Into the Pirate’s Sea
Every day dozens of ships – carrying cargo, crews, even passengers – are picking their way carefully around the Somali coastline on the Gulf of Aden, attempting to move from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea. These are currently the most dangerous waters on the planet: In the first three months of the year there have been more than one hundred successful pirate attacks and hundreds more just-unsuccessful.
At risk are both human lives and ships worth tens of millions of dollars. The Somali pirates are putting their lives on the line as well, but they’ve obviously decided it’s a good gamble: Last year this fledgling hostage-and-ship-taking industry collected upwards of $80 million in ransom. Not bad business for the rag-tag pirates who do the hijacking and the gang leaders onshore orchestrating them.
My friend Dennis Cornejo – marine biologist, undersea filmmaker, lover of flora and reptiles – is aboard a passenger ship (sans passengers) making its move through the Gulf of Aden, paralleling the Somali coastline, around the Horn of Africa. If successful, the trip should take five to six days. If unsuccessful, the next we hear from him may be as a hostage, the ship being held for ransom. Follow his reports from the heart of the pirate’s sea.
DAY 1 — Two weeks ago I suggested I should stay on the ship for the repositioning from Tanzania to Egypt so I could get a backlog of work done. That was before the pirates had become so active in the Indian Ocean. Before a ship we had anchored next to at Assumption Island in the Aldabra group (the “Ocean Explorer,” a dive boat based in the Seychelles) was taken by pirates (several weeks later it and its crew are still being held). Before the American freighter “Maersk Alabama” was attacked and three pirates killed by U.S. Navy Seal snipers, followed by increased threats made against Americans.
The seventy-person, mostly Filipino crew is surprised that I am staying aboard and I think a little pleased that it is not just them. After all, I’m a volunteer and they are not. The young women ask me, “Aren’t you scared?”
“Well, I’m a bit concerned,” I answer. “But it will be alright, we have a good plan.” Inside I’m thinking, “Yeah, run like hell and hope for the best.”
Passengers and most of our staff left the ship this morning at the dock in Dar es Salaam and the ship is now being prepared in earnest for the journey around Somalia. They have mounted steel grating around the poop deck; when we’re at sea it will be electrified, with warning signs written in Swahili. Fire hoses have been fixed in place on the lowest open decks, to be fired at once to help keep small boats away from the ship. Hooks have been welded onto the fantail to attach razor wire to, which will be stretched around the ship’s stern and balconies.
While still at dock the boson oversees getting the razor wire in place while the crew spends the morning smearing axle grease on the sides of the ship. As a final touch, before we pull out of port broken glass is added to the grease and razor wire on the fantail.
We have also taken on board a security detail, six Special Forces agents from the U.K. Ex-military they have all previously worked as “security contractors” in other dangerous parts of the world, like Iraq.
After the ship leaves Dar es Salaam and enters the open sea we have our first security briefing. If pirates attack the ship or it is believed that an attack is possible – if a suspicious boat is seen on the horizon or skiffs are fast-approaching — the general alarm will be sounded, followed by a broadcast of “Pirate attack! Pirate attack! Pirate attack!” All of us that are not involved with defending the ship, which is most of us, are to proceed below deck to the Crew Mess where we will be ticked off the manifest to wait it out.
Other than that, it is to be work as usual, except that no one is allowed on deck, except the deck crew. The only exception is a small area behind the Bridge. Most of the ship is off limits because the doors are to be kept bolted shut at all times. The idea is to put as many locked steel doors between the pirates and us as possible. If even one door is left unbolted the pirates can be deep in the ship very quickly and then we are lost, we are hostages heading for Somalia.
Tonight I thought it might be a good idea to show a movie, but was told that people were too tired. Which turned out to be true, but they were more than just tired, they were anxious. They gathered in small quiet groups around the ship, awkward, intimate and scared, trying for normal. – Dennis Cornejo