My friend Dennis Cornejo reports that the ship he’s riding has successfully emerged on the upside of the Gulf of Aden. In the final 24 hours of its voyage they heard other ships calling over the radio for help; at the same time, closer to the Seychelles, an Italian ship carrying 1,000 passengers was attacked but its Israeli security team was able to repel the pirates. Thankfully during his six-day ride from Dar es Salaam to the Red Sea not a single pirate skiff or mother ship breached the horizon.
“Anxiety has given way to relief and high spirits and our lives are a bit more acute and focused, for awhile,” reports Dennis. “In what seems like a ‘world gone mad’ I think we have done a little bit to make it better, to take it back from those who would highjack it. With a plan both bold and brilliant we made a passage through what suddenly became some of the most dangerous waters in the world, without incident, without ever seeing a pirate. We did not do it on a dare or for glory, we did what we normally do — make a plan and be prepared, it is what you do at sea and what we should do in life.”
Pirate history is rich across the Indian Ocean, this was on La Digue in the Seychelles
Meanwhile, attacks continue, disrupting U.N. aid supplies, driving up insurance costs, demanding that ship owners consider arming crews and forcing some to consider routing cargo between Europe and Asia around South Africa instead. There is a great, inside look at the future of piracy, excerpted from Alex Perry’s “Falling Off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization,” at National Geographic Adventure’s site and a CBS video illustrating the efforts of international navies to help stem the current rise in attacks.
DAY 5 — Our closest point yet to the Somali coast, just eighteen miles. When we send our position to the military coalition forces this morning we quickly receive a phone call … they are surprised we are so close. It was a surprising, bold plan – we are less than an hour offshore — which appears to be working.
At first light we spy two large fishing boats (mother ships?); skiffs zip around one of them. They also see us and it won’t take much effort for them to plot our course and speed after just a few minutes of radar observation. Maybe they are just fisherman, but I don’t think a small ship like ours racing up the coast will go unreported for long.
What we are trying to avoid ....
After breakfast I walk onto the Bridge from outside and immediately realize there are a lot of people staring in the same direction with binoculars and spotting scopes. I assume there are skiffs on the horizon and look out quickly, listening into the conversations, studying faces, looking for fear. Then words become information. Yes, they are coming … but it’s a pod of short-finned pilot whales swimming straight at the ship. Their nonchalance and simple curiosity brings emotional relief and a sense of normality … this is what we usually do, explore and encounter the interesting. People do it for the enjoyment, yet sometimes they say “for the experience.” I am thinking now that it’s nice when you get to choose your experiences.
As I enter the ship, down the stairs from the Bridge, two stewardesses are in the hallway. They ask what’s going on and I can sense they are scared. When I tell them it’s pilot whales coming towards the ship one says, “Oh! We are safe?” Yes, just whales, I assure her. Her friend giggles, nervously, a long-held breath expelled.
I stay busy through the morning and listen in to the radio, which is full of chatter, though not in English or any language I recognize. There are more boats about. We divert course to avoid two fishing ships in our path. Everyone on the Bridge looks tired.
Below decks two crew men ask what the “Dee Dee” is. “What?” I’m not sure what they’re asking me until they explain that’s the new code for “news.” I explain about the whales; one nods, the other shakes his head.
In fact there is news, which I don’t share: Four ships were attacked last night, one taken. We have now turned the Horn of Africa and are moving into the thick of things.
I just miss what I’m told is a beautiful sunset. It’s difficult to know what time of day it is with all the windows blacked out. Into the evening there is still lots of radio chatter, from fisherman and warships, maybe even pirates. Though there is still an uncomfortably high chance of attack in this area we do not feel so alone and the mood is lighter. More smiles, more folks looking around at the darkening sky. In the near-distance we can hear a helicopter. The ship is traveling almost due west now and if we can make it for 24 more hours, I’m told it will be time to celebrate, but not quite yet …. – Dennis Cornejo
DAY 4 – This is our third day out of Dar es Salaam. We’ve had repeated pirate drills, gathering in the Crew Mess — our ‘Citadel’ – and reporting our crew number to the Hotel Manager while the security team checks to see that all of the proper doors have been locked. Just a single passage is left open down into the ship, for those left on the bridge if we would be attacked. If the ship seems lost anyone still on the bridge is to send out distress calls and then retreat immediately to the Citadel, locking the last doors behind them. The Captain of each ship is a highly valuable commodity and in case of trouble our goal is to get him below deck, to safety. There are to be no more drills.
Until today we’ve not seen another ship or boat. No one. We are close to the Somali coast now, very close. Midday we pass two freighters, seeming to be in one place, adrift, facing the sea. This is very strange for these waters, very ominous, like a scene from “Heart of Darkness.”
We soon learn that one of the ships is a Filipino freighter that had been released by pirates four days before with very little fuel; when we pass them they are just drifting, with only enough power for lights and radio. They had been sending out a constant “mayday.” Apparently a German military ship had delivered them some food a few days before, but left and now they are nearly dead in the water. The other ship is U.S. Navy delivering food; who knows how long it will stay around.
Those on board it knew that pirates are still in the area and the crew was afraid they would be re-taken. There had apparently been some kind of double-cross by the owners of the boat involving a $2.1 million dollar ransom and it’s rumored the pirates are unhappy with the situation and might come back aboard and the ship, which remains helpless against them. The ship had been held since November with the crew on very short rations, their families frantic. No one wants to go back to Somalia.
Most of the crew on the drifting ship is Filipino and it is interesting listening into the conversations among our mostly-Filipino crew. They are upset, worried. Many of the hostages still being held in Somalia are Filipinos.
“Where is the company, the owner of that ship?” one of our deckhands asked me. “There is suppose to be a tanker with fuel coming, where is it? They know the ship is sitting there, an easy target without fuel.” He is angry but I could tell he was speaking from fear and sadness. He was thinking of his family back home, how they would feel if he were taken hostage.
The Filipinos go to sea to make a better life at home for their families. They are the backbone of the international shipping industry and yet almost invisible. The bonds among them are very strong. In our business the elite destination is Antarctica and in a well-traveled group you do not ask, “Have you been to Antarctica?” The more proper question is, “How many times have you been to Antarctica?” As a group it is the Filipinos who have been to Antarctica more than anyone. But throughout the industry, and on the Somali shores, they remain invisible, without political power.
Someone keeps leaving the gym unlocked, which is at the top of the ship. We are only allowed to use it during the daytime and it is supposed to be kept locked at all times as it gives access to a main stairway that passes through the entire ship. If it happens again there will not be any more use of the gym! Even though I am not using it, I wonder how someone can be so thoughtless, so clueless, to leave it unlocked, endangering everyone on board. In a movie or a novel people like that always seem contrived, but I guess they do exist. – Dennis Cornejo
DAY 3 — It almost seems like a normal repositioning day, which the ship does several times a year, moving from port to port without passengers. But this is our third day moving up the coast of Somalia so nothing is normal. Still, there’s lots of work being done all around the ship and even a BBQ lunch on the sun deck under armed guard!
The day is warm, the sea flat and most importantly, empty of other boats, which helps the mood. One change that’s hard to get used to is that it’s hard to find anyone on board. Usually if I was looking for someone I would just call on our handheld radio system, but we’re not allowed to use them during this passage. Too easy for someone off the ship to listen in, we’re told, alerting them that we’re in the area, making it easy for someone to get a position fix on the transmitting radio. On the Bridge they are monitoring the marine bands, but just listening, never answering. At one of the drills we are still having daily the Chief Officer said, “We will be monitoring channels 16 and 77. If we hear you on the radio, we will tell you to shut up!” The result is that it is strangely silent in the dive locker where I work. Usually I would have the handheld radio on so that I can keep up with what’s going on around the ship; now I do not, so I play my music a little louder to feel less alone.
Somali pirates hoping to win the lottery
We have chosen to run close to the Somali coastline so are making good time since we didn’t have to go very far out to sea. The Coalition forces recommend following a route that would have taken us hundreds of miles east of Somalia. But the day before we left Dar es Salaam the Captain showed me a map detailing recent pirate attacks, complete with graphics showing all the attacks and captures during the past year. He pointed out that there had been no attacks near the coast. Which was true, the map was clean and white near the coastline. Every day ships are being attacked and taken on the “recommended” route, which is continuously being pushed further offshore. And still the pirates are out there, waiting and desperate. Mother ships take small skiffs hundreds of mile out to sea and then cut them loose, telling the pirates in them, “The only way you get home is on what you capture.”
The Hotel Manager shows me a You Tube clip showing a pirate attack on a freighter. Someone has a camera on the high bridge at the back of the ship, which picks up a skiff — a hard-bottom inflatable — near the bow. In a minute it is up against the ship and secured by grappling hooks thrown over the rail. In less than three minutes a pirate is on board running towards the bridge, quickly joined by another who has climbed on from the other side of the bow, from another skiff. He’s also running. Just a few minutes more and the ship is taken, the film clip ends. What happened to that ship? I don’t know and to be honest I don’t care. But now, throughout the day, that scene replays in my head over and over. I also see a picture of the pirate captured by the Navy Seals and think, “So this is what a pirate looks like! He has really white teeth, just like everyone else in the movies, magazines and TV!”
I’m told that the pirates often attack from both port and starboard in order confuse the Captain, to limit effective evasive actions. And the pirate skiffs are out there, two hundred miles or more offshore, just waiting for some way to go home, to win the lottery. But we’re not going out there! The Captain feels we have a better chance by being bold.
We watch another movie after dinner (“Marley and Me”) and people gather afterwards to talk or play card games. There’s lots of joking and in a surreal way things almost seem … normal. – Dennis Cornejo
The pirates currently haunting the coast of Somalia are painted in the media as “rag-tag,” modern day Robin Hood’s armed with RPGs. Which is in part true. But they are not operating out here on the ocean completely alone. The “Globe and Mail” has a great interview with one of the onshore leaders.
“When Gilbert and Sullivan composed their melodies about the pirate king, it was doubtful they had a Somali like Garaad in mind. Yet this former fisherman, the man behind many of the recent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, is as close as it comes to pirate royalty in the modern world. In an interview on the breezy patio of a Somali hotel, he explains how he exerts direct control over 13 groups of pirates with a total of 800 hijackers, operating in bases stretching from Bosasso to Kismaayo, near the Kenyan border. Each group has a ‘sub-lieutenant’ who reports directly to Garaad, and none of them make a move without his authorization.
Piracy has a long, romanticized history in the Indian Ocean; this bar in the Seychelles proudly bears witness
“An armchair CEO, Garaad is curiously uninterested in the fruits of his operation. ‘I don’t know the names of any of the ships my men capture, and I don’t care,” he says, “The only thing I care about is sending more pirates into the sea.’ ”
Which is something weighing heavily on the minds of those aboard the passenger ship (sans passengers) as it moves north along the Somali coastline.
DAY 2 – A very strange day. People are too quiet or too loud, on edge, some wide-eyed. Almost everyone seems anxious and pensive. I find my own thoughts and mood drifting throughout the day. Which is highlighted by yet more meetings, more drills, regarding both pirates and fires.
At one we are told that if we are taken hostage to remain passive, neither help nor hinder. Do not have sympathy for your captors, we are told by the Special Forces crew that came on board in Tanzania. Why not be sympathetic, I wonder to myself? A question I mean to ask when this is all over. I think I can guess, but I would like to hear what they have to say, what lessons have been learned.
If there is a fire, we need to assemble somewhere on the higher decks, in either the Lounge or the Dining Room, with our life jackets. The Dining Room would be easier because the Lounge is completely locked down, but that of course depends on where the fire is, which we all intuitively understand.
Tonight we organize to show a movie for the eighty-plus people on board (“Slumdog Millionaire”). At 2030 the Lounge is unlocked and we follow a single route through the ship. Lots of people come and spirits are brightened a bit.
At night the security team makes sure the ship is as dark as possible. Lights are disconnected, portholes covered. There are always three of them on duty at any one time, each joined by one of the Filipino crew. They are constantly watching the horizon. We need to spot the pirates from as far away as possible in order to turn the ship away from them and make them chase us. The idea is to maximize the time it takes for them to get aboard, giving our (hopeful) rescuers the most time we can to reach our ship before the pirates catch up and attempt to board it. Hopefully someone with big guns will be nearby, but I do not think so. The warships are most likely hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia, near the shipping channel, near the route recommended for safe passage through the Gulf of Aden.
I now remember to carry a small flashlight at night so I can go outside and smoke without falling down a ladder. Outside in the dark one of the security crew, who I cannot make out in the blackness, says to me, “Four days and we are safe.” It’s neither a question nor a statement, more of a hope I guess. I smoke two cigarettes, look at the stars, so many in the dark, and prefer to stay silent. – Dennis Cornejo
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