Could Your Cruise Ship be Attacked by Pirates?
For most, mention of the word " pirate " conjures visions of Treasure Island's Long John Silver or Johnny Depp's portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, pieces of eight and either a wooden leg or a hairstyle modelled on the Stones's Keith Richards.
Yes, there was all that fuss about Somali pirates a few years ago, and the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips told the story of the hijack of the container ship Maersk Alabama. But that problem has disappeared now, hasn't it? Well, maybe not.
Still, pirates today evoke the same fears as they did in ancient times. And they strike often - far more often than most realize. It wasn't until the early 2000s that we were made aware of their efforts to attack cruise ships.
Though the majority of concerns currently pertain to the Gulf of Aden, pirates can strike almost anywhere, at any time. Other hot zones include Asia (particularly in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Singapore), the Somali Coast and the Amazon River. Piracy warnings are also meted out in parts of the Red Sea and along both the eastern and northeastern coasts of Africa.
Pirates do attack cargo vessels and oil tankers, so it's only natural to wonder: If you're on a cruise ship that passes through the Gulf of Aden (or other high-risk areas), what is the likelihood that pirates will attack?
In more than a decade, there have been only six reported incidents of pirates attempting to attack cruise ships, and the most recent was more than four years ago already. Compared to the sheer quantity of cruise and commercial ships moving through the oceans, and based on the fact that incidents impacting cargo vessels and oil tankers are clearly more common -- these six incidents do not make as big of a splash.
But how do you know if your ship is being approached by pirates. There are millions of square miles of water and you can only see vessels on the horizon up to 10 miles away. It's like looking for a mouse on a rugby pitch. And it's impossible to know whether a small craft is a threat or just fishermen. You can't tell the difference between a weapon and a baguette at anything more than 200 yards.
But it's important to know this: Cruise lines have prepared for many challenging scenarios, and ships are well-equipped to handle situations when pirates attack cruise ships. We're never going to hear too much from them about their specific tactics involving pirate security but there are some facts that we do know.
One of the assets a cruise ship has is speed. But also there is the size and the sheer number of people. When you look at pirate incidents recently, they involve capturing a cargo ship with four or five armed pirates against a crew of 15 to 20 men. That's different than four or five men trying to take over a ship with over 1,000 people on it.
Cruise ships also have highly vigilant security. They have high-pressure hoses, extra watches on all decks. Many times there are military patrols nearby because they know there are passenger ships in the area. They also have several levels of anti-piracy deterrents at their disposal. And cargo ships are easy to board, because their decks are low to the water. Cruise ships, if you're in a pirate skiff, you'd have to climb three, four, five decks to get to the first open deck space. If you're bobbing in a skiff at 16 knots, even in calm seas, how are you going to climb up a sheer 30 to 50 foot wall?"
When it comes to piracy, ships are prepared for defense in a number of ways. On any given sailing, whether in known piracy waters or not, ships monitor movement in the area. Some cruise lines even contract with maritime information, research and tracking companies.
Cruise lines often work together to keep ships safe; it's more common now to see ships cruising through the Gulf of Aden, for instance, in a convoy of other vessels with protection at both ends. There is safety in numbers. Navies from various nations, as well as NATO and the European Union have all shared in the patrolling duties.
The behind-the-scenes training that officers and crew receive is intense. Piracy attacks and terrorist attacks are treated equally. The lines of communication between ships, office personnel and government authorities are constantly open. Regular crew members go through weekly drills for safety purposes, while trained experts are contracted to be onboard in case of an approach.
Efforts by cruise lines to protect vessels and passengers include vigilant lookouts by officers and crew members for suspicious movement in the water, as well as consistent viewing of surveillance cameras. Bright spotlights are used for lookouts on dark nights and to help ship officials spot approaching boats. All of this occurs even when pirates are not sighted, and passengers are rarely, if ever, aware of these tactics, although many of those who have sailed through the Gulf of Aden attest to the use of minimal lighting. During the hours of darkness, only essential open deck lights remain on; passengers are asked to switch off their balcony lights and to keep cabin curtains closed. From the point of view of the ship's captain, these measures may impact on passengers enjoyment, but the safety and security of every individual on his ship remains his highest priority.
Cruise lines often employ other less effective measures which are designed purely to reassure passengers. Regular cruise passengers might be familiar with LRADs or Long Range Acoustic Devices. Looking rather like an overgrown satellite TV dish, they are often misguidedly described as sonic cannons, giving the impression that they could transmit such a powerful beam of sound that they would deliver a knock-out blow to a potential pirate, who would be left with bleeding ears.
So, if you are a regular cruiser, are you more concerned or are you reassured? Or, do you simply not want to spend your vacation on what could possibly turn into a ghost ship? While the risk to the cruise industry is considered to be extremely low, cruise lines are constantly vigilant and prepared. And their officers and crew training is designed out of an abundance of caution for passengers safety. Maybe just check the route map before booking next time!