Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pirate threats to small vessels and a mysterious disappearance

With so much attention being focused on the activities of Somali pirates being committed against commercial shipping targets, it's easy to forget about the most vulnerable victims: small vessels. Fishing boats and recreational boaters are no less immune to attacks, but many of these pirate incidents go unreported.

Offshore fishing vessels make perfect targets for pirates, as they can be easily boarded, often have a crew that numbers over a dozen and their catch can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This means that the commercial firms who use the vessels end up having to decide whether to forgo the safety of the crews - often coming from Third World nations - or pony up the ransoms demanded. Additionally, there is the potential to use captured trawlers and other small vessels as pirate motherships which makes them valuable.

But clearly a pirate gang cannot expect to garner a million dollar ransom for a sailboat, right? Well, maybe not a million, but in at least one case it's being reported that $600,000 may have been paid to free a German couple captured in the Gulf of Aden a year ago. If true, this raises the stakes for any bluewater sailor thinking of venturing into the region.

Over at YachtPals, Brad Hampton wrote an article yesterday about the mysterious disappearance of a Japanese boater, Akio Yonago, who left the Seychelles a few weeks ago headed east. He hasn't been since. It is, of course, possible that Yonago's boat sank or was otherwise rendered inoperable, or that he's quietly making his way across the Indian Ocean in some relaxed manner. But the fact that he hasn't been heard from in weeks does raise the possibility he was pirated.

As Hampton points out in his piece, this year yachts have been officially reported to have been attacked in Brazil, Thailand, and near the Seychelles, with two yachters killed by pirates (and a third by French commandos). I've no doubt that the real numbers are far higher, based, in part, by reports I receive from sailors.

This is just a modest reminder that anyone at sea can be a target, a victim. Supertankers, military vessels, container ships, fishing boats, passenger liners or pleasure boats - no one's immune to the threat. And the threat is not limited to just the waters off the Horn of Africa.

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