It was one year ago that Somali pirates seized the tanker Maersk Alabama and then quickly paid the ultimate price – shot in the head by snipers – for their efforts. During what was a very busy year for piracy on the Indian Ocean that was the first time an American-operated ship had been seized. You might have thought its culmination, the killing of three of the four pirate/gunman holding 53-year-old Captain Richard Phillips would have given the pirates pause. (Phillips book about the incident – A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea – is just out.)
While 2009 was a busy year for the Somali pirates — 217 ships attacked between Yemen and Somalia, 47 seized for ransom, 867 crew members held hostage — 2010 is looking like a record-breaker.
I was in the Indian Ocean one year ago, during the height of the grabbings, researching a film, and was struck by just how blatant the pirates had become, straying a thousand miles off the coast of Somalia into the Seychelles Islands. I was also struck by the acceptance of piracy by most of the locals, starting with the very first exhibit you see inside the door of the state museum on the Seychelles island of Mahe, which traces the discovery of the region by pirates back six centuries. It’s a very poor corner of the world and a bit of Robin Hood-on-the-seas is apparently acceptable.
This January, a Greek oil tanker and its 28-member crew were freed for $5.5 million, the largest ransom yet paid to free a hijacked ship. In February, Ukrainians paid $3.2 million to free an arms freighter. During the last week of March eight ships were hijacked in three days. Last week pirates grabbed a 300,000-ton Korean super-tanker laden with $160 million worth of crude oil headed from Iraq to the U.S., which is now anchored off the coast of Somalia, its 24-crew hostage. Its owner is negotiating for its release right now. (The pirates are not infallible, of course: In mid-March a pair of skiffs mistakenly attacked a Dutch warship, confusing it with a cargo ship; they were chased down and caught, their weapons confiscated, and let go.) Private security guards aboard a merchant ship recently shot dead one of several attackers trying to seize the vessel. The killing was thought to have been the first involving private contractors – a now booming business for underemployed mercenaries whose Iraq contracts have expired.
“The pressures and the incentives for the pirates are so great and the risks are still so low,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “Unless you get some solution on land, or cooperation from local authorities, this will just remain a problem that you can tamp down only occasionally.”
While I feel sorry for all the crew members still being held, the people I would most not want to be? The British couple in their 60s who were kidnapped last October between the Seychelles and Tanzania aboard their 38 foot sailboat, the Lynn RivaI. Held in separate camps onshore for the past six months, the pirates have lowered their ransom demand for the couple from about $9 million to $2 million; officials fear if someone doesn’t come up with the cash, militant Islamist groups may “buy” them to use as pawns.
One piece of good news? Somali pirates are reported to have donated a “large sum” to humanitarian aid in Haiti, post-earthquake.
Reading the Times today I got very nostalgic. A trio of stories took me back to places I’ve traveled over the years and characters I’ve met, ironically while reporting for the Times.
I’m just back recently from the Maldives so read with great interest the Magazine’s profile of the country’s new president Mohamed Nasheed and his struggles with preparing his low-lying country for inevitable sea level rise. Or at least it seems inevitable; there are a couple voices in the story that suggest rising seas may not be an assured thing. I first visited the Maldives in 2005, on assignment for the Times, just weeks after tsunami waves killed eight hundred of its residents.
Jeffrey Gettleman’s profile of a Somali pirate leader, set on land rather than sea, is eye opening, especially on the heels of the series we ran last week about a passenger ship making its way up the coast, dodging pirates. The story paints a picture of battling forces within Somalia, debating the propriety of rebels wreaking havoc on the open seas. While pirate leaders continue to argue that over fishing by international fleets and the complete lack of government in Somalia has lead to the need for piracy, they’re having a hard time selling the argument even at home. The best part of the story was that its “hero” had already burned through several hundred thousand dollars in ransom he’d personally collected, claiming, “It’s not like three people split a million bucks. It’s more like 300.”
Closer to home there’s a fun profile of the coming 40th anniversary of Woodstock in the Style section … which prompted me to search and reread the story I wrote for the Times Magazine about Woodstock on its 25th anniversary. What hasn’t changed in the past fifteen years? The original organizers still don’t get along (though one of the original foursome – John Roberts – passed away in 2001). Will they be able to get their collective shit together and host some kind of 40th bash?
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