerians in the delta region who have yet to see any concrete returns from all the oil extracted in the region – this remains an area prone to banditry and robbery for purely selfish ends. Watch for an increased American presence in the region in 2008.

The Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, has ceased to be a centre major of attacks on commercial vessels (thanks to increased naval patrols by the forces of the littoral countries). But the attacks on Malaysian fishermen by marauders throughout the past year is a troubling example of low-level conflict inflicted on unarmed civilians that has yet to be fully addressed. Overlooked and forgotten, it could develop into a dangerous situation by those who live astride one of the world’s busiest waterways. Expect something dramatic to occur here in the new year.

When it comes to seaborne terrorism, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers continue to make the northern waters off that beautiful island a battleground. This past week saw Sri Lankan government forces engaging the Tigers in firefights that left dozens dead. You likely never heard about it in the midst of news coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but Sri Lanka continues to be the site of the worst terrorist activity ongoing on the high seas. This will fester and remain of little concern to the rest of the world, unless the Tigers finally mount some sort of outside campaign against foreign targets, such as Indian shipping. China is already increasing its naval presence in the Bay of Bengal. Keep an eye on that.

Beyond these regions, I’d be cautious as a mariner in the southern Caribbean Sea. The northern coasts of Venezuela and Guyana are dodgy, to say the least, so be careful.

Finally, I’d like to offer my personal vote on the one individual who has done the most to safeguard mariners facing the threat of pirate attacks. He is an energetic and selfless man living in Kenya named Andrew Mwangura who works, tirelessly, with the Seafarers Assistance Programme in East Africa. I met Andrew in the port of Mombasa earlier this year and remain in awe of his work. Anyone who can help him – he works on a purely voluntary basis – should seek him out. He deserves our aid and respect for trying to help those working at sea who face dangers undeserved.

Happy New Year to one and all in the maritime community.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Halifax Explosion of 1917

It’s been a bit since I’ve been able to post anything here, with my only excuse being my distractions trying to write my new book. However, I couldn’t let this day go by without recalling something from the past that is a vital part of maritime history, in Canada and around the world.

On this day ninety years ago, an event occurred in the port of Halifax that is largely forgotten today, even though it was as devastating as the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York. It happened as the Great War was raging and involved two ships that collided in the harbour and is simply known as the Halifax Explosion.

While working on my last book, Ocean Titans, I was aboard a bulk carrier called the MV Antwerpen as she was sailing up and down the eastern coast of North America. Part of that journey involved carrying a load of gypsum from Nova Scotia to Florida, and on a sultry evening in late summer we were outbound from Halifax’s Bedford Basin when the Antwerpen passed the site of the explosion.

At just past 2300 hours, the freighter was bearing up on a course heading of 121 degrees, making Slow Ahead as she passed beneath the MacKay Bridge and entered what is called The Narrows. We were following the course all outbound vessels take to leave this harbour, waters that have seen the passing of countless wartime convoys over the last century. As I stood on the starboard bridge wing that night, I realized we were also on the same course heading that another merchant vessel took nine decades earlier, a journey that would be short and exceedingly deadly.

Just past 0830 on the morning of December 6, 1917, the SS Imo was leaving the Bedford Basin bound for New York to be loaded with relief supplies for Belgium. She was about two-thirds the size of Antwerpen and had been a cattle carrier before the war, part of the White Star Lines fleet that also included the Titanic. At the time of her outbound transit, Halifax was a main transshipment point for men and supplies being sent to war torn Europe, with dozens of vessels coming and going through the harbour each day.

Approaching SS Imo inbound from the U.S. was a French munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, making for the Basin to join up with a convoy. Mont Blanc was laden with 400,000 pounds of TNT in her holds, as well as various other explosives and ammunition packed on her deck.

In an era before radio communications and traffic control was as regulated as it is today, the Imo and the Mont Blanc approached each other here in The Narrows, head on. The ships were supposed to pass port-to-port, that is left side to left side as on most automobile highways, but the Belgian relief ship was moving too fast and veering close to the French munitions vessel. Like two cars on a narrow country road, the Imo and the Mont Blanc were stuck in a deadly game of chicken: who would make the right move? In the end, neither did. At about 0845, the outbound Imo – on the same track that Antwerpen was following that evening – rammed her bow into the Mont Blanc. Sparks flew as metal careened off metal, igniting the explosives on the deck of the French vessel.

For the next fifteen or so, confusion reigned. The Imo drifted towards the northern shore of The Narrows, near Dartmouth, while the crew of the Mont Blanc fled their burning vessel for the lifeboats. Aflame in the waters of Halifax harbour, the Mont Blanc began to drift towards the south shore and Pier Six, as crowds gathered to watch the event. At about 0900 that morning, the munitions vessel was close alongside the pier when the TNT erupted.

View from a distance of thirteen miles of the column of smoke raised by the Halifax Explosion. May be the only photograph of the blast itself. (National Archives of Canada)

Within seconds, the Mont Blanc erupted in an explosion that would be the largest one made by Man until the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945. A mushroom cloud like no had ever seen before filled the sky above Halifax; the Mont Blanc disintegrated into 3000 tons of shrapnel worse than anything seen in the trenches of Europe; the buildings on shore were flattened, ships were thrown on their sides and most every window in the city was shattered. Over 1600 people died instantly; within days the toll would rise to 11000 people seriously injured or killed. It was said that for a moment you could see the bottom of the harbour as the water exploded upward. The devastation was beyond comprehension.

As Antwerpen passed the scene of the explosion, I remember pausing for a moment to think what it must have been like for the mariners on those two vessels, especially the crew of the Mont Blanc who knew what lay in their ship’s holds.

SS Imo after the explosion. (National Archives of Canada)

The price paid by merchant mariners of all nations in the last two World Wars was atrocious. There really is no other way to describe what these mostly unarmed men endured feeding the war effort. When it comes to a nation’s power at sea, the image of a cruiser, destroyer, battleship, aircraft carrier or submarine springs to mind. We believe these are the implements of political change by other means, to paraphrase Machiavelli. The term “navy” refers to the ships of war of a nation and though we might assume this to merely mean fighting vessels and their uniformed support ships, this ignores the importance of commercial shipping in times of conflict. Indeed, when nations go to war, their commercial ships can be transferred – by law – to the “Merchant Navy”, a fleet of vessels tasked not to support economic interests but, rather, the strategic interests of a country.

In the last two World Wars, commercial ships were invaluable in creating a lifeline between Europe and North America and the sailors who manned these paid dearly for their wartime contributions. To be a merchant mariner in either war meant you were far more likely to die than if you were serving in uniform on a naval vessel. To give you an idea of the dangers, consider that 534 Allied merchant ships were sunk in the Second World War just from enemy mines. That works out to about one in ten ships lost, because over 5000 cargo vessels were sunk in that war. In the Atlantic Ocean alone, 50000 civilian mariners died between 1939 and 1945, killed by U-boats, surface raiders, aerial bombardment or by the ever-present fury of Mother Nature. They died of horrible burns caused by explosions, gunned to death as they clung to flotsam or drowned alone in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

For their heroic service in helping to defeat the enemy, many merchant mariners found that once the war had ended they were treated as second-class veterans, denied pensions and other benefits accorded to their naval brethren. In Canada, it took until 1998 before these men received official government recognition and compensation. Unfortunately, little has changed. When it comes to war, the role of mariners remains as invaluable to governments today as it has throughout history, but their contributions continue to be overshadowed by others. Rarely has a conflict been waged without the support of sailors manning cargo vessels, whether it be the Trojan Wars, Napoleon’s conquests, the Korean Conflict or the struggle to remove Saddam Hussein. When Roman triremes headed across the Mediterranean towards Egypt, cargo ships filled with amphorae followed them, and the plunder seized by Spanish conquistadors in the Americas was shipped home on merchant galleons that would be attacked by the English Navy.

It’s interesting to note that since 1971, Nova Scotia has donated a Christmas tree to the city of Boston, in thanks for the assistance that was provided to the people of Halifax after the explosion. And while the Halifax Explosion brought the First World War in Europe home to Canadians on a horrific scale, it has never been properly commemorated on a regular basis, nation-wide here. That’s a tragedy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The pirate season in full bloom

As any regular reader here will know, piracy remains a daily problem for mariners out on the oceans and seas of the planet. But the last few weeks have seen disturbing spike in the number of attacks and the violence used by attackers in the Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. As recent reports from the United State’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the International Maritime Board’s Piracy Reporting Centre make clear, piracy remains one of the most dangerous threats to mariners today.

How bad are things? Well, in the last two weeks, the US Navy has opened fire on pirate vessels off Somalia, the Philippine armed forces have battled pirates, Guyanese fishermen have been attacked and robbed and 21 Cameroonian soldiers were killed by Nigerian pirates.

A list of recent events from the ONI lists:

Military troops kill suspected pirate and seize boats during a raid, 21 Oct 07, in Batu Pantan, Lagayas, Tawi-Tawi. Western Mindanao Command spokesman, Major Eugenio Batara Jr., said the troops launched the raid following the reported presence of the pirates in Batu Pantan. The raiding troops seized two “jungkong” type vessels believed to be used by the pirates. Local pirates are reportedly operating in the waters of Sulu and Tawi-tawi, victimizing traders and fishermen in the area. They are said to be heavily armed and wreaking fear on the nearby population. Batara claimed the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has also allied themselves with the lawless elements operating in this part of the country and urged the local population to be vigilant and report such kinds of individuals and organizations to the authorities.

1. Chemical tanker (GOLDEN NORI) hijacked 28 Oct, 70 NM north of Caluula, Somalia, Gulf of Aden.
2. Vessel reported suspicious approach 24 Oct 07, Gulf of Aden.
3. Chemical tanker reported suspicious approach 22 Oct 07, Gulf of Aden.
4. LPG tanker reported suspicious approach, 21 Oct 07, Gulf of Aden.
5. Vessel reported suspicious approach 08 Nov 07, north of Suqutra Islands, Indian Ocean.
6. General cargo vessel (DAI HONG DAN) infiltrated 29 Oct, port Mogadishu, Somalia.
7. Container ship reported suspicious approach 27 Oct 07, Somalia.
8. General cargo vessel (JAIKUR II) fired upon 21 Oct 07, approximately 60NM off the coast near Baraawe, Somalia.
9. General cargo vessel (ALMARJAN) hijacked 17 Oct 07, approximately 10-20NM from Mogadishu, Somalia.
10. Bulk carrier reported being fired upon 18 Oct 07, 200NM off the Somali coast.
11. Vessel reported suspicious approach 18 Oct 07, 155 miles off the Somali coast.
12. Vessel reported suspicious approach 14 Oct 07, 312NM off Mogadishu, Somalia.
13. Container ship boarded, robbed 26 Oct 07, Nacala anchorage, Mozambique.
14. Container ship reported attempted boarding, 26 Oct 07, Nacala anchorage, Mozambique.
15. Fishermen reportedly attacked, robbed by 21 Oct 07, near Katchatheevu, Gulf of Mannar.
16. Container ship boarded, robbed 31 Oct 07, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
17. Sailboat boarded, robbed, crewmembers assaulted 19 Oct 07, Majunga harbour, Madagascar.
18. Chemical Tanker boarded 04 Nov 07, Hoogli river, Sagar roads anchorage, India.
19. Product tanker boarded, robbed 18 Oct 07, at Kandla outer Tuna buoy India.
20. Bulk Carrier boarded, robbed 10 Oct 07, Kakinada anchorage, India.
21. Vessel boarded, robbed 08 Oct 07, in Panaji off the Yermal coast in Udupi district of Karnataka, India.
22. Sri Lanka Navy apprehends LTTE vessels and terrorists 18 Oct 07, in Mannar in northwest of Sri Lanka.
23. Sea battle between Sri Lankan military and LTTE, vessels sunk 13 Oct 07, off Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka.
24. LTTE vessels apprehended by naval troops 11 Oct 07, 5km north of Talaimannar, Sri Lanka.
25. LTTE vessel (MATSUSEEMA) reportedly sunk by Sri Lankan Navy 7 Oct 07, Sri Lanka.
26. Tanker boarded, robbed 28 Oct 07, Chittagong anchorage, Bangladesh.
27. General cargo vessel boarded, robbed 12 Oct 07, TSP Jetty, Chittagong port, Bangladesh.
28. Fishing vessel (QUAN YONG 168) boarded, robbed 06 Nov 07 in the evening, near Point Cruz, Taiwan.

Here's a US Navy image of a Somali pirate skiff taking a direct hit from the guided missile destroyer USS Porter's 25mm gun.

US Navy photo

Monday, November 12, 2007

Black day on the Black Sea

AP Photo

A wicked storm hit the Black Sea over the weekend, sinking several vessels and leaving a number of mariners injured or lost. See more at the BBC or just Google it. This is a vivid reminder that no matter how quiet the waters may seem, the seas can always turn intemperate. This happens every day on the waters of our planet and is what makes seafaring the world's dangerous profession.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pirates make strange bedfellows

As most people are aware, the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are far from being considered friendly. For more than a half-century, the U.S. and North Korea, and South Korea, have faced off in that east Asian peninsula in one of the last remnants of the Cold War. Virtually the only assistance that Washington has ever provided to the government in Pyongyang is desperately needed food aid to feed the people in the communist north. But in an odd twist, the U.S. Navy came to aid of a North Korean freighter this past week, helping the Korean crew rebuff an attack by pirates and then providing medical assistance to the survivors.

Tuesday morning (October 2), the North Korean ship Dai Hong Dan sent out a distress call saying they had been boarded by pirates while steaming 60 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. The USS James E. Williams, a destroyer based out of Norfolk, Virginia, and deployed with Combined Task Force 150 in the region, responded to the distress call and by around noon (local time) had arrived close by the stricken freighter.
Dai Hong Dan (US Navy photo)

According to the U.S. Navy’s Combined Maritime Force Headquarters in Bahrain, the Dai Hong Dan crew were able to report that they had confronted the attackers, who had seized control of the wheelhouse, while the Koreans controlled the engine room. The Americans radioed the Somali pirates aboard the freighter and ordered them to lay down their weapons, then prepared to dispatch a boarding team to the North Korean ship.

In the meantime, the Korean crew fought back against their attackers, retaking control of the freighter and apparently killing at least one pirate while capturing six others. A request for medical assistance led the Americans to send naval corpsmen to the Dai Hong Dan, along with a security team.

US Navy personnel board Dai Hong Dan (US Navy photo)

But lest this all appear to signal some rapprochement in relations between Pyongyang and Washington, keep in mind that assisting mariners in distress is one of the oldest maritime traditions there is. One can but wonder what the young American sailors thought as they prepared to respond to an appeal from a North Korean vessel. Yet they appeared to carry out their duties with professionalism and the North Koreans were, in this instance, unafraid of asking for help when they needed it.

An added question is developing in some maritime quarters about what the Dai Hong Dan was doing in those waters in the first place. The USS James E. Williams did not detain or search the North Korean vessel, but we may hear more about this in the future.

The homepage for the USS James E. Williams can be found here. The North Korean news agency’s site is here, though there is no news about the incident as yet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Japanese tanker hijacked off Somalia

Yesterday morning - Sunday - a 12,000 dwt Japanese-flagged product tanker, the Golden Nory, was seized by Somali pirates while apparently sailing about eight miles offshore. As reported by Reuters, Andrew Mwangura of the African Seafarers Assistance Programme says that they are still waiting to hear what the pirates' demands are, though it's safe to say that ransom is the likely reason for the attack.

No information is currently available as to why the Golden Nory was so close to the Somali coast, especially at a time when mariners are being advised to sail at least a couple of hundred nautical miles out. Being eight miles off the coast of country known to be the most piracy-prone place in the world is odd.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

WFP Official freed in Somalia

The head of the UN's World Food Programme in Mogadishu was freed on Tuesday by Somalia, after being held in detention since October 17. According to the Associated Press, Idris Osman was released on bail but remains under investigation by the government for unspecified crimes.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said, "We welcome the release of Idris Osman, and are pleased he will be reunited with his family."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Somalia update

Idris Osman (WFP photo)

According to the United Nations, negotiations are at a standstill as the World Food Programme (WFP) tries to secure the release of staffer Idris Osman, the Officer-in-Charge for Mogadishu who continues to be held in a jail cell in the Somali capital by forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), after being detained lat week by gunmen. UN officials have spoken with Osman via telephone and he claims to be unharmed. Osman's abduction forced the WFP to suspend disbursements of food aid until the situation is resolved and the safety of their personnel can be assured.

Meanwhile, the UN reports that Somali pirates made another attempt to attack a ship working under contract for the WFP, the first incident since the end of the monsoon season off East Africa. On Sunday, the MV Jaikur II was approached by two speedboats while sailing some 60 miles off the coast of Somalia near the port of Brava, which is just south of Mogadishu. The vessel had just unloaded 7,000 tons of food and was returning to Mombasa, Kenya, when the attack occurred. The crew of the freighter managed to escape, but the attack only heightens the need for naval warships to protect the these aid shipments. The UN hopes that the French navy will begin escorting WFP-contracted vessels next month as the venture into Somali waters, which President Nicolas Sarkozy promised in September.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

WFP Official kidnapped in Somalia

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that its Mogadishu office was stormed yesterday by armed members of the Somali National Security Service (NSS), who are now holding UN official Idris Osman in a jail cell. According to the WFP, 50-60 men entered the UN compound around 0815 Wednesday morning (local time), a violation of the international law barring authorities from entering UN premises without prior UN permission. The WFP has yet to be given a reason for the incident, though there is some speculation that it may be related to the distribution of food assistance that began last Monday. As a result of Osman’s detention by what are supposed to be Somali government forces, WFP has temporarily suspended its distribution programmes.

AFP reports that a UN official was dispatched Thursday morning to Mogadishu to try to resolve the situation. There is a simple website that claims to be affiliated with the Somali government and the NSS, but it has no information on the incident.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Some links of interest

For those interested in updated information on recent pirate incidents around the globe, I've added a couple of new links. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence provides briefs of threats to shipping that are released on a weekly basis, as does the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

As well, there are a few private blogs that do an invaluable job in providing excellent information on piracy, maritime crime and related issues, and one of the best is run by a retired American naval officer. His blog - EagleSpeak - is well worth checking out if you're intrigued by what's going on out there on the high seas.

Somali piracy, part 3


With Somali pirates feeling no compunction about hijacking the delivery of humanitarian relief, the simple solution would appear to be calling on naval forces for assistance, having some sort of armed escorts out there to protect the aid vessels as they steam from Mombasa to Somalia, a trip that normally takes less than three days. But this has, so far, failed to occur. Warships from a variety of coalition nations do operate in the area from time to time, though their main role is related to the war on terror, not combating piracy. There was an incident last year when the crew of the American destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill captured a gang of Somali pirates, but that was an accidental encounter and there have been far more cases where naval vessels did not respond to pleas from ships under attack because of legal issues.

Ordering a warship to engage suspected Somali pirates at sea is not something taken lightly by officials in Ottawa, Washington or other capitals. It requires confirming a criminal act has been committed in international waters, receiving political approval to react and then carrying out the orders, a process that can take hours. In the meantime, pirates can flee to the security of the twelve-mile limit of Somali territorial waters, where foreign vessels cannot follow without the express permission of the local government, something the TFG has so far not allowed.

Still, the World Food Programme knows that naval escorts of any kind would go a long way to help convince shipping firms to resume delivering their humanitarian aid. In July, the head of the WFP and the head of the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) made a joint call for concerted and coordinated action to be taken against pirates off the coast of Somalia. This led to Security Council encouraging Member States to be ‘vigilant’ about Somali piracy; now the hope is that words will become deeds. And one result of all this, albeit for a very short term, is a squadron of six NATO vessels currently on patrol in the Indian Ocean, including the frigate HMCS Toronto.

HMCS Toronto off Somalia, 20 September 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

The Canadian warship and her crew of some 235 sailed from Halifax in July to join the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) as the squadron sailed around the continent of Africa. The stated goals of the mission are to develop an awareness of the maritime situation off Africa and prove the ability of NATO to send ships outside the normal area of operations in the North Atlantic, and SNMG1 has already visited the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and done maneuvers with the South African Navy. Dealing with piracy may not be part of the mission but everyone aboard HMCS Toronto knows about the attacks off Somalia, says the frigate’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee.

“The crew is very aware of piracy,” he says by satellite phone as the warship takes up station not far off the coast of Somalia. “We’ve adopted an unusually high force protection posture because we’re going to be traveling in a known area of piracy. Every nation is required under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to repress piracy on the high seas and each one of us is prepared and is trained and ready to take action if there’s a pirate attack. And I’ll be honest, the ship’s company would like nothing more right now than to come across a pirate attack and do something about it.”

AB Iain Pattison fires his 12-gauge shotgun off the quarterdeck during a weapons drill
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Like Andrew Mwangura in Mombasa, LCdr. Topshee is also aware that the pirates are smart and know the rules of the game, such as the inability of foreign ships like HMCS Toronto to enter Somali territorial waters. Unless the squadron happens upon a pirate boat out in international waters engaged in criminal activities, there may be little real action for the naval crews. And with only a week or so allocated to patrol the area before heading towards the Red Sea, this may prove merely a test for future deployments, something that senior naval officials in various countries have indicated a willingness to consider.

“If you’d asked me this question just four or five years ago,” LCdr. Topshee explain, “I’d have said ‘No, pirates don’t exist, this is nonsense.’ But the reality is the modern day pirate is alive and well, with a keen economic sense and with a vicious determination to get whatever money they can out of people. We find it very frustrating that the generosity of nations can’t get through to the people who so desperately need it.”

Boarding party from HMCS Toronto visits dhow off the coast of Somalia, 28 Sept 2007
Photo by MCpl Kevin Paul, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

It seems likely that as soon as the NATO warships sail over the horizon for home, the pirates will resume their attacks. Shipping firms will risk taking in commercial cargos to Somalia, but shun carrying humanitarian aid unless they get armed escorts. And stockpiles of food will sit in warehouses in Mombasa while over a million hungry people wonder why they’ve been forgotten. Until its people can show some concrete results in overcoming strife and creating a stabile society, the outside world will remain just barely interested in Somalia. But without outside assistance to feed and shelter its people, to safeguard the aid supplies and to secure a lasting peace, the country will be unable to rebuild itself. Ignored, destroyed and destitute, Somalia faces the bleak prospect of continuing as a failed state trapped in a state of limbo.

“Yeah, dealing with the Somali situation is very frustrating for me,” admits Peter Smerdon in Nairobi. “We’re trying to feed people in need, but logistics – delivering food – is not that sexy. There are no blue helmets, no white UN vehicles, no Western troops handing out food to dying people in a war zone. This is nuts and bolts work we’re doing but it is among the most vital things the United Nations can do. We must feed these people because we’re talking about millions of people – millions – who are going hungry, are susceptible to disease and unable to function. And if we can secure our supply lines now, then we have a chance to avert a greater tragedy in Somalia in the future.”

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Somali piracy, part 2

With Somali pirates having made the waters off the Horn of Africa so dangerous, it’s a wonder anyone in the shipping business would even consider sending vessels to the region. Indeed, you might think that someone like Karim Kudrati, co-owner of a Mombasa-based firm that has been forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pirates, would avoid dealing with Somalia altogether. But you would be wrong.

Karim Kudrati, Mombasa, Kenya

In reality, his ships continue to trade up and down the coast regularly, but carrying commercials cargos, not humanitarian aid. A few kilometers away from Kudrati’s office, past the armed guards at the main gate of the Port of Mombasa, two of his vessels are tied up not far from the warehouses where the World Food Programme stores its supplies. The MV Semlow and the MV Miltzow are small freighters just under 58 metres long, rusty and ragged from years tramping the East African coast. Both been hijacked in the past – you can still see bullet holes in the wheelhouse of the Semlow from her hundred-day ordeal at the hands of pirates – and both will be returning to Somalia shortly.

MV Semlow, Port of Mombasa

Standing in the Semlow’s bridge, Chief Engineer Juma Mvita watches as a gang of Kenyan longshoremen manhandle sacks of sugar into the holds, cargo that is bound for Somalia. The Tanzanian-born mariner remembers being held captive by the pirates back in 2005, especially the frustration of being hijacked while on a mission of mercy.

“When the pirates first came aboard, they said they were ‘Somali Marines’ and that we were carrying illegal arms in our holds. So we told them, go look, it is just rice, there are no weapons here. And we tried to explain that this is food for Somali people, but they did not care. They had no interest in that, they only wanted to get the money from the owners. They were just thieves.” Mvita shakes his head in disgust, saying that Somalia is a place where human life has no value. “Everyone has a gun and they are not afraid to use it. They will kill a friend, kill a family [member] – boom! – that easy. No, it is not my favourite place to go.”

Chief Engineer Juma Mvita

Still, Mvita will be returning to Somalia in less than forty-eight hours, as soon as the cargo is loaded. With jobs for mariners scarce in this part of Africa, he really doesn’t have much choice if he wants to support his family. “I have been to Somalia many times since [the kidnapping], but never again with the food aid. We have few problems now. I think this trip will be okay.”

So why will shipping companies and local mariners risk carrying commercial cargoes to Somalia, but not humanitarian aid? Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Programme joins me on the pier beside the Semlow with a clear assessment of things. An intense and dedicated young man in his early thirties, Mwangura grew up in Mombasa, is well connected to the shipping community here and understands the way things work when dealing with Somalia.

“It is all about money isn’t it? Everything in Africa involves money – bribes – especially in a place like Somalia. Nothing can move in or around without someone being bribed: the gangs, the officials, everyone. That is the system, that is how things work. Whenever we hear of a commercial ship being hijacked by pirates, we usually assume that not enough money was paid to the right people.”

He gestures at the sacks of sugar being loaded and continues, “This is a valuable commodity in Somalia. Someone will sell it in his shop, making money. To get the sugar to the shop means that, all along the way, people are bribed from the moment this ship leaves Mombasa. It is in their interest to assure it is delivered so everyone can make something when goods for sale are shipped, and everyone is content.”

Loading MV Semlow, Mombasa

But as Mwangura goes on to explain, food aid is much less valuable because, “Fewer people make money from the United Nations [aid]. It is given away for free. The gunmen are smart, too. They know they cannot steal the food and sell it themselves. That would be dangerous.” By this, Mwangura means that the Somali warlords understand the international community would not stand by as its donated assistance is stolen by armed gangs. The intervention of foreign troops safeguarding humanitarian aid could threaten the ability of the warlords to extort money from other parts of the economy. “So the one way Somalis can make money [from the aid deliveries],” continues Mwangura, “Is to hijack the ships and the crews and hold them for ransom. The vessel and the seafarers become more important than the cargo, you see? This is why no one wants to work for WFP.”

To be continued.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Somali piracy: A closer look at the problem

As I said in my previous post, piracy off Somalia is proving a serious problem for humanitarian organizations trying to deliver food aid to that failed state of a country. From Kenya, I wrote a report on this situation for The Globe & Mail newspaper in Canada that was published yesterday and can be seen online. Here is the first part of a lengthier look at what I saw while in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Under an overcast sky in central Nairobi, Peter Smerdon takes a sip of Tusker beer while gathering his thoughts. “The pirate situation in Somalia is extremely worrying to us,” says Smerdon, who works with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at their regional base in the Kenyan capital. A wiry ex-pat Brit with a youthful complexion that hides his experiences as a foreign journalist covering such events as the Rwandan genocide, Smerdon's job is to get the word out about what WFP is doing in Africa. It's not an easy job, especially where Somalia is concerned.

“Yeah, there is a certain ‘fatigue’ about Somalia, an exhaustion of sorts,” he admits, ticking off the symptoms: “You know, since 1991 there’s been civil war and civil conflict ongoing in the country, there’s been famine, malnutrition, starvation, displaced people, and it can seem like a place where things never change. Plus you have Iraq, Afghanistan and any number of other places vying for attention, from the media, from governments and from aid groups. And because there aren’t any good photo ops in Somalia – no foreign soldiers handing out food, no dying children, no celebrities – the situation there has slipped off the radar of most people. That’s a cold, hard assessment of things, but I know that’s how it works.”

As Smerdon explains, Somalia is a place just barely surviving, with little in the way of a functioning government, an economy in shambles and healthcare essentially non-existent. Having recently returned from the country, he says that, “The people there are feeling ground down. You may get by in the city – though in Mogadishu these days you might get killed – but in the countryside they’ve been weakened and ground down like you can’t imagine. Just across the border from Kenya you have places where in a ‘normal’ year you get acute malnutrition rates of twenty to thirty percent. Fifteen percent is the emergency level. In Somalia, life expectancy is about 46 years and a quarter of all children die before they reach the age of five.”

WFP has traditionally delivered the bulk of its humanitarian assistance, about eighty percent, by freighters sailing from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Somalia. Until now, those freighters have proven the most efficient way to get suitable quantities of food into the country, but the threat of renewed attacks by pirates has made shipping companies nervous about taking on the task of ferrying WFP cargoes.

“They’ve attacked over a dozen ships in the first six months of this year, two of which were working for us. In fact, Somali pirates have attacked five vessels contracted by WFP since 2005, hijacking three and holding them for ransom. Things have been quiet the last couple of months, mainly because of the monsoon which has prevented the pirates from venturing out. But what is worrying us now is that as the monsoon season comes to a close, the pirates will return. So as the monsoon season ends the pirate season begins.”

Piracy off Somalia has been growing in recent times as instability in the country allows armed gangs to run rampant. Pirate gangs have targeted general cargo ships, container vessels, gas tankers, dhows, fishing boats and, in November 2005, they even made a brazen assault on a luxury cruise liner sailing 160 kilometres off the coastline. Pirates have been particularly attracted to the unarmed ships arriving in Somalia laden with food aid: In the first instance, in June of 2005, they captured the freighter MV Semlow and held the ship and her crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid. An attempt earlier this year to protect the vessels by hiring local guards failed when pirates shot and wounded two of the Somalis, one of whom later died.

Trying to send aid overland into Somalia by truck has never been a viable option for groups like WFP as the routes are often little more than rutted tracks and the convoys are invariably held up at roadblocks by armed militia groups, or even the TFG itself. “They don’t care if you’re carrying humanitarian assistance or not,” says Smerdon. “Everyone makes money out of checkpoints. It can be $50 a truck, which doesn’t sound like much but on one route we’ve used, from the Kenyan border to Wajid in the south, a distance of 125 kilometres, there were 29 checkpoints the last time I was there. So delivering aid by truck is not very reliable.” And flying assistance in by plane is simply out of the question for the time being, he explains, owing to the extremely high costs entailed.

All of this has left groups like WFP scrambling to solve a logistical nightmare. With malnutrition rates soaring in Somalia – exceeding twenty to thirty percent in some parts of the country – the organization must deliver 35,000 metric tons of food by the end of the year to avoid things getting even worse. Their only hope is to convince somebody to take on the dangerous job of ferrying their supplies through pirate waters, something that has proven difficult.

“Shipping companies would rather do something else than carry our cargoes,” says Smerdon. “Recently we thought had found a vessel available, then heard it was off in Saudi Arabia – we’re hoping it’ll still become available – but that’s all we have right now. It appears that no one wants to work with us.”

In East Africa’s principal port of Mombasa, an hour by plane southeast of Nairobi, Smerdon’s assessment proves only partially correct. Karim Kudrati is co-owner of a shipping firm that has worked with the UN for well over a decade, and it was his vessels that were hijacked by Somali pirates. From his office in the Kundalini part of town, Kudrati says, “Would we work with them [WFP] again? Yes. But there must be more protection for our ships and our crews. Those charters are too costly to consider, the way they have been organized in the past.”

For Kudrati, the financial costs of ferrying aid to Somalia have not been cheap: “Whenever one of my vessels has been hijacked, it is our firm that has to pay the ransom, sometimes over $100,000. When the pirates steal the money from the ship’s safe, that comes out of my pocket. Yes, this is a business, whether we are delivering WFP cargo or commercial cargo. But, frankly, if I can find other charters, why would I bother with the UN?”

To be continued.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

France offers to help combat piracy off Somalia

Three weeks ago, while in Nairobi, I received a briefing on the dire situation facing the Somali people from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and it wasn’t good. Somalia is a barely functioning nation (the current term used to describe it is a “failed state”), with internal fighting between a variety of groups forcing a half million to flee for their lives, a drought that has reduced what little food is available for harvest and, now, a struggle to find ways to feed the population.

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency and along with the Red Cross and CARE has been helping to care for millions of Somalis. Because of recent events, WFP alone now must feed 1.2 million Somalis in the coming months, which will require getting about 30-35,000 metric tons of food into the country by the end of the year.

But the agency has been stymied in their efforts by Somali pirates, who have attacked 17 ships so far this year, over double from all of 2006. These attacks have gone on for a couple of years, part of a pattern that has made the waters off Somalia among the most dangerous in the world for mariners. Some may remember the attack by pirates on a cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, in November 2005, but few probably know that UN-chartered aid vessels have been singled out in particular. The first attack, in June of 2005, saw pirates hold a ship and its crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid, and the most recent incident, in May, saw the death of a local Somali hired to help protect the humanitarian aid.

As I discovered while in Africa, one of the effects of piracy off Somalia has been to scare off shipping companies from carrying UN food aid. Currently, there are no firms willing to do the job, fearing that their vessels and crews will be hijacked and held for ransom. But after an appeal for assistance, there may be some help coming: On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the UN Security Council in New York that his country would offer naval protection for WFP shipments. And I know from being in the Kenyan port of Mombasa that a French warship is already taking up station in the seas off Somalia. Now all that remains is for a shipper to agree to take the aid currently sitting in warehouses in Mombasa to Somalia itself. Without this aid, a dire situation may soon become even worse.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks before the Security Council, Sept 25.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Monday, September 24, 2007

Turning chaos into order

Down at the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula lies the formidable city-state of Singapore, home to four and a half million people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, primarily ethnic Chinese, Indian and Malayan, though with remnants of the British Empire lingering conspicuously.

Raffles Hotel

Singapore has managed to re-invent itself several times over the course of the last thousand years, but the transformation it has undergone in the last fifty years is nothing short of amazing. Under the firm guiding hand of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has been transformed from a languid backwater island rife with malarial swamps to one of the most vital economic centres in the region, if not the globe. It is a place of order, discipline and measured control, while other cities in Southeast Asia seem to be teeming with anarchy, earning it the sobriquet “Asia for beginners”.

National Museum of Singapore

But hidden away beneath the success story of an economic and political powerhouse is the history of Singapore as a centre of piracy in the region, going back to well before Europeans first arrived here five hundred years ago. Because of its location, the island was a natural base for pirates to prey on nearby islands, coastal villages and any boats that happened by. Like many places in Southeast Asia where piracy flourished, the pirates were tolerated by the ruling class – so long as tributes were paid.

When the famous Chinese admiral, Zheng He, visited what was then called Temasek in 1405, he soon found his fleet involved in running battles with Sumatran pirates. Four hundred years later, the islands and coves around here were still known for piracy. When the first British Resident, William Farquhar, stepped ashore onto Singapore in 1819, it’s recorded that he encountered a row of skulls – pirate trophies left for all to see.

As the British set about turning Singapore into a colonial trading outpost, they were forced to do something about all the marauders who threatened their ability to exploit the region. The Royal Navy began attacking pirates wherever they could find them, culminating in the Battle of Batang Marau in July 1849. HM Brig Albatross is said to have engaged a fleet of a hundred perahus (canoes) and some 3500 natives, dealing a crushing blow to the pirates.

But piracy never really disappeared in the waters around Singapore, or elsewhere, for that matter. By the 1990s it had resurfaced to become a serious threat to shipping in both the Strait of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore, and armed vessels again sailed forth from the harbour to deal with the problem, continuing a tradition that goes back a thousand years.

Singapore Coast Guard patrol boat

Monday, September 17, 2007

The mighty prawn

Most of the fishing that goes on in the coastal villages of peninsular Malaysia is a decidedly low-tech affair: It primarily involves casting a net into the Strait of Malacca or laying out longlines of baited hooks, but the inshore waters are also harvested. After spending a day several kilometers out into the seas in a small boat, my local guide – an amiable young man named Kamarudeen – leads me down to the beach to watch as men wade through waist-deep water pulling nets behind them.

The men are seeking prawns, or shrimp, which can be found in abundance here and may be caught for a few days every month. In the words of academics, this is an example of a community-based economy managing a sustainable resource, for these prawns are not destined to be flash-frozen and shipped to some restaurant table in a foreign city. Instead, they will be sold locally, and the villagers only take what they need.

As the men wade through the surf, they push two long bamboo poles that rest on their shoulders. The poles hold open the mouth of a net that trails behind them, scooping up prawns from the murky waters. The prawns are integral in making two traditional seasonings, a cake-like patty called belacan and a liquid version known as cincalok. You can see both for sale in small shops throughout the region, selling for the equivalent of about a dollar.

The actual manufacturing process is done by women villagers, usually working in the yards outside their homes. The prawns are ground up, mixed with salt and allowed to mature a few days before being finished for market. Kamarudeen introduces me to one villager forming the mashed prawns into cakes. He calls her “Makcik” – auntie – and I watch as she methodically takes what looks like coarse sand and works it into a small mold about the size of a hamburger patty. She’ll make hundreds of these in a single day, leaving them to dry on wooden trays laid out in the sun beside a group of noisy chickens and the laughter of her grandchildren.

Small-scale local economies like this are a vital part of coastal communities around the world. As she lays out her patties, “Auntie” tells me the villagers have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember. “We were making belacan when the Japanese came here,” she says with a laugh. History tells me she means 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army conquered Malaysia, but for Auntie that’s ancient history. And before that, I ask? She looks at me sternly for a moment and then a smile creases her features as she indulges this odd foreign man. “Before that? Ah, you would have to go ask the ghosts.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Malaccan piracy – some context

Dutch gravestone, St. Paul’s Church, Melaka

The attacks that have occurred in the Strait of Malacca in the last fifteen years have garnered the most attention, which is understandable when you consider that hundreds of commercial ships, tugboats and fishing vessels have been assaulted in these waters during that time. The concerted efforts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, along with several other nations and international groups, have managed to reduce piracy in recent years, mainly through the use of force.

One shouldn’t assume that piracy is a recent phenomenon in this part of Southeast Asia; it goes back hundreds of years, if not longer, and was a normal part of the lives of those who inhabited the coastal villages and those who sailed the adjacent seas. While at the Singapore National Library, I saw a print from the 1840s showing an Iranun pirate holding a kampilan sword. The Iranun plied the Sulu archipelago off eastern Malaysia and there is a well-preserved example of a kampilan in the National Museum of Singapore. This metre-long weapon has a steel blade and wood handle and is decorated with human hair. Swung down onto the skull or shoulder, it was designed to kill a victim with a single blow.

Also at the National Library, I came across a book written by Owen Rutter in 1930 about Malay pirates, in which he said, “Compared with [Malay pirates] the buccaneers of the Spanish Main were gentle and amiable creatures.” One of the biggest differences between pirates of the Caribbean and those in Southeast Asia was that the latter were able to roam relatively unbothered by any naval ships from great powers. While the likes of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were being hunted by the navies of Britain, Spain and France, their Asian compatriots had a much easier life.

This began to change in the early sixteenth century, with the arrival of Portuguese explorers sailing large, heavily armed vessels. The Portuguese had heard of the wealth of Melaka, which was the most important and powerful trading centre in the area. It had been so for a hundred years, a place where vessels arrived from China, India and Arabia to trade and barter. Though the city-state had officially adopted Islam in the middle of the fifteenth century, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious port.

Replica of Flora de la Mar in Melaka town

The arrival of Portuguese vessels in 1509 may have surprised the Melakans, but, on the other hand, they had been used to foreign ships coming and going for years so the initial thinking was that perhaps this was just another potential trading partner. Within two years, though, Alfonso de Albuquerque had besieged the city, forced the sultan to flee and finally established European control over Melaka, control that would remain for four and a half centuries. They built first a fortress, called A’Famosa, and then an entire walled city that rivaled those in Medieval Europe.
Remains of Porta de Santiago

The Portuguese also soon set about consolidating their power over the Strait of Malacca (which, by the way, is the European spelling of the name; the locals call it the Selat Melaka). And one of the things they did was to work to stamp out the piracy that was commonplace, while also attacking any local settlements that did not accept their rule. This set a pattern that would be carried on by successive European powers, including the Dutch and the British, in which the domination of the seas was done at the point of a gun and a cutlass. Which leads one to remember that one man’s navy is another man’s pirate.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Melakan catch of the day

After another bone-rattling tour of the area in the perahu, Abdul returns to where his net has been laid and signals to his partner to start pulling it in. Today’s haul does not appear to be particularly rewarding – a lot of small fish that cannot be useful for eating, some ikan duri, which is also known as goat catfish, a couple of malong (yellow pike congers) and a snapper, which Abdul calls jenahak. The snapper is the best of the catch, since it will fetch the most at market. Once we get back ashore, Abdul will pass his catch onto a middleman who then takes it market across the street. After all is said and done, a fisherman here can make 200 Malaysian Ringgit on a good day – about sixty Canadian dollars. That is then split with one share going to the junior partner and two shares to Abdul.

As they two men finish hauling in the net and stowing the larger fish, I notice that the gentle swells that had welcomed us a few hours earlier have become angrier and that the wind has shifted around from the south to the west. Abdul notices it, too, along with a dark mass of clouds that’s lying off over Indonesia somewhere and heading our way. He doesn’t like this west wind and neither do most of the other fishermen: we’re one of the last boats out. Abdul starts up the engine and orders his partner to pull in the anchor; I'm left to sit on my ass and hold on as the bow swings around and we begin racing to shore with the wind at our backs.

Fishing villages like Abdul’s are found all over the coast, but in this part of the country they are under increasing pressure as developers seek to build resort complexes and vacation condos. This leaves small villages with roofs of corrugated tin sitting in the shadow of gated communities that rise ten or twenty stories high. In fact, most foreign tourists who visit this area probably don’t even realize there are fishing villages tucked all along the coast. The impact of all these developments is already being felt, as some villages are relocated to make way for new construction. For fishermen like Abdul, it’s yet another assault on a lifestyle that has been an important part of Malay culture for thousands of years.

As our perahu nears the shoreline our speed doesn’t slow one bit and it appears we’re going hit the beach with the throttle wide open. Since the village shoreline is crowded with all the other boats that have already come in, I’m wondering where Abdul intends to land us, and how. I glance over my shoulder at him but he barely registers my concern, sitting with one hand on the tiller, the other holding a smoke. At the last moment, he steers for a small opening among the other perahus and we hit the sandy beach at full speed, sliding up until the boat is completely clear of the water. Abdul grabs the engine and pulls the prop out of the water at the last possible moment, then shuts then engine off.

We clamber out of the boat and unload nets, catch, engine and fuel tank. The wind is now really blowing as we heft the perahu above the high water mark and secure everything from the approaching storm. We’re the last to return today; most of the other fishermen are up beside where the catch is sorted for market, watching television in a covered meeting area. Actually, they’re watching professional wrestling on the tv; American professional wrestling. Abdul smiles as we walk past the wrestling fans, shaking his head in the same way I am. “That is not real sport,” he says. “Is not even real job.” Tomorrow I am promised I can see some more aspects of this community and the way it is trying to maintain traditions.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Gone fishing

Mid-morning in a small coastal village in southeast Asia, a couple of hours south from Kuala Lumpur, and I’m struggling to help three guys heft a fiberglass boat down into the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca. How I ended up here sliding in the dirty sand with a bamboo pole over my shoulder and a trio of Malaysian fishermen laughing at me would require more time and space than this blog offers, so read the damn book when it comes out. Just suffice it to say I’m going fishing.

The open, six-metre boat, what they call a perahu, wallows a bit in the shallows as her master drops the outboard engine into the seas. Abdul starts the Suzuki motor up, calls out a brief warning and then the boat jumps forward through the swells, heading for the fishing grounds about five kilometers offshore where the men work. Slamming through the waters, I’m incessantly jarred as we careen off waves and Abdul periodically swerves to avoid logs floating in the Strait. He’s over a decade younger than me with features already weathered from setting out daily upon these waters since he was twenty-one, the son and grandson of fishermen.

It takes about ten minutes to make it to the fishing grounds, where at least a half dozen other boats are already moored. Abdul cuts the motor, talks quickly with another fisherman and then sets about preparing his net. With his partner, they lay it out and send it over the gunwales and then tell me there’s nothing more to be done for a couple of hours: it’s all up to the fish now. So Abdul fires up the outboard and takes me sightseeing, out towards the main shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca.

The Strait of Malacca is one of the most important waterways in the world, a place in which a third of the world’s commerce traverses every year, with hundreds of tankers, container ships and other vessels transiting each day. It has also been one of the main locations for modern-day pirates to ply their trade, attacking commercial ships and local fishermen with a regularity that is shocking.

About 25 kilometres out, Abdul slows the engine of the perahu. He doesn’t have to tell me why, because there is a line of immense vessels plodding past us: oversized oil tankers, a container ship laden with metal boxes and a couple of tugboats hauling barges. We watch this display of international commerce for a bit, and I am reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when the visitors to the island first see the dinosaurs – those immense brachiosaurus behemoths slowly walking along. That’s what these steel ships are like; quiet, intent and powerful.

Returning to the fishing grounds, we throw the anchor over and settle down to wait another hour before pulling the net. Between drags on his cigarette, Abdul tells me the struggles to earn a living fishing extend beyond the weather and the risk those big ships will run them over. Lately, they've had to deal with Indonesians coming over in the middle of the night to steal their boats and engines. Last month the village saw five engines and seven boats stolen, which amounts to a huge financial loss for these people, and there’s no insurance or other recompense available. Abdul sits by his engine waiting for his fish and tells me that every village around here – every village, he emphasizes – is dealing with the same problem.

I ask if there's a local name for these thieves and Abdul gives me a look of disgust. "Perompak," he says while flicking his cigarette into the sea, "But you can call them pirates".

The start of something new.

I sit on the front porch of small, thatched-roof cabin within sight of the Strait of Malacca in western Malaysia listening to the cry of the muezzin from the mosque across the road and wishing the bats would return to feast on the mosquitoes or a breeze of any sort would appear. For the first time in a week the stars are out tonight and the wind has died off completely, making for a sultry evening that leaves me smelling of sweat and mosquito-repellent. And there’s a hell of a kink in my neck from the reason I’ve ended up in the tropics of southeast Asia.

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book that looks at modern-day piracy, crime and terrorism on the high seas. From my home in Canada, I’ve been immersed in far too many official reports, sifting through a litany of analyses of the situation and spending a lot of time on the phone and the computer. I’ve ventured off to the deserts of Nevada and the east coast of Canada, with a rash of towns large and small thrown in for good measure somewhere in between, interviewing dozens of people from admirals to deckhands to United Nations personnel. But, in the end, I had to get out and visit the places that have been most affected by this global problem and meet the individuals dealing with it.

The final story will be told, of course, in the book I’m working on, which will be released in 2009 in Canada (Raincoast Books) and the United States (St. Martin’s Griffin). In the meantime, you’ll find some initial impressions of my travels at this site. I welcome your comments.