Monday, April 5, 2010

Pirates Capture Largest Vessel Ever: Supertanker Samho Dream

MT Samho Dream

In another audacious attack, suspected Somali pirates seized the supertanker Samho Dream early Sunday morning while she was sailing in the Indian Ocean, some 1500 kilometres southeast of the Gulf of Aden. The VLCC was sailing from Iraq to Louisiana with about 2 million barrels of crude oil in its holds at the time of the attack. The cargo is reportedly valued at around $170 million (US). The VLCC did not have any armed guards aboard her, as she was steaming in waters not normally known to be high risk seas for pirate attacks. (The vessel would have been bound for southern Africa on its journey to the United States, as it is too large to transit the Suez Canal.)

With this incident, pirates have captured the largest vessel ever successfully attacked. The previous record was for the supertanker Sirius Star, which was seized November 15, 2008 and released in early January, 2009, after a ransom of some $3 million was paid to the pirates. The Samho Dream is just slightly larger than the Sirius Star, weighing in at 319,360 DWT and being 333 metres in length (according to Sunday's attack occurs almost a year after the Maersk Alabama incident, the anniversary of which is later this week.

And, in that peculiar way that global shipping works, there are a number of nations with active interests in the vessel: The Samho Dream is flagged in the Marshall Islands, owned by a Singaporean firm, operated by a South Korean company, crewed with mariners from South Korea and the Philippines and carrying cargo owned by American refiners Valero Energy Corp. A South Korean destroyer has reportedly been dispatched to shadow the supertanker as it makes it way towards the Somali coastline.

Last September I mused about the rising tide of ransoms being received by pirate gangs, and wondered if we'd see a $5 million ransom paid before Christmas (2009). I was slightly off in that prediction: The supertanker Maran Centaurus was captured by Somali pirates in mid-November and released on January 19 of this year, and the ransom paid was somewhere between $5.5 and 7 million.

Regardless, if the captors of the Samho Dream manage to get the tanker to Somali waters and begin negotiations for her release, we can expect to see a new record for the ransom requested. Will the pirates be paid? Probably. But should they be paid? That's the hard question. With 24 mariners aboard the supertanker, it is their lives that will hang in the balance as a ransom is discussed and, clearly, their lives are worth whatever it takes to be freed.

However, each time ransoms are paid - and go up and up - they imperil the lives of other mariners who sail those waters. It's why there are reported to be at least 24 vessels currently being held by Somali pirates, with about 358 hostages awaiting freedom from their enforced captivity. The maritime criminals operating in that part of the world are betting on garnering a lot of money, and, so far, they've been wildly successful doing so. At some point, the paying of ever more exorbitant ransoms has to be curtailed, just as the means by which the shipping world and the international community finds better way to stem these attacks.

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