Are people too spooked about pirates?
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Are people too spooked about pirates?

Just in the past few weeks we have had reports of piracy attempts on the Nautica and the Astor and a false alarm on the Athena while the Columbus last week flew all her passengers from Hodeida to Dubai to avoid the Gulf of Aden. Piracy is nothing new, but so far has been restricted to the smallest, slowest and oldest of cargo ships. But just how much of a threat is piracy to cruise ships in waters that see 20,000 vessels a year sailing through?

The "Santa Maria"

Although no cruise ship or passenger ship has yet been hijacked, the first major seizure of such a ship happened almost half a century ago now, when the 20,900-ton Portuguese liner Santa Maria was taken over on January 23, 1961. Her usual route was between Lisbon and Port Everglades, Florida, via Madeira, Tenerife, La Guaira, Curaçao and San Juan (originally Havana). With 600 passengers and 300 crew members on board, she was taken over by 24 Spanish and Portuguese leftists headed by Henrique Galvao, a Portuguese military officer and for of then Premier Salazer.

The rebels boarded the ship as passengers in La Guaira and in Curaçao. In seizing the ship, they killed one officer and wounded several others, ceased all communication and took the ship on a different course. For several days, her whereabouts remained a mystery, until she was found in mid-Atlantic, headed towards Angola.
In the event, mechanical difficulties forced the ship towards Brazil and she was recaptured off Recife on February 2 when Galvao released his prisoners in exchange for political asylum in Brazil.

The "Achille Lauro"

It was almost a quarter century before the next event, when Palestinian militants hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro on October 7, 1985, demanding the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. Four men took control of the ship as she sailed from Alexandria to Port Said and diverted the ship to Tartus, Syria.
After being refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers murdered a wheelchair-bound American passenger and the ship headed back to Port Said.

The hijackers agreed to release the ship and her 420 passengers in return for safe conduct to Tunisia but their plane was intercepted by US carrier-based aircraft and forced to land at a US base in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested by the Italians. It appears, however, that their leader, Abu Abbas, somehow escaped when he was allowed to fly on with the rest of the passengers. Abbas was captured in Iraq in 2003 and died in 2004 in American custody.

Even thjough the hijackers that boarded the Santa Maria had carried weapons in secret compartments in their luggage, this event was regarded to have been a freak and security meaures were not really affected.
Subsequent to the Achille Lauro hijacking however, and also since September 11, 2001, cruise lines have ramped up security to such an extent that it is now as good as airport security. So passengers are no longer the threat. The threat now comes from without.

The "Seabourn Spirit"

More recent pirate attacks have all been more opportunistic than political in nature and those that affect cruise ships have been more or less restricted to the Gulf of Aden and the coastline of Somalia. The aim is to extract a ransom and so far these have usually been paid.

The first cruise ship to be affected was the Seabourn Spirit, which on November 5, 2005, with 151 passengers on board, was attacked by two pirate speedboats launched from a mother ship. The attackers were repelled with the use of a long-range acoustic device (LRAD), although machine gun shots were fired and one grenade managed to lodge itself in the Seabourn Spirit's superstructure before being disarmed by men from a nearby US Navy vessel.
The Spirit also managed to destroy one of the attacking craft by running it over. Master at Arms Michael Grove, who was hit by shrapnel while manning the LRAD, and a Gurkha colleague were honoured by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for their bravery.

On November 16, 2007, while en route from Salalah, Oman, to Khasab, Oman, the Seabourn Spirit was again approached by three high speed craft. But this time it was determined in communication with the Royal Navy that it appeared to be a false alarm and the boaters may have been more curious onlookers than a threat. Oman is a long way from the Gulf of Aden or the coast of Somalia.

The Seizure and Escape of "Le Ponant"

Unlike other incidents, the 60-berth French sail cruiser Le Ponant was actually captured, together with her 30 crew, on April 4, 2008, in her case with no passengers as she was ballasting from the Seychelles to Alexandria. Nevertheless, her crew were held hostage for a week and a reported $2 million ransom demanded and paid.

In her case, the French Navy intervened and soon after the ransom was handed over French special forces moved in to capture six of the hijackers, along with $200,000 of the ransom, escaping in the desert, flying them to Paris to be tried.
It appears that most got away however, as the major part of the ransom was still missing, and furthermore the Somalis claim that two of them were actually drug traders who happened to get caught while dealing with the hijackers. Of ten pirates reported it appears that six may have got away.

In an interesting aside, found on board Le Ponant afterwards was a copy of the Somali pirates' code of conduct, which particularly banned the mistreatment of hostages, including sexual abuse. These groups seem to operate like unofficial militias with their own leaders.
On the other hand, it is known that many of the pirates are often high on khat, an amphetamine-like plant stimulant that they chew on.

The "Astor"

On November 28, 2008, Bremen-based Transocean Tours' cruise ship Astor, with 492 passengers on board was making her way from Sharm el Sheik to Dubai. During her transit of the Gulf of Aden, the German frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern fired warning machine gun shots and chased away two suspicious-looking speedboats that were seen to be narrowing on the cruise ship.
Passengers, however, were said not to have noticed. The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is patrolling waters off Oman and Somalia as part of a UN-sanctioned anti-piracy unit called Task Force 150.

The "Nautica"

On November 30, 2008, again while transiting the Gulf of Aden, Oceania Cruises' Nautica, with 690 passengers on board, was approached by two speedboats off the coast of Yemen. By increasing speed, the Nautica managed to get away, but not before one of the boats approached to within 300 metres of the cruise ship and eight rifle shots had been fired in her direction.
Guests were ordered inside the ship and to close all balcony doors but no one was hurt in the incident and the ship continued on her 32-day cruise from Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, to Singapore. A French Navy warship managed to scramble a helicopter to the scene to deter the pirates.

The "Athena"

In what was more of a false alarm fed by the two attacks in late November, and with 437 alarmed passengers on board, Classic International Cruises' Athena, on her way from Piraeus to Fremantle, was said to have been surrounded by between 30 and 40 small craft on December 2 while sailing off the coast of Somalia. Some of her mostly Australian passengers reported that water cannon had been used to repel small craft but the line reported that no shots had been fired and there had been no attack.
Passengers were also scolded for having made panic phone calls to family, spreading misinformation and causing unnecessary alarm. A spokesman in Australia said that in fact the ship had been passing through a fleet of fishing boats whose crew were "very friendly," but whatever the case it does show the nervousness that is being caused by recent activities in these waters.

The "Columbus"

That nervousness was taken a stage further last week when Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, after having been denied an escort by the German Navy, made a major decision. For the first operation of its kind ever, on December 10, Hapag-Lloyd chartered planes to fly the 246 passengers and some of the crew from its cruise ship Columbus from Hodeidah in Yemen to Dubai, while the ship proceeded with reduced crew through the Gulf of Aden.
Passengers meanwhile enjoyed three nights in a luxury hotel in Dubai before rejoining ship in Salalah for the balance of their World Cruise. The ship was unharmed.

Yet another German operator, Hansa Kreuzfahrten, has cancelled a cruise that would have taken the 334-berth chartered cruise ship Arion through the Gulf of Aden on December 27. Plantours & Partners are also deciding whether to send another small cruise ship, the 299-berth Vistamar through the Gulf. Hebridean International have also been considering whether to carry passengers through the Gulf with its 100-berth Hebridean Spirit. It is mainly German operators that have been affected so far, but in many cases they are operating smaller and slower tonnage than the larger ships operated by worldscale companies.

Security Changes Effective Today

With effect from today, ships from the European Union replace those of the NATO anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and nearby waters. The EU mission includes six ships, mainly frigates and destroyers, and up to three aircraft patrolling at any one time. A dozen other warships from the US, India, Russia and Malaysia also patrol the area. Under UN mandate, the previous task force was not allowed to board seized ships or to free hostages.

The EU flotilla, however, is described as being able to operate under "robust rules of engagement." In command of the new effort, which is for now a one-year mission, is Vice-Admiral Philip Jones RN. British and French vessels are already in situ, soon to be joined by a Greek warship, and ships from Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands will also participate. Even Japan has offered to send a ship.

Close to 50 ships a day pass through these waters so it is only in the interests of both trade and tourism that this recent increase in piracy be curtailed by whatever means are suitable to the situation. A corollary to this is that something needs to be done in the collapsed state of Somalia to bring law and order to its coastline. Where the main occupation used to be fishing, it has now turned to piracy.

Pirates have now attacked 32 vessels since late October, and hijacked 12 of them. But the US Navy says that while the danger of a pirate attack is significant, it is not advising ships to avoid transiting the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile all cruise lines are keeping a watch on the situation but Capt Carlos Pedercini, master of the Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, that passed through the Gulf of Aden in late November, has said that "most ships that can make high speed are OK."

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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