Monday, November 30, 2009

US-bound supertanker seized by Somali pirates

MV Maran Centaurus
(photo: Joao Quaresma,

In the most audacious attack of the year, Somali pirates have captured the supertanker Marana Centaurus yesterday as it was sailing in the Indian Ocean about 600 nautical miles (800 miles) northeast of the Seychelles. According to the initial EU NAVFOR note posted this afternoon, the Greek-flagged tanker was headed for New Orleans from the Saudi-port of Jiddah, on the Red Sea, at the time of the hijacking. According to the Times Online, the vessel was boarded by nine pirates who overpowered the crew of 28 (15 Filipinos, 9 Greeks, 2 Ukrainians and one Romanian). The tanker's crew were unarmed and there were no security personnel aboard. EU NAVFOR says the supertanker is currently making course towards Somalia, possibly to Haradheere or Hobyo, and is being followed by a Greek warship that happened to be in the region with the European Union counter-piracy operation.

The seizure of the Maran Centaurus and her crew comes one year after another supertanker - the Saudi-owned Sirius Star - was captured by Somali pirates. That earlier incident began on November 15, 2008, as the Sirius Star was in the same general area en route to the U.S. with two million barrels of crude, and wasn't resolved until January 9 of this year, following the payment of a $3 million ransom.

According to and the BBC, the Maran Centaurus was fully laden when boarded yesterday, and also has the capacity to carry two million barrels of crude. Tankers of this size cannot transit the Suez Canal while fully laden, so they must still take the long way around southern Africa to reach markets. The attack yesterday may be the furthest from shore carried out by pirates, who have been increasing their range by using motherships and better intelligence to augment their weaponry and nautical skills.

The captive crew of the supertanker now join more than 250 other individuals currently being held by Somali pirates (and around a dozen vessels). There is currently no word of what the ransom demands are on the part of the pirates. However, it can be expected to be high, likely the highest so far requested.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the financial stakes have already been raised by the paying of a hefty ransom to free the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana, which was released after the pirates received about $3.5 million, a higher sum than was paid to release the supertanker Sirius Star in January. Supply and demand, pirate inflation, whatever you call it, the amounts being paid to Somali pirates keep going up. In that earlier post, I also offered the idea that we would see a $10 million ransom demanded - and paid - before next Spring. Perhaps I should have said before the end of the year?

UPDATE: According to the Louisiana-based site, the tanker was not headed for New Orleans, as earlier reported. Instead, the Maran Centaurus was supposed to deliver its cargo of crude to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), a fuel delivery platform located about 18 miles south of Grand Isle, in the Gulf of Mexico. On a good day, LOOP takes in about ten percent all the petroleum imported into the United States, or a million barrels (US daily imports of petroleum total just shy of 10 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration). That means the crude oil aboard the captured supertanker represents a fifth of daily American imports. The oil has been valued at just over $20 million.

Addendum: The BBC implies that one reason the Maran Centaurus was able to be boarded was she could not steam very fast due to her full load of crude, being only able to make "between 11-15 knots". This is not completely corrrect. The ship's particulars on the website of a broker affiliated with her owners show the top speed of the Maran Centaurus is only 15 knots, so she may have been going as fast as she was able when attacked.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Canadian navy resumes operations off the Horn of Africa

HMCS Fredericton (FFH 337) photo credit: Department of National Defence

As part of Canada's ongoing maritime security commitments to assist forces patrolling the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA), the frigate HMCS Fredericton is now on station in the Gulf of Aden. The warship arrived in the region a few days ago, following port calls in Israel and Malta, and will be integrated into NATO's Standing Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) on counter-piracy operations, as well as contributing to the multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), which is focussed on with dealing with counter-terrorism operations in the region.

The arrival of the Fredericton in the Gulf comes almost three months to the day since Canada's last naval contribution to safeguarding the seas off the HoA - HMCS Winnipeg - returned to her home base in Esquimalt (on Vancouver Island) after a seven-month deployment overseas that took that warship's crew into the seas off East Africa and kept them busy dealing with pirates.

Of course based on the information in my previous post, the Winnie's crew may have been focused more on catching fish than actually protecting mariners in the area, and possibly passed on some tips to the Freddie's crew. (That, by the way, is called sarcasm, for the more serious-minded of my readers: In all my years of sailing aboard vessels - both seagoing or freshwater - the only time I have ever seen a crewman toss a line overboard in search of some fish was a couple of times while in port, when loading or discharging was taking some time. Rare indeed is the mariner working on a vessel at sea who has either the time or the inclination to toss a lure overboard as a ship steams. Trolling at 20 knots just doesn't work.)

Regardless, best wishes to the crew of the Fredericton. You can send a note to them by clicking on this link.

Addendum: HMCS Fredericton is deployed on what the Canadian Forces call Operation Saiph. Saiph is the traditional name for a star in the constellation of Orion (the Hunter). It is also an Arabic word for sword, or hilt.

Iran and Somalia blame the international community for helping pirates

Some of you may have heard of the recent report from Somali news outlet in which the head of the Transitional Federal Government's naval forces, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed, was critical of foreign warships patrolling the seas off his fractured country (see also EagleSpeak's post about this, here). Speaking in Mogadishu on Sunday, Adm. Farah Omar claimed the international community's warships are "pretending" to watch over pirates while, instead, are "mass collecting the Somali sea resources".

The TFG admiral's perspectives are based on an assessment they did of recent activity. He is quoted as saying that "We have been closely following what actually is the so called NATO troops are doing over the Somali waters [sic]." Apparently all those sailors and other personnel embarked in the region are fishing their days away, in lieu of trying to safeguard the seas from pirates, as shown by a net the admiral presented at the press conference, one which the report says "foreign troops were using in catching fish in the Somali water." The admiral went on to urge the international community not to complain about the activities of pirates, but focus instead on doing something about the vessels fishing in the area (though whether he means warships or commercial vessels is unclear).

But while hoping to augment their meager diets on the warships with some local fish, Western coalition forces are also actively engaged in providing logistical assistance to the pirates operating from Somali, at least that's according to a senior Iranian commander. The Fars News Agency reports that Fariborz Qaderpanah, head of Iran's First Naval Zone, is blaming coalition forces for complicity with and assistance to Somali pirate gangs.

Qaderpanah said that pirates have become so skillful thanks, in part, to hi-tech weaponry supplied by the western states. "Why don't the coalition forces, which enjoy super hi-tech equipment, annihilate the buccaneers of the region forever and why do they provide the ground for the continuation of their activities through their suspicious supports?," he asked.

I guess that operating all that super hi-tech equipment is just too much for sailors busy tossing lines and nets over the transom of a warship.

(By the way, for those surprised that there is a 'Somali navy' with an admiral in charge, this is a relatively new entity that was re-established in June of this year. As detailed in a Voice of America report, this is the first government-backed navy in Somalia since the disintegration of the country's armed forces back in 1991, and, if the information in the report is correct, the admiral's first command position since 1982.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

West African pirates kill mariner

MT Cancale Star
(photo: Anthoinette de Jager,

Providing a reminder that piracy is not just a problem off the Horn of Africa comes with the news that pirates boarded a Liberian-flagged, German-operated tanker earlier today. The Cancale Star was attacked by six or seven pirates, according to the tanker's captain, Jarolslavs Semenovics. They boarded the vessel as she was steaming about 18 nautical miles off the coast of Benin, put a gun to the head of a deckhand and gained entry to the ship. They then forced Captain Semenovics to open the ship's safe and emptied it of cash. The attack occurred after nightfall, local time.

At some point during the boarding, the tanker's chief officer was injured by the pirates and later died. Four other crew were also wounded, one seriously. There were 26 crew aboard the tanker at the time of the attack, and some of them managed to grab one of the pirates before the boarders fled in their speedboat. The suspect apparently is from nearby Nigeria, the hub of West Africa piracy, and has been handed over to authorities in Benin.

AFP reports the captain as saying the Cancale Star was carrying crude from Nigeria, but Bloomberg says she was loaded with gasoil from northwest Europe and inbound to the Benin port of Cotonou, where the tanker is now docked. (Gasoil is a European term for No. 2 heating oil and diesel fuel.)

Pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea have a reputation of being much more violent than their Somali brethren, and though overall incidents of piracy in the region are far below the numbers we see off East Africa, this region is still the second worst for attacks on mariners.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The escalation of weaponry off the Horn of Africa

In the wake of yesterday's unsuccessful attack on the Maersk Alabama, I think it's safe to say that the gloves are slowly coming off as mariners seek ways to more effectively deter pirates in the seas off the Horn of Africa. It's likely the container ship's crew had gone into standard counter-piracy mode at the time of the incident, deploying water hoses, locking down access to the quarters and getting on the radio and satellite phone to naval forces, but this time they had the added assets of an embarked security team. This team initially deployed a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) - installed after last April's infamous pirate incident involving the same vessel - in an attempt to deter the attackers, but it would appear that this non-lethal device proved less effective than the guns the team also carried.

Faced with well-trained and armed defenders, the pirates broke off their attack, no doubt leading many to think that guns talk better than fire hoses (or LRADs, an expensive piece of equipment we have yet to see fully live up to its hyped potential warding off pirates). As even The Christian Science Monitor put it in an article published today: "Lesson from foiled pirate attack on Maersk Alabama? Fire back." Or, as US Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney said at the Pentagon yesterday, "A well-placed round from an M-16 is far more effective than that LRAD."

But before we go down the slippery slide to the point that small or long arms are routinely being kept aboard vessels, it's worth taking a deeper look at the the ramifications posed by this escalation of weaponry in the fight against piracy, and I'd like to open up a discussion about some of the issues.

The first concern about some sort of "anti-piracy arms race" is that it would create huge inequities among the very mariners that lethal weapons are supposed to protect. The American crew of the Maersk Alabama was able to rely on the financial resources of their employers, who paid for the security team, the LRAD and the training to deter the pirates in this incident. But this is far from the norm in the modern world of commercial shipping. Most professional seafarers live and work under far harsher conditions, and their expectations that security teams would be made available to safeguard journeys through piracy-prone waters are rarely high. Instead, these mariners must rely on what little training they have received, what little measures thy can take, and a lot of hope. Or innovation, in extreme circumstances: Remember the attack by Somali pirates on the Chinese vessel Zhenhua 4 last December, in which the crew were forced to resort to making Molotov cocktails to repel the boarding? Here's a photo reminder below.

Crewman from Zhenhua 4 prepares Molotov cocktails
during attack by Somali pirates, December 8, 2008 (CCTV)

Additional proof that a two-tiered system is evolving between haves and have-nots in the maritime world can be seen in Spain's decision to allow armed security teams aboard their fishing vessels working the seas off the Horn. FIS (the Fish Information and Services information site) reported on Monday that the Spanish tuna fleet is returning to work the fishery off East Africa with 54 security agents embarking aboard the vessels. These security personnel have been trained by the Ministry of Defence in counter-piracy measures, some of which would presumably include rules of engagement for use of weapons under Spanish and international law, including the legal ramifications.

The second issue relating to arming private vessels is distinct probability that it will actually increase the levels of violence overall, endangering mariners more. As Roger Middleton - an expert on the Horn of Africa and piracy - told The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Baldauf, there is a danger that arms will escalate things, pointing out that, "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."

We certainly saw that with the Maersk Alabama incident yesterday, in which gunfire was exchanged between attackers and defenders. And we're likely to see it again as more private security teams are embarked on vessels in the region. This is not to say that these individuals are mercenaries or trigger-happy maritime vigilantes, far from it. I know many in the private security sector who bring nothing but a high degree of professionalism to their work, most often gained through years in the armed forces. But as a former member of the Spanish Navy now working for a private firm told FIS, "Here [off the Horn of Africa] we are not speaking of a scenario for private security like those that typically occur in Spain, but of a warlike atmosphere. The methods, the means that the pirates use approximate more a zone of conflict than any alercation [sic] that can happen on Spanish soil." He means that one must be ready to use force, including lethal force, to deal with the problem of pirate attacks.

The number of incidents in which Somali pirates have killed mariners is minimal. Notwithstanding this week's death of the captain of the Theresa VIII, I cannot remember a single time boarders have deliberately killed anyone in the seas off the Horn of Africa. Somali pirates have always understood that their hostages are much more valuable alive than dead. And while we don't yet know the details of what happened aboard the Theresa VIII, I'd be willing to guess the master was shot accidentally (and I'd also be willing to bet that whomever did it was severely reprimanded by the pirate gang's leaders).

If attackers think they could be facing crews who are armed, it's almost a given that the pirates will shoot first and ask questions later, and that the focus of ransom requests will shift from the incalculable value of human lives to the book value of a vessel and its cargo.

The third aspect of all this is the abrogation of responsibilities on the part of governments and their military forces. Mariners have every right to expect navies and other assets to protect them, just as urban dwellers have every right to expect the police to do so. This means not only coming to their aid when a ship flounders and sinks but coming to their aid when armed gunmen approach in small boat. And while I am very clear about the scope of the seas we're talking about that pirates roam off the Horn of Africa, having sailed there myself, I am also aware that coordinated efforts to patrol those seas have not been entirely successful in stemming the tide of attacks this year.

The whole idea of having a navy (and other assets) is to safeguard the seas from threats far and wide. They are trained professionals who embody hundreds of years of nautical experience, including dealing with pirates. And while they may not always have been entirely successful combating piracy, many mariners still find comfort in the sight of a gray hull on the horizon or a helicopter overhead. As Roger Middleton told The Monitor, "For the past 200 years, states have been providing security on the seas, and security is better when states do it than when private companies do it...If the British Navy is patrolling an area, they are accountable under British law for their actions. If a private security company is on patrol, there is no guarantee that they will be accountable to anybody."

Seafarers must take every precaution available to them, without a doubt. But this is where we enter the realm that can be analogized by how far one goes in defending your home, for a ship is not just a workplace for a mariner, it is also their home at sea. In some parts of the world it is expected that a homeowner will likely have a gun hidden away somewhere to protect against a burglar or whatnot. But in many more places the deterrence is vigilance, locked doors and windows and, if a criminal tries to enter, a call to the local police, the idea being to rely on trained professionals to wield the weapons, not a nervous civilian. Neither idea is perfect, but this is the root of the argument that professional mariners are dealing with.

If all this sounds like I'm against arming vessels against pirate attacks, that's because I am. At this stage, I could certainly be swayed if rational ideas where offered up that could apply to all mariners, not just North Americans or Europeans, and appreciate any discourse. Seafaring is a global community, and even though I'm here talking about an issue that affects the waters off the Horn of Africa, the ramifications are far wider, affecting tens of thousands of men and women working the seas around the world.

Addendum: Back in late September of last year GCaptain had a post about top ten means of deterring pirate attacks that's well worth a review. But as was posted then and remains - to me - still one of the best means of dealing with things is #10 on the list: Denial of Ransom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Spanish trawler freed by Somali pirates after hefty ransom paid

After being hijacked by Somali pirates over six weeks, the Spanish tuna boat Alakrana and her 36 crew were set free earlier today. According to one media report, the criminals who seized the vessel on October 2 were paid a ransom of $3.3 million (though The Telegraph says the figure was $3.5 million). In the Associated Press report, the Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was quoted as saying, "The government did what it had to do," adding that, "The important thing is that the sailors will be back with us. The first obligation of a country, of the government of a state, is to save the lives of its countrymen."

Just a week ago, Spain's defence minister was calling on the international community to blockade pirate havens and more forcefully address the money end of piracy (see my previous post here). Now it would appear the Spanish navy stood by as money was paid to release the fishermen. And it also seems that the Spaniards don't have far to look if they are serious about stemming the flow of ransom funds to these criminal gangs, possibly down the proverbial hall.

The issue of double standards is now front and center if the Spanish government really did pay off the pirates who hijacked the Alakrana. For all those other mariners currently being held hostage by Somali gangs - such as North Koreans, Filipinos and others - the issue is now the shifting to government reactions to pirates' demands, where it was previously the domain of the shipping industry.

The idea of paying ransoms to secure the release of captive seafarers has long been considered a cost of doing business by shipowners and management companies, a simple - albeit expensive - means of securing the safe release of those seized by pirates. This is a very delicate issue, but has been tempered in the recent past by the fact that the amounts being paid were not inordinate. A few hundred thousand here, a half million there, these were cost effective ways of dealing with the situations. But once governments get involved in the paying of ransoms that amount to over $3 million, it changes things dramatically.

While I am glad the crew of the Alakrana is now free, I can't help but wonder about what repercussions of this particular incident will be. Will the British government pay off those holding Rachel and Paul Chandler, the couple whose yacht was hijacked by pirates on October 23? Will the North Korean government do likewise for their mariners captured Monday?

When governments pay off criminals for their actions, it sets a dangerous precedent. Some say we should never reward terrorists for what they do. Is this any different? There's a fine line between balancing the lives of hostages and making the problem worse going on here. And, as an aside, paying $3.3 or 3.5 million for a tuna boat also raises the stakes. This is more than was paid to free the supertanker Sirius Star a year ago. At this rate, I'd be willing to bet we'll see a $10 million ransom demanded, and likely paid, before next Spring.

On a related note, it's worth reading today's piece on the London Times site from the head of the British Royal Navy (RN), regarding the plight of the Chandler couple and the inability of RN forces in the area to not rescue the couple. At the end of the article it says that the current ransom demands from the pirates holding the Chandlers now stands at $7 million. Two people, one yacht, seven million dollars.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Ship Mysteries: Figuring out just where the hell you are on the seas (aka the longitude problem)

Thanks to advances in technology, notably the global positioning system (GPS) of satellite navigation, we take it for granted that one can determine - to a reasonable degree - just where in the world you are at any given time, be it on the seas or on land. The GPS system was initially put in place beginning in 1978, though it only became available to non-military users around 1984. It was the brainchild of two American scientists, Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson, who came up with the idea of allowing US naval vessels to communicate with a series of satellites orbiting above the earth in order to pinpoint positions more effectively than had previously been available. (The Russians also developed a similar system, called Glonass.)

The advent of GPS was as important as the internet in making truly universal information available to one and all. In the century prior to GPS, radio beacons and other electronic aids helped navigators in direction finding, but these were crude in comparison to today's tools. One could always use a sextant for celestial navigation, though this piece of equipment is useless if the skies are overcast.

But all of these tools to mariners - as well as other predecessors like the astrolab - have focused on the issue of determining one's longitude on the face of the globe. It’s always been fairly easy to determine latitude, how far north or south you are on the planet: at noon, local time, on any given day of the year, the Sun above Anchorage, Alaska is in a different position than if viewed in Mexico City. The real problem was always figuring out where the hell you were in terms of longitude: at noon in Philadelphia the Sun is in about the same position as if viewed at noon in Denver.

For mariners, this came to a head in 1707 when four Royal Navy ships floundered on the Gilstone Ledges off the Isles of Scilly, killing almost 2000 men. The cause was discovered to be bad navigation techniques, so a few years later a reward of £20,000 was offered to the first person to come up with a dependable means of plotting longitude (the sum was equivalent to £2 million today, or about $3.8 million American).And everyone knew that the only way to ascertain longitude was by standardizing the measurement of time from a fixed point on the planet.Being a British competition, the point decided upon was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.Quite simply, someone had to come up with a dependable clock, which had not existed until this time.

This led to a flurry of activity as individuals came forth with various solutions to the problem, some more bizarre than others. One of my favorites was a macabre operation utilizing a mystical element called the “powder of sympathy”.The theory went something like this: you first convince someone to let themselves be stabbed with a knife. Removing the knife from the wounded victim, you then sprinkled the powder of sympathy on the blade.This would cause the unfortunate subject to feel pain again, in a voodoo-like manner. The proponent of this theory suggested gathering a bunch of dogs, stabbing them with the same knife and placing the animals on British ships. At noon each day in Greenwich, the knife would be plunged into a bowl filled with the powder and the dogs would all yelp in pain, no matter where in the world they were. Thankfully, this idea was rejected by the Board of Longitude (and one can only imagine the reaction of animal lovers were this bizarre idea have proven effective).

As the top minds in Britain and Europe struggled to come up with a solution to finding longitude at sea, it was a lowly carpenter from Yorkshire who would best them all. John Harrison began to tinker with clocks in his spare time and then became obsessed with developing the perfect timepiece for mariners. His eventual result was known as the H4, a silver timepiece the size of a pocket watch that in 1761 became the first dependable chronometer and solved the longitudinal problem once and for all. To this day it still keeps time in a display case at the Royal Observatory. And, at 1300 hours (1:00pm) in Greenwich, an aluminum time ball still drops from the tower above Harrison’s clock, so that any ships moored on the nearby Thames River can set their chronometers.

Thanks to a carpenter from Yorkshire who doggedly set out to solve this mystery - and eventually claim the Board's prize - maritime navigation became easier to do, and the fruits of his work have been passed down to landlubbers poking at their handheld GPS units. It was a clock that solved the problem, a "chronometer" to professional mariners, and every merchant vessel sailing the seas to this day still carries one in the wheelhouse, as well as at least one sextant (just to be safe).

The bulk of this post comes from my first book, "Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of A Ship". For more on John Harrison, visit the National Maritime Museum's site (see here).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The escalation of piracy off the Horn of Africa

This week has seen a number of notable developments related to piracy in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region, with at least six attacks carried out since Monday. Two of those were attempts to seize vessels sailing about a thousand nautical miles from the African coast - the furthest out any such incidents have yet been reported. But there have also been other events in Somalia itself and in Europe which may reveal we are entering a new phase in the the battle between these maritime criminals and those seeking to stem the rising tide of incidents.

Yesterday saw the assassination of a Somali judge known for having sentenced to jail pirates and members of the al-Shabaab Islamist group. Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aware was shot dead by two masked men in the northern city of Bossaso, likely having incurred the wrath of any number of enemies he had made sitting as a judge in the semi-autonomous Puntland region. (A second lawmaker was also killed yesterday in the region by a gunman.) The need for stronger judicial powers for Somali authorities is vital in dealing with piracy and his killing is clearly an attempt to silence those within Somalia seeking to restore law and order to the country.

Also on Wednesday, the Spanish defence minister announced she would be asking the European Union to have its naval forces enforce a blockade on Somali ports known to be used as pirate havens. Carme Chacon will present this proposal to EU ministers meeting early next week and, if implemented, would mean bringing some of the naval assets in the region closer to shore. This would reduce the presence of warships available to patrol the seas off the HoA, unless additional assets arrive to fill the gap, something that may not necessarily make mariners sailing in the region happy.

The Spanish proposal pushes the battle closer to the pirates' homeports, a containment theory that might lead some to wonder if land-based operations might follow. "Boots on the ground" does not necessarily follow, though, as there is little international consensus on sending troops into Somalia itself in order to reduce the operational capabilities of pirate gangs and their sponsors. Even a naval blockade of Somali ports would require a cautious political approach, for if there is any interruption in the maritime trade that still goes on in and out of those towns, locals could become more incensed about the international community's actions.

Minister Chacon is also quoted by AFP as calling upon the international community to do more to deal with the money-end of pirate operations. She says that the Somali criminals, "[H]ave ties to sophisticated law firms in London," though whether she wants these firms to be shut down or more closely monitored is not explained.

Pirate gangs in Somali are none to happy with the Spaniards right now, as there are two suspects currently being held in Spain and awaiting trial on criminal charges relating to the hijacking of the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana back in early October. The pirates holding the crew of the Alakrana are demanding the release of their brethren - as well as a reported $3 million ransom - altering the previous system in which gangs seized vessels purely for the money. Asking for the release of suspected pirates seized by foreign nations complicates things (as a recent article makes clear).

J. Peter Pham has a lengthy and incisive article posted today at Family Security Matters that details many of the new developments and the potential that the entire situation is getting more complicated, possibly presaging an escalation in the piracy threat off the HoA. His piece makes for sobering reading, as he points out the inability of international naval forces to more effectively work together to stem the tide of attacks this year, and the possibility that Somali pirate gangs may have been using the quiet summer months to consolidate their various operations. In effect, he is saying that the pirates may have developed new operational capabilities while the international community has not. He wraps up his article by wondering just how long the EU can continue to maintain its counter-piracy mission in the region - Operation Atalanta - which costs about $450 million a year to do. And remember the EU Force is not the only one in the region.

The assassination of government officials, pressure to release indicted pirate suspects, better coordination among pirate gangs and wider operational area - combined with increasingly burdensome financial and logistical costs on the international community's part - do not bode well for the months ahead. The onus is now on concerned governments and their military forces to find more effective means to combat piracy in the region, and to do it quickly, because the way we've been trying to deal with pirates hasn't worked.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In advance of Remembrance Day - as we call November 11 here in Canada - I'd like to point out the benefits of donating to the Poppy Fund and highlight an organization working with veterans (just one of many, I might add).

At this time of the year, most Canadians are familiar with the sight of veterans, Royal Canadian Legion personnel and other volunteers making available poppies to wear as a mark of remembrance for those who died in the profession of arms, as well as the countless civilians who also gave their lives aiding in war efforts, and peace making. The genesis of the poppy campaign was a French woman - Mme. Guerin - who convinced the precursor to the Legion back in 1921 to adopt the poppy as a Flower of Remembrance. Since then, those nickels, dimes, quarters and loonies have raised millions of dollars for the benefit of veterans and their families. So while you might think dropping some loose change in the boxes those volunteers tote around may not amount to much, think again. It all adds up, and a little really does go a long way.

And while the Legion's Poppy Fund is there to aid veterans, there's another group I'd to mention: the Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation. Started in 2006 by retired corporal Christian McEachern, the Calgary-based non-profit organization provides programmes that allow Canadian veterans to spend some time in the great outdoors and, as the CVAF so wonderfully says on its website, "reclaim their lust for life". You can learn more about this group and also donate to help them out via their web site, simply by clicking here.

Naval gun battle between the two Koreas

CBC News reports say that naval vessels from the Republic of Korea (ROK - the southern Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - the northern nation) engaged in a brief gun battle yesterday, just before noon local time. The South Korean military says that DPRK patrol boats crossed a disputed nautical demarcation line off the west coast of the peninsula, in the Yellow Sea, about 220 kilometres from Inchon. ROK naval forces responded, firing a warning shot, which led the North Koreans to fire back. Apparently, the South Koreans then retaliated with enough force to set at least one of the DPRK vessels on fire, after which the North Koreans retreated back into their own waters. A South Korean broadcaster claims one North Korean officer was killed and three sailors were wounded. The entire firefight is supposed to have lasted just a couple of minutes.

The battle occurred a week before President Obama is due to visit Asia, including a stop in South Korea, and while the South Koreans are still trying to figure out if this was a deliberate provocation on the part of the Communists, there may be another reason behind the incident: AFP says that the North Koreans entered the disputed waters because they were trying to stop Chinese boats illegally working the crab-fishing grounds in the area. No word if any Somali pirates - er, eco-defenders - were involved.

Map below shows the area where the incident occurred, near the island of Daecheong (#2 on the map). Dotted line indicates the Northern Line Limit, the disputed nautical demarcation between the two Koreas.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Monday Ship Mysteries: Tamils and Tigers and Migrants, oh my

Maritime mysteries: They're not just for Halloween anymore, and hopefully you'll find somethings of interest here to start your week.

I begin with the case of the MV Ocean Lady, a freighter that arrived off Canada's west coast last October (the 17th, to be exact), with a group of Tamils aboard her. In the last month we've seen some incidents in which people fleeing Sri Lanka's troubles by sea, on vessels, have ended up trying to get into Canada and Australia, provoking some worry about the real identities of those aboard. Are they legitimate refugees or, more ominously, are there remnants of the infamous Tamil Tigers, the militant group seeking a separate homeland for their people?

When the Ocean Lady was apprehended by Canadian authorities, the vessel was found to have 76 men on board, all Tamil, who were seeking refugee status from the troubles in their island homeland. But how - and why - did these men come to decide on Canada as a place to seek out, having endured what must have been a horrible trip across the Pacific on a small ship?

According to some reports, the ship left India at the beginning of September, departing Mundra as the Princess Easwary around September 8. Mundra is in the northwest corner of India, on the Gulf of Kachchh, not far from the border with Pakistan. That's a long way from Sri Lanka, though it appears to be the last port of call reported for the vessel. Sometime thereafter - if reports are correct - the ship was renamed the Ocean Lady and headed t0 Canada.

Some believe that the Ocean Lady was part of the small fleet of merchant vessels controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the mostly Hindu population who have been fighting for a separate homeland from the Buddhist, Sinhalese majority on Sri Lanka for decades.

Canada has both a positive attitude towards refugees and a strong Tamil community, which would be the most obvious reasons for these individuals to come here. But some believe that Canada may be becoming the last redoubt of those seeking a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the individuals who arrived on the Ocean Lady, it must be said that it seems odd that 76 able-bodied men would show up on Canada's shore, with no women or children accompanying them (as happened when Tamils arrived in Australian waters recently). Certainly they have legitimate issues about what is going on back in Sri Lanka, but their unexpected arrival off the West Coast does little to help their brethren, as it appears to many like a case of a few fleeing while the most deal with the worst. Which leads to the idea that these men are LTTE foot soldiers trying to get out of the country and help rebuild LTTE operations in Canada.

On the other hand why would the LTTE give up a valuable naval asset (the Ocean Lady) for just 76 guys? You could fly these individuals to Canada on a commercial flight for cheaper than the cost of shipping them. With the same end result. Kind of odd, eh?

So that's the first installment of Monday Maritime Mysteries.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Sunday night updates

I was busy handing out treats on Halloween and only saw a single kid dressed like a pirate, but the spirit of the evening is well represented in a great posting over at Eagle1's blog, in which he relates some great ghost ship tales. Check it out.

There's also a new link on the right to the US Coast Guard's site, with a lot of video, audio, images and other information. Great site, and well worth exploring for anyone interested in the workings of the force.

Somali pirates do a reality check, of sorts

It's being reported that the ransom demand for Rachel and Paul Chandler - the British couple seized by Somali pirates just over a week ago - has dropped considerably. The initial demand of something like US$7 million may have been reduced to £100,000 (about US$165,000), possibly reflecting a better understanding on the part the pirates for the of the financial resources available to the yachters. However, British media outlet The Independent is also reporting that the Chandlers' captors may want to see some of their brethren recently apprehended by European naval forces released as part of the deal.

As should be clear to anyone, the Chandlers are not wealthy and do not have the same sorts of financial backers to pay off the pirates holding them hostage as commercial shippers do. Indeed, holding the couple for an extensive period of time could prove costly for the gang that seized them. These criminal gangs operate on a strictly profit-based model in which a rich payout is expected for all the money and time that goes into taking a prize. A ransom of $165,000 is not high; one could almost call it a recessionary amount, more like what Somali pirates were getting five or six years ago. This may be one reason there appears to be some dissension amongst the pirates holding the couple: It's not hard to imagine someone higher up in the criminal organization asking "Why did you grab these two small fish when there are more valuable targets out there?".

At the same time, a spokesman for the pirates holding the couple expressed a somewhat surreal reasoning for why they kidnapped them in the first place. In a brief transcription posted on The Guardian's website, the conversation went like this:

Caller: "They have been captured by our brothers, who patrol the coast. We have been informed about their presence in the area, where bandits operate. If they do not harm us, we will not harm them, we only need a little amount of seven million dollars."

Recipient of call: "Seven million dollars is a lot of money, isn't it?"

Caller: "No, no, no, NATO operations have had a lot of negative impact here, they have destroyed a lot of equipment belonging to the poor local fishermen. They arrest fishermen and destroy their equipment, in defiance of our local administrations. They illegally transfer the fishermen to their own prisons, and prisons of other foreign countries, so when you consider the damage and all the people affected, we say the amount is not big."

If this weren't so distorted, I'm sure NATO officials would be happy to see how effective their naval operations off the Horn of Africa were having on the pirates themselves. But no mention was made of the European Union's (EU) armada in the region, the two Coalition Task Forces, or the various efforts by nations as diverse as China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, India and even Iran (among many others).

Point is, NATO's counter-piracy operations have not been the only naval operations in the region. And I'm somewhat surprised the pirate spokesman singled out the Treaty when it would have been easier - so to speak - to harangue the EU. (See also today's incident in which Norwegian navy sailors came under fire in the Gulf of Aden and killed two people - reportedly a Somali and Yemeni. Norway is member of NATO, but their warship was working in concert with the EU flotilla.)

But there is a political dimension to this situation that could drive the ransom up. The Independent piece also talks of how all the media attention focused on the Chandlers could have a detrimental effect on their safe release, which is true. Oddly, the less attention paid about them the more likely it is the pirates will give in to a lower ransom. But make no mistake, the couple will only be released if someone ponies up some money. Or someone tries a risky rescue operation - not done lightly after the French fiasco with the yacht Tanit last Spring.

Sitrep update: A French tuna boat is reported to have repelled an attack on Saturday while sailing in the Indian Ocean between Somalia and the Seychelles. It's said that soldiers aboard the French vessel fired off rounds from their weapons and fireworks of some sort.