Piracy: An Unexpected Vacation Surprise

Shirley M. Mueller, M.D.

Tour companies aren't forthcoming about letting passengers know if they could be entering pirate-infested waters. Here's what you need to know to prevent unknowingly boarding a ship that could be attacked.

Photo courtesy of Thomas M. Mueller

Razor wire on the rails of the Clipper Odyssey, our cruise ship to South India and Sri Lanka cruise, in December, 2011

When I signed up for a Clipper Odyssey vacation through Zaghram Expeditions, the thought that it might be unsafe didn’t enter my mind. Even when I boarded the ship, the importance of the razor wire embellishing the rails didn’t register. That is, until one evening, when the head of security spoke to the passengers about why he and three other ex- British Royal Marines were on board with weapons.

He told us straight: “There are pirates in these waters. We are here to protect you.”

This was a surprise, not only to me, but the other guests on the ship. We learned that our vessel was in a vulnerable position on its course from Mumbai down the Southwest Indian coast. This is the area between the Lakshadweep Islands to the west and India to the east. It has recently become inhabited by pirates that fled from the coast of Somalia due to an international warship crackdown there.

Map from www.yourchildlearns.com

The Lakshadweep Islands are highlighted above. They are just north of the Maldives and west of the South Indian Coast.

I will call the head of security Jude. He told me there have been around six pirate attacks in the Lakshadweep region recently. Seeing the danger, the Indian Navy clamped down quickly and in the process shot pirates. In retaliation, the Somali bandits killed their Indian hostages.

Now, apparently there is a standoff. The pirates have more hostages and authorities are afraid they will be killed if the Indian Navy continues to be aggressive. In all, Jude indicated that the pirates are currently holding more than 259 hostages from various countries including India, the Philippines, South Korea and Croatia.

Jude’s story Jude has brown curly hair that looks unwashed from time to time. He can also sprout a stubble beard. This fits his lanky frame and large blue eyes. His expression is consistently unrevealing. He is team leader of the ex-Royal Marines on board.

When Jude was with the Royal Marines for eight years, he was stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and Sierra Leone. Clearly, he saw active duty. The last two years he has been with Solace Global Maritime. It is the United Kingdom's leading Maritime Security Services Company.

Jude lives with his wife, who is due to deliver a baby in April, and his young daughter in Southwest England. Though his tour of duty was to be over in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he and his crew were asked to stay on the ship for other expeditions including the Seychelles and then down the eastern coast of Africa because there is pirate activity in that area too. He will get off in Durbin, South Africa to go home in time for the birth of his second child.

Royal Marines are trained to fight terrorists and as such were hired by

Solace

to do just that in a private capacity rather than for their country. The four on board were lean well-conditioned young men in their 30s. This means that if we run into the equivalent of those bluebeards of old, they will protect us.

They have several lines of defense, the first being that they are even onboard. Eighty percent of ships are unprotected and easier targets. The ominous curled razor wire on the rail, which is readily visible, is another threat. It acts as a deterrent to boarding the vessel. Yet another deflector is flares that are sent up as a warning.

“This usually will scare them off as there are so many ships that don’t or won’t be able to put up any resistance,” Jude said. “When [the pirates] see there is some, they just lay off.”

The ship’s course can be diverted, also making it more difficult for any pursuers to board the boat. If the pirates persist in spite of these efforts, there is a show of arms; the ex-Royal Marines hold their semi-automatic weapons above their heads while wearing body armor.

As a last warning, our protectors shoot into the air and if needed into the hull of the pirate vessel. Presumably, this would deter most bandits though Jude told me his worse fear is pirates that have been in the Arabian Sea for a long time and are low on supplies. This will make them more aggressive because they need provisions and would be willing to take more risk. Then, even shooting into the hull of their boat might not deter them.

Zach’s story

Zach (not his real name), another of the ex-Royal Marines, was my dinner companion one night. The lad was blond haired, blue eyed, thin, tall, animated and talkative. He told me he missed his family and was eager to get back to them. He was leaving the ship earlier than the others, all of whom had been asked to extend their tours. Zach was the only one who hadn’t.

He has two children, ages 5 and 7, back in England. One of them goes to private school. This seemed to make him proud. His significant other makes wedding cakes to earn money. They hoped to make enough to buy a place of their own. He left the ship in Colombo, Sri Lanka to go back to England. He was replaced by a rather large, tall, dark-haired, pleasant-looking young man.

The pirates are evidently of two kinds, those working on their own and those hired by the equivalent of organized crime: rich Saudi Arabians chipping in on a good thing. Either way they are looking for ransom. If the money is required in cash, it is likely the less sophisticated group. If it is a wire transfer, it is the mafia like faction. Jude said the latter “made millions doing this.”

He also said the pirates were originally trained by British forces in 2005 that were sent to try to stabilize the coast of Somali. The objective was to help the fishermen by training Somali soldiers to keep foreign nationals from using the fishing waters. This, apparently, backfired. Once trained, some of the soldiers began freelancing, robbing ships for ransom. This has since escalated to the equivalent of a Somali and Saudi profit center.

Zaghram Expeditions did not tell me I would be in pirate waters even though it must have known as that is why the razor wire was on the rail and the armed guards were on our ship. My assumption is that I wasn’t told because it would work against the company’s best interests, which is engaging people to sign up for the trips. Where their moral responsibly lies is a matter of opinion or perhaps a topic of discussion for ethics experts.

For now, vacationers will apparently have to take this responsibility on themselves. If I had been more knowledgeable, I would have asked my representative at Zaghram directly. Even then, I suppose I could not be sure of an accurate answer. I believe this because originally we were told the razor wire was on the ship only because of where it had been, not where it was going. I later found that this was inaccurate.

A second way to investigate whether or not pirates are in a potential vacation area is to use the internet. Key words such as pirates and the location being considered will glean information not readily available in American papers.

Our Royal Marines indicated both the east and west coasts of Africa have active pirate activity. That means that two trips I had previously considered are no longer feasible for me. This does not hold true for everyone. Some are braver than others.

Further Reading:

Vanity Fair 2009 article about a cruise ship attack by pirates, though passengers were not aboard

Some ships cancelled due to pirates

A recent pirate story