- Best practice manual for tankers and other vessels entering and working in the pirate-infested waters of West Africa has been released.
- Will help mariners detect, deter and delay external threats to their safety.
- There is an unprecedented increase in piracy attacks in 2019.
- Lack of efficient law enforcement especially in the eastern Gulf of Guinea is a challenge for seafarers.
- The total annual cost of piracy prevention is as much as $12 billion.
- Pirates are using modern modus operandi techniques to attack ships stealthily.
- New developments in vision and sensor technology help deal with the piracy problem.
- Ships equipped with sensors that take in data surrounding the ship, alert crew, and patrols about pirate invasion.
According to an article published in Riviera Maritime Media and IBTimes, authored by Craig Jallal and Yarden Gross, several shipping organizations have pooled knowledge and experience to produce a best practice manual for tankers and other vessels entering and working in the pirate-infested waters of West Africa.
Best management practices
A new publication will help mariners detect, deter and delay external threats to their safety. Best Management Practices to Enhance Maritime Security for Vessels & Mariners Operating Off the Coast of West Africa including the Gulf of Guinea (BMP WA) consolidates and enhances existing guidance for specific threats in this region.
Saftey in need of the hour
There was a surge in piracy attacks in the region towards the end of 2019. In early December 2019, 19 seafarers were kidnapped from the VLCC Nave Constellation 100 nautical miles south of Bonny Island, Nigeria. In the last week of 2019, three ships were targeted and repelled pirates including BW Lokoja and Suezmax tanker Istanbul. On 30 December 2019, three vessels, Vinalines Mighty, Happy Lady, and Drogba were attacked.
In the case of the 2007-built, 22,600 dwt Handysize dry bulk carrier Vinalines Mighty, maritime security firm Dryad Global said three pirates boarded the ship but the crew was unharmed. Happy Lady, a 2013-built 51,900 dwt chemical/product tanker, was boarded by pirates who took eight crew members hostage and wounded one. Five Greek nationals, two Filipino nationals, and one Ukrainian have reportedly been kidnapped. The incident took place at Limboh Anchorage, Cameroon.
The 2015-built, 63,500 Ultramax dry bulk carrier Drogba was attacked in Bight of Bonny, Gulf of Guinea, while en route from Lagos to Harcourt, Nigeria. Pirates encountered an armed team of Nigerian Navy personnel on board and fled. The vessel reached Harcourt the same day.
Industry organizations welcome the publication
“Due to the regrettable lack of efficient law enforcement especially in the eastern Gulf of Guinea, this consolidated antipiracy guidance is a must-read for seafarers operating within reach of Nigerian pirates,” said BIMCO secretary-general and chief executive officer Angus Frew.
ICS secretary general Guy Platten said, “It is unacceptable that pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea continue to threaten the lives of our seafarers, especially at a time when we are also having to fend off the threat from COVID-19. This publication shows the shipping industry’s firm commitment to the safety and welfare of the men and women who move world trade, and ending the blight of piracy in the region once and for all.”
“The safety of seafarers is our top priority. Seafarers need our support and with this publication, supplemented by adequate training, we hope seafarers should feel and be safer. Their feedback would also be much welcome for the industry to improve the offered guidance,” said Intercargo secretary-general Dr. Kostas G Gkonis.
Seafarers are at an increased risk
Intertanko managing director Katharina Stanzel said, “Insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea continues to blight the lives of seafarers working in the region. This new best practice manual, tailored specifically for local conditions, provides guidance and advice to mitigate the threat. While it is just one small part of a solution, the key remains in the hands of the region. This publication offers practical mitigation measures to keep seafarers and vessels safe, a must-read for all,” said OCIMF director Rob Drysdale.
Sea piracy, the stuff of kids stories and swashbuckling Hollywood classics, is still with us – but modern pirates have none of the charms of their storybook predecessors. In 2009, for example, the MV Maersk Alabama was taken over by pirates (as portrayed in the movie ‘Captain Phillips’), leading to the kidnapping of the captain and a bloody shootout involving U.S. Navy Seals.
At any given time, there are about 100,000 vessels at sea. Oil tankers, cargo vessels, fishing boats, cruise ships, and patrol boats crowd the seas, and many of them are loaded with riches that prove to be too tempting for seagoing criminals to pass up.
Although most ships won’t be hit by them, pirates – especially in areas where enforcement is weak – play the seas as well, looking for easy targets, specifically among cargo ships and oil tankers. So far in 2020, there have been fewer than 20 incidents of piracy on the high seas, most of them concentrated in specific areas. No ships have been outright seajacked; in most cases, pirates who boarded ships were overcome by the crew.
Shippers not taking any chances
However, shippers don’t take chances – they invest a great deal of effort and money in protecting vessels. The shipping industry annually lays out billions in insurance and in rerouting ships away from danger zones, and then there are the expenses for the deployment of naval forces to protect ships, the “hit” to local ports for lost business, etc. The total annual cost of piracy prevention is as much as $12 billion.
Modus operandi of pirates
One reason pirates are able to get away with attacks is their stealthiness. They sneak up on cargo ships and quickly board them before their victims have an opportunity to defend themselves, put some distance between themselves and potential attackers, or inform authorities that they are likely to become victims of a forced boarding.
A quick perusal of attacks shows that stealth is indeed the modern pirate’s modus operandi. One attack off the coast of Nigeria saw “robbers in a small boat approach an anchored tanker during STS cargo operations. Two of the robbers attempted to board the tanker via the anchor chain. The duty crew on routine rounds noticed the robbers and raised the alarm.”
In another attack, “Two unauthorized persons from two skiffs came alongside and boarded an anchored tanker. Duty watchman on security rounds noticed the persons on the forecastle deck. Alarm raised and crew mustered. Seeing the alerted crew, the persons jumped overboard and escaped.” In a third attack, “Five armed pirates in a small craft approached a tanker underway. Alarm raised and evasive maneuvers commenced. Armed security team onboard the tanker fired warning shots resulting in the pirates returning fire and then aborting the approach and moving away.”
In each of these and many other reported attacks, pirates were able to approach their targets using small boats that evaded detection, using odd maneuvers and roundabout routes, often under cover of darkness. While crews successfully fended off the attack in each case, the danger of someone getting hit in the crossfire – or the pirates actually succeeding – always exists. Those stealth tactics, for example, were what enabled Somali pirates to hijack the Aris 13 oil tanker in 2017.
So how can ships avoid pirates?
One way is to stick with the crowd. It’s unlikely that a pirate skiff will be able to sneak up on a ship in crowded waterways, but there are going to be times and places where a ship may be alone.
In those situations, ships would likely rely on radar, which would give them insight into vessels and objects in the area. Unfortunately, most radar systems are designed to detect large objects that a ship is at risk of colliding with; they often miss small boats and skiffs, the vessels that have become the preferred method of pirate invasion.
A third possibility is to keep in constant touch with naval patrols and other security groups while in dangerous waters. But, often a patrol boat will be tens of kilometers away from a ship, too far to navigate to the scene of the crime when called upon for help.
Technologies come to aid
Fortunately, new developments in vision and sensor technology are available to help deal with the piracy problem. Ships equipped with sensors that take in data about everything surrounding the ship, large and small, can alert crew and patrols that a pirate invasion is on the way.
Using machine learning, for example, a sensor-based system that detects a skiff would analyze its movements, and based on data from previous encounters, it would alert the crew that the kinds of maneuvers the skiff is making indicate that it is likely a pirate vessel. Crew members could then take their positions to defend the vessel, or even take pre-emptive action against the offenders.
Using advanced vision technology, systems could more easily identify offending vessels. By recording speed and trajectory and matching the data with a map of the surrounding area, for example, a system could provide authorities with information on the likely whereabouts of offenders, making it easier to catch them before they strike again.
Long John Silver is long gone, but his criminal heirs are still plying the high seas – quite successfully, unfortunately. Pirates who steal cargo or, increasingly, kidnap crews and hold them for ransom “earn” tens of millions of dollars a year. New developments in technology will hopefully put this scourge to a stop once and for all.
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